Following a healthy diet can be as simple as following the guidelines, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, that is. These guidelines have been updated and released every five years since 1980 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA). The goal of these guidelines is to promote health and reduce the risk for major chronic disease for people 2 years and older. The Guidelines also address ways to maintain a healthy weight.
The key recommendations are:
Adequate nutrients within calorie needs
- Consume a variety of nutrient-dense foods and beverages within and among the basic food groups while choosing foods that limit the intake of saturated and trans fats, cholesterol, added sugars, salt, and alcohol.
- Meet recommended intakes within energy needs by adopting a balanced eating pattern, such as the USDA Food Guide or the DASH Eating Plan.
- To maintain body weight in a healthy range, balance calories from foods and beverages with calories expended.
- To prevent abnormal weight gain over time, make small decreases in food and beverage calories and increase physical activity.
- Engage in regular physical activity and reduce sedentary activities to promote health, psychological well-being, and a healthy body weight.
- Achieve physical fitness by including cardiovascular conditioning, stretching exercises for flexibility, and resistance exercises or calisthenics for muscle strength and endurance.
Food groups to encourage
- Consume a sufficient amount of fruits and vegetables while staying within energy needs. For a reference 2,000-calorie intake, 2 cups of fruit and 2½ cups of vegetables per day are recommended, with higher or lower amounts depending on the calorie level.
- Choose a variety of fruits and vegetables each day. In particular, select from all five vegetable subgroups (dark green, orange, legumes, starchy vegetables, and other vegetables) several times a week.
- Consume three or more ounce-equivalents of whole-grain products per day, with the rest of the recommended grains coming from enriched or whole-grain products. In general, at least half the grains should come from whole grains.
- Consume 3 cups per day of fat-free or low-fat milk or equivalent milk products.
- Those who choose to drink alcoholic beverages should do so sensibly and in moderation — defined as the consumption of up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men.
- Alcoholic beverages should not be consumed by some individuals, including those who cannot restrict their alcohol intake, women of childbearing age who may become pregnant, pregnant and lactating women, children and adolescents, individuals taking medications that can interact with alcohol, and those with specific medical conditions.
There are also guidelines for specific population groups like children, adolescents, pregnant women, breastfeeding women, and older adults. You can read about them at http://www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines/. The recommendations for fat, carbohydrates, sodium, and potassium can be found under their subheadings in this article.
The guidelines are extensive, but you do not need to meet every recommendation all at once. To establish a healthy eating plan, the goal is to begin to make gradual changes to your eating and activity. You can select one or two guidelines a week or month to focus on. Over time, you will be able to make most, if not all, of the guidelines a part of your life.