National Nutrition Month: Healthy eating guidelines

National Nutrition Month is an educational campaign created by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. During the month of March, individuals are encouraged to make informed food choices and develop healthy lifestyle habits.

At the end of 2020, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released updated Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The guidelines emphasize the importance of a healthy dietary pattern and offer specific recommendations for individuals at various stages of life from infant to adult.

Lynn James, senior extension coordinator and registered dietician with Penn State Extension, notes that individual biology and lifestyle play a role in what people should be eating. However, there are some general guidelines that everyone can consider.

MyPlate offers a visual representation of the amounts of different food groups individuals should consume for a healthy diet. / Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture

“Half your plate should be fruits and vegetables,” explains James. She says that fresh produce is ideal, but frozen or canned products that don’t have added salt or sugar are also good for developing a nutritional diet.

Additionally, fresh fruits and vegetables lose some of their nutrients over time, James notes. According to a University of California, Davis study, Spinach can lose 75{b5d304c96e94113bdfc523ff4218a1efff4746200bdb9eeb3214a56a1302f2e4} of its vitamin C content when it spends just seven days in a refrigerator, and green beans can lose 77{b5d304c96e94113bdfc523ff4218a1efff4746200bdb9eeb3214a56a1302f2e4} of their vitamin C in the same conditions and time period.

Jumping on the COVID-19 gardening trend or purchasing local products at farmers’ markets may help avoid some of this nutrient loss, James says.

Additionally, the Dietary Guidelines say a healthy dietary pattern should include grains, at least half of which are whole grains. The Oldways Whole Grains Council defines a whole grain as containing “all the essential parts and naturally-occurring nutrients of the entire grain seed in their original proportions.”

Protein is also part of a nutritious diet. James notes that this can include meats and fish as well as beans, nuts and seeds. The American Heart Association recommends eating two servings of fish each week; in addition to serving as a source of protein, the omega-3 fatty acids fish contain can promote heart health, reducing the risk of heart disease or stroke.

The final part of a well-rounded dietary pattern is dairy. James says dairy substitutes like soy milk can also fulfill this part of a healthy diet, though she encourages choosing dairy substitutes that contain calcium and vitamin D.

Overall, consumption of highly processed foods and sugary beverages should be limited to maintain a nutritious diet, James says. The Dietary Guidelines state, “Meeting food group recommendations — even with nutrient-dense choices — requires most of a person’s daily calorie needs and sodium limits. A healthy dietary pattern doesn’t have much room for extra added sugars, saturated fat, or sodium.”

On average, adults should consume about 2000 calories per day, says James, though this number varies from person to person based on factors such as age, height and lifestyle. James encourages limiting consumption of sugary beverages like soda and sweet tea, as they add calories to individuals’ diets without making them feel full. Instead drink water, she says.

Alcohol consumption should also be limited for a healthy diet. The Dietary Guidelines recommend a maximum of two alcoholic drinks in a day for men and one for women who are of legal drinking age.

(Of course, life without a little sweetness wouldn’t be much fun, so the Dietary Guidelines specifically suggest 10{b5d304c96e94113bdfc523ff4218a1efff4746200bdb9eeb3214a56a1302f2e4} or less of one’s daily calories come from added sugars starting at age 2.)

While nutrition specifically pertains to food, a healthy lifestyle involves other behavioral components, too — notably, exercise. “You can’t control what gene you might have that may influence [health],” says James, “but you have a big choice of how you move your body and what you put into your mouth to stay healthy.”

Although COVID-19 restrictions may have led to more sedentary lifestyles for many, James encourages people to get out and get moving, especially with the weather getting nicer this time of year. The CDC recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity each week.

In order to practice more healthy habits, James recommends intentionally stocking up on nutritious foods like fruits, vegetables and grains and planning ahead to incorporate healthy lifestyle choices. Penn State Extension offers resources on preparing tasty, healthful foods and maintaining a nutritious diet on its website.

MyPlate provides a tool to get personalized recommendations for a healthy diet based on individuals’ age, sex, height, weight and physical activity level. The tool can be found here.

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