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What is a healthful diet?

Try to meet the recommendations for fruits and vegetables, the food groups most often lacking in the diets of adults and children

Do you know anyone on a diet? Have you ever been on a diet?

The answer to both of those questions for everyone is “yes.” Technically, we all are “on a diet.”

According to the first definition in most dictionaries, a “diet” consists of the “kinds of food that a person, animal or community eats.”

In other words, if you eat food, you are on a diet. Because you are alive and reading this, you must be eating food on a regular basis.

Most of the time, people think of “diets” as somewhat restrictive. Many people associate being “on a diet” with attempts to lose weight. Others follow diets because of medical, religious, cultural or other reasons.

Sometimes diets are described based on nutritional content. For example, have you heard of special diets that are low fat, low sodium, high protein and/or low carbohydrate?

Some diets are named after the person who developed the plan, the place where it was developed or the featured food in the diet.

Somewhere in my file cabinets, I have files of creatively named fad diets, including the cabbage soup diet, beer diet, grapefruit diet, cookie diet and popcorn diet. These were not long-term, sustainable diets, though. I would not recommend any of them.

When new information is released from a study, diets make headlines. Most recently, you may have read or heard about the link between restricting carbohydrates and shortening your lifespan.

The article was published in the respected public health journal The Lancet. The authors analyzed data from 15,400 middle-aged adults from the Atherosclerosis Risk in Community study and published data from seven studies with 432,000 adults from 20 countries.

According to their analysis, those eating moderate amounts of carbohydrates (50 to 55 per cent of total calories) lived four years longer. Those who ate high-carbohydrate diets lived one year longer.

In other words, skipping carbohydrates was not good for you.

The carbohydrate level associated with longer lifespans is consistent with the current recommendations. Numerous studies are considered when developing U.S. national guidelines every five years.

What’s a healthful eating pattern, anyway?

In January 2018, the Mediterranean diet and DASH Diet tied for the No. 1 spot as the top-ranked diets overall, according to the annual U.S. News and World Reports rankings. I think most nutrition specialists would concur that these eating patterns are associated with better health.

The DASH diet, short for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, features a variety of food groups. On a 2,000-calorie diet, for example, the diet includes six to eight (one-ounce) servings of grains (focusing on whole grains); four to five (one-half-cup to one-cup) servings of vegetables; four to five (one-half-cup) servings of fruit; two to three (one-cup) servings of fat-free or low-fat milk; about six ounces of lean meat, poultry or fish; and four to five weekly servings of nuts, seeds and legumes.

The DASH diet allows two to three daily servings of fats. One serving is one-half teaspoon of vegetable oil or soft margarine. It limits sweets and added sugars to five servings per week. One serving is one tablespoon of jelly or one cup of regular lemonade, for example.

The DASH diet has been shown to reduce high blood pressure, which, in turn, can reduce the risk of stroke, heart disease and blindness.

The Mediterranean style of eating is based on what people in Spain, Italy and other Mediterranean countries have eaten for centuries. It includes fruit, nuts, legumes, seeds, vegetables, beans, grains and olive oil as part of every meal. It includes medium amounts of fish and seafood consumed at least twice per week; medium-to-low amounts of poultry, eggs, cheese and yogurt; and lower amounts of meat and sweets.

The Mediterranean eating pattern is associated with reducing the risk for heart disease, cancer, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. Eating “Mediterranean style” also includes other lifestyle factors, such as getting plenty of physical activity. It encourages slowing down and savouring your meals and limiting portion sizes, so you may lose weight in the process.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate includes aspects of both of these health-promoting diets or visit this DASH pattern website for more information. If you are on a diet for medical reasons, check with a registered dietitian and your health provider team.

Aim to meet the recommendations for fruits and vegetables, the food groups most often lacking in the diets of adults and children. Here’s a colourful recipe with plenty of vegetables and fruit, along with nuts and cheese, to get you started.


The Ultimate Fruit, Cheese and Nut Salad

  • 3 c. spring greens
  • 1 small apple or pear, cut into thin slices
  • 1/2 c. grapes, sliced lengthwise
  • 1/8 c. crumbled feta cheese
  • 1/4 c. toasted walnut halves

In a large bowl, toss greens, apples and grapes together. Pour favourite dressing over the fruit and lettuce, and toss again to combine. Top salad with feta crumbles and toasted walnuts. Serve immediately.

Makes two servings. Each serving (without your favourite dressing) has 180 calories, 12 grams (g) fat, 5 g protein, 19 g carbohydrate, 4 g fibre and 115 milligrams sodium.

This salad has plenty of vegetables and fruit, along with nuts and cheese, to help you meet your daily recommendations for fruits and vegetables.
photo: NDSU

About the author

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Julie Garden-Robinson is a North Dakota State University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist and professor in the department of health, nutrition and exercise sciences.

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