- What is nutrition, and why does it matter?
- They are one of the most confusing food groups, which is why I’m sharing everything you need to know about carbohydrates today!
- What are carbohydrates?
- What do carbohydrates do in your body?
- How much carbs do you need?
- Where can you find carbohydrates?
- What’s the difference between simple and complex carbohydrates?
- What is fiber?
- What are the health benefits of carbohydrates?
- If carbohydrates are so healthy, why do so many people follow low-carb diet plans to lose weight?
- Carbohydrate-Rich Recipes
- Nutrition: Tips for Improving Your Health
- Path to improved health
- Things to consider
- Questions to ask your doctor
- The main message: Focus on diet quality
- Step 1: Start with the Serving Size
- Step 2: Check Out the Total Calories
- Step 3: Let the Percent Daily Values Be a Guide
- Step 4: Check Out the Nutrition Terms
- Step 5: Choose Low in Saturated Fat, Added Sugars and Sodium
- Step 6: Get Enough Vitamins, Minerals and Fiber
- Step 7: Consider the Additional Nutrients
- How to Read Food Labels Without Being Tricked
- Learn How the NEW Nutrition Facts Label Can Help You Improve Your Health
What is nutrition, and why does it matter?
Micronutrients are essential in small amounts. They include vitamins and minerals. Manufacturers sometimes add these to foods. Examples include fortified cereals and rice.
The body needs carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen.
It also needs dietary minerals, such as iron, potassium, and so on.
In most cases, a varied and balanced diet will provide the minerals a person needs. If a deficiency occurs, a doctor may recommend supplements.
Here are some of the minerals the body needs to function well.
Potassium is an electrolyte. It enables the kidneys, the heart, the muscles, and the nerves to work properly. The 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that adults consume 4,700 milligrams (mg) of potassium each day.
Too little can lead to high blood pressure, stroke, and kidney stones.
Too much may be harmful to people with kidney disease.
Avocados, coconut water, bananas, dried fruit, squash, beans, and lentils are good sources.
Learn more here about potassium.
Sodium is an electrolyte that helps:
- maintain nerve and muscle function
- regulate fluid levels in the body
Too little can lead to hyponatremia. Symptoms include lethargy, confusion, and fatigue. Learn more here.
Too much can lead to high blood pressure, which increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke.
Table salt, which is made up of sodium and chloride, is a popular condiment. However, most people consume too much sodium, as it already occurs naturally in most foods.
Experts urge people not to add table salt to their diet. Current guidelines recommend consuming no more than 2,300 mg of sodium a day, or around one teaspoon.
This recommendation includes both naturally-occurring sources, as well as salt a person adds to their food. People with high blood pressure or kidney disease should eat less.
How much salt does a person need? Find out here.
The body needs calcium to form bones and teeth. It also supports the nervous system, cardiovascular health, and other functions.
Too little can cause bones and teeth to weaken. Symptoms of a severe deficiency include tingling in the fingers and changes in heart rhythm, which can be life-threatening.
Too much can lead to constipation, kidney stones, and reduced absorption of other minerals.
Current guidelines for adults recommend consuming 1,000 mg a day, and 1,200 mg for women aged 51 and over.
Good sources include dairy products, tofu, legumes,and green, leafy vegetables.
Find out more about calcium.
Phosphorus is present in all body cells and contributes to the health of the bones and teeth.
Too little phosphorus can lead to bone diseases, affect appetite, muscle strength, and coordination. It can also result in anemia, a higher risk of infection, burning or prickling sensations in the skin, and confusion.
Too much in the diet is unlikely to cause health problems though toxicity is possible from supplements, medications, and phosphorus metabolism problems.
Adults should aim to consume around 700 mg of phosphorus each day. Good sources include dairy products, salmon, lentils, and cashews.
Why do people need phosphorus? Find out here.
Magnesium contributes to muscle and nerve function. It helps regulate blood pressure and blood sugar levels, and it enables the body to produce proteins, bone, and DNA.
Too little magnesium can eventually lead to weakness, nausea, tiredness, restless legs, sleep conditions, and other symptoms.
Too much can result in digestive and, eventually, heart problems.
Nuts, spinach, and beans are good sources of magnesium. Adult females need 320 mg of magnesium each day, and adult males need 420 mg.
Zinc plays a role in the health of body cells, the immune system, wound healing, and the creation of proteins.
Too little can lead to hair loss, skin sores, changes in taste or smell,and diarrhea, but this is rare.
Too much can lead to digestive problems and headaches. Click here to learn more.
Adult females need 8 mg of zinc a day, and adult males need 11 mg. Dietary sources include oysters, beef, fortified breakfast cereals, and baked beans. For more on dietary sources of zinc, .
Iron is crucial for the formation of red blood cells, which carry oxygen to all parts of the body. It also plays a role in forming connective tissue and creating hormones.
Too little can result in anemia, including digestive issues, weakness, and difficulty thinking. Learn more here about iron deficiency.
Too much can lead to digestive problems, and very high levels can be fatal.
Good sources include fortified cereals, beef liver, lentils, spinach, and tofu. Adults need 8 mg of iron a day, but females need 18 mg during their reproductive years.
Why is iron important? Find out here.
The body uses manganese to produce energy, it plays a role in blood clotting, and it supports the immune system.
Too little can result in weak bones in children, skin rashes in men, and mood changes in women.
Too much can lead to tremors, muscle spasms, and other symptoms, but only with very high amounts.
Mussels, hazelnuts, brown rice, chickpeas, and spinach all provide manganese. Male adults need 2.3 mg of manganese each day, and females need 1.8 mg.
Find out more here about manganese.
Copper helps the body make energy and produce connective tissues and blood vessels.
Too little copper can lead to tiredness, patches of light skin, high cholesterol, and connective tissue disorders. This is rare.
Too much copper can result in liver damage, abdominal pain, nausea, and diarrhea. Too much copper also reduces the absorption of zinc.
Good sources include beef liver, oysters, potatoes, mushrooms, sesame seeds, and sunflower seeds. Adults need 900 micrograms (mcg) of copper each day.
Selenium is made up of over 24 selenoproteins, and it plays a crucial role in reproductive and thyroid health. As an antioxidant, it can also prevent cell damage.
Too much selenium can cause garlic breath, diarrhea, irritability, skin rashes, brittle hair or nails, and other symptoms.
Too little can result in heart disease, infertility in men, and arthritis.
Adults need 55 mcg of selenium a day.
Brazil nuts are an excellent source of selenium. Other plant sources include spinach, oatmeal, and baked beans. Tuna, ham, and enriched macaroni are all excellent sources.
Learn more about selenium here.
Share on PinterestEating a variety of healthful foods can provide the body with different vitamins.
People need small amounts of various vitamins. Some of these, such as vitamin C, are also antioxidants. This means they help protect cells from damage by removing toxic molecules, known as free radicals, from the body.
Vitamins can be:
Water-soluble: The eight B vitamins and vitamin C
Fat-soluble: Vitamins A, D, E, and K
Learn more about vitamins here.
Water soluble vitamins
People need to consume water-soluble vitamins regularly because the body removes them more quickly, and it cannot store them easily.
|Vitamin||Effect of too little||Effect of too much||Sources|
|Unclear, as the body excretes it in the urine.||Fortified cereals and rice, pork, trout, black beans|
|B-2 (riboflavin)||Hormonal problems, skin disorders, swelling in the mouth and throat||Unclear, as the body excretes it in the urine.||Beef liver, breakfast cereal, oats, yogurt, mushrooms, almonds|
|B-3 (niacin)||Pellagra, including skin changes, red tongue, digestive and neurological symptoms||Facial flushing, burning, itching, headaches, rashes, and dizziness||Beef liver, chicken breast, brown rice, fortified cereals, peanuts.|
|B-5 (pantothenic acid)||Numbness and burning in hands and feet, fatigue, stomach pain||Digestive problems at high doses.||Breakfast cereal, beef liver, shiitake mushroom, sunflower seeds|
|B-6 (pyridoxamine, pyridoxal)||Anemia, itchy rash, skin changes, swollen tongue||Nerve damage, loss of muscle control||Chickpeas, beef liver, tuna, chicken breast, fortified cereals, potatoes|
|B-7 (biotin)||Hair loss, rashes around the eyes and other body openings, conjunctivitis||Unclear||Beef liver, egg, salmon, sunflower seeds, sweet potato|
|B-9 (folic acid, folate)||Weakness, fatigue, difficulty focusing, heart palpitations, shortness of breath||May increase cancer risk||Beef liver, spinach, black-eyed peas, fortified cereal, asparagus|
|B-12 (cobalamins)||Anemia, fatigue, constipation, weight loss, neurological changes||No adverse effects reported||Clams, beef liver, fortified yeasts, plant milks, and breakfast cereals, some oily fish.|
|Vitamin C (ascorbic acid)||Scurvy, including fatigue, skin rash, gum inflammation, poor wound healing||Nausea, diarrhea, stomach cramps||Citrus fruits, berries, red and green peppers, kiwi fruit, broccoli, baked potatoes, fortified juices.|
The body absorbs fat-soluble vitamins through the intestines with the help of fats (lipids). The body can store them and does not remove them quickly. People who follow a low-fat diet may not be able to absorb enough of these vitamins. If too many build up, problems can arise.
|Vitamin||Effect of too little||Effect of too much||Sources|
|Vitamin A (retinoids)||Night blindness||Pressure on the brain, nausea, dizziness, skin irritation, joint and bone pain, orange pigmented skin color||Sweet potato, beef liver, spinach, and other dark leafy greens, carrots, winter squash|
|Vitamin D||Poor bone formation and weak bones||Anorexia, weight loss, changes in heart rhythm, damage to cardiovascular system and kidneys||Sunlight exposure plus dietary sources: cod liver oil, oily fish, dairy products, fortified juices|
|Vitamin E||Peripheral neuropathy, retinopathy, reduced immune response||May reduce the ability of blood to clot||Wheatgerm, nuts, seeds, sunflower and safflower oil, spinach|
|Vitamin K||Bleeding and hemorrhaging in severe cases||No adverse effects but it may interact with blood thinners and other drugs||Leafy, green vegetables, soybeans, edamame, okra, natto|
Multivitamins are available for purchase in stores or online, but people should speak to their doctor before taking any supplements, to check that they are suitable for them to use.
Some nutrients also act as antioxidants. These may be vitamins, minerals, proteins, or other types of molecules. They help the body remove toxic substances known as free radicals, or reactive oxygen species. If too many of these substances remain in the body, cell damage and disease can result.
Find out more here about antioxidants.
Here, learn which foods are good sources of antioxidants.
#1: What is a Nutrient?
There are two main types of nutrients: macronutrients and micronutrients. Macronutrients provide structural material and energy. They also make up the bulk of what most people eat each day. Protein, carbohydrates, and fats are all macronutrients.
Micronutrients are needed in smaller amounts and include vitamins and minerals. Micronutrients don’t drive the calories in your diet, but they do have a significant impact on your health. Getting the proper balance of vitamins and minerals in your diet is very important.
Both micronutrients and macronutrients are essential to good health and a balanced eating pattern.
#2: Meet Protein
Protein provides 4 calories per gram and helps your tissues grow, bolsters immune function, and aids hormone and enzyme creation. Most people get their protein from chicken and beef, but there are tons of other sources of protein out there! MyPlate recommends eating a variety of protein foods each day. Consider…
#3: Meet Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates provide 4 calories per gram and are your body’s primary fuel source. There are two different types of carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates are also known as simple sugars, while complex carbohydrates are made of strings of simple carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates are not the boogeyman that so many fad diets and “health” gurus want you to fear. In fact, carbohydrates are vital to a healthful eating pattern. Some are just more healthful than others. Steer clear of high-carbohydrate foods that are also loaded with empty calories like cupcakes, candy, and refined grain foods. Instead, stock up on whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
#4: Meet Fat
Fats provide 9 calories per gram and help keep your skin and hair healthy, as well as insulating your organs. Fats also help regulate body temperature and healthy cell function. Like with carbohydrates, there are different types of fats.
Saturated fats raise your total blood cholesterol and your LDL (a.k.a. bad) cholesterol. They endanger your heart and your overall health. Trans fats raise your LDL cholesterol and lower your HDL (a.k.a. good) cholesterol. They also increase your risk of type II diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. Unsaturated fats are good for you when consumed in moderation. Monounsaturated fats improve cholesterol levels, insulin regulation, and blood sugar control, while polyunsaturated fats decrease your risk of heart disease and diabetes.
#5: Micronutrient Spotlight: Vitamins
Vitamins play myriad roles in your body. Some bolster immune function while others help your blood clot the way it should, and still others boost nerve health. There are 13 different vitamins out there, including…
- Pantothenic Acid
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin B6
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin E
- Vitamin K
#6: Key Vitamin: Folate
Folate is a B vitamin, and the man-made form of it is called folic acid. You can find folate in beans and peas, dark green leafy vegetables, and oranges and orange juice. Folic acid, on the other hand, has been added to a bunch of fortified grain foods.
#7: Micronutrient Spotlight: Minerals
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, “There are two kinds of minerals: macrominerals and trace minerals. You need larger amounts of macrominerals. They include calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, sodium, potassium, chloride and sulfur. You only need small amounts of trace minerals. They include iron, manganese, copper, iodine, zinc, cobalt, fluoride and selenium.”
Minerals carry out a variety of roles in your body, doing everything from helping create hormones and enzymes to boosting the health of your brain.
#8: Key Mineral: Calcium
Calcium is a mineral that is vital to good health. You can find it in most dairy products, especially milk and yogurt. Dairy foods like butter and sour cream don’t have enough calcium to be considered good sources of this nutrient, while other foods (like cereal) don’t have any calcium at first, but are then fortified with this important mineral.
#9: How Many Nutrients Do I Need in a Day?
The answer to that question varies from person to person and nutrient to nutrient. In fact, that’s where percent daily values come in. If you check the Nutrition Facts panels of the food you buy, you will see a percent daily value listed by the nutrients. That’s roughly how much of your daily nutrient needs that food contains, broken up by category.
To get a personalized nutrient recommendation, talk with a registered dietitian nutritionist and consider sites like this one.
#10: How Can I Get Enough Nutrients Each Day?
Eating a variety of nutrient-dense foods that are low in empty calories is a great way to meet your nutrient needs each day. Follow MyPlate and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans for delicious and nutritious ways to improve your eating pattern.
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We’re continuing our Nutrition 101 Mini Series with everything you need to know about CARBOHYDRATES! March is National Nutrition Month and I’m excited to help you discern fact from fiction when it comes to nutrition basics.
In case you missed Part 1 last week where we discussed what you need to know about protein, .
Today we’ll answer What really are carbohydrates? Should they be demonized the way they often are portrayed in the media? How many grams of carbs do you need per day? You’ll find all of your answers below…
If you’re confused when it comes to carbohydrates, you’re soooo not alone!
They are one of the most confusing food groups, which is why I’m sharing everything you need to know about carbohydrates today!
Carbs stir up a lot of “controversy” because they’re often demonized in the media. From J.Lo’s 10 day “no carb challenge” to raving fans of the keto diet (a very high fat, low carb plan), it’s easy to think that we should shun all carbohydrates.
In reality, when many people (J.Lo included!) say “no carb” they don’t really mean it.
Many foods that you may not expect contain carbohydrates. Sure, you may know that foods like grains, bread, and pasta are largely carbs, but did you know that fruit, vegetables, dairy, bean and legumes are carbs too?
So let’s break it down…
What are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are one of three major macronutrients (protein and fat being the other two). As a family, carbohydrates include simple sugars (like glucose, fructose, and galactose), but also more complex molecules like starches and cellulose (plant fibers). On the most basic level, carbohydrates are broken down in your body to glucose (sugar), which is used for energy in your cells.
What do carbohydrates do in your body?
The primary role of carbohydrates in your body is energy production. Carbohydrates provide 4 calories of energy per gram of carbohydrate, which is the same amount of energy as one gram of protein. However, in your body, carbs and protein are used differently (brush up on protein here).
Whether you eat a potato, a slice of bread, beans, or ice cream, any source of carbohydrates you eat is broken down to glucose (sugar). Your blood then transports this sugar to cells throughout your body. Your cells “eat” this sugar and use it for energy. This is especially important for your brain and red blood cells because they use glucose as their primary source of fuel.
Upon digestion and absorption of carbohydrates, some glucose is stored in your liver and muscles as “glycogen.” However, your body can only store so much glycogen. Once your glycogen stores are full, your body will convert excess carbohydrates to fat.
On their own, carbohydrates will not make you fat!!! I repeat, most healthy individuals need a variety of carbohydrates to stay energized, satisfied, and full. But, if you eat more carbohydrates than what your body needs or can store, it will be converted to fat.
How much carbs do you need?
Unlike protein and fat, there is no Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) for carbohydrates. (There is a Recommended Daily Allowance, or the recommended amount suggested for healthy individuals to maintain “good health.”) Like most nutrients, your needs vary with body size, shape, activity, and health goals.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest that 45-65% of your calories come from carbohydrates, but this is an average. However, studies show that both high and low carbohydrate consumption is associated with increased mortality. Therefore, sticking in this mid range is a good idea for most individuals.
Like most nutrients, I don’t think you need to count grams of carbohydrates for a well-rounded and healthy diet. Instead, balance your plate so 1/2 of your plate is non-starchy vegetables and another 1/4 of your plate is complex, starchy and high fiber, carbohydrates. What types of foods should you include? Keep reading and learn more about the balanced plate method here.
Where can you find carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are found in a wide variety of foods… some foods you may not even think have carbohydrates!
- Table sugar
- Bread and grains, like wheat, barley, oats, farro, and more
- Dairy products like milk, yogurt, and cheese
- Beans, lentils, and legumes
- Starchy vegetables, like potatoes, corn, and peas
- Non-starchy vegetables, such as greens, tomatoes, carrots, peppers, and more
What’s the difference between simple and complex carbohydrates?
When it comes to your health, not all carbohydrates are created equally. It’s easiest to separate carbohydrates into two groups: simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates.
Simple carbohydrates are those that can be broken down quickly for energy, quickly providing your cells with energy. These almost immediately raise your blood sugar levels.
- Sugar and candy
- Refined (“white”) grains
On the other hand, complex carbohydrates are harder for your body to breakdown (they’re typically bigger molecules), raising your blood sugar slower than simple carbs.
Complex carbs include:
- Whole grains
While this classification system makes it easy to divide carbs into two groups, keep in mind that many foods don’t belong to a singular food group. Meaning, many foods contain a variety of food groups, and even sub-categories within food groups. For example, last week I mentioned beans as a plant-based source of protein, but beans also contain starch and fiber.
What is fiber?
Fiber is a type of non-digestible complex carbohydrate found in foods including whole grains, vegetables, and fruit. That’s right, fiber cannot be digested in your intestines, which is why it’s commonly associated with bowel movements (or often referred to as “roughage”). Fiber helps maintain a healthy gut and immune system, undergoing fermentation by bacteria in your intestines.
Even more, there are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble fiber.
Soluble fiber absorbs water, turning to a gel-like consistency in your intestines. This gel-like quality is what helps:
- Control your blood sugar, avoiding any spikes
- Lower cholesterol (by absorbing excess cholesterol in your blood)
Oats, beans, apples and the flesh of fruit are well-known sources of soluble fiber.
Insoluble fiber is the “bulk” or “roughage” part of fiber I’m referring to. It helps:
- Keep you regular in the bathroom (see…roughage!) and prevent constipation
Whole grains, vegetables, the skin of fruits, and more are types of insoluble fiber.
Both types of fiber help:
- Slow digestion, keeping you full for an extended period of time
- Reduce risk of chronic diseases
- Support good gut health
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Support your immune system
- And more!
So where can you find fiber?
- Non-starchy vegetables
- Whole grains, like whole wheat bread or pasta, or farro, bulgur and other whole grains
- High fiber starchy vegetables, like potatoes, sweet potatoes, peas, and corn
- Nuts and seeds
What are the health benefits of carbohydrates?
Aside from energy production, carbohydrates have many health benefits, including:
- Regulating blood sugar
- Lowering cholesterol levels
- Maintaining gut health
- Reducing sugar cravings
- Improving mood
- Bettering sleep quality
- Supporting a healthy weight
If carbohydrates are so healthy, why do so many people follow low-carb diet plans to lose weight?
Like I said earlier, carbs won’t make you fat! However, it’s easy for people to go on popular “no carb” or “low carb” plans because it’s very black and white. (Let’s call these people carb cutters.) Carb cutters have to follow 1 rule: no carbs. To most people, no/low carb means no bread, pasta, or grains. Most carb cutters usually still eat vegetables and some fruit. Instead of taking the time to learn about a balanced and sustainable way of eating, carb cutters are looking for a quick fix.
Initially, results are great because 1) most Americans have a carb-heavy diet and carb cutters eliminate a large chunk of what they eat, and 2) water weight. Carbs are stored with water. Low carb plans help you flush out the water quickly because you’re depleting your carb stores.
Even more, most “low carb” plans often eliminate indulgences, like sweets and some types of alcohol.
Before you think “oh this sounds good…” I want you to check yourself. Can you eliminate these foods for the long-term?
Eliminating (or drastically reducing) carbohydrates for weight loss purposes is not a healthy or sustainable way to eat for most individuals. Could you imagine never eating a slice of birthday cake again? Or never having warm freshly baked bread? I definitely cannot!
When we restrict an entire food group, we can get into trouble. Eventually, willpower will break and that’s when it’s easy to overdo it.
Instead of going “low carb” to better your health, focus on more of a balance. Include more nutritious types of carbohydrates (ie: those higher in fiber and made from whole, less processed foods) more often than others. If you want to have more energy and feel better, skip the bag of potato chips and enjoy a baked potato. Or skip your co-workers candy jar and add some whole grains to your lunch. By eating more balanced meals, you will better be able to control your cravings later in the day. Cutting carbs will only make you want it more later (you know, you want what you can’t have)!
If you’re used to avoiding starchy carbohydrates, like grains, try adding in some high fiber carbohydrates and see how you feel. You may notice your mood is brighter, your bathroom habits are more regular, and you have more energy throughout the day!
Banana Bread Overnight Oats
Oats are a full of soluble fiber, making them a great choice for breakfast!
Black Bean Brownies
Black beans contain fiber and starch, plus plant-based protein and vitamins and minerals.
Spinach, Apple, and Lentil Salad
Vegetables, like spinach, fruit (apples), and lentils all contain high fiber carbohydrates.
Questions? Comments? Did you enjoy learning everything you need to know about carbohydrates? I’d love to hear from you!
Stay tuned for Part 3 in this Nutrition 101 Mini Series, all about FATS!
Catch up with the Nutrition 101 Mini Series
Part 1: What You Need to Know About PROTEIN
Nutrition: Tips for Improving Your Health
Good nutrition is one of the keys to a healthy life. You can improve your health by keeping a balanced diet. You should eat foods that contain vitamins and minerals. This includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy, and a source of protein.
Ask yourself the following questions. If you answer yes to any of them, talk to your doctor about your health. You may need to improve your eating habits for better nutrition.
- Do you have a health problem or risk factor, such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol?
- Did your doctor tell you that you can improve your condition with better nutrition?
- Do diabetes, cancer, heart disease, or osteoporosis run in your family?
- Are you overweight?
- Do you have questions about what foods you should eat or whether you should take vitamins?
- Do you think that you would benefit from seeing a registered dietitian or someone who specializes in nutrition counseling?
Path to improved health
It can be hard to change your eating habits. It helps if you focus on small changes. Making changes to your diet may also be beneficial if you have diseases that can be made worse by things you are eating or drinking. Symptoms from conditions such as kidney disease, lactose intolerance, and celiac disease can all benefit from changes in diet. Below are suggestions to improve your health. Be sure to stay in touch with your doctor so they know how you are doing.
- Find the strong and weak points in your current diet. Do you eat 4-5 cups of fruits and vegetables every day? Do you get enough calcium? Do you eat whole grain, high-fiber foods? If so, you’re on the right track! Keep it up. If not, add more of these foods to your daily diet.
- Keep track of your food intake by writing down what you eat and drink every day. This record will help you assess your diet. You’ll see if you need to eat more or less from certain food groups.
- Think about asking for help from a dietitian. They can help you follow a special diet, especially if you have a health issue.
Almost everyone can benefit from cutting back on unhealthy fat. If you currently eat a lot of fat, commit to cutting back and changing your habits. Unhealthy fats include things such as: dark chicken meat; poultry skin; fatty cuts of pork, beef, and lamb; and high-fat dairy foods (whole milk, butter, cheeses). Ways to cut back on unhealthy fats include:
- Rather than frying meat, bake, grill, or broil it. Take off the skin before cooking chicken or turkey. Try eating fish at least once a week.
- Reduce any extra fat. This includes butter on bread, sour cream on baked potatoes, and salad dressings. Use low-fat or nonfat versions of these foods.
- Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables with your meals and as snacks.
- Read the nutrition labels on foods before you buy them. If you need help with the labels, ask your doctor or dietitian.
- When you eat out, be aware of hidden fats and larger portion sizes.
- Staying hydrated is important for good health. Drink zero- or low-calorie beverages, such as water or tea. Sweetened drinks add lots of sugar and calories to your diet. This includes fruit juice, soda, sports and energy drinks, sweetened or flavored milk, and sweetened iced tea.
Things to consider
Balanced nutrition and regular exercise are good for your health. These habits can help you lose or maintain weight. Try to set realistic goals. They could be making some of the small diet changes listed above or walking daily.
Doctors and dietitians suggest making healthy eating habits a part of daily life rather than following fad diets. Nutrition tips and diets from different sources can be misleading. Keep in mind the advice below, and always check with your doctor first.
- Secret diets aren’t the answer. Fad or short-term diets may promise to help you lose weight fast. However, they are hard to keep up with and could be unhealthy.
- Good nutrition doesn’t come in a pill. Try eating a variety of foods instead. Your body benefits most from healthy whole foods. Only take vitamins that your doctor prescribes.
- Diet programs or products can confuse you with their claims. Most people in these ads get paid for their endorsements. They don’t talk about side effects, problems, or regained weight.
Questions to ask your doctor
- How many servings should I eat from each food group?
- If I’m on a strict diet, such as vegetarian or vegan, how can I improve my health?
- Are there certain eating habits I should follow for my health condition?
American Academy of Family Physicians, Nutrition: How to Make Healthier Food Choices
U.S. Department of Agriculture, ChooseMyPlate
Using Harvard’s Healthy Eating Plate as a guide, we recommend eating mostly vegetables, fruit, and whole grains, healthy fats, and healthy proteins. We suggest drinking water instead of sugary beverages, and we also address common dietary concerns such as salt and sodium, vitamins, and alcohol. It’s also important to stay active and maintain a healthy weight.
The main message: Focus on diet quality
- The type of carbohydrate in the diet is more important than the amount of carbohydrate in the diet, because some sources of carbohydrate—like vegetables (other than potatoes), fruits, whole grains, and beans—are healthier than others.
- The Healthy Eating Plate also advises consumers to avoid sugary beverages, a major source of calories—usually with little nutritional value—in the American diet.
- The Healthy Eating Plate encourages consumers to use healthy oils, and it does not set a maximum on the percentage of calories people should get each day from healthy sources of fat. In this way, the Healthy Eating Plate recommends the opposite of the low-fat message promoted for decades by the USDA.
The Healthy Eating Plate summarizes the best evidence-based dietary information available today. As nutrition researchers are continually discovering valuable information, The Healthy Eating Plate will be updated to reflect new findings.
Want to learn more? Use the Healthy Eating Plate & Healthy Eating Pyramid, both created by the Department of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, as your guides for choosing a healthy diet and creating healthy meals. To get started, here are 10 tips for healthy eating!
The contents of this website are for educational purposes and are not intended to offer personal medical advice. You should seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The Nutrition Source does not recommend or endorse any products.
The following is a quick guide to reading the Nutrition Facts label.
Step 1: Start with the Serving Size
- Look here for both the serving size (the amount people typically eat at one time) and the number of servings in the package.
- Compare your portion size (the amount you actually eat) to the serving size listed on the panel. The Nutrition Facts applies to the serving size, so if the serving size is one cup and you eat two cups, you are getting twice the calories, fat and other nutrients than what is listed on the label.
Step 2: Check Out the Total Calories
- Find out how many calories are in a single serving.
Step 3: Let the Percent Daily Values Be a Guide
- Use percent Daily Values (DV) to help evaluate how a particular food fits into your daily meal plan. Percent DV are for the entire day, not just one meal or snack. Daily Values are average levels of nutrients for a person eating 2,000 calories a day. A food item with a 5 percent DV of fat provides 5 percent of the total fat that a person consuming 2,000 calories a day should eat.
- You may need more or less than 2,000 calories per day. For some nutrients you may need more or less than 100 percent DV.
- Low is 5 percent or less. Aim low in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol and sodium.
- High is 20 percent or more. Aim high in vitamins, minerals and fiber.
Step 4: Check Out the Nutrition Terms
- Low calorie: 40 calories or less per serving.
- Low cholesterol: 20 milligrams or less and 2 grams or less of saturated fat per serving.
- Reduced: At least 25 percent less of the specified nutrient or calories than the usual product.
- Good source of: Provides at least 10 to 19 percent of the Daily Value of a particular vitamin or nutrient per serving.
- Excellent source of: Provides at least 20 percent or more of the Daily Value of a particular vitamin or nutrient per serving.
- Calorie free: Less than five calories per serving.
- Fat free/sugar free: Less than ½ gram of fat or sugar per serving.
- Low sodium: 140 milligrams or less of sodium per serving.
- High in: Provides 20 percent or more of the Daily Value of a specified nutrient per serving.
Step 5: Choose Low in Saturated Fat, Added Sugars and Sodium
- Eating less saturated fat, added sugars and sodium may help reduce your risk for chronic disease.
- Saturated fat and trans fat are linked to an increased risk of heart disease.
- Eating too much added sugar makes it difficult to meet nutrient needs within your calorie requirement.
- High levels of sodium can add up to high blood pressure.
- Remember to aim for low percentage DV of these nutrients.
Step 6: Get Enough Vitamins, Minerals and Fiber
- Eat more fiber, potassium, vitamin D, calcium and iron to maintain good health and help reduce your risk of certain health problems such as osteoporosis and anemia.
- Choose more fruits and vegetables to get more of these nutrients.
- Remember to aim high for percentage DV of these nutrients.
Step 7: Consider the Additional Nutrients
You know about calories, but it also is important to know about the additional nutrients on the Nutrition Facts label.
- Protein: A percentage Daily Value for protein is not required on the label. Eat moderate portions of lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, low-fat milk, yogurt and cheese, plus beans and peas, peanut butter, seeds and soy products.
- Carbohydrates: There are three types of carbohydrates: sugars, starches and fiber. Eat whole-grain breads, cereals, rice and pasta plus fruits and vegetables.
- Sugars: Simple carbohydrates, or sugars, occur naturally in foods such as fruit (fructose) and milk (lactose) or come from refined sources such as table sugar (sucrose) or corn syrup. Added sugars will be included on the Nutrition Facts label in 2020. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends consuming no more than 10 percent of daily calories from added sugars.
Foods with more than one ingredient must have an ingredient list on the label. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. Those in the largest amounts are listed first. This information is particularly helpful to individuals with food sensitivities, those who wish to avoid pork or shellfish, limit added sugars or people who prefer vegetarian eating.
How to Read Food Labels Without Being Tricked
Health claims on packaged food are designed to catch your attention and convince you that the product is healthy.
Here are some of the most common claims — and what they mean:
- Light. Light products are processed to reduce either calories or fat. Some products are simply watered down. Check carefully to see if anything has been added instead — like sugar.
- Multigrain. This sounds very healthy but only means that a product contains more than one type of grain. These are most likely refined grains — unless the product is marked as whole grain.
- Natural. This does not necessarily mean that the product resembles anything natural. It simply indicates that at one point the manufacturer worked with a natural source like apples or rice.
- Organic. This label says very little about whether a product is healthy. For example, organic sugar is still sugar.
- No added sugar. Some products are naturally high in sugar. The fact that they don’t have added sugar doesn’t mean they’re healthy. Unhealthy sugar substitutes may also have been added.
- Low-calorie. Low-calorie products have to have one-third fewer calories than the brand’s original product. Yet, one brand’s low-calorie version may have similar calories as another brand’s original.
- Low-fat. This label usually means that the fat has been reduced at the cost of adding more sugar. Be very careful and read the ingredients list.
- Low-carb. Recently, low-carb diets have been linked to improved health. Still, processed foods that are labeled low-carb are usually still processed junk foods, similar to processed low-fat foods.
- Made with whole grains. The product may contain very little whole grains. Check the ingredients list — if whole grains aren’t in the first three ingredients, the amount is negligible.
- Fortified or enriched. This means that some nutrients have been added to the product. For example, vitamin D is often added to milk. Yet, just because something is fortified doesn’t make it healthy.
- Gluten-free. Gluten-free doesn’t mean healthy. The product simply doesn’t contain wheat, spelt, rye, or barley. Many gluten-free foods are highly processed and loaded with unhealthy fats and sugar.
- Fruit-flavored. Many processed foods have a name that refers to a natural flavor, such as strawberry yogurt. However, the product may not contain any fruit — only chemicals designed to taste like fruit.
- Zero trans fat. This phrase means “less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving.” Thus, if serving sizes are misleadingly small, the product may still contain trans fat (5).
Despite these cautionary words, many truly healthy foods are organic, whole grain, or natural. Still, just because a label makes certain claims, doesn’t guarantee that it’s healthy.
SUMMARY Many marketing terms are associated with improved health. These are often used to mislead consumers into thinking that unhealthy, processed food is good for them.
Learn How the NEW Nutrition Facts Label Can Help You Improve Your Health
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued new regulations changing the Nutrition Facts labelexternal icon on packaged foods. This is the first major change to the label since it was introduced in 1994. The changes are based on updated science, the most recent dietary recommendationsexternal icon, and input from the public. Using the new label can help you choose foods for a healthy diet. The label will be required on all packaged foods made in the United States and imported from other countries. All packaged food and beverage containers produced by large manufacturers will have the new label by July 2018, and items produced by small manufacturers will have it by July 2019. Some products already have the new label.
What is changing?
Calories & Fat
Larger, darker letters make calories the easiest item to see on the new label. When it comes to health outcomes, the type of fat you eat matters more than the overall amount of fat. For this reason, the label will no longer show the percentage of “calories from fat,” but will show percentages from the unhealthy saturated and trans fats.
In addition to showing total percentage of calories from sugars, labels will show the percentage from added sugars. This will help you choose products that have lower amounts of added sugar for your diet. Less than 10% of your daily calories should be from added sugars.
Did you know that the two main sources of added sugars in the United States are sugar-sweetened beverages and snacks and sweets, which includes candies and desserts? If you tend to eat or drink even one large serving of these foods or beverages per day, then you are likely getting more than the recommended daily limit of added sugar.
Serving sizes on the new label are changing. Twenty years ago, people tended to eat smaller amounts than they do now. The new serving size reflects what people are likely to eat or drink today and not necessarily the portions they should eat.
For example, the serving size of ice cream was ½ cup, but will be ⅔ cup. A 12 ounce or 20 ounce bottle of soda will be labeled as 1 serving, since people are likely to drink either size at one time. This is intended to give people a more realistic view about the number of calories they are consuming.
Dual Column Labels
Some food and drink packages contain more than one serving, but a person may consume the contents of the whole package at one time, for example a pint of ice cream or a bag of chips. Two columns provide calorie and nutrition information for one serving and for the whole package.
Updated Required Nutrients
- Vitamin D and potassium values will now be required on the label.
- Calcium and iron will continue to be required.
- Vitamins A and C will no longer be required but can be included on a voluntary basis.
Slight Decrease in Sodium Allowance
- The daily limit for sodium will decrease slightly from 2,400 mg per day to 2,300 mg per day. This change matches the recommendation in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020.external icon
The new Nutrition Facts label is on some packaging now, but won’t appear on all food and drink packaging until 2019. Until then, here are a few tips (based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020external icon) to help you make healthier choices about what you eat and drink.
- Keep your intake of added sugars to less than 10% (e.g., 200 calories if you consume 2,000 calories in a day) of your total daily calories. Naturally occurring sugars, such as those in fruit or milk, are not added sugars. If “added sugars” is not yet on the label, use the ingredient list to find added sugars such as brown sugar, maple sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, honey, malt syrup, and molasses.
- Read the Nutrition Facts labels on your packaged food and drinks to keep track of sugars, fats, protein, and other nutrients.
- Most of the sodium we consume is in the form of salt. In most people’s diets, the majority of salt comes from processed and restaurant foods. Read labels and choose the product with less sodium.
- Drink plain water instead of sugary beverages to reduce the number of calories and added sugar you consume. Read the Nutrition Facts label on a product to see how many calories are in your drink.
- Limit the serving size of the treats you eat. If you are going to have dessert, keep it small. Take the Portion Distortion Quizexternal icon and learn how food portion sizes have changed in 20 years.
- Be sure you know how many servings are in the food you are eating. For example, if you buy what looks like an individual sized chicken pie, check the Nutrition Facts label before you assume that the whole pie is one serving. It might actually be two servings. If you eat the whole pie, you will eat twice as many calories, twice as much sodium, and other nutrients listed on the label.