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Choosing the Right Foods

The following foods were recommended by the Mayo Clinic as 10 great health foods everyone should be eating:

  • almonds
  • apples
  • blueberries
  • broccoli
  • red beans
  • salmon
  • spinach
  • sweet potatoes
  • vegetable juice (reduced sodium)
  • wheat germ

These 10 foods are among your best bets for eating well. They are some of the healthiest foods because they meet at least three of the following criteria:

  1. good or excellent source of fiber, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients;
  2. high in phytonutrients and antioxidant compounds, such as vitamins A and E and beta carotene;
  3. help reduce the risk of heart disease and other health conditions;
  4. low in calorie density, meaning you get a larger portion size with a fewer number of calories; and/or
  5. readily available.

Following is a list of healthful foods and suggested balances of varieties of foods that will help you learn more about healthy eating. It may be helpful to visit our section on vegetarian diets.

Whole grains

The benefits of a high-fiber diet are well-known. Besides fiber, whole grains provide B vitamins, folic acid, iron and magnesium. Look at the ingredient list on breads and other grain products. The first ingredient should say "whole wheat" or "100% whole grain." Look at the nutrition facts panel for at least two grams of dietary fiber per slice of bread.

The more fiber in a product, the better! Fiber normalizes bowel movements, helps maintain bowel health, lowers cholesterol levels, controls blood sugar levels and helps with weight loss. Fiber keeps you feeling full longer, helping you avoid over-eating or snacking when trying to lose weight.

For more on fiber, visit the Mayo Clinic's Web section on fiber and healthy eating.

Fats (including saturated fat, trans fats and Omega-3 fats)

There are good fats and bad fats.

Foods that are high in saturated fats can increase our cholesterol levels. It is important to limit foods such as fatty meats, whole milk, butter and tropical oils such as coconut and palm.

Trans fats should be eliminated, so look at the nutrition facts panel and avoid foods that contain partially hydrogenated oils. Foods such as margarine, shortening, commercial French fries and pastries are often high in trans fat. When choosing cooking oil, use canola or olive oil whenever possible.

Omega-3 fats, which have health benefits, are found in fatty, deep-water fish such as salmon, tuna, bluefish, sardines and herring. Some studies show that Omega-3 fats provide protection against heart disease and stroke and may also be useful for depression and other health issues.

The American Heart Association recommends two servings of fatty fish per week. If you are planning to get pregnant, review information on mercury and other contaminants that are found in fish. Before taking Omega-3 supplements, be sure to talk with your doctor. Omega-3 capsules may interact with other medications and have a blood-thinning effect. If you are vegetarian, flaxseed oil can offer Omega 3 fatty acids as well.

Milk and Milk Products

Milk products are our main source of calcium and vitamin D, both of which are essential for healthy bones and teeth. Milk and milk products are also a good source of riboflavin, potassium, protein and magnesium. Vitamin D is a hot topic in research prevention at this time.

The recommendation for calcium is 1,000-1,200 mg per day. One serving of milk contains about 300 mg. Other sources of calcium include yogurt, cheese, dark green vegetables and calcium-fortified orange juice. The U.S. Department of Agriculture MyPyramid recommends three cups of milk or milk products per day based on a 2,000-calorie diet. If you cannot tolerate milk products, try lactose-reduced products. Also, talk with your doctor about using calcium/vitamin D supplements.

If you are dairy-free or vegan, be sure to educate yourself about getting the right amount of calcium and other nutrients.

Vegetables

Everyone knows that they should eat plenty of vegetables. Vegetables are low in calories but high in fiber, potassium, vitamins A, C and E and phytonutrients. Vegetables that are dark in color have the most nutrients. Examples are broccoli, spinach, sweet potatoes and carrots. Benefits of eating vegetables include reduced cancer risk, reduced risk of heart disease, lower blood pressure, diabetes prevention and help with weight control. The U.S. Department of Agriculture MyPyramid recommends five (one-half cup) servings of vegetables every day based on a 2,000-calorie diet. Choose a wide variety of colors when selecting your vegetables each day for the most health benefits.

Fruits

Apart from vegetables, fruits are the most colorful foods on the pyramid. They provide fiber, folic acid and a variety of other nutrients such as vitamin C, potassium and health-protective phytonutrients. Also, they are relatively low in calories and make a healthy, filling snack. Benefits of fruits are similar to those of vegetables. The U.S. Department of Agriculture MyPyramid recommends four (one-half cup) servings of fruit every day based on a 2,000-calorie diet. Choose a wide variety of colors when selecting your fruits each day for the most health benefits.

Nuts and Seeds

Nuts can provide a powerhouse of nutrients. Each type of nut offers its own health benefits. For example, walnuts contain plant-based Omega-3 fatty acids, almonds are high in vitamin E and brazil nuts are high in selenium (an antioxidant). Since nuts and seeds are high in calories, be sure to watch your portion size. The U.S. Department of Agriculture MyPyramid recommends a small handful of nuts (about one oz., equal to 20 small nuts, or two tablespoons of peanut butter) every day based on a 2,000-calorie diet.

Beans

All beans are inexpensive, low-fat, nutrient powerhouses. They contain protein, fiber, B vitamins, iron, folic acid, potassium, magnesium and phytonutrients.

Protein

Meats are currently the main source of protein in the American diet. Reducing the amount of meats we eat and increasing our intake of vegetables, fruit and whole grains is essential to eating more healthfully. All red meat choices should be lean, and poultry should be skinless. Choosing white meats over red meats is a good general strategy. Fish should be eaten at least twice a week. Beans, tofu and nuts can substitute for meat in meals. This food group (meat, beans, seeds, nuts and fish) provides protein, B vitamins, iron, magnesium, zinc and vitamin E. The U.S. Department of Agriculture MyPyramid recommends five to six oz. of meat protein a day based on a 2,000-calorie diet.

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