Eat your fruits. Eat your vegetables. Be sure to include lean proteins. Avoid saturated fats and added sugars. Try Keto, Paleo, Plant-based. Being healthy can sometimes feel like an uphill battle, filled with mixed information and generalities. And with the new guidelines released by the USDA, we are left with the question, “what exactly do I have to eat every day to get all the nutrients I need?”
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Food as fuel
Our bodies are amazing engines fueled by the food we eat. What are some amazing functions our engines do to live a healthy life? Our heart pumps about 7,500 liters of blood through 100,000 miles of blood vessels every day – which is why we want to avoid heart disease. In one second, 50,000 new cells have been shed and replaced.
And to keep our body functioning in tip-top shape, we want those cells to be strong and healthy. The more fruits, vegetables, and nutrient-dense foods we eat, the stronger our new cells will be, making our whole body healthier.
Bill Bryson put it eloquently: “Every day, it has been estimated, between one and five of your cells turn cancerous, and your immune system captures and kills them. Think of that. A couple of dozen times a week, well over a thousand times a year, you get the most dreaded disease of our age, and each time your body saves you. Occasionally, cancer develops, but overall most cells in the body replicate billions and billions of times without going wrong.”
You see, it is so much more than maintaining a certain body weight. It’s the difference between cells that can fight diseases and those that cannot.
Research shows that by following the USDA’s recommended nutrition guidelines, we are healthier, have stronger immune systems, and are less likely to develop diet-related illnesses. But why are vegetables healthy and chips not? What makes one food good for us and another bad? It’s all about what’s inside the food: vitamins, minerals, and amino acids.
The food groups
The USDA just updated its daily recommended nutritional allowances. But we start to ask ourselves questions, like “what does 5 to 7 servings of produce look like?”, “if I only eat 3 meals a day, how can I possibly get all of these servings in?” and “can I just do it all at once, like in a smoothie?”
According to the USDA Dietary Guidelines 2020-2025, healthy daily eating consists of a few key categories.
- Vegetables: 2.5 cups, or 2.5 tennis balls
- Dark green, red and orange, legumes, starchy – we need them all because each of them contains different vitamins and minerals including fiber, vitamins A, B6, C, and K, potassium, iron, cobalamin, and magnesium.
- Aim for 2.5 cups per day. But note that not all veggie portions are created equal – double your amount of leafy greens that wilt when cooked, like spinach, and then round up!
- Fruits: 2 cups, or 2 fists
- We mean whole fruits here. Apples, oranges, grapes, berries…you get the idea.
- Necessary vitamins and minerals found in fruit are fiber, iron, vitamin C, and potassium.
- Grains: 6 servings, or 1 cup of uncooked oatmeal, 2 slices of bread, and 1 cup of uncooked brown rice
- Most of this should be whole grains, like brown rice, quinoa, oats, and whole-grain bread.
- Limit your intake of refined grains – pasta, white rice, white bread. If you do eat them, look for enriched refined grains that put some of the vitamins and minerals back in.
- Nutrients in whole grains include complex carbs, fiber, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate, iron, magnesium, and selenium.
- Dairy: 2-3 cups, or 1 12-oz. glass of milk and 1 cup of plain yogurt
- This includes milk, yogurt, cheese, and fortified drinks, like soy milk.
- Dairy contains fat, but several studies say we should not be limiting our daily intake of fats because they’re a necessary part of our diet. Rather, we should limit our intake of saturated fats.
- Keep your saturated fat consumption under 10% of your daily calories. If that requires drinking low-fat milk instead of whole, don’t worry…it contains the same amount of vitamins and minerals.
- If you have a sensitivity to dairy, supplement the vitamins and minerals you’re missing. For example, leafy green vegetables are also high in calcium, making them a viable option.
- Protein: 50 grams, or 3 decks of cards
- There are many different proteins to choose from: seafood, lean meats, poultry, eggs, legumes, nuts, seeds, soy — the options are endless!
- Aim for at least 8 ounces of seafood a week.
- Note that different proteins have different compounds, so be sure to read the label and opt for leaner proteins with less fat.
- Keep in mind that nuts and seeds are high in calories due to their fat content.
- Proteins also contain healthy fats, cobalamin, vitamins A, D, and B6, iron, fiber, and potassium.
- A good rule of thumb is to eat one gram of protein for every kilogram of body weight (just divide your weight by 2.2 to convert it to kilograms)
- Oils: 5 teaspoons, or 5 dice
- Because of their fat and caloric density, a little bit goes a long way here.
- Focus on heart-healthy oils, like olive oil, avocado oil, and canola oil.
- Oils, especially olive oil, contain healthy omega-3 fatty acids. These are said to limit inflammation in our bodies and reduce our chances of developing diet-related illnesses, like heart disease and diabetes.
- Limit saturated and trans fats, added sugars, and sodium
- Read the nutritional and ingredients label to spot these in your foods.
- Avoid processed meats as they contain more sodium, saturated fats, added sugars, and calories.
- Less than 10% of our daily calories should be from added fats and sugars – the lower, the better.
- The Dietary Guidelines also recommend keeping your sodium intake below 2300 mg.
We know this task is easier said than done, so our printable infographics are here to help!
What to eat
Now that we’ve told you the food groups to include in your diet, you’re probably wondering how on earth to accomplish this. Don’t worry! We’re going to give you examples of simple meals for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and even snack time, that will help you reach your daily goals and make grocery shopping and meal preparations a lot easier.
Click on each of these categories to see our D2D-verified meal options that not only squeeze in a variety of nutrients within all food groups, but also adhere to an overall caloric intake of 2,000 a day when consumed with healthy snacks:
Healthy snacks can help you reach the rest of your daily caloric needs. A few good snack ideas are a banana with almond butter, an apple with a handful of whole nuts, 1 ounce of dark chocolate, or Greek yogurt with fruit.
Any of these meals can be mixed and matched every day. If you eat a breakfast high in protein, eat veggies with lunch. If you are on a non-dairy, plant-based, vegetarian, or vegan diet, find alternative ways to get protein. Treat your food as fuel for your body, and know what’s going in. Lastly, although getting nutrients from whole foods is best, if you feel deficient in certain nutrients, supplements like vitamins can help.
If you’re still unsure of what to buy, click on the image for a printable shopping guide you can take with you to the grocery store. If you want to take a look at my shopping list this week as a quick example, click here.
Remember to have variety in your fridge. Try to buy a couple of options from each category every week. For fruits and veggies, the more variety, the better!
What about other diets?
The USDA Nutrient Database, Harvard Health’s The Nutrition Source, CDC Division of Nutrition, among others, each have their own perspective on the best way to meet our body’s nutritional needs, so we want to include a few other considerations for nutrition and long-term health.
But these sources agree that eating our recommended daily allowance of fruits and vegetables is crucial for long-term health. Produce has fiber, vitamins, minerals, electrolytes, and phytochemicals. If you eat five to seven servings of produce a day in lieu of processed food it can help you keep chronic diseases at bay.
One diet method with proven long-term success is intermittent fasting, where you consume all meals within an 8-10 hour window. It can lead to healthier cell production and a reduction in long-term health diseases. Intermittent fasting can also improve endurance, coordination, brain health, balance, and muscle mass.
There’s also been more attention on diets promoting a diverse microbiome, resulting in a healthier heart, immune system, inflammation, and even mood. The interesting thing about our gut bacteria is that it craves the foods you eat the most. If you eat fruits and vegetables, you want more. If you eat sugar and processed carbs, you want more. This is why many have gravitated toward a whole-plant-based diet.
The EAT-Lancet report is also in agreement with a mostly whole-plant-based diet with very limited amounts of meat. Contrarily, the paleo diet necessitates an increased consumption of meats and other protein-heavy foods to achieve optimal health. However, its effect on long-term health is contentious. And now, we have the added complexity of the paleo-vegan diet, or pegan diet – a mix of meat and vegetables, with less dairy, grains, legumes, sugar, and processed foods.
An Important Note…
The information in this post is to serve as a guideline. Everyone’s body is different and therefore requires different nutrient intakes. For example, someone who wants to increase their muscle mass will need more protein in their diet. And those who rigorously exercise daily will need more calories than someone with a sedentary lifestyle. Get to know your body and understand its needs. And consult a doctor or nutritionist before changing your diet plan.
The Bottom Line
Eating food is far more than satisfying hunger: it keeps our cells strong, our immune systems working, and our bodies healthy. Use our guides to help keep yourself on track each day to be happy, energetic, and healthy.