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Chapter 1. Basic Concepts in Nutrition

Achieving a Healthy Diet

Achieving a healthy diet is a matter of balancing the quality and quantity of food that is eaten. There are five key factors that make up a healthful diet:

  1. A diet must be adequate, by providing sufficient amounts of each essential nutrient, as well as fiber and adequate calories.
  2. A balanced diet results when you do not consume one nutrient at the expense of another, but rather get appropriate amounts of all nutrients.
  3. Calorie control is necessary so that the amount of energy you get from the nutrients you consume equals the amount of energy you expend during your day’s activities.
  4. Moderation means not eating to the extremes, neither too much nor too little.
  5. Variety refers to consuming different foods from within each of the food groups on a regular basis.

A healthy diet is one that favors whole foods. As an alternative to modern processed foods, a healthy diet focuses on “real” fresh whole foods that have been sustaining people for generations. Whole foods supply the needed vitamins, minerals, protein, carbohydrates, fats, and fiber that are essential to good health. Commercially prepared and fast foods are often lacking nutrients and often contain inordinate amounts of sugar, salt, saturated and trans fats, all of which are associated with the development of diseases such as atherosclerosis, heart disease, stroke, cancer, obesity, diabetes, and other illnesses. A balanced diet is a mix of food from the different food groups (vegetables, legumes, fruits, grains, protein foods, and dairy).

Adequacy

An adequate diet is one that favors nutrient-dense foods. Nutrient-dense foods are defined as foods that contain many essential nutrients per calorie. Nutrient-dense foods are the opposite of “empty-calorie” foods, such as sugary carbonated beverages, which are also called “nutrient-poor.” Nutrient-dense foods include fruits and vegetables, lean meats, poultry, fish, low-fat dairy products, and whole grains. Choosing more nutrient-dense foods will facilitate weight loss, while simultaneously providing all necessary nutrients.

Balance

Balance the foods in your diet. Achieving balance in your diet entails not consuming one nutrient at the expense of another. For example, calcium is essential for healthy teeth and bones, but too much calcium will interfere with iron absorption. Most foods that are good sources of iron are poor sources of calcium, so in order to get the necessary amounts of calcium and iron from your diet, a proper balance between food choices is critical. Another example is that while sodium is an essential nutrient, excessive intake may contribute to congestive heart failure and chronic kidney disease in some people. Remember, everything must be consumed in the proper amounts.

Moderation

Eat in moderation. Moderation is crucial for optimal health and survival. Eating nutrient-poor foods each night for dinner will lead to health complications. But as part of an otherwise healthful diet and consumed only on a weekly basis, this should not significantly impact overall health. It’s important to remember that eating is, in part, about enjoyment and indulging with a spirit of moderation. This fits within a healthy diet.

Monitor food portions. For optimum weight maintenance, it is important to ensure that energy consumed from foods meets the energy expenditures required for body functions and activity. If not, the excess energy contributes to gradual, steady accumulation of stored body fat and weight gain. In order to lose body fat, you need to ensure that more calories are burned than consumed. Likewise, in order to gain weight, calories must be eaten in excess of what is expended daily.

Variety

Variety involves eating different foods from all the food groups. Eating a varied diet helps to ensure that you consume and absorb adequate amounts of all essential nutrients required for health. One of the major drawbacks of a monotonous diet is the risk of consuming too much of some nutrients and not enough of others. Trying new foods can also be a source of pleasure—you never know what foods you might like until you try them.

Developing a healthful diet can be rewarding, but be mindful that all of the principles presented must be followed to derive maximal health benefits. For instance, introducing variety in your diet can still result in the consumption of too many high-calorie, nutrient poor foods and inadequate nutrient intake if you do not also employ moderation and calorie control. Using all of these principles together will promote lasting health benefits.