Designing a Healthful Diet

By:  Lynsey Bish

What exactly is a healthful diet? A healthful diet provides the proper combination of energy and nutrients. It has four characteristics: it is adequate, moderate, balanced, and varied. No matter how young or old, overweight or underweight, healthy or ill, if you keep these characteristics in mind, you will be able to select foods that provide you with an optimum combination of nutrients and energy each day.

What tools can help you design a healthful diet?

Many people feel it’s not possible for them to eat a healthful diet. They mistakenly believe that the foods they would need to eat are too expensive or not available to them, or that they’re too busy to do the necessary planning, shopping, and cooking.

Although designing and maintaining a healthful diet is not as simple as eating whatever you want, most of us can do with a little practice and a little help. Here are some tools to help get you started.

Dietary Guideline for Americans

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans are a set of principles developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health to promote health, reduce the risk for chronic diseases, and reduce the prevalence of obesity among Americans though Improved Nutrition and Physical Activity[1].

They include twenty-three recommendations for the general population, but you don’t have to remember them all! Instead, they encourage you to focus on the following four main ideas.

Balance Calories to Maintain Weight

An important strategy for balancing your calories is to choose nutrient-dense foods (foods that provide the most nutrients for the least amount of calories). For example, skim milk is more nutrient dense than whole milk, and a peeled orange is more nutrient than an orange soft drink. At the same time, being physically active for at least 30 minutes each day can reduced your risk for chronic diseases!

Limit Fat and Sugars

Fat is an essential nutrient and important part of a healthful diet but, because fats are energy dense, eating a diet high in total fat can lead to becoming overweight. Less than 7-10% of your total daily calories should come from saturated fat, and you should try to consume less than 300mg per a day of cholesterol[2]. You can achieve the goal by replacing fats, like butter and lard, with plant oils, and replacing full-fat milk, yogurt, and cheeses with low-fat or nonfat versions.

Limit foods and beverages that are high in added sugars, such as sweetened soft drinks, cookies, and cakes. Many foods that contain added sugars often supply calories, but no essential nutrients and no dietary fiber. Sweetened foods and beverages can be replaced with those that are low in or have no added sugars. Sweetened beverages can be replaced with water and unsweetened beverages[3].

Consume more Healthful Foods and Nutrients

  • Increase your intake of fruits and vegetables. Each day, try to eat a variety of dark-green, red, and orange vegetables, along with beans and peas.
  • Make sure that at least half of all grain foods (breads, cereals, pasta, and so on) that you eat each day are made from whole grains.
  • Choose fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products, which include milk, yogurt, cheese, and fortified soy beverages.
  • When making protein choices, choose protein foods that are lower in solid fat and Calories, such as lean cuts of beef or skinless poultry. Try to eat more fish and shellfish in place of traditional meat and poultry choices. Also choose eggs, beans and peas, soy products, and unsalted nuts and seeds.
  • Choose foods that provide an adequate level of dietary fiber as well as nutrients of concern in the American diet, including potassium, calcium, and vitamin D. These nutrients help us maintain healthy blood pressure and reduce our risks for certain diseases. Healthful foods that are good sources of these nutrients include fruits, vegetables, beans and peas, whole grains, and low-fat milk and milk products[1].
  • Follow Healthy Eating PatternsThere isn’t a healthy eating pattern that everyone should follow. The best recommendation made in Dietary Guidelines is designed to accommodate diverse cultural, ethnic, traditional, and personal preferences that still fit into your food budget. MyPlate.gov is free for everyone to help find a healthy eating style and build it throughout your lifetime. MyPlate will focus on helping you make healthy food and beverage choices and include all five food groups. It’s about making small changes to create a healthier eating style.

    Overall, the Goals of the Dietary Guideline are to promote health, reduce the risk for chronic diseases and improve nutrition and physical activity.


[1] Abou-Samra, R., et al. 2011. Effect of different protein sources on satiation and short-term satiety when consumed as a starter. Nutrition Journal 2011, December 23(10):139.
[2] Thompson, Janice, Melinda Manore, and Linda A. Vaughan. The science of nutrition. Boston: Pearson, 2014. Print.
[3] 2010 Dietary Guidelines. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 June 2017
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