Feed Your Body Right
Some health advice is so important that it can never be repeated too often. Such is the case with proper nutrition, the very foundation of good health, according to experts. “We hear over and over again how crucial it is to eat a well-balanced diet, but it really is essential for longevity,” says Lizzy Queensen, a clinical dietitian with SSM Health DePaul Hospital. “Some diets cut out certain nutrient sources or even whole food groups, but that may cause problems. Research has shown all five recognized food groups to be beneficial, so if you leave things out, you may be missing some good nutrition.”
Queensen says that in addition to vitamins and minerals, a well-rounded diet contains healthful amounts of carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats. “Your nutrition gets out of balance when you have too much or not enough of something,” she notes. “The correct amounts work together to help your body function properly.” For example, if you choose a diet that excludes protein, that may affect your ability to maintain healthy muscle. “Even if you don’t work out regularly, you still need protein to keep the muscle mass you have, especially as you age,” Queensen explains. “You also need it to support your immune system and hair and nail growth.”
A healthy amount of carbohydrates provides quick energy to power your body through the day. “The proper amount of unsaturated fats is necessary as well,” she says. “They are important for hormone function and can help you avoid feeling hungry.” It’s best to limit red meat, which contains unhealthy saturated fats; try replacing it with ‘good’ fats like those found in tuna, salmon and nuts.
Your body also needs a consistent amount of dietary fiber to maintain health. “Most people don’t eat enough of it,” Queensen says. “Get as much as you can from natural sources like fruit, vegetables, beans, nuts and whole grains.” Fiber doesn’t just help your digestive system eliminate waste; it also may lower your risk of heart disease, diabetes and some types of cancer.
When you eat highly processed foods instead of whole, naturally nutritious ones, you’re essentially shortchanging your body, Queensen points out. Processed and packaged foods often contain fewer nutrients, more ‘bad’ fats, and higher levels of sodium that can raise your blood pressure. They also can thwart your efforts to maintain a healthy weight. When it comes to meal planning, variety should be your watchword; natural foods in a rainbow of colors like green, red, yellow and orange mean a more complete set of nutrients.
Finally, it’s important to remember that not all calories are created equal. “Many people are using smartphone apps to help them track calories throughout the day, and that’s a good thing,” Queensen says. “But it’s also important to recognize that your dietary choices can vary widely while remaining within a certain calorie count. For example, it may be possible to eat fast food and still stay under your calorie target for the day. If you choose healthy, natural foods instead, you’ll feel more satisfied and get the right nutrients with the same number of calories.”
women’s nutrition: food for thought
Generally speaking, men and women have similar nutritional needs. But there are a few pieces of healthy diet advice that women especially should take to heart, says Dr. Becky Kaufman Lynn of Evora Women’s Health at St. Luke’s Hospital.
“Different stages of life can bring additional nutrient requirements, like the folic acid women need before and during pregnancy,” she says. Folic acid is a manmade form of folate, a B vitamin that is necessary to form healthy cells. It can help prevent some birth defects of the brain and spine.
One common misconception Lynn says many women have is that all carbohydrates should be avoided in a healthy diet, but that’s not the case. “Good carbohydrates are found in foods like quinoa and sweet potatoes,” she says. “Bad ones are found in white bread, white rice and other processed foods.”
As women age, Lynn recommends keeping processed foods to a minimum and eating whole fruits and vegetables instead. “Brightly colored produce is always a good choice,” she says. “Think of meat as more of a garnish than a central part of your meal. The rest of your plate should be made up of healthful vegetables, fruits and carbohydrates.”
She also points out that as women approach menopause, it’s more difficult for them to maintain healthy weight and bone density, so proper nutrition and a limit on processed foods are even more crucial. “Women need about 1,200 mg of calcium a day for good bone health in their 50s and beyond,” she explains. “Four daily servings of dairy are recommended. A cup of yogurt, 8 ounces of milk and an ounce of cheese can provide 300 mg of calcium each.”
Lynn also advises women to combine smart nutrition with consistent exercise and good hydration. “Together, diet and exercise can help you maintain muscle mass, which can help prevent falls and injury as you get older,” she says. “And don’t forget to drink plenty of water. As you age, the brain’s mechanisms that tell you you’re thirsty don’t work as well, so make an effort to stay hydrated with plain water. It can help you maintain healthy tissues and flush toxins from the body.”
what is a vitamin?
Any of a group of organic compounds essential for normal growth and nutrition. There are 14 recognized vitamins, and they support many essential processes, from cell growth to strengthening bones.
a refresher on the five food groups
- Fruits: Whole fresh fruits and fruit juices
- Vegetables: Dark green, red and orange varieties; beans; peas; starchy vegetables; and other types like squash and avocado
- Grains: Whole grains like brown rice or oatmeal; refined grains like those in corn tortillas and pasta
- Proteins: Seafood, meat, poultry, eggs, nuts, seeds and soy
- Dairy: Milk, yogurt, cheese
It’s recommended that people consume more whole fruits than fruit juices, and more milk and yogurt than cheese. For information on nutrition and portion sizes, visit choosemyplate.gov.