This article is about the careful food choices we need to make to have a healthy, balanced diet. It explores the different reasons we eat what we eat; such as our eating habits, traditions, cost, taste and many others. It highlights the importance of selecting foods according to their nutritional value and our body’s needs. The article explains how a healthy diet should be balanced and composed of a variety of foods that supply all the nutrients we need.
Some examples of dietary guidelines from around the world are provided. Also, learners are encouraged to develop their personal guidelines based on their health and dietary needs.
Eating Habits And Healthy Diets
We need to eat to meet our nutritional needs, but people often make their food choices for reasons other than nutrition. The availability of foods and their cost; the taste and appearance of foods; personal food likes and dislikes; convenience; religious and cultural practices and traditions; health and medical conditions; and knowledge about foods and the body’s nutritional requirements, all are reasons why people eat the foods that they eat.
Eating Habits And Traditions
Eating habits and traditions are different for every culture. Some cultures eat their main meal in the morning before the work day; for others the main meal is in the middle of the day. Still other cultures eat their main meal at the end of the day. Some societies eat twice a day; others eat three times a day. In some cultures, families eat together, in others adults eat separately from children, or men eat separately from women.
Many cultures and societies have rules or beliefs about specific foods that are not to be eaten (“food taboos”). Some of these apply to the entire population and some apply only to people in certain conditions. Such as during pregnancy, breastfeeding, infancy or illness.
While many of these practices may contribute to good health, some of them may actually be harmful. Since, they deprive people of needed nutrients. When foods of important nutritional value are avoided or forbidden for cultural reasons or beliefs. These foods need to be replaced by other, more culturally acceptable foods of similar nutrient content.
Food Nutrients To Be Healthy
No single food contains all of the nutrients we need to be healthy. That is why we need to eat a variety of foods in sufficient amounts. A good diet will include many different foods. Preferably consumed over the course of the day. And will be sufficient in quantity and quality to meet an individual’s need for food energy (calories) and other nutrients.
Without adequate variety in the diet and food choices, it is possible to consume the calories we need or more calories than we need. And yet still not meet our body’s needs for all nutrients or for a particular nutrient. We need to choose foods for meals and snacks that are high in nutrients but that meet the body’s need for energy (not too little, not too much).
The goal of a good diet is to meet all our energy and other nutrient needs while keeping within our dietary calorie intake needs. Doing so can help lead to normal growth and development in children, better health for people of all ages and decreased risk of a number of chronic diseases that can be major health problems.
There is no one “ideal” diet that is right for everyone. Nutritional needs are specific to each individual, but everyone needs a diet that is balanced and includes a variety of foods that supply the different kinds and amounts of nutrients they need for good health.
Balance and variety in the diet means ensuring that we get enough, but not too much, of the energy and nutrients we need. It also means that we avoid excessive amounts of any one food or any food component (nutrient). With careful food selection, we can obtain all the nutrients we need, while enjoying a variety of foods, and still maintain a healthy body weight.
Ideally, a balanced meal is achieved at every mealtime or eating occasion. Balance and variety can also be achieved in combination (meals and snacks combined) and over time (different meals in the course of the day or week). For example, a food or nutrient that may be lacking or in excess in one meal can be made up for or balanced in the next meal or snack.
Eating more food (calories) than we need one day, or less than we need, can be balanced by how much or how little we eat the following day. In order to maintain balance and variety, we must understand our nutrient needs and which foods provide them and we should keep this in mind when making our food choices.
A healthy, balanced diet can be based on local eating patterns, using locally available foods and respecting local eating customs. The foods in people’s diets around the world are very different from each other, but all good diets must be composed of a variety of different foods that provide all of the food energy and other nutrients in the amounts needed.
For most people, a good meal will be based on a starchy carbohydrate food, sometimes referred to as “staple” foods. As they form the basis or main portion of the meal, and a variety of other foods (side dishes) that provide the additional protein, vitamins and minerals needed for a good, healthy diet.
Staple foods are usually starchy carbohydrates. Such as rice, pasta, breads, couscous, and other foods made from wheat, rice, millet, rye, barley and oats, cassava, maize (corn) or potatoes. These foods contain energy-rich carbohydrates. And in their unrefined form, also contain B vitamins, fiber, smaller amounts of other vitamins, minerals and even a small amount of protein. The kind of starchy foods eaten should be varied as much as possible.
The other foods eaten with the meal should include a wide variety of different kinds of foods, in appropriate amounts, that meet our food energy and nutrient needs. These should include: generous amounts of vegetables and fruits; good amounts of legumes; smaller amounts of meat, poultry, eggs or fish and milk and milk products, such as cheese and yogurt.
These foods can be prepared in the form of stews, soups, sauces, relishes, toppings or single food servings to accompany the main staple food of the meal. The greater the variety of side dishes served with the staple food, the greater the chance that all the needed nutrients are included in the meal.
Adult Dietary Advice
While individual nutritional and dietary needs vary with age, sex, health status and activity levels, most general dietary advice for adults recommends:
1. Eating Starchy Carbohydrates As The Basis Of Most Meals
The starchy carbohydrates – grains, breads, cereals, potatoes – should provide the body’s main source of energy from food. These foods also provide some protein, some micronutrients and fibre. Whole unrefined grains and foods made from unrefined grains are especially good; they are a source of nutrients such as iron, magnesium, selenium, B vitamins and fibre.
Examples of unrefined grains are: bulgur, millet, oatmeal, quinoa, rolled oats, wholegrain barley, whole rye, whole wheat, and buckwheat. Eating whole grains as a single food (such as brown rice and oatmeal) or as an ingredient in foods may reduce the risk of certain heart diseases.
2. Eating Fruits And Vegetables As Much As Possible Every Day
Fruits and vegetables are a major source of dietary fiber. And essential vitamins and minerals, including folate, magnesium, potassium and vitamins A, C, and K. Including a wide variety of different colors and types of fruits and vegetables is important for providing a variety of the necessary vitamins and minerals in the diet.
Eating adequate amounts of fruits and vegetables may help reduce the risk of certain chronic diseases and may help protect against certain types of cancers. Most vegetables are low in calories and fat.
3. Eating Legumes Regularly
Legumes, such as dried beans, peas and lentils, are a good source of protein and other important nutrients such as iron, zinc, potassium and folate and dietary fiber. Legumes are low in fat.
4. Eating Milk And Milk Products Regularly In Small Amounts
Milk, cheeses, yogurt and other milk products provide protein, fat and many other important nutrients, especially calcium and potassium. People who may need to reduce their fat and calorie intake can select lower-fat varieties which still provide other important nutrients.
5. Eating Meat, Poultry, Eggs And Fish Regularly In Small Amounts
These foods provide protein, fat and other important nutrients, such as iron, the B vitamins and zinc. Eating even small amounts of these foods on a regular basis can help meet the need for protein. Leaner meats or meats with reduced fat can still provide protein and other nutrients, while reducing the amount of fat and calories.
Certain fatty fishes, such as salmon, mackerel, herring, trout, sardines, swordfish and tuna, contain essential fatty acids that help reduce the risk of heart disease and have other health benefits.
6. Choosing Carefully The Types Of Fats And Oils In The Diet And Using Limited Amounts
Fats and oils are high in energy and are important for absorbing vitamins A, D, E and K. Red palm oil is rich in vitamin A. Fats can be an important source of dietary energy for people with inadequate total energy intake. People who need to reduce their energy intake may need to limit the amount of fat in their diet. Because not all fats are the same, it is important to choose carefully the type of fat, as well as the amount, consumed.
Most of the fat in the diet should come from unsaturated fatty acids. Especially oils, seeds, nuts and fatty fish that provide omega-3 fatty acids. The amount of saturated fats in the diet should be limited transfats. And foods containing transfats (partially hydrogenated oils) should be avoided or eaten as little as possible.
7. Limiting Consumption Of Sugar, Sugary Foods And Beverages
These foods provide food energy, but few other nutrients; they often have a high fat content. Because they provide additional calories and few essential nutrients, they should be consumed only when nutrient needs have been met and without going beyond daily calorie needs for maintaining a healthy body weight.
8. Consumption Of Salt
Salt contains sodium, an essential mineral that helps the body perform many important functions, especially regulating the body’s fluid volume. Recent research indicates that the body has mechanisms to ensure sufficient sodium availability for these essential functions.
Consuming high amounts of sodium can contribute to high blood pressure (hypertension), a major risk factor for heart disease, stroke and kidney disease, but too low sodium intake can also have very harmful effects. People who are salt-sensitive or who are at-risk of hypertension should limit the amount of salt they consume. Most people can consume moderate amounts of salt in their food.
9. Limiting Consumption Of Alcohol
Alcohol provides food energy, but does not provide other nutrients. Limiting the amount of alcohol in the diet can help to control the number of calories consumed. Moderate consumption of alcohol may lower the risk of heart disease. But high consumption, over time, can lead to a number of health problems. Alcohol during pregnancy can lead to serious problems in the development of the unborn baby and should be avoided.
10. Maintaining Energy Balance To Keep A Healthy Body Weight
To be in energy balance and maintain a healthy body weight, the calories consumed from foods must be balanced by the calories used in normal body functions, daily activities and physical activity. Using more energy than is taken in from food can lead, over time, to weight loss and, in some cases, to undernourishment.
Taking in more food energy than is used can lead, over time, to weight gain. The best way to maintain a healthy body weight is to balance the amount of calories taken from food with the amount of energy used.
11. Drink Plenty Of Water Every Day
Water is more important to life than any other nutrient and the body needs more water every day than any other nutrient. The body’s water supply needs to be refilled every day.
Snack foods eaten in addition to regular meals have an important place in a good diet and food choices. Snacks are recommended for people with high needs for food energy and nutrients and for people who may not be able to eat enough food at one time to meet their needs, such as small children or people who are ill.
Snacks should consist of nourishing foods that supplement and complement a good diet and should not take the place of foods eaten at meals. People who meet most of their food energy requirements from their main meals may need to be careful in their snacking so that they do not exceed their energy needs.
Food-Based Dietary Guidelines
To help people choose good food choices and diets based on locally available foods, cultural practices and local health concerns, many countries have developed food guides for their populations, called “Food-based dietary guidelines” (FBDG). These food guides vary in degree of detail and in specific recommendations.
Most dietary guidelines and food choices group foods into categories of major nutrient content. And they usually indicate which foods or groups of foods to eat more often or less often. Some guidelines include a recommended number of servings of foods from the different food groups and portion sizes. While others provide only very general recommendations. In this way, these guidelines provide practical dietary suggestions for people to use to help them develop good diets, food choices and eating patterns that meet their health and nutritional needs.
Most food-based dietary guidelines are for the general population. While, some countries have specific guidelines for different groups, such as children, pregnant women, overweight or obese people and the elderly. Many countries also include recommendations on physical activity and food safety in their guidelines.
Analysing Dietary Guidelines
Download the Food-based dietary guidelines fact sheet or check the guidelines here:
Study and compare the guidelines from each of these regions:
- Asia and the Pacific
- Latin America and the Caribbean
- Near East
- North America.
Use the Ask yourself work sheet to analyse the dietary guidelines and to check your understanding of the recommendations for healthy eating.