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How to Eat Healthy: A Beginner’s Guide

Written by Brandi Givens, RDN

Published on March 2, 2021

Curious about how to start eating healthy? The Dietary Guidelines for Americans can help you get started, here is a detailed beginner’s guide.

How to Eat Healthy: A Beginner’s Guide

It’s well known that healthy eating is an important component to staying strong and avoiding chronic diseases.

To help people get started, every five years, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) organize a team of experts to revise detailed, science-backed dietary recommendations called the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).

The following is our summary of the latest DGAs for 2020–2025.

1. Follow a Healthy Dietary Pattern for a Lifetime

According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025, “A healthy dietary pattern consists of nutrient-dense forms of foods and beverages across all food groups in recommended amounts and within calorie limits.”

The terms “nutrient-dense,” “dietary pattern,” and “calorie” may not be understood by everyone.

Nutrient-Dense

Nutrient-dense is a way of saying that each bite is packed with essential nutrients while minimizing unnecessary things like added sugars, sodium, or fat.

Often, these are whole, minimally processed foods found as close as possible to their original form.

Selecting nutrient-dense foods increases opportunities to get all of the macronutrients and micronutrients the human body needs and makes calories count toward health instead of against it.

Dietary Pattern

While the word “diet” implies a way of eating with a shorter-term goal in mind, a dietary pattern represents a lifespan approach to health.

Choose a dietary pattern that isn’t too restrictive, like the Mediterranean approach or the DASH eating plan.

Patterns like these can be adapted to different cultures and personal food preferences, and their health benefits are backed by decades of medical research.

Calorie

A calorie, short for kilocalorie, is a measuring unit of food energy.

Nutrition experts agree that estimated calorie calculations are just a guide and that true calorie needs are very individual and change daily.

This chart is a great starting point for estimating calorie needs. If your weight or nutrition goals are not being met using the calories provided in this chart, you can either increase or decrease your calories. Calories should always be personalized to the individual.

Keep in mind that all calories are not the same. Eating 2000 calories worth of nutrient-poor donuts is inferior to eating the same number of calories from a wide combination of nutrient-dense foods.

2. Customize Food Choices to Reflect Preferences, Culture, and Budgets

One of life’s greatest pleasures is the enjoyment of food.

Choosing a dietary pattern that allows for personal and cultural preferences and which fits budget restrictions is important for lifelong adherence.

Personal Preferences

Ask yourself, “What do I want to eat that includes nutrient-dense foods?” Keep an open mind to finding new ways to try healthy foods you may not have enjoyed in the past.

Incorporate Cultural Traditions

Foods from any culture can be prepared healthfully using traditional spices and nutrient-dense choices.

Budget Restrictions

Healthy eating doesn’t have to be expensive. Grocery costs can be greatly reduced by pre-planning a shopping list, choosing seasonal foods, and opting for frozen and dried options.

3. Focus on Meeting Food Group Needs with Nutrient-Dense Foods

Nutrients can be broken down into two major groups: macronutrients and micronutrients.

Macronutrients

The three macronutrients carbohydrates, protein, and fats – are the calorie-rich food components we need in larger amounts to keep us fueled and functioning.

  • Carbohydrates or carbs are the body’s most convenient source of energy, providing 4 calories per gram.
  • Protein can provide energy at 4 calories per gram but is also needed in every cell of the body for building and repairing.
  • Fat is the most energy-dense food source offering 9 calories per gram. They’re also needed to make hormones and to cover the surface of every cell.

“Counting macros,” or calculating how many calories should come from each of the three macronutrients each day, has been used by dietitians for decades and has become a popular diet trend.

Though everyone’s macro percentage requirements are unique, most needs can be met by getting:

  • 45–65% of calories from carbohydrates
  • 25–35% of calories from proteins
  • 10–30% of calories from fat

Some popular health apps like MyFitnessPal can help keep track of daily macronutrient intake.

Micronutrients

Micronutrients are the calorie-free vitamins and minerals we also need in tiny amounts to keep the body healthy, like what you might find in a typical multivitamin.

However, whole foods offer many more micronutrients than any human-made pill can.

Categorizing foods into different groups is a tool used to encourage variety.

It’s okay to focus on getting a variety of food over a week instead of stressing over hitting recommendations daily.

  • Vegetables: No vegetable is a poor choice, but vegetables with deep, rich colors indicate high nutrient content. Opt for eating a wide variety of dark green, red, and orange veggies during your week; each hue represents different vitamins.
  • Fruit: Choose whole fruit over juices that have removed valuable fiber and other nutrients. Like vegetables, choosing a wide variety of colors will increase the variety of nutrients.
  • Whole Grains: At least half of the grains consumed should be whole grains like old-fashioned rolled oats or 100% whole wheat bread. Refined grains like white bread are more processed, removing the fiber and other nutritious parts of the grain.
  • Proteins: Protein can be used for energy, but the essential amino acids we get from protein foods are needed for repairing and building tissues. High protein foods include beans, peas, lentils, dairy, seafood, lean meats, poultry, nuts, and seeds.
  • Dairy: Dairy products offer a convenient way to get various nutrients that might otherwise be missed, including calcium, potassium, and B-vitamins. If you choose vegetarian milk alternatives, always make a nutrition label comparison; many drinks marketed as dairy replacements do not come close in nutrient content. Fortified soy beverage is usually the closest alternative.
  • Oils and fats: Fat is a dense energy source needed for cell and hormone structure. Oils, which are liquid at room temperature, are considered more heart-healthy than saturated fats like butter or lard. Our bodies can manufacture some of the fats we need, but we do need to get omega fatty acids from foods like oily fish.

Weekly Food Group Serving Goals

Food Group Serving Goals Nutrient-Dense Examples
Vegetables 5/Day Kale, Broccoli, Peppers, Squash, Spinach, Sweet Potatoes
Fruit 4/Day Berries, apples, avocados, mangos, pineapple
Whole Grains 6/Day Rolled oats, 100% whole wheat bread, brown rice, corn
Protein (meat, poultry, or eggs) 8-9/week Lean meats, chicken or turkey breast, eggs
Protein (fish) 3/week Sardines, salmon, anchovies
Protein (nuts, seeds, legumes) 5/week Mixed nuts, nut butters, beans, peas, lentils
Low-Fat Dairy 3/Day Low-fat milk, cottage cheese, yogurt, soy beverage
Oils 3/Day Olive oil, canola oil, fatty fish like sardines and salmon

For serving sizes, see the America Heart Association’s recommendations.

4. Sparingly Enjoy Foods with Added Sugars, Salt, Fats, and Alcohol

Keeping in mind that foods should be pleasurable for people, DGAs didn’t completely omit enjoyable foods and beverages that are less nutrient-dense.

The overall recommendation is that 85% of calories come from nutrient-dense categories, which leaves 15% for foods with added sugars, salt, or even alcohol if desired.

Because alcohol is a toxin that has been linked to health problems when overconsumed, a limit of one drink daily for women and two for men has been established by the Center for Disease Control.

Some forms of alcohol, like red wine, may offer health benefits when consumed in minimal moderation, but the benefits don’t outweigh the risks in many cases.

The Bottom Line

Of course, every individual will have slightly different nutrient needs based on age, physical activity level, and health conditions.

But the Dietary Guidelines are a simple way to get started with healthy eating if you don’t know where to begin.

By making an effort to follow these recommendations throughout their lifespans, people can reduce the risk of diseases and increase their chances of living longer, healthier lives.

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