Sorry to sound like your mom, but you are what you eat. Too many Americans have forgotten the basics of good nutrition that they learned in school, and how eating well can make such a difference in their daily lives. Not to mention how long-term health and vitality are affected. It’s not as complicated as you might think to get the nutrients you need from food, and still have time to live your life.
In a perfect world, we’d all have the time (and taste buds) to eat well-balanced meals every day. The US Department of Agriculture’s guidelines for proper nutrition are laid out in The Food Guide Pyramid (no longer the “four food groups” you may remember from school). The Pyramid also includes information on their recommended numbers of servings of each food type per day. By eating foods in the recommended quantities from all of the listed food groups, you optimize your intake of crucial vitamins, minerals, and energy to keep your body healthy and strong.
As you can see in the image above, the vast majority of your daily food intake should be made up of complex carbohydrates (grains and breads), fruits and vegetables, lean meats and low-fat dairy proteins. You should limit your daily intake of foods from the top category, those high in refined sugars and fats. However, most Americans tend to misjudge their daily intakes of the various food groups.
A study was performed from 1992-94 on 5,700 adults to determine their perceptions of the number of servings of the various food groups in the Pyramid they consumed each day versus actual numbers of servings consumed (tracked in comprehensive food diaries). The results of the study showed, with only one exception, that men and women in the study underestimated the numbers of servings they consumed of simple carbohydrates (white breads, pasta, grains) and foods from the fats, oils and sweets category, and overestimated their consumption of dairy, meat (including eggs, poultry, fish, dry beans and nuts) and fruits and vegetables. The long and short of this study is that most of us think we’re eating better than we actually are.
One area that trips up many attempts at healthy eating is the “serving size”. While the USDA Food Guide Pyramid lists the number of servings recommended for each food group per day, many of us eat serving sizes different from those intended. (This is especially important when it comes to serving sizes of “bad” foods, like chips or cookies.) Check the labels on packaged foods you buy: the Nutrition Facts label on the back of each package is required by the Food and Drug Administration to list accurate information about the ingredients and calories of the foods we eat. But while the label may list one serving of, for example, ice cream as ½ cup, how many of us actually eat that tiny amount of ice cream? (Check out a ½ cup measure the next time you’re in your kitchen – it’s really small.) Watch out for added fats, sugars and calories that you eat by increasing recommended serving sizes in your food.
Despite all of the bad news, there are easy ways to make sure that you get the nutrients you need in a day, and that you limit your intake of less healthful foods. One easy way is by making a trade-off when choosing how to keep your diet balanced. Data shows that people who make trade-offs of more healthful foods for less healthful ones (e.g., choosing frozen yogurt instead of ice cream) in general have more healthful diets than those people who don’t make trade-offs. So the next time you’re presented with a temptation, try one of these options: limit how often you eat a less healthful food (every other night instead of every night); limit the portion size of the food (one scoop of ice cream instead of two); or make a deal with yourself that if you eat this unhealthy food, you’ll eat a healthy one next time (“tomorrow night, applesauce”). It’s not as hard as you might think to start making deals with yourself, and they can really impact your eating habits.
Try to eat at least one vegetable or fruit with every meal. Have a glass of OJ with your breakfast; grab an apple for a snack; dip some baby carrots in hummus to tide you over until dinner. Throw some lettuce and tomato on top of your turkey sandwich. And choose whole grains over whites (wheat bread instead of white bread, brown rice instead of white rice). There is more fiber in whole grain carbohydrates, which helps keep your digestive system healthy and functioning properly (you know what I’m talking about), and fiber also helps make you feel fuller, limiting your caloric intake.
Another basic health need that too many of us ignore is hydration. How often do you start your day with a cup (or two or three) of coffee, have a soda with lunch, and a glass of wine with dinner, and skip water altogether? Did you know that caffeine is a diuretic, which makes water pass out of the body? Did you know that dehydration is one reason so many people get chronic headaches? Dehydration is a serious problem on airplanes, where the recirculated air is also dehumidified, and will sap your body of moisture very quickly. Keep track of your hydration this way: if you aren’t urinating at least once every two hours, you’re not getting enough fluids.
By drinking the recommended 8-10 glasses of water a day (which really isn’t as much as it sounds – they’re only 8 oz. each), you can help speed weight loss, clear up your skin, keep your intestines moving along smoothly, and avoid dehydration that makes you tired and irritable. You can also get good hydration from most fruit and vegetable juices (which have the added benefit of counting towards your recommended servings of fruits and vegetables), but watch out for added sugars that can really boost calorie counts! Stick with beverages called “juices”, and avoid “juice cocktails” that may have added corn syrup or other artificial sweeteners.
If you feel that you’re eating pretty well but there are still some categories of nutrition that you’re missing on a regular basis, a good multivitamin can help fill in the gaps. Make sure you look for one that has a broad range of nutrients, and check the percentage of the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of each nutrient that is filled by the multivitamin. Look also for one that has calcium, beta-carotene, and especially important for women, iron; these nutrients are among the first to be missed by the body when consuming a less-than-ideal diet.
These are some of the most important factors to keep in mind when choosing what to eat. Try to start focusing on what you eat every day, keeping a list if you have time – you may be surprised to discover how your diet differs from what’s best for your body. In next month’s column, we’ll talk about easy ways to make sure your food choices are doing as much for your health as possible, including how to get food that’s good for you when you’re away from home and moving fast.
1) USDA Center for Nutrition, Policy and Promotion, Nutrition Insight #20: “Consumption of Food Group Servings: People’s Perceptions vs. Reality.” October, 2000
2) ibid., Nutrition Insight #24: “Food Trade-Offs: Choosing How to Balance the Diet.” May, 2001
3) US Department of Agriculture, “Report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2000, Fifth Edition.” February, 2000