The Beginner's Guide To Diet, Nutrition & Healthy Eating
So it seems you want to improve your diet. Fantastic idea. Do you know what can be done with a healthy diet?
You can lose weight, gain weight or just maintain your weight as is. You can lower your cholesterol or your blood pressure or perhaps just keep those numbers in a healthy range. You can improve your immune system, your energy level, your athletic performance, your skin, your teeth, your bones and a whole lot more. You can greatly lower your risk of heart disease, diabetes and a variety of other health issues. You can help control, prevent, aid, or improve nearly every aspect of your health and your body.
Of course, you probably know this already. What you may not know is where to go from there. I mean, this all sounds great and everything, but uh, what do you do now? The decision to improve your overall diet and nutrition leads a lot of people to a lot of questions. For example:
- What should I eat?
- What shouldn't I eat?
- How much should I eat?
- Which nutrients should I eat?
- What does each nutrient do?
- What foods contain these nutrients?
- How much of each am I supposed to consume each day?
- Is this guy ever going to stop with the example questions?
If you've ever asked any of those questions or think you may ask them in the future, you're in luck. Below I have compiled all of the answers in one convenient location. It's what I like to call The Beginner's Guide To Diet, Nutrition & Healthy Eating.
I have broken it all down into 2 fairly simple parts; the learning and the doing. First up, the learning...
Part 1: The Basics Of Nutrition
Below you will find a chart containing the most important parts of every person's diet. Along with each will be a short description explaining what it is, what its role is in the human body, the recommendations for how much of it you should consume per day, and the most common foods that contain a significant amount of it. For the most part, this is pretty much all there is to the basics of nutrition. Check it out...
|Recommended Amount Per Day
A calorie is the unit of measurement for how much energy there is in a food or drink. We consume calories in the form of carbohydrates, protein and fat (and alcohol) which all contain a certain number of calories per gram (see right column). The calories are used by the body to do literally everything it needs to do (pump blood, walk, etc.). This is why very low calorie diets are dangerous and should be avoided.
Calories also play the largest role in weight control. If you consume more calories than your body needs to use for energy, the left over calories will be stored on the body mostly in the form of fat (thus causing weight gain). If you consume less calories than your body needs to use, it does the opposite and uses stored body fat for energy instead (thus causing weight loss). If you consume the same number of calories that your body uses, everything evens out (thus causing weight maintenance).
The number of calories you should consume per day is based on way too many factors for there to just be a general guideline for everyone. Your height/weight, your gender, your metabolism, your activity level and your goals (weight loss, weight gain, weight maintenance) all play a role. For this reason, your daily calorie intake has to be tailored specifically to you and your body.
It's alright though, relax. Everything you need in order to figure how many calories you should consume per day can be found in the Guide To Calories & Weight Control.
Carbs: 4 calories per gram
Protein: 4 calories per gram
Fat: 9 calories per gram
Alcohol: 7 calories per gram
Despite all of the crazy things you may have heard, fat is required by our bodies to function properly. For starters, certain vitamins can not be absorbed by the body without fat. It also plays an important role in healthy hair, skin and cell function and is the source of essential fatty acids, another extremely important part of our diet.
I will also mention that the idea that "eating fat makes you fat" is a myth. As mentioned above, weight gain/loss is controlled by calories. If you supply your body with too many calories, you will gain fat. It won't matter what nutrient those calories came from (fat, protein or carbs), too much of anything will cause weight gain.
Of course, not all fat is equal. Certain types (polyunsaturated and monounsaturated) should comprise the majority of your fat intake (sources of these "healthy" fats are listed in the right column). These "good" fats have been shown to lower blood cholesterol levels and the risk of heart disease. One specific polyunsaturated fat, the omega-3 fatty acid (found in fish, fish oil and walnuts), may be the most beneficial of all.
On the other hand, there are certain types of fat that do the complete opposite (cause rather than prevent) and should be limited or even avoided completely. More on them below.
The USDA recommends that a maximum of 30% of your total daily calorie intake comes from fat. Most other sources/experts recommend something in a similar range, typically somewhere between 20-30 percent.
So, if an example person eats 2000 calories per day, 20-30 percent of that would be 400-600 calories. And, since 1 gram of fat contains 9 calories, this works out to be about 44-66 grams of fat per day for this example person.
|Almonds, walnuts, peanuts, other nuts and seeds, salmon, sardines, mackerel, other fish and fish oil, olive oil, canola oil, avocados.
This is one of the so-called "bad" fats. Despite there being some debate as to exactly what degree saturated fats negatively affect us (it seems less evil than it was originally made out to be), it still appears as though saturated fat should be limited to SOME extent in most people's diets.
The USDA recommends limiting your saturated fat intake to a maximum of 10% of your total calorie intake, or a maximum of 1/3 of your total fat intake (which is basically the same thing if you follow the above recommendation for total fat).
The American Heart Association's saturated fat recommendations are a bit lower, suggesting a maximum of 7% of your total calorie intake.
|Animal and poultry fat. Milk, cheese, butter and other dairy products. Most typical junk food (candy bars, chips and similar snack foods, pastries, cookies, desserts, etc.) and fast food items.
Trans fat is bad. In fact, it just may be as bad as it gets. Trans fat has been shown to raise your bad (LDL) cholesterol levels and lower your good (HDL) cholesterol levels. A diet containing a significant amount of trans fat increases your risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and possibly even more. Long story short, avoid it.
I will also mention that there are two different ways you could consume trans fat. One is in the small amounts found naturally in certain meat and dairy products. The second and much more common way is in the man-made form that is found in a variety of other foods. The reason for its usage in these foods is that it is cheap to use, has a longer shelf life, and tastes good. Food companies have no problem focusing on those 3 reasons and ignoring the fact that it's probably the worst thing you could possibly eat.
The American Heart Association recommends a maximum of 2 grams of trans fat per day. The keyword there is maximum. There is a ton of research proving that this stuff is borderline poison, which is why you really want to shoot for an even 0 grams. Out of all the stuff in your diet that should be kept on the low side (saturated fat, sodium, cholesterol), trans fat appears to be the only one that should be eliminated completely.
Something else to keep in mind when avoiding trans fat is that due to some idiotic labeling rules, food companies only need to list trans fat content if the food contains 0.5 grams or more per serving. So, if a food contains 0.4999 grams of trans fat in one serving, it will say "Trans Fat: 0 grams" on the label. Stupid? Very. On the bright side, you can spot the foods that do this (and there are MANY of them). Check the ingredients for the words "hydrogenated" or "partially hydrogenated" (usually followed by an oil of some sort). If it shows up, then you know that food contains some amount of trans fat no matter what the label says.
|Most fast food and common junk food items contain the largest amounts of trans fat. However, small amounts can still be found in foods ranging from breakfast cereals to certain brands of whole wheat bread to everything in between. Be sure to check the ingredients (as mentioned in the middle column) to know for sure if your food legitimately contains any.
Cholesterol isn't entirely a bad thing. It's actually required by the body to build and maintain cell membranes and is used for many other important functions as well. There are two ways that we get cholesterol. One is by the body itself, which the liver actually produces. The other way is through our diet. The amount produced by the body is usually all that we require, which means the amount we get through our diet should be kept within a certain limit (more on that in the middle column).
As you probably already know, high blood cholesterol levels, which are a major risk factor for heart disease, would be a very bad thing. This is another important reason why we try to keep our dietary cholesterol intake to a safe level. I will also mention that dietary cholesterol is only one small part of the cause of high blood cholesterol. Trans fat and saturated fat intake play an even larger role. Your weight (another reason calorie intake is important), age, activity level, and genetics also play a role.
The American Heart Association recommends that we consume less than 300 milligrams of cholesterol per day. They also recommend shooting for less than 200mg if you have any heart related issues, although you should of course check that with your doctor. For the average healthy adult however, less than 300mg of cholesterol per day is about the amount I've seen most often recommended.
|Egg yolks, dairy products, meat, chicken, turkey and fish.
Sodium is another nutrient that's viewed as "bad" even though a certain amount is actually required by the body to help maintain proper fluid balance, help with the function of nerves and muscles, and more. It's when sodium intake is too high that the negative effects (most notably high blood pressure) occur. This makes sodium another nutrient that should be limited in our diet.
The USDA, AHA and many other sources all recommend keeping your sodium intake under 2300 milligrams per day. The AHA also recommends that African Americans, middle-aged and older adults, and those with high blood pressure should try to consume less than 1,500 mg of sodium per day.
|Salted snack foods (pretzels, chips, etc.), many fast food items, many canned foods, ham, bacon, corned beef, hot dogs and other similar meats, certain frozen foods, and certain dressings. And of course, any food you add salt to.
Carbohydrates (AKA carbs) are a major source of energy for the body. The older, simpler explanation of carbs goes something like this. There are two different types; simple and complex.
Of the two, simple carbs should be avoided due to the speed at which they are digested. Simple carbs digest quickly, and this has a negative effect on our blood insulin levels. Diets high in simple carbs have been shown to increase our risk of diabetes and heart disease, while complex carbs have been shown to do the opposite. For this reason, you should try to greatly limit typical junk foods like candy and dessert items, soda, and really any other sugary foods. Complex carbs on the other hand digest slower and should therefore comprise the majority of your carb intake. (See right column for examples of these foods.)
But, the "complex" and "simple" label only tells part of the story, which brings us to the usefulness of the glycemic index. The glycemic index classifies carbs based on how quickly and how high they boost blood sugar when compared to pure glucose (sugar). This is useful for figuring out that a food like white bread, which actually fits the "complex carb" label, will in reality cause a rapid spike in our blood sugar levels. For this reason, in addition to the simple carbs mentioned above, you should also greatly limit other high glycemic foods such as white bread, white rice, crackers, many cereals and other highly processed foods.
The amount of carbohydrates most often recommended per day is typically in the area of 50% of your total calorie intake (most recommendations range from 40-60 percent).
1 gram of carbs contains 4 calories. So, let's say an example person is consuming 2000 calories per day. 50% of 2000 is 1000 calories. And, since 1 gram of carbs contains 4 calories, you'd divide 1000 by 4 and get 250 grams of carbs per day for this example person.
|Fruits and vegetables, beans, oatmeal, brown rice, and other whole wheat/whole grain foods
Fiber plays a key role in the health of the digestive system. There are two types, soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber has been associated with reducing LDL cholesterol and an overall decreased risk of cardiovascular disease. Insoluble fiber is also associated with decreasing cardiovascular risk as well as slowing the progression of cardiovascular disease in those who may already have it to some degree. In addition, foods high in fiber (see the right column for examples) are typically also low in saturated and trans fat and high in a variety of important nutrients.
The USDA recommends that we consume 14 grams of fiber for every 1000 calories we consume. So, if your daily total calorie intake was 2000 calories, your recommended fiber intake would be 28 grams per day (a 3000 calorie diet would be 42 grams, etc.). Most other fiber recommendations fall in the range of 25-35 grams per day for most people, which is pretty similar to the first recommendation assuming a fairly average calorie intake is present.
|Fruits and vegetables, oatmeal, beans, bran and most whole grain/whole wheat products.
Protein plays an important role in muscle, cell and organ function and is necessary for building and repairing the body's tissues. It is present in muscle, hair, skin, bone, and nearly every other body part, which makes protein a very important part of a healthy diet.
Pretty much every resource I've come across recommends that we consume a minimum of 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. To figure this out in pounds, just divide your weight by 2.2 and then multiply your answer by 0.8. (For example, a 200lb person would divide 200 by 2.2 and get about 91. They'd then multiply 91 by 0.8 and get about 73. So, this example 200lb person would require a minimum of 73 grams of protein per day.) Of course, the keyword there is minimum, as 0.8g of protein for every kg of body weight is what's required to keep the body from breaking down its own tissues.
The USDA recommends that about 15-20 percent of your total calorie intake comes from protein. (This fits with their recommendations of about 50% carbs and 30% fat, which leaves 20% for protein.)
1 gram of protein contains 4 calories. So, let's say an example person is consuming 2000 calories per day. 15-20 percent of 2000 is 300-400 calories. And, since 1 gram of protein contains 4 calories, you'd divide 300-400 by 4 and get 75-100 grams of protein per day for this example person.
I will also mention that for those who do some form of intense exercise on a regular basis, there is some research showing the need for a higher protein intake. A recommendation I've seen for these individuals is 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. Many other resources recommend as much as 1-1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight for those doing intense weight training regularly.
However, for the average healthy adult who won't be doing any form of intense exercise regularly, I like the the USDA's 15-20% of your total calorie intake recommendation, or perhaps my own "average person" recommendation of 0.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight (a 200lb person would do 200 x 0.5 = 100g of protein per day). Anywhere in the range of these two suggestions would be pretty good.
|Chicken, turkey, meat (the leaner the better), fish, eggs, egg whites and, to a somewhat lesser extent, nuts and beans.
Part 2: Putting It All Together
Now that you've learned the basics of nutrition, it's time to put it all together and make a healthy diet out of it. In the most general terms, it's really pretty simple. Basically, once you've figured out what your total daily calorie intake should be, it's just a matter of making sure these calories come from good sources that provide the things your body needs and limits the things that it doesn't. Let's break that down step-by-step:
This is the starting point of diet creation, figuring out the number of calories you should be consuming each day in order for your weight to do what you want it to do. Your choices here are weight loss, weight gain or weight maintenance. As you learned earlier, in order to lose weight, you must consume less calories than your body needs. In order to gain weight, you must consume more calories than your body needs. And, if you just want to keep your weight right where it is, you need to consume the same number of calories that your body needs. For a much better explanation of this and to figure out how many calories your body needs (and therefore how many you need to eat per day) check out my Guide To Calories & Weight Control. It will explain everything. When you're done, come back here and move on to #2.
- Fat, Carbs and Protein
Now that you've figured out what your total daily calorie intake should be, it's time to figure out where those calories are going to come from. As you learned above, fat, carbs and protein will supply these calories. Now it's just a matter of eating the right amount of each. So, just go back up and remind yourself of those recommendations. And no, it doesn't have to be exact. Anywhere within range of those recommendations is perfectly fine.
- Food Selection
Alright, so you got your calorie intake nailed down, and now you know how much of each nutrient (fat, carbs and protein) will supply those calories. Now you just need to select the foods that will supply these nutrients while at the same time ensuring that you avoid and/or limit the things you should not be eating. To do this, just go back through the food sources recommended for fat, carbs and protein, and pick your favorites. Simple enough.
Once you have all of the quantities figured out and have made sure the quality is what it should be, all that's left to do is organize it. This could mean coming up with a rough idea of what your daily diet should be and then just improvising, or it could mean writing up a complete daily or weekly meal plan with everything planned and figured out in advance. I can't tell you which you you should do, but I can tell you that the more planning you do, the easier it will be to not end up in a situation where you're eating something you shouldn't, or just eating more/less than you should. I will also mention that the times you eat (early or late) and the amount of meals you eat (3 meals or 6 meals) doesn't matter at all. As long as you're eating the right total amount of calories, protein, fat and carbs per day and getting those nutrients from mostly higher quality sources, you should organize it all in whatever way makes you most likely to consistently stick to it. The specifics are insignificant, so do whatever is most enjoyable and convenient for you.
A healthy diet is useless if you aren't consistent with it. Remember, this isn't a temporary thing. Unless you only want the results to be temporary and the benefits to be nearly nonexistent, this has to become your new permanent way of eating. So, be as consistent as you can and make a healthy diet a regular part of your life.
An Example Of A Healthy Diet
Just in case any of the above confused you at all, relax. Towards the end of The Ultimate Weight Loss Guide, I put together a complete example diet for an example person by going through each of the above steps one-by-one to show exactly how to do it for yourself. While that specific diet is tailored for weight loss, it could just as easily be for weight gain or weight maintenance if the total calorie intake was adjusted accordingly. Everything else however (the fat, carb and protein intake, the food choices, the setup and layout of the meals, etc.) would still be figured out the exact same way. So, to see an example of how it's done, feel free to check out the example weight loss diet.
Ready For The Bigger, Better, More Advanced Diet Guide?
If so, you can check out my new step-by-step guide to creating the best diet possible for your goal of losing fat, building muscle, or just being healthy right here: The Best Diet Plan
Beginner's Guide FAQ
Just in case you were left with any questions after reading this, here's my attempt at guessing what they might be and answering them for you.
How do I figure out how many calories are in my food? Or how much fat, carbs, protein, sodium, cholesterol, trans fat, saturated fat, fiber and everything else?
The first obvious answer is to check the "nutrition facts" label on your food's package. The second slightly less obvious answer is to use this very site to look up this information. All you need to do is search for a food and see it's full nutritional content instantly (and for free, by the way). Sound good? Cool. So, go search a Calorie Counter.
What about drinks? I now know what to eat, but what should I drink?
Water, water and more water. With the exception of something like green tea, there is no other drink I can really recommend. Water is what your body needs and it doesn't come with anything your body doesn't need. It's perfect. Soda, as you know, is pure garbage and should be eliminated completely. And fruit juices and sports drinks aren't that different. If you want the healthy things that are in fruit juices, eat the actual fruit. Limiting alcohol would also be a good idea. But really, for the most part, your drink of choice should be water.
What about vitamins and minerals and all that stuff? Did you leave this out because it's not important?
Nope, it definitely is important, but I left that stuff out for two reasons. First, by following all of the above guidelines you will end up consuming all sorts of important vitamins and minerals by default. That's just how a healthy diet works out by design. Second, I called this a "beginner's" guide for a reason. It's meant to be an easy to understand crash course in diet, nutrition and healthy eating. Basically, it's here to take someone from "I want to lose weight" or "I want to eat better" or "I want to improve my diet and health" to "Alright, now I know what I need to do" and "Now I know how to set up a diet." Everything beyond the basics belongs in its own separate article.
I was just wondering... what does your diet look like?
For anyone interested, here's a meal-by-meal break down of my diet. While it definitely meets all of the above recommendations, there are a few other adjustments tailored specifically to my needs/goals, most of which wouldn't be too important for the average person just looking to become healthier and/or improve their weight. Just figured I'd mention that.
Have you written anything else that would be useful to someone looking to improve their diet and overall health?
You bet I have. I'd recommend checking out my 8 Steps To A Healthy Diet and the previously mentioned Ultimate Weight Loss Guide. Even if losing weight isn't your specific goal, there is still a ton of useful information in that guide. Speaking of weight, the also already mentioned Guide To Calories & Weight Control would be a good idea to read as well. After that, you can learn more about Reading Food Labels and Diet Myths. Of course, you could just as easily look through all of the articles on this site as well as the a Calorie Counter Blog.