By Dr. Jean Harvey, Ph.D., R.D., Joyce Hendley, M.S., EatingWell Editors, The EatingWell Diet (2007)
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.
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 occasions.
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 serving.
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.
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.