Eating well is one of the best things you can do to stay healthy. A good diet gives you more energy, improves your physical and mental well being, and decreases your risk of disease.
A Healthy Lifestyle
Many health problems in the United States are linked to poor diet and lack of exercise. These include cardiovascular disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, obesity, constipation, and certain cancers. By maintaining a healthy lifestyle that combines good food choices and exercise, many of these conditions can be prevented or controlled.
A well-balanced diet is crucial to good health. Your body needs a regular supply of nutrients to grow, replace worn-out tissue, and provide energy. How much of each nutrient you need each day is called the recommended daily allowance (RDA) or, more recently, the dietary reference intake (DRI). You can get your DRI of nutrients from food as well as from supplements. However, most of the nutrients you need should come from the foods you eat.
To be sure that your diet gives you enough nutrients, you need to know which ones are in the foods you eat. My Pyramid (www.MyPyramid.gov) can help you make healthy food choices. My Pyramid takes into account your age, sex, and how much you exercise every day. It shows the number of servings you should have each day from each of these six food groups: grains, vegetables, fruits, oils, milk, meat and beans.
Reading Food Labels
All packaged foods must be clearly labeled with nutrition information. Reading all food labels can help you make smart food choices. The labels will tell you how many grams of fat and how many calories are in each serving.
Serving Size: The amount served and eaten. The numbers on the label refer to this amount of food.
Total Fat: The amount of fat in one serving.
Saturated Fat: This type of fat comes mainly from meat and milk products. It tends to be solid chilled, such as butter and lard. Shortening, palm oil, and coconut oil also are saturated fats.
Trans Fat: This is a kind of saturated fat. Trans fat is made when liquid oil is turned into solid fat like shortening and hard margarine. This is done to make foods last longer and give them better flavor. Vegetable shortenings, some margarines, crackers, cookies, and snack foods like potato chips contain trans fat.
Nutrients: A list of the nutrients the product contains. Nutrients often listed here are fat (saturated and trans), cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrate (dietary fiber and sugars), and protein.
Calories: Amount of energy the food supplies.
Percent Daily Values: The percentage of nutrients this product provides based on the DRI. It is based on a diet of 2,000 calories.
On packaged foods, you can use the food labels to find out what nutrients they provide. A food label lists the serving size of the product and how many servings are in the package. This will help you decide how much of the product you should have for one serving. A label also will show how much of the DRI of each nutrient the serving supplies. Your daily goal is to reach 100% of each nutrient. One way of making healthy food choices is to compare food labels of similar products.
Every diet should include proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and fat. You can get most of these nutrients from a well-balanced diet. Most women need to be sure they get enough calcium, iron, and folic acid and not too much fat (saturated and trans fats), sodium, and added sugars. Sometimes women may need more or less than the DRI of a certain nutrient, especially those who are pregnant or in menopause, or have certain health problems, such as diabetes or high blood pressure.
Bone is made up of calcium and protein. Bones can become thin and brittle if your diet is low in calcium. This may cause osteoporosis. Most women need 1,000 milligrams (mg) of calcium per day. To get your DRI of calcium, you need to drink about 3 cups of non-fat milk a day. Other dairy foods, such as low-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese, also are high in calcium.
If you prefer non-dairy products or are lactose intolerant, consider these sources of calcium: dark greens (collards, spinach, turnip greens, and kale), soybeans and some soy products, certain canned fish and seafood (sardines, pink salmon with bone, blue crab, and clams) and cereals and juices with added calcium.
It also is important to get enough vitamin D, which helps the body to absorb calcium. For this reason vitamin D often is added to milk. Exposure to sun also can help the body make vitamin D.
Iron is needed to make new blood cells. If you are not getting enough iron, anemia may occur. Women may become anemic because of loss of blood during menstruation or childbirth. Anemia may make you feel tired. If it becomes severe, it can make you feel weak and look pale.
Most women of childbearing age need 18 mg of iron per day. During and after menopause, women may not need such high levels of iron. If you are aged 51 years or older, you need only 8 mg of iron per day. Talk with your doctor if you are concerned that you are not getting the recommended amount of iron.
One serving of most breakfast cereals with added iron should provide your DRI of iron. Other foods that are good sources of iron include: spinach, beans (soybeans, white beans, lentils, kidney beans, chick peas), clams and oysters, meats (beef, duck, lamb) and organ meats (liver, giblets).
It helps to eat foods rich in vitamin C, like oranges and tomatoes, at the same meal with an iron-rich food. Vitamin C helps your body use iron better.
Folic acid is important for all women. It also is needed for healthy growth of a baby during pregnancy, especially during the first months. Not getting enough folic acid in your diet increases the risk of having a baby with certain birth defects of the spine and skull. Because many pregnancies are unplanned, it is best for any woman who can become pregnant to eat foods rich in folic acid every day.
Women who can get pregnant or who are pregnant should take 0.4 mg of folic acid daily. Women who have had a child with a spine or skull defect need even higher doses of folic acid (4 mg per day) based on their doctor’s recommendation. They should start taking this amount of folic acid before they have another baby.
The richest food sources of folic acid are those that have it added to them, such as breakfast cereals, bread, pasta, flour, crackers, and orange juice. Other foods that are good sources of folic acid include dark leafy greens (such as spinach and collard greens) and citrus fruit (such as oranges and lemons). It may be hard to get all the folic acid you need just from your diet, so you may have to take a supplement. If you do not think you are getting enough folic acid, talk to your doctor.
Fat is a part of a healthy diet. It is needed to carry vitamins through the body and help manage body functions. How much and what type of fat you eat may make a difference.
There are two basic kinds of fat found in food—saturated and unsaturated. Saturated fat is solid at room temperature. An example of saturated fat is butter. Unsaturated fat is liquid at room temperature. Examples of unsaturated fat are olive oil or canola oil. Unsaturated fats are better choices than saturated fats—they do not raise your cholesterol levels as much. You can find how much fat (total fat as well as saturated and unsaturated fat) is in a product by reading its food label.
A different kind of fat—trans fat—also is listed on food labels. Trans fat is made by adding hydrogen to vegetable oils to improve their smell, taste, and shelf life. It often is found in french fries, potato chips, store-bought baked goods, and microwave meals. Trans fat also can increase your cholesterol levels. You can decrease your cholesterol levels by eating foods that are low in saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol. Regular exercise also can decrease your cholesterol levels.
You should limit or even remove foods that have saturated and trans fats from your diet. If you choose to eat foods such as meat, poultry, fried goods, pastries, or milk products, look for products that are lean, low-fat or non-fat. You also can change the way you prepare foods by: broiling or baking instead of frying, skimming fat from soups, trimming all fat from meats, removing skin from poultry and cutting back on butter, margarine, cream, oil, and mayonnaise made from trans fat.
Sodium, or salt, is linked to the risk of high blood pressure. Typically, the more salt you eat, the higher your blood pressure gets. That means that salt should be used in small amounts—usually not more than 1 teaspoonful a day. Choose and prepare foods with little salt. At the same time, eat potassium-rich foods, such as orange vegetables. Potassium may help lower your blood pressure. Check the salt content of a product by looking on its food label. Different brands of similar products may contain different amounts of salt. Try to choose the brand that is lower in salt.
Food sugars—carbohydrates—are the body’s main source of energy. Sugars can be natural or added. Natural sugars are those found in fruit, vegetables, or in milk. Added sugars are added to the food at the table (for instance, sugar in coffee or syrup on pancakes) or during processing at a factory (corn syrup added to soda or baked goods). It is important to choose sugars wisely. Besides energy, many natural sugars, especially those from fruit and vegetables, are good sources of fiber. Added sugars supply calories, but few or no nutrients.
Your weight is the result of how many calories you eat versus the number of calories you burn. The energy we get from food is measured in calories. The number of calories we need each day differs from woman to woman. It depends on your age, how active you are, and your body size. Most women should eat and drink about 2,000 calories per day. Unused calories turn into body fat. This is why people who burn fewer calories than they eat often gain weight.
You should keep your weight at the range that is healthy for your height. The body mass index is used to compare a person’s height with her weight to see if she is overweight. Having a body mass index of 19–24.9 is healthy and 25–29.9 is overweight. A person with a score of 30 or higher is obese.
If your weight is not in the healthy range, try to lose the extra pounds. You can lose weight by balancing your diet with exercise. The more you exercise, the more you can eat without gaining weight. Talk to your doctor about a weight loss plan that is right for you.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture offers the following guidelines: to reduce your risk of chronic disease, exercise at least 30 minutes most days of the week; to maintain your weight, exercise a total of 60 minutes most days of week and take in fewer calories than you burn, to sustain weight loss, exercise a total of 60 to 90 minutes most days of the week
Healthy eating is one of the best things you can do for yourself. To ensure that your diet provides all of the nutrients you need, eat a variety of foods. Balance the food you eat with exercise for weight control.
When making food choices: eat a variety of foods within the food groups, choose fiber-rich fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, choose some enriched grains, eat more dark green vegetables, orange vegetables, beans, fruits, whole grains, and non-fat milk and milk products, eat fewer foods with added sugars, eat less cholesterol, avoid trans fats, limit your intake of sodium, eat potassium-rich foods and limit your intake of alcohol.