Having a healthy diet is sometimes easier said than done. It is tempting to turn to less healthy food choices because they might be easy to get or prepare, or they satisfy a craving. Between family and work or school, you are probably balancing a hundred things at once. Taking time to buy the ingredients for and cooking a healthy meal sometimes falls last on your list. But you should know that it isn’t hard to make simple changes to improve your diet. And you can make sense of the mounds of nutrition information out there. A little learning and planning can help you find a diet to fit your lifestyle, and maybe you can have some fun in the process!
Why Choose a Healthy Diet?
Obesity in women is on the rise. Overall, about one third of all women are obese. But some groups of women suffer more. Half of African American women and 40 percent of Mexican American women are obese. Native Hawaiian and Samoan women are among the most obese in the world. Obesity is measured with a body mass index (BMI), which shows the relationship of weight to height. As a woman’s body mass increases, so does her risk for serious health problems. Some of these problems include heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and some cancers. A woman’s weight is affected by how much physical activity she does, her diet, and her genes. So having a healthy diet is one of the most important things you can do to help your overall health. If you burn as many calories as you take in, your weight remains the same. If you take in fewer calories than you burn, you will lose weight. So make sure the foods you eat are healthy ones that will work hard for your body.
The Food Pyramid-Putting Together a Healthy Diet
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) release Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The Food Guide Pyramid shows how different food groups can come together to form your total diet. Eating is one of life’s greatest pleasures. Because there are many foods and many ways to build a healthy diet, there is lots of room for smart, healthy choices. You can use the pyramid as a starting point. Choose the recommended number of daily servings from each of the five major food groups.
You might have seen some of the other food pyramids by other groups of health care providers, or pyramids for different ethnic groups, like the Puerto Rican, “Soul Food,” Vegetarian style, or Latin American style pyramids. You could use any one of them for healthy eating, depending on what kinds of food are available to you and your culture’s traditions. For more, please read the “2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans: Key Recommendations for the General Population” article.
Basic Steps to a Healthy Diet
Although there are different food pyramids for you to choose from, the challenge is to pick one, then create an eating plan that embraces healthy food. No matter which specific diet or pyramid you choose, the basic steps to good nutrition come from a diet that:
helps you either lose weight or keeps your BMI in the “healthy” range (For more, please read the “How to Calculate Your Body Mass Index (BMI)” article.)
is balanced overall, with foods from all groups, with lots of delicious fruits, vegetables, and grains
is low in saturated fat and cholesterol and moderate in total fat intake (less than 10 percent of your daily calories should come from saturated fat, and less than 30 percent of your daily calories should come from total fat)
includes a variety of grains daily, especially whole grains, a good source of fiber
includes enough fruits and vegetables (a variety of each, five to nine servings each day)
has a small number of calories from added sugars (like in candy, cookies, and cakes)
has foods prepared with less sodium or salt (aim for no more than 2,400 milligrams of sodium per day, or about one teaspoon of salt per day for a healthy heart)
if you drink alcoholic beverages, does not include more than one drink per day (two drinks per day for men)
Know Your Fats
There are different kinds of fats in our foods. Some can hurt our health, while others aren’t so bad! Some are even good for you! Here’s what you need to know:
Monounsaturated fats (canola, olive and peanut oils, and avocados) and polyunsaturated fats (safflower, sesame, sunflower seeds, and many other nuts and seeds) don’t raise your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels but can raise your HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels. To keep healthy, it is best to choose foods with these fats.
Saturated fat, trans fatty acids, and dietary cholesterol raise your LDL (“bad”) blood cholesterol levels, which can lead to heart disease.Saturated fat is found mostly in food from animals, like beef, veal, lamb, pork, lard, poultry fat, butter, cream, whole milk dairy products, cheeses, and from some plants, such as tropical oils. Tropical oils include coconut, palm kernel, and palm oils that are found in commercial cakes, cookies, and salty snack foods. Unlike other plant oils, these oils have a lot of saturated fatty acids. Some processed foods (such as frozen dinners and canned foods) can be quite high in saturated fat-it’ s best to check package labels before purchasing these types of foods.
Trans fatty acids (TFAs) are formed during the process of making cooking oils, margarine, and shortening and are in commercially fried foods, baked goods, cookies, and crackers. Some are naturally found in small amounts in some animal products, such as beef, pork, lamb, and the butterfat in butter and milk. In studies, TFAs tend to raise our total blood cholesterol. TFAs also tend to raise LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and lower HDL (“good”) cholesterol. One study found that the four main sources of trans fatty acids in women’s diets come from margarine, meat (beef, pork, or lamb), cookies, and white bread. At this time, TFAs are not listed on nutrition labels, but that will soon change. Although it might take a couple of years to begin seeing it, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is now asking food manufacturers to begin labeling TFA content. And some food manufacturers are announcing they are taking TFAs out of their food. For more, please read the”Trans Fat…The Deadly Fat” article.