Every five years, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS) jointly update and publish a set of guidelines designed to help Americans improve their health by making wise dietary decisions. Here are the highlights of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010:
Maintain a calorie balance over time to achieve and sustain a healthy weight. Watch the number of calories you take in -- and increase the number of calories burned by increasing physical activity. And remember, weight loss isn't a race to see how fast you can lose it -- the best results occur when you make diet and exercise changes that you can follow for a lifetime.
What's the best way to reduce calories? According to the USDA, you should limit your intake of added sugars and high-fat (especially solid fat) foods and watch your portion sizes. Choose nutrient-dense foods that are rich in essential nutrients and usually low in calories. Eating a variety of nutrient-dense foods makes losing and maintaining weight much easier.
Nutrient-dense foods include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, seafood, nuts, seeds and legumes. Decrease the amount of junk food (calorie-dense, but nutrient poor) you eat. And don't forget about beverages - sweetened sodas, sugary high-fat coffee and ice cream drinks pack in a lot of calories without adding much nutrition. Choose water, low-sodium vegetable juice, 100-percent fruit juice, low or non-fat milk or, if you like, zero-calorie soft drinks.
Eat Less of These Foods
This is where you start - what dietary components do you need to reduce or eliminate from your diet? These are the trouble makers that can increase your risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity.
Sodium. African Americans, people of any race over the age of 51 or anyone who has high blood pressure, diabetes, or kidney disease should reduce their sodium intake to 1,500 milligrams (mg) per day. Everyone else should strive to stay below 2,300 mg per day.
Saturated fat. Less than 10 percent of your daily fat calories should come from saturated fat (fatty meats, coconut and tropical oils). Replace saturated fats with polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats.
Cholesterol. Animal-based foods contain cholesterol, so you should consume less than 300 mg per day -- choose plant-based foods.
Trans-fats. You should avoid synthetic trans-fats whenever possible by limiting your consumption of partially hydrogenated oils (look at those food labels). Fully hydrogenated oils may be better, but they're not commonly found in processed foods.
Refined grains. Foods made from 100-percent whole grains contain nutrients and fiber lost in the refining process. Reduce the amount of white bread and pasta you eat and especially watch out for pastries and treats made with refined flour, sugar and solid fats (lard and shortening).
Added Sugars. Extra sugar only adds calories but no other nutrients. Avoid 'added sugars' and curb your sweet-tooth with these tips from About.com Nutrition readers.
Alcohol only in moderation. One drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. And of course, this is only for adults of legal drinking age and alcohol should be avoided by people who struggle with alcoholism. Women who are pregnant should also avoid alcohol.
Eat More of These Foods
Here's a look at which foods the USDA recommends you add to your diet. Your food choices should provide you with more potassium, calcium, fiber, vitamin D and include vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products:
Fruits and vegetables. Fresh, frozen, raw or cooked - eat the amount of fruits and vegetables recommended for your age. Choose vegetables that are dark green or brightly colored - they contain phytochemicals that may have extra health benefits, plus they're usually high in nutrients and fiber.
Fat-free or low-fat milk and dairy. Reduce your use of high-fat cream and whole milk, but feel free to enjoy non- or low-fat milk as a beverage. You can also choose yogurt or cheese. If you don't want or can't tolerate dairy, choose calcium and vitamin D fortified soy milk, rice milk or orange juice (and some of the dark green vegetables are rich in calcium, too).
Choose a variety of proteins. Since you should reduce your intake of fatty meats, you can experiment with other proteins - lean meats, poultry, seafood, eggs (look for omega-3 enriched eggs), legumes, nuts, seeds and soy products.
Eat more seafood. Fish and seafood are low in fat and calories, and the fat they do contain are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Choose the species that tend to have less mercury, especially if you are pregnant.
United States Department of Health and Human Services. "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010." Accessed January 31, 2011.http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/dietaryguidelines.htm.