Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Why We Need to Eat Well

The benefits of eating healthy range from satisfying your hunger to warding off certain diseases. And getting important nutrients from healthy food can taste great, too.

Medically reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH
“You are what you eat” became a cliché long before we knew exactly how much truth there really was to this advice.

Reasons to eat well

Eating healthy food not only makes you feel good, but it also boosts your energy and improves your memory. Additionally, getting important nutrients in your diet helps ward off heart disease, cancer, diabetes, depression, and other health conditions, says Sarah Krieger, MPH, RD, LD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

A good diet also helps you maintain a healthy weight, which is critical to feeling good and preventing illnesses. When it comes to weight management, the rule is simple, Krieger says: “Balance what you’re taking in with how much you’re burning off.”

How to Eat Healthy
A lot depends on your age and gender, but it’s not as hard as you might think, says Krieger. Infants require a lot more calories per ounce of body weight than adults who aren’t growing and are likely to be more sedentary.

“The best age and gender to be is a 14-year-old boy,” Kreiger says. “They’re growing so rapidly and are generally very active, so they can consume around 3,000 calories a day.”

Here are tips for people of all ages on how to eat healthy and get the important nutrients you need:

Eat lots of fruits and vegetables every day. Fruits and vegetables are at the top of the healthy food list. They’re packed with vitamins, minerals, fiber, and cancer-fighting antioxidants. Aim for at least five servings a day, Krieger says. A serving for teens and adults is about the size of a tennis ball or baseball.

Eat for a variety of different colored fruits and vegetables, as each one offers its own benefits. For example, blueberries are loaded with cancer-fighting antioxidants, apples are a good source of fiber, and oranges and mangos provide a good dose of vitamin C.

Vegetables, too, are amazing foods, Krieger says. “Each one has a different nutrient profile," she says. "Red peppers and tomatoes, for instance, have higher amounts of vitamin C, while butternut squash and broccoli contain more vitamin A.”

Get enough fiber. Choose whole-grain versions of pasta and bread and swap brown rice for white at mealtimes (even with takeout). Whole grains provide more fiber, phytochemicals, and antioxidants, which help protect you from some cancers, heart disease, and diabetes, while refined grains offer very little.

Another reason to eat whole grains and fiber is that they keep you satisfied longer, making you less likely to overeat.

If you find it difficult to make the switch to whole grains overnight, start slow by mixing it up — use some brown and some white rice, for example, and make a gradual switch to eating 100 percent whole grains.

Include low-fat dairy in your diet. Dairy foods are an excellent source of calcium, which your body needs to keep your bones and teeth strong and healthy. Studies show that, when combined with vitamin D, calcium can help prevent bone loss that often occurs in menopausal women and older men. Dairy foods also supply other essential minerals, including magnesium and potassium.

Be sure to get protein in your diet. Your body needs protein to repair and promote the growth of cells, tissues, and organs. Some studies suggest that if you don’t get enough protein, it weakens your heart, lungs, and immune system and slows growth. Protein is particularly important for children during their growth years. According to the International Food Information Council, children between the ages of 4 and 18 need to get 10 percent to 30 percent of their calories from protein. Research over the past 20 years shows that protein also can help prevent muscle loss that occurs with aging. According to The Age Management Institute, we can start to lose muscle at 25, but muscle loss accelerates after age 60.

Protein also helps to keep you satisfied longer between meals, says Krieger. Choose lean cuts of meat, white meat poultry, and fish as your main sources of protein. If you don’t eat meat, you can get protein from a variety of other sources, such as beans, nuts, and soy products.

Limit sugar and unhealthy fats. The only benefit to sugar is taste, Krieger says. Overindulging on cookies, cakes, candy, and ice cream or drinking too much soda can cause weight gain. Sugar also can cause your energy levels to spike up and down.

You want some fat in your diet for healthy hair, nails, and skin, to ward off dementia, and satisfy your guilty-pleasure food cravings. But it’s healthier for your heart if you choose healthier fats, such as canola oil, peanut oil, and olive oil. Certain nuts, such as walnuts, are also good sources of healthy fats.

Eat Healthy for Life
There’s no harm in indulging in treats that may be a little heavy on fats and sugars … on special occasions, Krieger says. But if you watch what you eat and choose healthy foods most of the time, you will feel healthier, have more energy, and be happier.



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