Nutrition 101: Good Eating for Good Health

Harvard Health Letters

Choose your fats wisely. Use olive or canola oil to cook whenever possible.  |
Use olive or canola oil whenever possible.

Turn on your TV, open a newspaper, or boot up your computer and you're bound to get some confusing news about diet and health.

Don't let it drive you to distraction -- or to the donut shop. Instead, remember four key facts:

What you eat affects your appearance, your energy and comfort, and -- above all -- your health.

America is on the wrong track

Two out of every three of us are overweight or obese. Diabetes and high blood pressure are on the rise. Heart attacks, strokes, and cancer are distressingly common. Many factors contribute to these complex problems, but the basic reasons are simple: We eat too much, we choose the wrong foods, and we don't get enough exercise.

Scientists know what diet is best for health

The fine print has changed and is likely to change some more, but the key facts are in.

Good eating is not a punishment, but an opportunity

If you know why it's important and what to do, you'll find it enjoyable and satisfying. And if you establish an overall pattern of healthful nutrition, you'll have plenty of wiggle room to savor the treats that matter most to you.


For most people, TLC stands for tender loving care. For doctors, it stands for the Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes diet. Either way, the TLC diet provides sound goals for most Americans.

Total calories: Adjusted in conjunction with exercise to attain or maintain healthy body weight

Total fat: 25-35 percent of total calories

Saturated fat: Less than 7 percent of total calories

Polyunsaturated fat: Up to 10 percent of total calories

Monounsaturated fat: Up to 20 percent of total calories

Cholesterol: Less than 200 mg a day

Carbohydrates: 50-60 percent of total calories

Protein: About 15 percent of total calories

Fiber: The Institute of Medicine recommends 38 grams a day for men before age 50 and 30 grams a day thereafter.


People don't eat nutrients, they eat food. Here are 20 guidelines for healthful and enjoyable eating:

1. Eat a variety of foods; since no single food is perfect, you need a balanced mix of foods to get all the nutrients your body requires.

2. Eat more vegetable products and fewer animal products.

3. Eat more fresh and homemade foods and fewer processed foods. Avoid fast food and junk food. You know what they are.

4. Choose your fats wisely. Cut down on meat, the skin of poultry, whole-fat dairy products, stick margarine, fried foods, processed snack foods, and commercial baked goods made with trans fat. Think about dressings, sauces, and cooking oil. Use olive or canola oil to cook whenever possible, and moisten your bread with olive oil or soft margarine. Get "good fats" from fish and nuts.

5. Choose your carbs wisely. Cut down on simple sugars; remember that sodas, sports energy drinks, and fruit juices are loaded with sugar. Cut down on highly refined products made with white flour. Favor whole-grain, coarsely ground, unrefined products. Don't be fooled by dark-colored bread or by labels that boast of unbleached flour, wheat grain, or multigrain flour. Instead, look for whole grain as the first ingredient, and read the fine print to learn the fiber content of a portion; more is better. Learn to like bran cereal, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds. Consider fiber supplements if you can't get enough from whole foods.

6. Consume at least three cups of non- or low-fat dairy products a day.

7. Eat protein in moderation. Favor fish and skinless poultry. Experiment with soy and beans as a protein source. Aim for 5½ ounces of protein-rich foods a day; count ¼ cup of cooked beans or tofu, ½ ounce of nuts or seeds, or one egg as equivalent to 1 ounce of cooked fish or cooked lean meat or poultry.

8. Restrict your sodium intake to less than 2,300 mg per day, particularly if your blood pressure is borderline or high, by reducing your use of table salt and processed foods such as canned soup and juices, luncheon meats, condiments, frozen dinners, cheese, tomato sauce, and snack foods. Men with blood pressure above 120/80 mm Hg should aim for 1,500 mg a day, as should men above age 50.

9. Eat more potassium-rich foods, such as citrus fruits, bananas, and other fruits and vegetables. Eat more calcium-rich foods such as low-fat dairy products, broccoli, spinach, and tofu (but don't take calcium supplements to boost your daily intake above 1,200 mg).

10. Eat more grain products, especially whole-grain products, aiming for at least 6 ounces a day. Count one cup of dry cereal; ½ cup of cooked cereal, rice, or pasta; or one slice of bread as 1 ounce. Whole grains and brown rice should provide at least half your grains; the more the better.

11. Eat more vegetables, especially deep-green and yellow-orange vegetables. Aim for at least five servings a day. Count one cup of raw leafy greens, ½ cup of cooked or raw vegetables, or ½ cup of vegetable juice as one portion.

12. Eat more fruits, aiming for at least four servings a day. Count one medium-size piece of fruit; ½ cup of fresh, frozen, or canned fruit; or ½ cup of fruit juice as one portion.

13. Eat more fish, aiming for at least two 4-ounce servings each week. Remember to broil, bake, or grill instead of frying.

14. If you choose to eat red meat, try to reduce your intake to two 4-ounce servings per week. Avoid "prime" and other fatty meats, processed meats, and liver. Switch to chicken and turkey, always removing the skin. Be sure your meat and poultry are cooked to 160° or more, but not charred.

15. Eat eggs sparingly; aim for an average of no more than one egg yolk per day, including those used in cooking and baking. Use egg substitutes whenever possible.

16. Include seeds and unsalted nuts in your diet. Nuts have been linked to a reduced risk of cardiac death, but since they are high in calories, moderation is the watchword.

17. Use vegetable oils in moderation, favoring olive and canola oils. Reduce your intake of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, palm oil, and coconut milk.

18. If you choose to use alcohol, drink sparingly. Men should not average more than two drinks per day, women one a day. Count 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, or 1½ ounces of liquor as one drink. Never drive or operate machinery after drinking.

19. Adjust your caloric intake and exercise level to maintain a desirable body weight. If you need to reduce, aim for gradual weight loss by lowering your caloric intake and increasing your exercise level.

20. Avoid fad diets and extreme or unconventional nutritional schemes. If it's too good to be true, it's not true. And remember that these guidelines are intended for healthy people; people with medical problems should consult their doctors to develop individualized nutritional plans.


To create a healthful diet, learn to think about food in a new way.

Most of us were raised in an era when meat and potatoes were the American ideal. Now we know that vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and fish are best.

It seems like a radical change, but it's actually a return to the basic principles that served our ancestors well and that survive today as the traditional Mediterranean diet.

To enjoy a healthful diet, experiment with new recipes and meal plans. Be creative and take chances. Instead of dreading your new diet, have fun with it.

To achieve a healthful diet, change slowly. By the time you are 40, you'll have eaten some 40,000 meals -- and lots of snacks besides. Give yourself time to change, targeting one item a week. Start with breakfast, switching from eggs, bacon, donuts, white toast, or bagels to oatmeal or bran cereal and fruit. If you just can't spare 10 minutes for a sit-down breakfast, grab high-fiber cereal bars instead of donuts or muffins. Don't worry about cutting out coffee or tea unless they make you feel jumpy.

Next, try out salads, low-fat yogurt or low-fat cottage cheese, tuna or peanut butter sandwiches, and fruit for lunch. Snack on unsalted nuts, trail mix, fruit, raw veggies, Rye Krisp, or graham crackers. Try eating a few handfuls of a crunchy fiber cereal such as Kashi, or nibble on a cereal bar.

Finally, work on dinner, experimenting with fish, skinless poultry, beans, brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, and, of course, salads and veggies. Fruit and low-fat frozen desserts are examples of desirable after-dinner treats. And there's nothing wrong with cake, pie, or chocolates as long as the portions are moderate.

To survive a healthful diet, be relaxed about it. You will never find a perfect food. Not everything on your plate needs to have a higher purpose. Take your tastes and preferences into account. If roast beef is your favorite food, it is okay to eat it -- but try to make it a Sunday treat instead of a daily staple. The choices are yours -- and the better your overall diet, the more "wiggle room" you'll have to indulge your passions.

To eat for health, take a long-range view. Don't get down on yourself if you slip up or "cheat" from time to time. Don't worry about every meal, much less every mouthful. Your nutritional peaks and valleys will balance out if your overall dietary pattern is sound.


A good diet is one of the two keys to prevention. The other is exercise. And moderation and balance are the keys to making both work for you. You can get started simply by walking for 30 minutes a day; it sounds like a lot, but you can do it in 8- to 12-minute chunks throughout the course of your day. And remember to climb the stairs and do yard work and household chores the old-fashioned way whenever you can.

In 21st-century America, many of us need a new way to think about diet and exercise. In truth, though, it's not so new after all. Some 2,400 years ago, Hippocrates, the father of medicine, wrote, "If we could give every individual the right amount of nourishment and exercise, not too little and not too much, we would have found the safest way to health." - Harvard Men's Health Watch


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