By Susie Reiner, PhD, CSCS, EP-C
While there are a lot of opinions on optimal nutrition out there, getting back to the basics of healthy eating habits can ensure long-term health and vitality. As you age, a well-balanced diet can reduce your risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and even some cancers.
The USDA Dietary Guidelines provide simple yet effective recommendations, so eating healthy becomes second nature with user-friendly tools and education like myplate.gov. Here is an easy-to-follow guide to lead you toward a nutritious lifestyle.
Focus on Plant-Based Eating
Plant-based diets aren’t just a fad. Registered dietitians and public health practitioners have long recommended a diet rich in fruits and vegetables as the foundation for health and wellness. Research consistently shows a plant-based diet correlates to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer, improved cognition, and even longevity.
There are many interpretations of eating plant-based. Some consider it strictly vegan or vegetarian, while others define it as roughly more vegetables and fruit and fewer animal products. How you follow a plant-based diet is entirely up to you and your preferences.
Eating various fruits and vegetables means increasing your fiber intake, which is commonly associated with lowering cholesterol. The array of health-promoting vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals will also enhance your body’s systems, so you function better today, and over your lifetime. Depending on your lifestyle, produce that is in season or frozen can help you save money, while pre-chopped options can help you save time–either way, you’ll still gain all of the health benefits.
Optimal Protein Intake for You
Carbohydrates, fats, and proteins are all essential to fuel your everyday activities, but there’s one macronutrient where we often fall short. Protein is vital in maintaining muscle mass. Not eating enough of it in your diet, combined with sedentary behavior, can lead to age-related muscle loss.
Experts recommend a range of 1.0 to 1.2 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. For those who are active or have acute injuries, the recommendation increases to 1.2 to 1.5 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. You can calculate your daily protein needs by dividing your weight in pounds by 2.2 and then multiplying by the gram amount. For example, a 160-pound person trying to take in 1.2 grams per kilogram would strive for 87 grams of protein per day.
Your protein sources can come from plant and animal products. Individual plant proteins often don’t include all essential amino acids, so combining different grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds is best. Common examples include beans and rice, whole wheat bread and peanut butter, and hummus (chickpeas and tahini). Animal proteins typically contain all essential amino acids, which is why they are considered “complete” proteins. To reduce saturated fat intake, focus on eating lean cuts of meat, eggs, and low-fat dairy products.
Nutrient-Dense Foods for Nourishment
When you think about what makes a food healthy, your mind might go straight to calories. However, a calorie is simply a measure of energy–low-calorie foods aren’t inherently good for you, and high-calorie foods aren’t inherently bad. While calorie intake is important in weight management, nutrient density, or the number of nutrients a food provides in relation to its calories, may be more critical for health.
You want to get the biggest bang for your buck in your food. Think of it this way: if you’re comparing two brands of cereal that both have 100 calories a cup, the brand that has twice the fiber, a little more protein, and other vitamins and minerals is more nutrient-dense and, therefore the healthier option because your body will get more nourishment from it. Aim to make the most of your diet by including foods rich in fiber, protein, healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals.
Where to Cut Back
A healthy diet doesn’t have much room for extra added sugars, saturated fat, sodium, or alcoholic beverages. Cutting out foods and drinks you love may not be sustainable, but having them in moderation can help you in the long run. The USDA recommends limiting the following to reduce chronic health conditions:
- Added sugars—Less than 10 percent of calories per day
- Avoid foods and beverages with added sugars
- Saturated fat—Less than 10 percent of calories per day
- Sodium—Less than 2,300 milligrams per day
- Alcoholic beverages—Adults of legal drinking age can choose not to drink or to drink in moderation by limiting intake to 2 drinks or less in a day for men and one drink a day for women.
The bottom line: Healthy, sustainable nutrition is within reach with a diet mainly consisting of nutrient-dense foods like high-fiber fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, lean animal and plant proteins, unsaturated oils, and fatty fish. Try to match your food choices with your preferences and needs, curbing some items without being overly restrictive.