A Healthy Diet—What Does that Mean?

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healthy diet 1

Photo courtesy of Katie Smith @kati3j3an

In January, new dietary guidelines were released by the federal Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services. The guidelines are a departure from the old 1960’s to 2000’s food pyramid and encourage Americans to pay attention to food choices and overall eating patterns to establish a healthy diet.

Updated every five years, the dietary guidelines released this year form a backbone of advice for Americans of all ages. Developed by committee, the guidelines address current health challenges including: a rise in obesity; Type 2 diabetes; high blood pressure; and heart disease. Could it be the old food pyramids have actually contributed to these health challenges?

Sign of the times: From food pyramid to plate

A dinner plate has replaced the image of the food pyramid. The approachable image of a plate depicts food groups to include; it also emphasizes individual responsibility for what you put on your plate—and in your body—each day.

What do the guidelines say?

Without strictly dictating what should or should not be eaten, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Sylvia Burwell notes, “Protecting the health of the American public includes empowering them with the tools they need to make healthy choices in their daily lives.”

This new emphasis on making shifts in eating choices shines through in guidelines that include:

Eat smart

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Photo courtesy of Adam Jaime @arobj

Making healthy food choices is your best strategy to avoid chronic diet-related diseases. You are what you eat, and everything you eat and drink becomes part of you or fuel for your body to function. Healthy eating patterns are more important than a choice made on any one day. So make smart choices for you—and help others around you make good eating decisions, too.

A healthy eating pattern 

Replacing the outdated food pyramid, the new guidelines encourage foods on your plate from all the subgroups including vegetables, fruits, grains (whole grains especially), fat-free, or low-fat dairy, oils, and different types of protein foods including beans, peas, nuts, seeds, seafood, lean meat, poultry and eggs.

Watch the limits 

The new dietary guidelines suggest the following limits:

  • Less than 10 percent of total calories per day from added sugars (in 1822 people only consumed 8 grams of sugar per day (2 teaspoons) equal to 30 calories a day)
  • Less than 10 percent of total daily calories from saturated fats
  • Less than 2300 milligrams per day of sodium/salt (i.e., slightly less than ½ teaspoon of salt per day)
  • Adults should consume alcohol in moderation, which means up to one drink per day for women, and two drinks per day for men
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Photo courtesy of Xochi Romero @xromero

Variety is the spice of life

Mix it up and choose healthy foods that meet recommendations across the food groups. Vegetables are more than green—go for dark green, red, or orange. Explore whole pasta and beans and change up your oils by trying olive, coconut, peanut, safflower, or sunflower oils.

Sugars and salt are out, eggs and coffee are in

While sugar and salt are as unpopular as ever among health advocates, the egg has made a comeback. Nutrient-rich eggs are high in all the good stuff and did not turn out to be as dangerous as we were told for years. And while you eat your scrambled egg, a couple of cups of coffee each day are not a problem, either. For a breakfast and latte-loving generation, these are good times.

“Food” means “drinks” too

Make beverage choices that make health sense. Soda drinks are not healthy. Plain or bubbly water with a slice of lemon or lime is a great way to quench thirst without the calories or additives.

Not all Sugars are made equal

Raw cane sugars, while more flavorful, contain vital nutrients which aid in our body’s digestion of the sugar. Because of the refining process, processed sugars are often as dense as raw sugars (twice as sweet and two times the calories)…this is because the minerals are stripped out of the cane juice and what is left is pure, nutrient-free sugar. Interestingly, 8 grams of unprocessed sugar in the year 1822 is not the same 8 grams of processed sugar consumed today. Once exposed, most people find that they enjoy more the distinctive taste of raw sugars better than their processed and concentrated cousins.


The new dietary guidelines go some distance to encouraging healthy eating and physical activity at all ages. We have come a long way from the food pyramid. By focusing on healthy eating patterns, the guidelines leave room for individual choices while gently nudging each generation toward its best weight.

Olympian Michael Phelps, once well-known for his 12,000 calorie daily diet, now enjoys grilled chicken and he’s sticking to the healthy calories he needs. Instead of huge meals, Mr. Phelps notes, “I don’t eat many calories a day. I just really eat what I need.” Calorie levels need to match your exercise levels; parents need to be cautious that their active and athletic adolescent children and teenagers are eating enough calories…parents just need to make sure they are eating healthy choice calories. Balanced nutrition is why whole eggs are good for you…they have a healthy blend of proteins and fats.

From food pyramid to plate—make healthy choices. Eat to enjoy your life and maintain the weight—and nutrients—that are right for you.

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