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Want to Eat Right? Here’s Where You Can Start

Every five years the U.S. Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS) departments put together the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. It can help you make smart choices about what you and your family eat.

The Guidelines encourage you to follow a healthy eating pattern throughout your life, and to remember that all your food and beverage choices matter. To help you find effective ways you can incorporate the Guidelines into your daily life, consider choosing a trained nutrition health coach. Registered dietitians are the nutrition experts.

OK, What the Heck Should I Be Eating?

As you plan your diet, focus on variety, nutrient density and controlling portion size. To get the nutrients you need within your suggested calorie limits, choose a variety of nutrient-dense foods across and within all food groups in recommended amounts.

Here are general guidelines for what you should eat as part of a healthy diet.

Calorie Guidelines

Since we’re all different, calorie needs vary from person to person. If you’re physically active, you can consume more calories than if you’re sedentary.

Because of body differences, males can generally consume more calories than women (sorry ladies). Women who are moderately active and between ages 26 and 51 should aim for 1,400 to 2,000 calories per day.

The Guidelines say moderately active men in the same 26 to 51 age range should aim for 2,400 to 2,600 calories. I recommend aiming for 1,800 to 2,400 calories.

Generally, for older and younger folks, the body’s calorie needs are less each day.

Want to know how may calories you should aim for? Visit for additional guidance.

Tame Your Sweet Tooth

Americans love sugar! The average American consumes 22 to 30 teaspoons of added sugars each day (equal to 330 to 450 calories). The guidelines recommend that less than 10 percent of our daily calories should come from added sugars. If your recommended calorie limit is 2,000 per day, that’s about 200 calories a day from added sugars, or the amount in one 16-ounce sugary drink.

The guidelines separate added sugars from those we get naturally such as from fruit and milk. Too many added sugars are a quintuple threat: They:

  • Lack nutritional value.
  • Displace healthy foods/beverages.
  • Push calories overboard.
  • Increase our risk for heart disease, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes because they affect lipids, blood pressure and blood glucose levels.
  • Hijack the brain by increasing neurotransmitters that can lead to intense cravings.

A good place to start curbing sweets is to limit sugary beverages such as regular soda, sweetened tea and sports/energy drinks along with foods high in added sugars, such as baked goods and desserts.

Cut Your Salt

A healthy diet includes no more than a teaspoon of salt, or 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day. Many of us take in 3,400 milligrams of sodium. Too much salt boosts our risk of heart attack and stroke because it raises blood pressure. If you have high blood pressure or pre-hypertension, consuming less salt/sodium helps reduce your risk of getting a heart attack or stroke.

Reduce Your Saturated Fats

The guidelines also recommend you consume less than 10 percent of your calories from saturated fats. To reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, replace saturated fats with unsaturated fats like olive oil, nuts, nut butters, seeds, olives and avocados. Lean meats in sensible portions are OK to include in a healthy diet.

In general, teen boys and adult men should reduce their red meat intake and choose leaner sources of protein like poultry and fish. They should also eat more non-starchy vegetables. Yep, green is good. Saturated fats mainly come from animal foods such as fatty beef, lamb, pork, poultry with skin, butter, cheese and dairy products made with whole or reduced-fat milk.

What Your Diet Should Include Each Day

For those with a 2,000-calorie daily limit, the recommendation for your daily eating pattern should include these examples:

Vegetables — about 2 ½ cups per day. Includes dark green, red and orange, legumes (beans and peas) and starchy veggies.
Fruits — 2 cups per day — especially whole fruits.
Grains —6 oz. per day — at least half should be whole grains.
Dairy — 3 cups per day — Fat-free or low-fat dairy, including milk, yogurt, cheese and/or fortified soy beverages.
Protein foods — 5 ½ oz. per day — including fish/seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, legumes (beans and peas), nuts, seeds and soy products.
Oils — 2 tablespoons per day — canola, corn, olive, peanut, safflower, soybean and sunflower oils.

To learn more about changes you can make to choose healthy foods, check the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

If it works better for you, you can work up to the recommendations. Whatever you do to start shifting to healthier food and beverage choices will be good for you and your family.

If you have questions about your diet, see a registered dietitian or your health care professional. They can help you choose healthy eating patterns for life!

Meet the Author

Heather Klug, MEd RD is a registered dietitian and cardiac educator at the Karen Yontz Women's Cardiac Awareness Center inside Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center in Milwaukee, WI.

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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