Healthy eating can be fun, tasty – and it may even save your life. Studies have shown healthy eating can help prevent obesity, high blood pressure and chronic conditions such as heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.
Healthy eating may also keep money in your wallet by saving you money on medical care and insurance costs.
However, the idea of "eating healthy" can be confusing for many Americans because there are so many conflicting reports about what foods and diets are actually healthy.
The good news is there are many resources and professionals to help.
Good nutrition: Where do I start?
In general, it’s important to focus on eating fruit, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, fish, poultry, eggs, and nuts.
In addition, you’ll want to moderate your sugar, salt, cholesterol, and fat intake. Reading nutrition labels will help you make better food choices.
One of the best places to learn about nutrition is EatRight.org, hosted by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics was founded in 1917 and is the world's largest organization of food and nutrition professionals.
First lady Michelle Obama and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack created ChooseMyPlate.gov in 2011 to help people make healthier food choices. The site focuses on fruits and vegetables -- which should comprise the largest portion of the plate -- as well as grains, proteins and dairy.
Disease-specific organizations, such as the American Diabetes Association, American Heart Association and American Institute for Cancer Research, can also provide helpful nutrition advice specific to your situation.
Nutrition advice for people with diabetes
Diabetes is a disease in which your blood glucose (blood sugar) levels are too high. Glucose comes from the carbohydrates you eat, including bread, fruit, and potatoes. Insulin is a hormone that helps glucose get into your cells to give them energy.
If you have Type 1 diabetes, your body doesn't make insulin at all. Type 1 diabetes is usually diagnosed in children.
If you have Type 2 diabetes, your body doesn't use insulin properly (insulin resistance). Without enough insulin, glucose stays in the blood, and having too much glucose in the blood can cause damage to the kidneys, nerves, eyes, and other organs.
"Patients with diabetes (need to learn) how to manage carbohydrates in their diet, including sugars, fiber and starchy foods," says Robin Nwankwo, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator in Michigan. Diabetes sufferers need to manage carbohydrates in order to maintain stable blood glucose levels.
Usually, sessions with a registered dietitian are covered by health insurance for people with diabetes. During a visit with the dietitian, you may review topics such as reading nutrition labels, managing portion sizes and counting carbohydrates, Nwankwo says.
Nutrition advice for people with heart disease
If you have heart disease or high blood pressure, it's crucial for you to regulate your sodium intake.
According to the American Heart Association, sodium increases your blood pressure because it holds excess fluid in the body, which creates an added burden to your heart.
Kim Larson, a registered dietitian nutritionist and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, recommends a Mediterranean diet, physical activity, and weight management as a way to prevent heart disease, cancer and Type 2 diabetes. The Mediterranean diet consists of the following.
- Fresh fruits and vegetables six or more times per day.
- Lean meats in small amounts like beef, pork, and lamb (no processed meats).
- Fish and beans at least twice per week.
- Poultry such as chicken or turkey, nuts and seeds for protein.
The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet is sometimes recommended to patients with high blood pressure and heart disease. DASH is an eating plan based on research studies funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. DASH promotes the following.
- Eat fruits and vegetables.
- Eat low-fat or fat-free dairy products.
- Limit sodium, sweets and red meats.
What is a registered dietician?
Registered dietitians, also called registered dietitian nutritionists, have a bachelor or master’s degree in nutrition and are trained to help people improve their health through nutrition.
You may want to work with a registered dietitian for the following reasons:
- You've been recently diagnosed with a health condition such as diabetes or cancer.
- You're trying to lose or gain weight.
- You need to follow a special diet due to allergies or a condition such as celiac disease.
Expert tips on nutrition
- Meals should be fun. Think of ways to make a colorful plate that's also tasty.
- Work with a registered dietitian or find a good cookbook to create healthier versions of the foods you like. For example, instead of frying chicken in vegetable oil, you can make oven fried chicken with less fat, calories and sodium.
- Eat balanced meals that include all the food groups (fruits, vegetables, grains, proteins, and dairy.)
- Don't skip meals.
- Avoid added sugars like white sugar and honey, and processed foods as much as possible.
- Start small. You don't have to change your diet overnight. The SMART method helps: Set goals that are specific, measureable, achievable, realistic and timely.