The secrets of a healthy diet really aren't secret at all; they are well known. Unfortunately these secrets are often not what we want to hear (eat less; eat the right foods; and avoid fatty, sugary and over processed foods). The advice gets lost among the hype of the diet industry that tries to sell us quick fixes and cheats. So the real secret to a healthy diet is simple: Just follow a few basic principles, and make a few changes in your habits along the way.
Calories are a measure of the energy in the food we eat. More calories mean more energy. If you don't burn off the energy you consume with activity, your body stores it as excess fat. If you are overweight, you need to consume fewer calories than you burn so that your body uses some of its fat stores. If you are underweight, you need to take in more calories to build up fat stores. Track your calorie intake for a week or two with a food diary, then determine whether you are eating too many calories. If so, slowly reduce your intake to a healthy level.
According to a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) the average American male consumes 2,475 calories daily, and the average female consumes 1,833 calories. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services guidelines, that's about right for the sedentary male between 16 and 40 and for sedentary females ages 14 to 50, although women between the ages of 19 and 25 need an extra 200 calories a day.
Calories come from three major sources. Carbohydrates contain four calories per gram, and can be simple, such as sugars, or complex, such as starches or fiber. While it's easy to think of sugars as the 'bad guys,' some sugars occur naturally in foods, such as fructose in fruit, and are perfectly healthy in moderation. Similarly, it's easy to think all starch is good for you and to opt for foods with added starch. These additions come with no nutritional benefit, though. If you really want a healthy diet, change from eating highly processed foods with added starches and sugars, and increase your natural fiber intake instead.
Proteins contain four calories per gram and also provide amino acids for building muscles and body tissues. Although animal-based proteins provide all eight essential amino acids and are therefore considered complete proteins, vegetable proteins contain only some and are considered incomplete. This doesn't make vegetable proteins inferior; it just means you need to eat a variety of vegetables to ensure a supply of all essential amino acids.
Fats contain nine calories per gram and probably cause the most confusion for the avid dieter. Let's make it simple. Trans fats (anything with 'hydrogenated' in the ingredients panel) do not occur naturally and are unhealthy in any amount. Saturated fats should be no more than 10 percent of your overall dietary intake. So, for a woman consuming 1,800 calories per day, that's 180 calories or 20 grams of saturated fat. Unsaturated fats include monounsaturated (olive and canola oils) and polyunsaturated (safflower, sunflower, soybean and fish oils) and should make up a further 10 to 25 percent of dietary intake, or another 20 to 50 grams.
Adding it all up
If you don't want to count calories, fat grams and carbohydrates, there's a simpler way to ensure you get a healthy balanced diet: Use a food pyramid to gauge intake. For example, an 1,800 calorie diet should consist of:
These may not be the secrets you were hoping for, but they are the keys to a healthy diet.