What Are the Characteristics of a Healthy Diet?

By Lori Rice

A healthy diet can be defined in many ways. Research has shown the necessity of certain components, and national recommendations have been made accordingly. In addition to these general nutrients, personal preferences and dietary restrictions must also be considered on an individual basis. Although a healthy diet may encompass a wide variety of eating styles, there are a few characteristics that stand out.

Focus on Fresh Fruits and Vegetables

Fresh fruits and vegetables are some of the most beneficial foods when it comes to nutrients. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that adults eat 2 cups fruit and 2 1/2 cups vegetables each day. Each type of fruit and vegetable provides a unique combination of vitamins and minerals necessary for proper body function, so the healthiest diets include a wide range of produce. Dark, leafy greens are rich in vitamins K and C, and folate. Potatoes provide potassium; berries provide vitamin C, phytochemicals and flavonoids. In addition, fruits and vegetables are full of fiber, which promotes a healthy gastrointestinal system. They're also lower in calories, which is beneficial to weight loss and maintenance.

More Whole Grains

A healthy diet is rich in whole grains. It includes few refined grains, unlike those foods using white, processed flour and packaged baked goods. Whole grain bread, wheat berries, oats, buckwheat, quinoa, black rice, popcorn and barley all fall into the whole grain group. In addition to providing fiber and vitamins such as vitamin E, whole grains have been associated with a reduced risk for cardiovascular disease. It’s recommended that adults eat 6 to 8 oz. of grains each day, and most of the sources should be whole grains.

Nutrient-dense Protein

Regardless of whether you choose to eat meat, protein is important for muscular growth and development and normal body function. Adults should consume 5 to 6 oz. of protein a day. There are many sources for protein to choose from; a healthy diet includes those that are leaner or provide an added nutritional benefit. For example, poultry, lean cuts of beef and pork and eggs are protein sources that provide vitamins and minerals such as vitamin B12, iron and zinc. In addition, fatty fishes such as salmon provide heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Beans and legumes of all forms supply protein while contributing dietary fiber. Dairy products are best known for their contribution of calcium.

Limit Processed Foods

Processed, packaged foods found on most convenience store and supermarket shelves are often full of sodium, additives, preservatives, excess sugar and unhealthy fat. In addition, frozen meals and fast food can also contain these unhealthy components. A healthy diet contains a limited amount of these foods and focuses on fresh, whole and natural foods. If you consume packaged foods, seek out those that contain the fewest ingredients and ingredients that you fully understand.

Healthy Fats

Choosing the best types of dietary fats can be an important key to a healthy diet. You should consume no more than 25 to 35 percent of your total daily calories from fat, and saturated fat should make up less than 10 percent of your calories. Choose plant-based oils, nuts and seeds to increase your intake of polyunsaturated fats that are heart-healthy and restrict you intake of butter, full-fat dairy products and fatty meats such as sausage, bacon and hamburger. Minimize your consumption of trans-fatty acids, an especially unhealthy type of fat, by lessening your intake of prepared baked goods and checking product labels for these fats.

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