The key to a healthy diet is eating a variety of different foods. First, there were the four basic food groups: protein, carbohydrates, fruits, and vegetables. Then came the “food pyramid,” a guide from the US Department of Agriculture, for how many servings a day you need from each category of food.
The basic serving suggestions are:
2-3 servings of protein, the meat and eggs category. 2-3 servings of Dairy, the milk and cheese group. 6-11 servings of starches, the grain, cereal, and pasta group. 3-5 servings of Vegetables. 2-4 servings of Fruits.
Remember, those are servings each day. Obviously, you can eat less, and still function. You may also need to eat more if you are engaged in very strenuous activity, need to gain weight or are pregnant. Or you may need different balance because of food intolerances or illness. These are just basic guidelines. Your size, weight, activity level, and age must also figure into your daily nutrient needs and intake.
How much you eat is just as important as what you eat. And no, that whopping bowl of pasta served by your favorite Italian restaurant does not represent a normal serving size. The recommended serving size for any meat is three ounces, which means a half-pound burger is actually two-to-three servings and your whole day’s meat allowance. Three ounces of meat is the amount that would fit in your palm and be about the size of a deck of cards.
One serving of protein would be three ounces of chicken or other meat, or one egg, or three tablespoons of peanut butter, or one-half cup cooked kidney beans.
The next groups – fruits and vegetables – are essential in the daily diet for natural vitamins and fiber. One serving of fruits or vegetables is one-half cup, or 4 ounces of orange juice, or a bowl of salad, or a small pear.
Even though fruits and vegetables are very healthy foods, most of your daily intake should come from the starch category, bread, cereal, rice, potatoes and pasta. These foods are easily converted into sugar for energy, and provide starch, fiber, foods, and a few vitamins. One serving of starches is a slice of bread, one ounce of dry cereal, or one-half cup (4 ounces)of cooked cereal, pasta, or rice.
Got milk? Or do you reach for soda instead? Dairy is essential to provide calcium for strong bones, and muscles. This food group often contains fats, so make sure you get the two-to-three servings a day, but no more. And choose skim or low-fat versions of meat and cheese. One serving of dairy is eight ounces of milk, or 1-to-2 ounces of hard cheese, or one cup of yogurt or cottage cheese. If you are lactose-intolerant, consider adding a calcium supplement to your diet.
You have probably heard that a diet high in fat can contribute to high cholesterol, heart disease, and even certain cancers. But not all fats are created equal. Saturated fats, from animals or animal products, coconut and palm oils, and hydrogenated fats should be avoided.
Hydrogenated fats are oils changed from their natural liquid state into solid by adding hydrogen, pressure and metal catalysts. Hydrogenated fats raise cholesterol levels 20-30 mg, and contribute to heart disease, arthritis, increased insulin levels, and decreased immune function.
Remember: If it is solid at room temperature, it’s hydrogenated.
Cut your intake of animal fat by trimming the fat and skin from meats and selecting lean cuts whenever possible. Read food labels, especially on baked goods, which are often loaded with hydrogenated fats.
There are some good fats, also known as monounsaturated fats. They reduce the levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol in your bloodstream, and maintain the good HDL cholesterol. The most commonly used monosaturated oils are olive oil, canola oil and peanut oil. Polyunsaturated fats are also considered relatively healthy for you. These include corn, soybean, safflower, and grapeseed oil.
The food pyramid is an excellent tool to help you plan your daily diet, so long as you adjust it to your own needs, goals and eating habits.