Keeping nutrition and physical activity balanced is crucial in maintaining (or restoring) a healthy body that is fit, free of pain and houses a happy mind. Specifically, good nutrition has the potential to prevent and reduce chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, bone fractures, some cancers, dementia and even Alzheimer’s disease. Good nutrition even helps with skin issues, nail and hair growth. Last but not least, a balanced nutrition and active lifestyle improves mood and decreases depression and anxiety. The case for balanced eating habits is strong – now let’s see what that means.
Food consists of the main components carbohydrates, protein, fat and water (and alcohol). These individual nutrients come together to build different foods. Carrots, for example consist of 10% carbohydrates, 1% protein, 0.2% fat and 91% water. Chicken breasts, as another example, consists of 31% protein, 3.6% fat, 0% carbohydrates and 65% water. Every nutrient has their own calorie amount:
- 1g carbohydrates have 4 calories
- 1g protein has 4 calories
- 1g fat has 9 calories
- 1g alcohol has 7 calories
Depending on the amount of each individual nutrient, different foods vary in its total calorie content. In general, the higher the water and the lower the fat content in a food, the fewer calories it has.
Calories are the energy our body uses for its daily functions such as keeping the heart beat, the lungs breath, the kidney getting rid of waste, the brain think, the gut digest and the muscles move limbs. Depending on gender, age, weight and height, different amounts of calories are needed and need to be calculated.
As a rule of thumb, an average women over 14 years needs 1800 calories, an average man over 14 years needs 2200 calories per day to maintain their weight. To lose weight, subtract up to 500 calories per day.
Carbohydrates are types of sugar and are needed in the body as primary energy source for muscles and the brain. It is very diverse nutrient group and includes sugar, sweets, juices, fruit, cereal, pasta, flour, corn, potatoes, beans, rice, wheat, quinoa and milk. Fibers are carbohydrates as well but they are mostly indigestible and won’t add as many calories to the daily intake. Fibers are mainly in whole grains, beans and legumes, fruit and vegetables.
Carbohydrates should make out 45–65% of our daily calories, that’s about 900 to 1300 calories or 225 to 325g per day.
Protein serves as a building block for cells, such as in muscles, nerves, organs, hair, eyes and skin. But it also helps fight infection, heal wounds, carry vitamins and oxygen around the body, clots blood, and keeps body fluids in balance. Protein is found in animal and plant foods such as meat, poultry, eggs, fish, seafood, dairy and cheese, legumes, nuts and seeds.
Proteins should make out 10-15% of the total daily calories, that’s about 200 to 300 calories or 50 to 75g per day.
Fat is another diverse nutrient group as there are many different types of fat. Fats are needed in the brain and help nerves function, help absorb vitamins, protect organs and provide energy deposits. Sources of fat are fish, nuts and seeds, vegetable oils, eggs, avocado, butter, margarine, lard, poultry skin, bacon and fatty cuts of meat.
Fats should provide not more than 30% of the daily calories, that’s 600 calories or 66g per day.
Alcoholic beverages mainly consist of water, alcohol (ethanol) and sugar. The body doesn’t need alcohol but will use it as an energy source. Fermented alcoholic beverages such as wine and beer are considered a less harmful choice over spirits and mixed drinks.
Women should not drink more than one drink per day, men should limit themselves to two. It is advisable to not drink every day.
Now that we covered nutrients in foods, let’s talk about actual food.
How much of what do I need?
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 recommends a variety of foods including vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy, protein foods and oils. The following table shows how much of what food group is recommended at different calorie levels.
|Vegetables||2 cups||2½ cups||2½ cups||3 cups||3 cups|
1 cup vegetables counts as: 1 cup raw or cooked vegetables; or 2 cups leafy salad greens; or 1 cup 100% vegetable juice
eat a variety of vegetables of different colors, legumes, potatoes, corn, peas, beans, plantains, etc. every day
|Fruits||1½ cups||1½ cups||2 cups||2 cups||2 cups|
1 cup of fruits counts as: 1 cup raw or cooked fruit; or 1/2 cup dried fruit; or 1 cup 100% fruit juice
eat a variety of different colored fruit every day
|Grains||5 oz-eq||6 oz-eq||6 oz-eq||7 oz-eq||8 oz-eq|
1 ounce of grains counts as: 1 slice bread; or 1 ounce ready-to-eat cereal; or 1/2 cup cooked rice, pasta, or cereal
make half of your grains whole grains such as whole wheat bread, whole wheat cereal, oats, quinoa, brown rice, plain popcorn
|Protein Foods||5 oz-eq||5 oz-eq||5½ oz-eq||6 oz-eq||6½ oz-eq|
1 ounce of protein counts as: 1 ounce lean meat, poultry, fish or seafood; or 1 egg; or 1 Tbsp nut butter; or 1/4 cup cooked beans, legumes or peas; or 1/2 ounce nuts or seeds
meats and poultry should be lean, nuts and seeds should be unsalted or lightly salted
|Dairy||3 cups||3 cups||3 cups||3 cups||3 cups|
1 cup of dairy counts as: 1 cup milk; or 1 cup yogurt; or 1 cup fortified soy beverage; or 1 1/2 ounces natural cheese or 2 ounces processed cheese
focus on low-fat milk and yogurt
|Oils||1 ½ Tbsp||1 ½ Tbsp||2 Tbsp||2 Tbsp||2 Tbsp|
Good oils for cooking are canola, olive and sunflower seed oil
cold-pressed, virgin oils are better than processed oils
|Limit on Calories for Other Uses
calories (% of calories)
processed vegetables: fried, breaded or stir-fried vegetables, etc
processed fruits: jelly, jams, conserves, spreads & desserts, etc
grains: fried snacks, salty snacks and crackers, bakery items, etc
protein foods: fatty cuts of meat, red meat, poultry skin, fried, breaded proteins, etc
dairy: cream, sour cream, cream cheese, sweet yogurt, dairy desserts, etc
fats: butter, lard, margarine, bacon fat, shortening etc
added sugar: sweets, desserts, pastry, bakery, milk drinks, chocolate etc
fresh, raw ingredients that are little to not processed
bake, grill, sauté in little vegetable oil
use little salt and sugar, focus on herbs and spices instead
drink unsweetened beverages: water, club soda, infused water, coffee, tea
Table adapted from Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020
A day’s menu at 2000 calories per day could look like this:
Breakfast: Cereal with Fruit and an Egg
- 1 cup toasted oat cereal with 1 medium banana and ¼ cup lowfat milk
- 1 hard-cooked egg
- Beverage: Coffee (with low-fat milk), tea, water
Lunch: Tuna-Cucumber Wrap & Yogurt Dessert
- 1 8” flour tortilla
- 3 oz tuna (canned in water)
- 2 Tbsp mayonnaise
- 5 cucumber sticks
- ¼ cup lowfat vanilla yogurt
- Beverage: water infused with 5 raspberries, 2 slices of lime, 1 handful mint
Snack: Pretzels and Dip
- ½ cup pretzels
- 1 Tbsp hummus
- 1 large orange
- beverage: water, coffee, tea
Dinner: Marinated Beef with Mashed Potatoes
- 12 ounces beef round steak cut in thin strips, marinated with 1 garlic glove, 2 Tbsp lemon juice, 2 Tbsp olive oil, salt & pepper, browned in skillet over medium-high heat with 2Tbsp olive oil
- 1 cup cooked potatoes, mashed with 1 Tbsp milk and 2 tsp butter, seasoned with salt, pepper, nutmeg to taste
- 1 cup mixed vegetables (frozen), sautéed in 1 tsp olive oil, seasoned with salt, pepper, rosemary to taste
- Beverage: club soda infused with 1 tsp lemon juice & 1 slice of lemon
What can I do to change my diet?
Changing habits is one of the most challenging things to do. They are habits for a reason. When it comes to more balanced eating, here are a few tips that might be helpful:
- Watch portion sizes and how much is on your plate
- Enjoy meals until you’re feeling not quite full
- Stop when you’re full, don’t “clean your plate”
- Eat from (small) plates, not (big) packages
- Plan meals and snacks in advance and stick to your plan
- Shop on a full stomach and use a shopping list
- Use the nutrition facts label to compare calorie and sugar content
- Stop nibbling when finished
- Sit down, eat slowly and enjoy
- Fight the urge to snack; drink a glass of water instead and wait a few minutes
- Drink plenty of water, unsweetened tea, and infused water
How about staying active?
The right nutrition is as important as staying active every day to maintain a balanced lifestyle. The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend the following physical activity for adults aged 18-64 (adapted from the official guidelines):
- All adults should avoid inactivity. Some physical activity is better than none, and adults who participate in any amount of physical activity gain some health benefits.
- For substantial health benefits, adults should do at least
- 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) a week of moderate-intensity (such as brisk walking, dancing, swimming, or bicycling on a level terrain),
- or 75 minutes (1 hour and 15 minutes) a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity (such as jogging, singles tennis, swimming continuous laps, or bicycling uphill for at least 10 minutes),
- or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity.
- For additional and more extensive health benefits, adults should increase their aerobic physical activity to
- 300 minutes (5 hours) a week of moderate-intensity,
- or 150 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity,
- or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity activity.
- Additional health benefits are gained by engaging in physical activity beyond this amount.
- Adults should also include muscle-strengthening activities that involve all major muscle groups on 2 or more days a week.
A balanced diet and active lifestyle are important to keep the body and mind healthy, happy and functional. While every person needs a different amount of calories, different choice of foods and different activities that fit into their daily life, some general tips apply to anyone looking to maintain or develop balanced eating habits: choosing a variety of different foods, enjoying meals until you’re full and then stop, and staying active every day.