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How to follow a healthful diet

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A healthful diet means eating nutrient dense foods, in the right quantities, from all the major food groups.

People often think of “a diet” as a specific weight loss plan, but diet simply refers to the types and amounts of food a person eats.

A healthful diet must include a balance of several food groups, as no single group can provide everything the body needs for good health.

Making healthful food choices reduces a person’s risk of many chronic health conditions, including cardiovascular diseasetype 2 diabetes, and cancer.

There is a wealth of information available, so designing a suitable, healthful diet can feel overwhelming. That said, a few simple changes can make a diet more nutritious and reduce the risk of many medical problems.

What is healthful eating?
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A healthful diet often includes proportionate amounts of foods from each main group.

Having a balanced diet means eating foods from all main food groups in the right quantities. These food groups are:

  • whole grains
  • fruits
  • vegetables
  • protein
  • dairy
  • fats

The following sections discuss healthful choices from these food groups.

Whole grains

Whole grains are products made from the entire grain, which includes the germ and bran. In contrast, refined grains contain only part of the grain.

Whole grain foods have excellent health benefits. A meta-analysis from 2016Trusted Source looked at 45 different studies, concluding that a high intake of whole grains helps protect against many health conditions, with benefits that include the following:

  • a lower risk of heart disease
  • a lower risk of cardiovascular disease
  • a lower total cancer risk
  • reduced all-cause mortality

Whole grain foods are high in fiber and are good sources of B vitamins and trace minerals, including iron, zinc, and magnesium. Grains lose much of their healthful properties if they have gone through a refining process.

Examples of whole grains are:

  • wholemeal bread
  • whole wheat pasta
  • whole grain cereals, such as oatmeal
  • corn

To make sure the grains are whole, look for the word “whole” or “whole grain” as the first ingredient that a manufacturer has listed on the package under nutritional information.

Fruits and vegetables

Fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamins, minerals, and fiber. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), choosing a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables is the best way to get all the vitamins and minerals the body needs.

The AHA recommend filling half of the plate with fruit or vegetables for each meal, making up 4.5 cups of each per day. This quantity can include fresh, frozen, and canned varieties.

For the most health benefits, people can check product labels and avoid canned, frozen, or dried products with high sodium or added sugars.

Juices labeled “100%” are part of this food group, but eating whole fruits or vegetables is better, as they will provide more fiber.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)Trusted Source report that a diet high in fruits and vegetables can help with weight management programs. The CDC also link this type of diet with a lower risk of many conditions, including:

All fruits and vegetables have health benefits, and healthcare professionals recommend that people consume a wide variety. Read about the top healthful fruits and most healthful vegetables here.

Protein

Protein is an important macronutrient that every cell in the body needs. It helps build and repair cells and body tissues, including the skin, hair, muscle, and bone. Protein is also important for blood clotting, immune system responses, hormones, and enzymes.

Many protein-rich foods also contain high levels of minerals, including iron, magnesium, and zinc.

Protein occurs in both animal and plant foods. Animal sources include meat, fish, and eggs. Beans, nuts, and soya are protein options for those following a vegan or vegetarian diet.

A general guideline from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends that people get 50 grams (g) of protein per day on a 2,000 calorie diet. Individual protein needs will vary, however, depending on a person’s activity levels and weight. A healthful diet should include a range of protein foods.

Read more about high protein diets and plant-based sources of protein.

Dairy

Dairy products can be excellent sources of calcium. A calcium-rich diet promotes healthy bones and teeth.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the dairy food group contains:

  • fluid milk products
  • foods made from milk that retain their calcium content, such as yogurt and cheese
  • calcium-fortified soymilk, or soy beverage

Milk-based foods that do not retain calcium, such as cream, cream cheese, and butter, are not part of this food group.

The USDA suggest that people may need 2–3 cups of dairy products per day.

There is some controversy over whether dairy is good or bad for you.

Choose low fat or fat-free versions of dairy products, such as milks and yogurts, to benefit heart health. However, consuming dairy is not necessary to be healthy, as long as people get essential nutrients, such as calcium, from nondairy sources. Dairy alternatives can be part of a healthful diet.

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