How to eat a balanced diet and limit calories at the same time.
For an overall snapshot of what a balanced diet looks like, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s “MyPyramid”
recommendations are a pretty good start. They divide foods into recognizable groupings, provide standard serving sizes for
foods within each group, and suggest a range of servings you can aim to eat daily.
The food groups are fairly straightforward: grains and other starches, vegetables, fruits, milk products, meats and beans,
oils and “discretionary calories,” or extras. The whole USDA Pyramid is now meant to be viewed online (www.mypyramid.gov) and
is a highly visual depiction of one way to approach healthful eating.
However, unless you read a lot of fine print in the MyPyramid guidelines, you might not get a clear sense of what it all
means if you’re trying to limit calories too.
Just to keep things simple, let’s think of your calorie goal as a daily budget to work with. And, while you can spend your
budget any way you want, it makes sense to get the best value for your “money” by choosing the widest selection of items—that
is, eating from all the food groups. Let’s take a closer look at the kinds of foods you can choose from each day
and—importantly—how much you might choose from each major group.
Grains and Starchy Vegetables
In this category are foods rich in carbohydrates—the body’s main fuel supply—so we need a fair amount daily (despite what the
low-carb/no-carb gurus say). The key is to keep portions moderate and skew strongly to the better choices. This can be tough
for weight-conscious people: since white pasta, white potatoes and white bread are cheap and abundant, they’re often served
in gargantuan portions.
Within this group, trade up to whole-grain versions—whole-grain bread, pasta, brown rice—as often as you can. Similarly,
choose potatoes with skin on for more fiber and nutrients. You’ll feel fuller longer, since whole grains and fiber take
longer to digest. There is also the significant bonus of getting a healthy boost of vitamins, minerals and fiber as well as
antioxidants and other so-called “phytonutrients.” While the government guidelines urge you to “make half of your grains
whole,” we say aim for making most, if not all, of your grains whole. The variety and eating quality of whole-grain products
have grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, making it easy to relegate the refined, “white” versions to special uses and
Load up your plate! Most of these nonstarchy vegetables are practically calorie-free, but packed with antioxidants, vitamins,
minerals and other key nutrients. There’s probably no better nutrition bargain in the supermarket. You’ve heard the “5 a day”
urging to eat at least five servings of vegetables (and fruits) daily. Most of us don’t even come close, but more is even
better. Studies suggest that a vegetable-rich diet with as many as 10 servings a day may help prevent cancer, heart disease,
stroke and high blood pressure, and it’s also a smart weight-loss strategy. Consider “5 a day” a minimum. Just doing that
will put you well on the way toward eating a lower-calorie diet.
Try to vary your vegetables, making sure you get a variety of colors—vegetable pigments are especially good sources of
phytonutrients. Try dark green kale and broccoli, orange-yellow carrots, deep-red beets. Getting enough isn’t as tall an
order as it sounds, since a serving is a mere 1/2 cup for most vegetables. Have a good handful of baby carrots and you’ve
already had two servings.
Make it a habit to eat a piece of fruit in the morning, and at least a cup of vegetables at lunch and dinner. That’s “5 a
day” without breaking a sweat.
Fruit is a luscious way to satisfy a craving for sweetness and pleasure, without adding a lot of calories. Get in the habit
of eating at least 2 pieces of fresh fruit daily; a small piece (say, a small apple) or 1/2 cup chopped fruit constitutes one
serving. Like vegetables, fruits are great sources of vitamins (especially vitamin C), minerals and phytonutrients, such as
the antioxidants lycopene (in reddish pigments in watermelon) and beta carotene (in yellow-orange fruits like mango and
peaches). And, when you eat them whole rather than drinking their juice, you have the heart-healthy, satiety-enhancing
effects of their fiber too. You can enjoy dried fruit, too, but it packs significantly more calories, so stick with a 1/4-cup
Try not to drink your fruits too often—their calories will go down with you hardly noticing. Enjoy the whole fruit
instead—it’s more satisfying.
Milk and Other Calcium-Rich Foods
No matter how many calories you’re budgeting, you’ll want to include calcium-rich foods like low-fat or fat-free milk,
cottage cheese or yogurt each day, to help keep your bones strong. Soy-based versions of these are fine, too, as long as
they’re fortified with vitamin D and calcium—two bone-building nutrients milk supplies abundantly. Dairy foods are also
decent sources of protein, which helps add staying power to meals. Just be sure to choose low-fat or fat-free versions, or
the calories quickly add up. Likewise, use full-fat cheese sparingly; it’s high in calories and saturated fat. Choose one
with strong flavor so a little goes a long way.
If you don’t eat or can’t tolerate dairy foods or fortified soymilk products, you can get your calcium from nondairy sources
like dark green leafy vegetables and calcium-fortified products like orange juice and cereals—but they lack the protein
benefits of milk and may not contain vitamin D, so you’ll need to get those nutrients elsewhere.
This grouping contains foods rich in protein, including meats, poultry, seafood, eggs, tofu, beans, nuts and legumes. They
supply the amino acids needed to build the tissues of the body—most famously, muscle tissue. Note, too, that a little protein
added to a meal can really make it more satisfying, so if you’re having trouble with between-meal hunger pangs, try to
incorporate a portion of protein into each meal: a tablespoon of chopped almonds on your morning oatmeal, some shredded
chicken breast on your lunch salad, and a cup of bean soup at dinner, for example.
Fat is very energy-dense, so lean protein sources are your best bet to keep calories low. Trim skin from poultry and choose
lean meat cuts like the various types of loin and sirloin. The only exception to the “lean is better” rule is with fatty fish
like salmon, tuna and sardines, because the fat they contain is rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. That’s why the
American Heart Association recommends getting two 3-ounce servings of fish per week—“preferably fatty fish.” Also, try to
include some vegetable sources of protein in your diet regularly, to get a good dose of fiber along with your protein. Beans
and soyfoods like tofu, tempeh and meat substitutes are terrific. Nuts are excellent protein sources, but quite high in
calories, so pay attention to the relatively small size of a single serving: just 2 tablespoons peanut butter, and a small
handful of nuts (14 almonds), for example.
The days of single-minded fat phobia are officially over. We now recognize that olive, canola, sunflower, safflower, corn,
soybean and nut oils are important sources of fat-soluble vitamins, and they help make foods taste delicious, no small
contribution. And, like all fats that are liquid at room temperature, they’re unsaturated fats, which can protect the heart
by helping prevent cholesterol buildup in arteries. Especially heart-healthy are sources rich in so-called “monounsaturated”
fats, including olive, canola and “high-oleic” sunflower or safflower oil, as well as avocados and olives.
Note that fats like butter, lard, shortening and cream don’t fit into this category—these “solid fats” (thus named because
they’re solid at room temperature) contain too much saturated fat to qualify as a daily staple. Instead, they’re counted as
“discretionary” calories to use as occasional luxuries.