Defining good nutrition
March is National Nutrition Month! What began in 1973 as a week-long campaign to create awareness around good nutrition and promote the profession of dietetics (the scientific field determining how nutrition affects overall health) is now a month-long celebration with a new theme every year.
Celebrating multicultural nutrition in 2022
This year’s theme, “Celebrate a World of Flavors,” highlights the way cultures and cuisines around the world nurture their bodies and communities with food, and the opportunity we all have to add variety and flavors to our days by trying nutritious meals from another culture’s menu.
What is good nutrition?
Good nutrition means eating a balanced diet that gives your body the nutrients, vitamins, and minerals it needs to support healthy function of your body and mind, and fend off illness.
(Keep in mind: You may be accustomed to thinking of “diet” as a restricted eating plan. In reality, the word “diet” just means the things that you eat on a regular basis.)
The basics of a healthy diet, in general, involve a balanced intake of macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fats), and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), as well as water and fiber.
Understanding nutrition with MyPlate
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans is a regular publication providing science-based advice on nutrition to promote health, reduce the risk of chronic disease, and meet daily nutrient needs. According the the most current edition of the guide, the core components of a nutritious diet are nutrient-dense foods from the following food groups:
Vegetables of all types—dark green; red and orange; beans, peas, and lentils; starchy; and other vegetables
Fruits, especially whole fruit
Grains, at least half of which are whole grain
Dairy, including fat-free or low-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese, and/or lactose-free versions and fortified soy beverages and yogurt as alternatives
Protein foods, including lean meats, poultry, and eggs; seafood; beans, peas, and lentils; and nuts, seeds, and soy products
Oils, including vegetable oils and oils in food, such as seafood and nuts
To help make nutrition choices more intuitive, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) provide the MyPlate guideline. Like the food pyramid before it, MyPlate is meant to give a visual cue for how to build a healthy meal.
MyPlate guidelines recommend you make half your plate fruits and veggies, with a generous serving of grains and protein foods and a small amount of dairy or dairy substitute on the side. This is a good start, especially considering most Americans don’t follow a healthy dietary pattern.
Good nutrition is surprisingly uncommon
On a scale of 0-100, 100 being full compliance with recommended dietary guidelines, the average score for Americans is 59 and nearly 90 percent of Americans do not meet the daily recommendation for vegetables. No wonder we have so many issues with diet-related chronic disease — poor nutrition contributes to approximately 678,000 deaths in the U.S. every year.
To learn more about the impacts of nutrition on chronic illness, and to learn more about personalizing your approach to good nutrition based on age, gender, and more, you can read the full Dietary Guidelines here.
Is MyPlate the best resource for good nutrition?
Some experts say MyPlate doesn’t quite offer the complete picture on nutrition and health. While it’s a valuable resource, experts at the Harvard School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School have taken the basic principles of MyPlate and created the even-more-scientifically-backed Healthy Eating Plate.
While MyPlate breaks down the average meal into the main food groups you need for good nutrition, the Healthy Eating Plate takes things a step further, with clear advice on what types of foods to focus on to truly nourish your body and protect against diseases related to poor nutrition.
For instance, the Healthy Eating Plate adds emphasis on consuming nutritious oils and limiting dairy intake, as well as warns against considering french fries as part of your daily vegetable intake. View the breakdown of differences here.
So what should I eat for good nutrition?
Let’s assume you’re a healthy, lightly active adult. Here’s your recommended macronutrient breakdown, based on your body’s needs:
- 45-65% of your calories should come from whole carbohydrates, including whole grains, whole fruits, and vegetables.
- For protein, roughly 0.5 grams daily per pound of your body weight is recommended. This should come from legumes, soy products, nuts, whole grains, seeds, and meats and animal products.
- 20-30% of your daily calories should come from fat — healthy fats, that is, like those from seeds, avocado, fish, and plant oils. It’s important to limit saturated fat, like that found in tropical oils, dairy, and meat products.
5 reminders for good nutrition
- Healthy carbs are important. Carbs are not evil! While overconsuming processed (refined) carbohydrates can have the same effect on your body as eating too much sugar, whole carbs like whole grains and beans contain high amounts of healthy fiber, making them slow-digesting and helping them to fuel your body in a healthy way.
- Choose clean, lean protein. You may have seen athletes and diet gurus feasting on bacon and salami to bulk up — this is not the way. Check out this list of meats ranked from most to least healthful. Processed meats are actually carcinogenic! Choose lean cuts, conscientiously farmed, and healthy portions of non-animal proteins for a balanced, nutritious protein intake.
- Don’t skimp on fiber. Fiber is a powerhouse for health! You might be tempted to ignore this non-digestible carbohydrate, but you’d be missing out on more health benefits than you realize. Fiber has a reputation for “regularity,” but it does so much more: it feeds your good gut bacteria, can help you lose weight, can help regulate blood sugar, and even reduce cholesterol.
- Remember moderation with salt, sugar, and alcohol. You do need a little sodium, but Americans don’t struggle to get enough. And alcohol and sugar have no positive impacts significant to making them a regular part of your diet. These ingredients are large contributors to disease.
- Enjoy what you eat! It may take a little trial and error with cooking new recipes and trying new foods, but find what you like, keep it fresh, and explore! Good nutrition doesn’t have to just be functional — let it be fun!