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If you’re serious about maintaining good health as you age, use the recently updated Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015–2020 as your blueprint. The publication (available as a free download by clicking here) offers a healthy eating pattern designed to reduce obesity and prevent chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. All have been trending upwards in the past few decades, and all increase your risk for disability and premature death.
“Healthy eating is one of the most powerful tools you have to protect yourself against these and other diseases as you age,” says Mount Sinai nutrition consultant Fran Grossman, RD, MS, CDE, CDN. “And it doesn’t necessarily mean depriving yourself—you can include many of the foods that you enjoy in a healthy eating pattern, and also adapt it to your taste preferences, culture, traditions, and budget.”
Healthy Eating Pattern Keys: Nutrient Density and Portion Control
The 2015-2020 Guidelines focuses not on individual nutrients or foods in isolation, but on the variety of what people eat and drink. Overall, you are advised to focus on nutrient-dense foods and to pay attention to the amount you eat (meaning, keep an eye on portion control). If you don’t already eat healthfully, Grossman recommends that you make small shifts in your current habits to reach the daily targets listed below (which are based on a 2,000 calorie-per-day diet), rather than a complete change that might be hard to sustain.
- Vegetables: 2½ cups. Eat a variety of vegetables, including dark green, red and orange, legumes (beans and peas), and starchy options (for example, corn and peas). “Nine in 10 Americans eat less than the recommended amount of vegetables,” Grossman notes. “If you tend to avoid them, ask yourself if adding some to a favorite meal will really change how that meal tastes? Realistically, it probably won’t.”
Easy ways to incorporate more vegetables into meals include adding them to scrambled eggs, soups, stir-fries and pasta sauces, or eating them raw with a tasty dip, such as light ranch dressing or salsa. “You can add shredded carrots and zucchini to meatloaf and even to muffins, and use puréed veggies to thicken soups and as an additional ingredient in a fruit smoothie,” Grossman suggests. “If preparing vegetables puts you off, use low-sodium or sodium-free canned options, or frozen vegetables.”
- Fruits: 2 cups. As with vegetables, you can count frozen and canned fruit towards your target goal, but with the latter, you should opt for fruits that are canned in juice or water, not syrup. “If you enjoy fruit juice, a cup of 100 percent juice counts as 1 cup of fruit,” Grossman says. “But keep in mind that although fruit juice can be part of a healthy eating pattern, it is lower in fiber and higher in calories than whole fruit.”
A half-cup of dried fruit is equivalent to 1 cup of fruit, but watch your intake, since dried fruit also is higher in sugar and calories than fresh whole fruit.
Also, top your breakfast oatmeal with fruit, and eat fresh fruit as a snack between meals—for example, dress up apple slices with peanut butter for a shot of protein with your fruit. “Whiz up a fruit smoothie by adding your favorite fruits to low- or non-fat yogurt or milk,” Grossman adds, “and use unsweetened apple sauce in place of oil if you’re baking a cake.”
- Grains: 6 ounces. At least half of the grains you consume should be whole grains—for example, brown rice, quinoa, and oats. “Whole grains contain the entire kernel, including the endosperm, bran, and germ,” Grossman explains. “Refined grains have been processed to remove the bran and germ, and this depletes them of nutrients and fiber.”
Products made with refined grains include cookies, cakes, and snack foods. While it’s okay to eat these as an occasional treat, you should try to avoid consuming them regularly. “If you can’t resist, consider making your own using whole grain flour,” Grossman advises. “You can also add a half-cup of oats or a couple of tablespoons of wheat germ to the ingredients when you’re baking or preparing meat dishes such as meatloaf and meatballs, and add barley to soups and stews.”
- Fat-free or low-fat dairy: 3 cups. This category includes milk, yogurt, cheese, and/or fortified soy beverages. “If you drink full-fat milk, switch to a one or two percent version, since this will ensure you get all the nutrients without the saturated fat present in whole milk,” Grossman says. “Also select low-fat or part-skim cheese, but check the sodium content.” When preparing meals, substitute low-fat yogurt for sour cream, and low-fat ricotta cheese for cream cheese.
“Low-fat yogurt is also a tasty replacement for sour cream on a baked potato,” Grossman adds.
To make up your daily intake of dairy, keep in mind that 1 cup of milk, yogurt, or soymilk (soy beverage), 1½ ounces of natural cheese, and 2 ounces of processed cheese can be considered as 1 cup from the dairy group.
- Protein: 5½ ounces. Ensure you get your protein from a variety of food sources, including seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, legumes, soy products, and nuts and seeds. Foods from the dairy group also are a source of protein. Keep in mind that a half-ounce of nuts or seeds counts as 1 ounce-equivalent of protein foods. “Nuts and seeds are high in calories, so stick to small or measured amounts, and choose unsalted options,” Grossman says. Also consume at least 8 ounces of seafood per week.
- Oils: About 27 grams (5 teaspoons). Options include canola, corn, olive, peanut, safflower, soybean, and sunflower. Oils also are naturally present in nuts, seeds, seafood, olives, and avocados. “Avoid coconut oil, palm kernel oil, and palm oil, which contain a higher percentage of saturated fats than other oils,” Grossman says. “Healthy fats, such as nuts and avocados, along with shrimp, other seafood, fatty fishes, and eggs, are now recommended in the new guidelines.”
3 TIPS FOR A HEALTHY EATING PATTERN
Getting on board with a healthy eating pattern doesn’t have to be complicated. Just limit your calorie intake from added sugars and saturated fats while cutting your sodium intake. To that end, aim to consume:
- Less than 10 percent of your daily calories from added sugars (sugars and syrups that are added to foods or beverages when they are processed or prepared, but not sugars that occur naturally in fruits and milk).
- Less than 10 percent of your daily calories from saturated fats. Check the nutrition facts label on packaging to gauge how high foods are in saturated fats—some high-fat examples include butter, whole milk, and meats that aren’t labeled as lean.
- Less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) per day of sodium (the American Heart Association recommends an “ideal” limit of 1,500 mg). Studies suggest that the average American consumes more than 3,400 mg per day. Check the the nutrition facts label to monitor the sodium in processed foods like pizza, pasta dishes, sauces, and soups. If you regularly eat out, select low-sodium options or ask for meals to be prepared without adding sodium during the cooking process.