Health care professionals recommend eating a balanced diet in order to maintain a healthy body weight and provide the nutrients you need to keep your body running smoothly. But what is a healthy diet, exactly, and how can you make sure you are getting all the right foods?
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The basic elements of good nutrition include the appropriate amounts of carbohydrates, proteins, and “good” fats, as well as vitamins and minerals – and, of course, water. These nutrients work together to keep the various functions of the body in proper working order.
Understanding what each of the following nutrients does for your body can help you to plan healthy and nutritious meals for your family.
6-11 servings per day
Carbohydrates are converted to glucose (a sugar), which is the body’s main source of fuel. In order to provide your cells with the energy they need to carry out their normal functions, you should get about 45% to 65% of your calories from carbohydrates.
Carbs come from a wide variety of foods, including fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and legumes (dried peas and beans). Sugary foods such as cookies, candy and soft drinks also provide glucose, but they are low in food quality and should only be eaten occasionally and in small amounts.
2-4 servings per day
Proteins, which are formed from complex chemicals called amino acids, are responsible for building and maintaining many of the tissues of the body, including muscles, skin, and internal organs. Your hormones (the body’s chemical messengers) and immune system are also composed mainly of proteins. Most adults should get between 10% and 35% of their calories from protein.
You can get the protein you need from dried peas and beans, lean meats and poultry, fish, soy products such as tofu, eggs, and dairy products.
Everyone needs some amount of fat in their diet. Fats, which are composed of compounds called fatty acids (or lipids), are necessary for the storage and transport of vitamins. Lipids are an important component of hormones, and they also function as fuel reserves.
Because trans-fats and saturated fats can contribute to a variety of health problems, these should only be used in very small amounts, or not at all; however, adults should get about 20% to 35% of their daily calories from heart-healthy fats. Good fats come from foods such as nuts, olive and canola oils, avocadoes, and fish oil.
These chemicals are responsible for promoting the chemical reactions that are necessary for the cells to function properly. For the most part, your body cannot manufacture vitamins, so it is important that your diet include plenty of vitamin-rich foods.
Vitamins are divided into two categories: water-soluble and fat-soluble. Fat-soluble vitamins are easily stored in the fat cells of the body and are only needed in small amounts. Water-soluble vitamins are not stored in the body and must be replenished through your diet.
By following the above guidelines for carbohydrate, protein and fat consumption, you should get all the vitamins you need to stay healthy. Taking water-soluble vitamin supplements is generally not harmful, but it may also be a waste of time; excess water-soluble vitamins are simply eliminated in the urine.
Minerals are essential to a number of our bodily functions; they help to regulate many metabolic processes and keep the nervous system operating correctly; minerals help to keep blood glucose levels at the proper levels and provide structure to our bone and blood cells.
Like vitamins, minerals are not produced in the body; we have to get them from the foods we eat. Some of the most important minerals include potassium, calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium and copper. Eating a nutritionally balanced diet should ensure that you get the minerals you need.
Last but not least, good nutrition includes drinking plenty of fluids. While water is not a nutrient, it is vital to all of our bodily processes. Some of the important functions performed by water include the following:
Regulation of body temperature;
Transports toxins and waste materials out of the body through the urination, bowel movements, and sweating;
Provides cushion and lubrication for the joints;
Protects the organs and spinal cord.
You need to drink water to replace the fluids lost through normal bodily functions; if you do not stay well-hydrated, your mouth becomes dry and you may feel weak. Severe dehydration can lead to an inability to sweat (which can cause your body to overheat), rapid heart rate, and coma.
Health experts recommend drinking eight 8-oz glasses of water per day to keep your body hydrated. Soft drinks, fruit juices and other sweetened beverages can also keep you hydrated; however, they are generally high in calories and can contribute to unwanted weight gain.
With practice, you can learn to plan meals around these guidelines. Before you shop, plan a weekly menu and make a list of the healthy foods you need to make tasty and nutritious meals for your family.