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Elements of a Healthy Diet - Making the Best Dietary Choices

DK Publishing logoDK Publishing 2/07/2014 DKBooks

Breads, cereals, and grains - The foods in this group are a valuable source of carbohydrates (see Wholesome Grains) and fiber.

Vegetables - A vital source of vitamins, minerals, and fiber, vegetables should form a major part of your diet (see Vegetables for Health).

Essential element - Although water has little nutritional content, it provides the perfect means of satisfying the body’s vital need for fluid, since it contains no sugar, caffeine, or other unhealthy additives.

Milk and dairy products - These are an important source of protein, vitamins, and minerals, especially calcium (see The Benefits of Dairy).

Protein sources - This group includes animal products, such as meat, poultry, and fish, and plant proteins, such as legumes (see Healthy Protein Sources).

Fruits - Packed with essential nutrients, fruits provide a good source of carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, and phytochemicals.

Choosing wisely - Understanding the link between good nutrition and optimum health will help you to make the best choices from the vast array of available foods.

Making the Best Dietary Choices

Choose your foods carefully to achieve optimum health.

In the first two chapters, we looked at why our bodies need food and how it is digested and used, and discussed the different types of nutrients that are needed in the diet—carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals.

Now we turn to the foods that supply these essential nutrients and the food groups from which they should be selected.

The main food groups

In the 1980s, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) began to develop dietary guidelines aimed at encouraging the consumption of a nutritionally balanced diet and simplifying meal planning.

The official guidelines classify foods into six groups, of which five are highlighted as the “Basic Five.” These five groups, which are recommended to form the basis of a healthy diet, include breads, cereals, and other grains ; vegetables; fruits; milk and dairy products; and poultry, fish, meat, eggs, legumes, nuts, and seeds .

The sixth group includes fats, sweets, and alcohol: all of these items provide additional calories but few useful nutrients and are recommended to be eaten sparingly because of their harmful effects on health .

The need for water

Fluids are also a vital element of every diet: a man’s body is about 60 percent water and a woman’s about 50 percent, and every cell needs water to function properly. To remain healthy, you need to drink at least six to eight large glasses of fluids, preferably water, every day, and more when it is hot or when you are perspiring such as during exercise .

Beneficial compounds

In recent years, scientists have extended their understanding of the link between nutrition and health: it is now clear that eating particular foods contributes to good health and prevents disease. Thousands of potentially beneficial compounds in foods have now been identified, including vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber, and phytochemicals. The list of foods that may help protect your health continues to grow—from many different vegetables and fruits to red wine, flaxseeds, and oily fish.

Making good choices

Any food can fit into a healthy way of eating. The key is to balance your choices over time so that your overall diet is sound. You can continue to eat your favorite foods, even if they are high in fat, salt, or sugars, but try to reduce your portion sizes.

Making good choices in your diet starts with educating yourself on sound nutritional guidelines and incorporating that knowledge into your eating habits. For example, by eating a variety of nutrient-rich foods, enjoying plenty of whole grains, vegetables, and fruits, and eating regular meals with moderate portions, you can manage your weight and stay healthy.

The basic food groups

Each of the food groups shown here provides some of the nutrients you need. No group is more important than another: you need them all for good health.

Foods from grains, such as bread, are necessary for fiber, vitamins, minerals, and complex carbohydrates, which are an important source of energy for the body. Vegetables and fruits are needed for vitamins and minerals. Naturally low in fat, they are also a source of fiber. Dairy products and protein sources provide protein and a range of important vitamins and minerals. Milk and dairy products also provide calcium.

Fats, oils, and sweet foods contain calories and little else of nutritional value, so eat them sparingly.


Pure water is calorie-free, and the best drink to quench thirst. Your body cannot store water, so you must drink plenty of it to replenish losses and maintain healthy function of all your body cells. It is the most abundant substance in the body and is necessary for survival. In many areas of North America, tap water is perfectly healthy, but if you suspect that your water is contaminated, have it tested and consider investing in a good filter to ensure that it is safe.

Bottled water is convenient to carry, making it easier for you to drink your six to eight glasses a day. Sparkling, still, and flavored water are all excellent, but watch out for “enhanced” water, which can contain unnecessary calories. Check the labels on bottled water if you are controlling your sodium intake, as most bottled water does contain sodium.

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