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6 Diet Changes You Need to Make Today

What you need to eat, drink, and do to live longer and healthier. A summary of the 2005 nutritional guidelines from the USDA.

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Need help making smart choices about your nutrition and overall health? The new dietary guidelines, issued in January 2005 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, are designed to do just that. Government scientists constantly analyze nutrition research for a better understanding of how eating habits affect chronic diseases. The guidelines are updated every five years based on these findings.

Though they may sound intimidating, Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005 are a great place to start to learn more about what it takes to make your lifestyle a healthy one. They can get you on the road to healthy eating and can be the first step to keeping your weight in check, staying in shape, or getting into shape.

Getting regular physical activity and keeping an eye on the total number of calories you consume are the cornerstones to any weight-loss and weight-management program. And it's more important now than ever before to understand why these cornerstones form the foundation for good health. Obesity rates have risen dramatically in the U.S. Obesity is considered a major health threat because it is a risk factor for several major chronic diseases, including heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and some forms of cancer.

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The guidelines emphasize eating foods from a variety of healthful sources. These sources should provide the nutrients -- vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, as well as fiber and other components -- that your body needs to function well and fight disease. Start reaching for these types of "functional" foods and beverages rather than food and beverage choices offering only "empty" calories that make you feel full with little benefit to your overall health.

The food amounts listed below are based on a diet of 2,000 calories per day. If your calorie needs are different (and the average woman consumes about 1,800 calories a day) adjust your portions accordingly.

What to Eat for Your Calorie Level

What to Eat by Food Group

Fruits and Vegetables

Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. "Plenty" means five to nine servings a day. Sound like a lot? Well, it's a challenge. But you might be relieved to hear that you have the whole week to build in the variety of servings as recommended by the guidelines. Remember: Not all fruits and vegetables are created equal, so variety in your diet is key. Choose from all the five vegetable subgroups below:

  • Dark green
  • Orange
  • Legumes
  • Starchy vegetables
  • Others

Most fruits and vegetables are important sources of dietary fiber. Dietary fiber -- usually referred to as just "fiber" -- is important for digestive health. Fruits (especially apples, oranges, and bananas), vegetables (broccoli, carrots, tomatoes, potatoes, and corn) and peas, beans, and lentils are great sources of fiber. (Whole grain food choices, such as bran cereals, among others, are rich in fiber, too; see below.) For more information on high-fiber foods, check out the American Dietetic Association's Web site at www.eatright.org.


Grains and Carbohydrates

Consume at least three servings of whole grain foods every day (that is, at least half of your total grain intake). While it's acceptable that some of your sources of grain come from refined and "enriched" foods -- cereals and breads, for example, that have been enriched with the vitamins and minerals normally found in whole grain sources -- the more whole grains you can add to your diet directly from the source, the better for your health.

Don't forget those fruits and vegetables -- they are a great source of fiber. And remember to buy or prepare food with as little sugar or sweeteners as possible.

Milk and Milk Products

Include 3 cups of fat-free or low-fat milk per day, or the equivalent amount of other dairy products (low-fat or fat-free yogurt, for example). In general, children ages 2 through 8 should have 2 cups, and ages 9 and up should have 3 cups -- but check with your pediatrician for more specific recommendations. The guidelines may need to be modified for your child based on his or her weight and age.


Your fat intake should be no more than 30 to 35 percent of your total calories per day. According to the guidelines, most of the fat in your diet should come from monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fatty acids. These are the healthier fats found in fish, nuts, and vegetable oils. Unhealthy fats come in the form of trans-fatty acids and saturated fat. Try to limit your intake of these types of fat.

No more than 10 percent of your total calories should be from saturated fat. And try not to consume more than 300mg per day of cholesterol. Foods high in saturated fat (red meat, animal fat, whole dairy products, and coconut oil) dump a lot of cholesterol into your bloodstream. To stay within this guideline, choose cuts of meat and poultry that have been trimmed of fat (and skin), and opt for low-fat or fat-free milk or milk products.

The Truth About Fats

Sodium and Potassium

It might surprise you to learn that the guidelines recommend limiting salt (sodium) intake to no more than 1 teaspoon (2,300 mg) of salt per day from all sources combined -- the sodium in your food and what you add to it. To be sure you get in under the wire, choose and prepare foods with little or no sodium. If you have high blood pressure or are at risk for high blood pressure, limit your salt intake to 1,500mg daily and increase your potassium to 4,700mg per day (preferably from food sources).

When the 2005 guidelines were published recommending a whopping 90 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise daily as optimal for individuals who are trying to lose weight or maintain weight loss, many people gasped for air. It is an unprecedented recommendation. For individuals who are trying only to maintain their weight and don't need to lose weight, the guidelines recommend 30 minutes or more of moderate-intensity activity on most days of the week. Recommendations from other government agencies vary. Knowing how much physical activity to set as your personal goals for can be confusing.

No doubt about it, though: Getting and staying physically active is important because it can help prevent unwanted weight gain and improve overall health by helping reduce your risk for chronic diseases. So make getting physically active a goal -- even if you start with small amounts.

A complete physical fitness routine should include cardiovascular conditioning, stretching exercises for flexibility, and resistance exercises or calisthenics for muscle strength and endurance. Ask your healthcare provider for guidance before you start exercising and for help understanding how to improve and maintain good eating habits, based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005. A registered dietitian also is a good source for information about nutrition, diet, and exercise.

The Food Pyramid

Wondering where the Food Pyramid is in all this discussion? It's actually produced by a different federal agency: the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Some FDA recommendations differ slightly from the USDA's guidelines. The Food Pyramid also is being updated and changes are expected in 2006.

Food Safety

The USDA also addresses how to keep food safe and prevent illnesses when preparing and storing it. A number of recommendations can be found by visiting http://www.foodsafety.gov/.

Tips about how to defrost food safely can be found in The Big Thaw at http://www.fsis.usda.gov.


The Big Thaw

Read the Label

Learning how to read the label on foods and beverages can help you be sure you're making nutritious and healthful choices. There are a number of sources to help you learn how to interpret calories, fat content, and recommended serving size. One place to start is the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute with their "Tipsheet: Reading Food Labels."

Originally published on LHJ.com, March 2005.

Tipsheet: Reading Food Labels

Please read our Medical Disclaimer

For more information, visit HealthyWomen.org

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