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Ask yourself what you want from nutrition. If you decide that you’re ready to be aware of what you eat and how it affects your health on a day-to-day basis, then you’re almost there. When it comes to nutrition health, the most important factor is awareness. By being aware of what your body needs and what the food you eat is made of, you’ll be able to make educated decisions—the right decisions.

Guidelines
Most professionals will tell you that any derivative of the trusty food guide pyramid is the best way to build a healthy diet. The most common food guide pyramid in the US is the one established by the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services—the pyramid you see on food labels and at doctors’ offices everywhere. This pyramid is a daily guideline based on dietary required allowances of vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, proteins, fats and more.

Carbohydrates
Some people might be surprised to see that carbohydrates still comprise the vast majority of our caloric intake. The fact is, carbohydrates are our bodies’ main source of energy. Some facts on carbohydrates include:

  • Carbohydrates can be broken down into two types, complex and simple.
  • Complex carbohydrates include breads, pastas, cereals and even vegetables.
  • Simple carbohydrates like sugar are lacking in fiber and generally contain few, if any, nutrients.
  • Because it takes your body longer to break down the complex carbohydrates, you’ll find them a more long-term source of energy for your body.
  • Shop for whole grain items, like whole wheat or multi-grain breads, whole wheat pasta, fiber fortified cereals, brown rice, millet or flaxseed. The vitamins and nutrients these carbohydrates provide are extremely beneficial, and you still get the satisfaction that comes with eating breads, pastas and cereals.

Fruits and Vegetables
Most women underestimate the amount of fruits and vegetables they get in their diets. Sometimes, fitting leafy greens or extra melon into a busy day seems like the last thing you need to worry about. The benefits you’ll reap just by getting 2-4 servings of fruit and 2-4 servings of vegetables each day will be invaluable to your immediate and long-term health. When in doubt, eat more fruits and vegetables. Also, plant foods are the only natural source of fiber. Fiber aids in elimination, can help reduce cholesterol, and may help to prevent certain types of cancer, especially colon cancer.

Dairy
The dairy group on the food guide pyramid is especially important for women. Calcium is the key mineral you need from this food group. So, if you don’t or can’t eat dairy, explore alternative options for calcium in order to keep a well-balanced diet. Dairy products such as milk, cheese and yogurt are also sources of protein and other vitamins and minerals. By getting enough dairy, you’ll improve your bone health and also glean other beneficial nutrients. Remember many dairy products are high in fat and cholesterol, so sometimes picking a low-fat option is a better choice. The recommended serving of dairy is 3 per day. Aim for additional servings of other rich calcium sources, such as leafy green vegetables, especially when there is an increased risk of developing osteoporosis.

Protein
Meat, including poultry and fish, is a helpful source of protein as well as iron, zinc and B vitamins. But meats can be high in unnecessary fats and cholesterol. Other sources of protein include legumes (black beans, soybeans, peas), soy-based products like tempeh and tofu, and protein substitutes like veggie burgers—don’t forget nuts and eggs. Protein is an essential element of your health: your body needs protein to build cells, bones muscles, hair, nails and skin. Tissues use protein to repair themselves, and your body even needs protein to make hormones and other important body chemicals. Getting enough protein will help with nearly every aspect of your body function.

Fats
The final food group on the pyramid is the fats, oils and sweets category. Fat is important for your body’s health—in moderation. Your body uses fat to absorb vitamins, strengthen cell membranes and for help with the immune system. The food guide pyramid recommends the serving size “use sparingly” for this group. Americans tend to get out of hand with fat consumption, serving up large portions of fatty desserts, super-sizing fast food meals and treating themselves with junk food. The fats found in processed and fast foods—called saturated fat and trans fat—are the type that you could really do without. The type of fats you should choose include monounsaturated fats, found in nuts, avocados and olive, peanut and canola oils. These options, particularly avocados and nuts, are also a great source of other vitamins and minerals, so they’re a smart alternative to empty, fat-laden calories.

Servings
Even if you know why each food group is important, it still might be difficult to figure out how many servings you need to maintain a healthy balance. Remember that for every food group, food portions are often much smaller than you think they are. The serving sizes set out by the food guide pyramid are based on specific amounts, measured in cups or ounces. A sandwich might have two pieces of bread, but the serving size for grains is really one slice of bread. So, if you eat the whole sandwich, you might be getting two (or more) servings of grains.

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