“Eat a healthy diet.” Many often see or hear this phrase on television, in talking with friends or family members, at their regular doctor visits, or on the internet. But what exactly does this mean? What is a “healthy diet?”
According to the newly released Dietary Guidelines for Americans for 2020-2025, a healthy diet is not a black and white definition, but rather it encompasses many factors. These Dietary Guidelines, which are released every five years by the United States Department of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, aim to provide the most up-to-date recommendations to encourage eating a healthy, well-balanced diet with respect to health promotion and disease prevention. This may look a little different for everyone based on their individual health needs. Thus, the Dietary Guidelines are not meant to be a one size fits all, but rather a “how-to” guide, which can then be tailored to meet specific needs and preferences.
So, to start, what are these “how-to’s?” The Dietary Guidelines for 2020-2025 updated their main goals as follows:
· Follow a healthy dietary pattern at every stage of life.
· Customize and enjoy nutrient-dense food and beverage choices to reflect personal preferences, cultural traditions, and budgetary considerations.
· Focus on meeting food group needs with nutrient-dense foods and beverages, and stay within calorie limits.
· Limit foods and beverages higher in added sugars, saturated fats, and sodium, and limit alcoholic beverages.
So, this sounds great, but what does it all mean? Let me break it down.
Follow a healthy dietary pattern at every stage of life.
As we grow older, our nutritional needs change. Older individuals often need fewer calories due to changes in their physical activity level and physiological changes that naturally occur with aging. Older individuals also have increased specific nutrient needs (like protein) to prevent bone/muscle mass loss. The guidelines specifically encourage adults 60 years or older to be intentional with their food choices, keeping to mostly nutrient-dense foods in order to help achieve a desirable body weight and lower risk for chronic disease.
Customize and enjoy nutrient-dense food and beverage choices to reflect personal preferences, cultural traditions, and budgetary considerations.
This goal focuses on establishing eating habits that will be realistic for you to follow. Considering personal and health-specific needs and preferences will help set you up for success in following a healthy eating pattern.
Focus on meeting food group needs with nutrient-dense foods and beverages and stay within calorie limits.
This goal promotes consuming a variety of foods from all the food groups in order to encourage adequate vitamin/mineral intake needed for healthy living, while also limiting “empty calories” (in other words, foods that provide little to no beneficial nutrition). To encourage eating more nutrient-dense foods, aim for including foods from most, if not all of the food groups at each meal. Here are a few examples to help get you started:
· Protein: Lean beef, chicken, turkey, eggs, seafood, beans, nuts
· Grains: Whole wheat breads, rice, pasta (aim for at least half of your daily intake of grains to be 100% whole grain)
· Fruits: Apples, oranges, berries, melons (pick whole fruit over juice)
· Vegetables: Orange and red peppers, dark leafy greens (eat from the rainbow!)
· Dairy: Milk, cheese, yogurt (lactose-free and soy/nut-based products are alternative options for those that have trouble digesting dairy)
· Oils: Choose vegetable-based oils such as olive oil when cooking (unsalted nuts also can provide heart-healthy oils to your diet)
Limit foods and beverages higher in added sugars, saturated fats, and sodium, and limit alcoholic beverages.
Current research shows that adults 60 and older consume fats, sugar, and sodium well above the recommended amounts (anywhere from 58% to as much as 94%!). Keeping to nutrient-dense foods that provide healthful nutrients and limiting those that can cause more harm than good to our bodies is encouraged. More specifically, the Dietary Guidelines provide the following key recommendations:
· Added sugars: Limit sugar intake to 10% of calories per day
· Saturated fat: Keep to less than 10% of calories per day
· Sodium: Consume less than 2300mg of sodium per day (some may need to consume even less based on their medical history – follow your physician’s directions regarding your specific sodium needs)
· Alcoholic beverages: Keep alcoholic beverages to less than 2 drinks per day for men and 1 drink per day for women (always follow your physician’s direction regarding recommended alcohol intake)
We just reviewed a lot of great information, and now you may be wondering, “How do I get started?” Start simple. Pick one or two things to mix it up. Pick a new vegetable to try each week, swap out regular canned beans for the lower sodium option, try plain yogurt with fruit on top instead of getting yogurt with fruit already mixed in. Be intentional with your choices and aim for nutrient-dense foods to make every bite count.
- Collette Powers, MA, RDN, LDN, ACSM EP
Registered Dietician and Certified Exercise Physiologist