What’s the eating style that’s best for health? Is it a Mediterranean eating plan? Vegetarian? Low carb? With all the eating styles out there, it’s hard to know which one to follow.
Healthy eating is one of the best ways to prevent or delay health problems. Eating well, along with getting enough physical activity, can help you lower your risk of health problems like heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and more. To reach your goals, experts advise making small, gradual changes.
“The best diet to follow is one that is science based, that allows you to meet your nutritional requirements, and that you can stick to in the long run,” says Dr. Holly Nicastro, an NIH nutrition research expert. “It’s not going to do you any good to follow a diet that has you eating things that you don’t like.”
The main source of science-based nutrition advice is the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. These guidelines describe which nutrients you need and how much. They also point out which ones to limit or avoid.
“Every five years an expert panel reviews all available scientific evidence regarding nutrition and health and uses that to develop the dietary guidelines,” Nicastro explains.
The guidelines are regularly updated because our scientific understanding of what’s healthy is continuously evolving. These changes can be confusing, but the key recommendations have been consistent over time. In general, healthy eating means getting a variety of foods, limiting certain kinds of carbs and fats, watching out for salt, and being aware of your portion sizes.
Limit Added Sugars
Added sugar is the extra sugar added to foods and drinks during preparation. Corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, brown sugar, and honey are examples of sweeteners added to foods and drinks, especially regular sodas.
“The sugars present normally in milk and fruit are not considered added sugar,” explains Dr. Kimber Stanhope, a nutrition researcher at the University of California, Davis.
Stanhope’s research focuses on the effects of added sugar on the development of disease. Her studies have shown that consuming too much high-fructose corn syrup may increase the risk of weight gain and heart disease.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest a daily limit on added sugar of no more than 10% of calories. That’s about the amount in 16 ounces of regular soda (190 calories). You can find information about added sugars on most Nutrition Facts labels now.
“Anybody can improve their diet by substituting fruits and vegetables for sugar as their snacks, as part of their dessert, and as part of their meals,” says Stanhope. “There are no advantages of consuming added sugar.”
Consider Your Fats
Fat is high in calories and can increase your chances of developing obesity, heart disease, and other health problems. But there are different kinds of fats.
Fats that are liquid at room temperature, or oils, are considered to be healthier than those that are solid. Solid fats are found in high amounts in beef, chicken, pork, cheese, butter, and whole milk. Solid fats have more saturated fats than liquid oils. Liquid oils—such as canola, corn, olive, or peanut oil—have mostly unsaturated or polyunsaturated fats.
The dietary guidelines encourage consuming liquid oils rather than solid fats. Nicastro advises that you examine the fat content on the Nutrition Facts label. The label shows how much saturated fat a product contains. Experts suggest that you aim for getting less than 10% of your calories from saturated fats.
“For the average person, that’s going to be less than 20 grams of saturated fat per day,” Nicastro says.
For example, a small cheeseburger may have 5 grams of saturated fat, a typical cheeseburger may have 13, and a double cheeseburger with bacon may have 24!
Check Labels for Salt
The Nutrition Facts label also shows salt, or sodium. Experts advise you to limit salt, which tends to be very high in processed foods.
If you eat salty, highly processed food, you can quickly go over the daily limit of one teaspoon of salt (2,300 milligrams of sodium). Two hot dogs might have 900 milligrams of sodium. A can of ravioli might have 1400 milligrams. Other examples of salty, highly processed foods are bacon, frozen pizzas, and salad dressings.
Along with a lot of added salt, processed foods might have preservatives, sweeteners, and other substances added during preparation.
“Stuff that comes in a box or a bag that has a whole lot of different ingredients—many of which you can’t read and understand or pronounce—those things are highly processed and generally bad for your health,” explains Dr. David C. Goff, Jr., a public health expert at NIH.
Make a Meal Plan
“Figuring out what to eat is less than half the battle,” Nicastro says. “Sticking to your plan is a bigger challenge. So that’s why it helps to be really prepared and plan ahead.”
You’re much more likely to stick to your meal plan if you have healthy food that is ready to go. Some people find it helpful to prepare meals for the week in advance so that healthy food is within reach.
The DASH eating plan is a good start. DASH was developed by NIH-supported research to help people lower blood pressure without medicine, but it’s for anyone. Studies have shown that it reduces the risk of many diseases.
“The DASH diet is very flexible because you can follow DASH without going to a specialty grocery store. You can follow it with items that are very familiar to most people in this country,” Nicastro says.
The DASH eating plan is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, seeds, nuts, and fish. Compared to the typical American diet, it’s lower in salt, added sugars, fats, and red meat. It’s also higher in fiber, potassium, magnesium, and calcium than the typical American diet.
“Anybody can follow it, despite specific preferences or culture,” Nicastro says. It even works for people who are vegetarian or only eat Kosher foods.
You can use the weekly DASH menus and a form to track your food and physical activity habits.
Get Expert Advice
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans are designed to help people avoid developing obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. But everyone is different. You may have needs and risks that aren’t like the average American. Talk to your health care provider about your unique nutritional needs.
“A great resource for someone to help you with your diet is a registered dietitian nutritionist, or RDN,” Nicastro says.
You can find this type of expert in your area by visiting the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
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