Four Characteristics of a Healthful Diet

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Dietary choices are among the most important modifiable determinants of cancer and cardiovascular disease risk, the American Cancer Society reports. A healthy diet includes foods to help achieve and maintain body weight. This means eating five servings of fruits and vegetables daily, choosing whole grains over refined grains and limiting processed meats. These are important -- but not all-inclusive-- components of a healthful diet.

Healthy Fats

Add healthy fats to your diet to protect brain function. The brain is composed primarily of fats; consequently, fats are critical for neurological health. The protective sheath that encases neurons – known as myelin – is 30 percent protein and 70 percent fat. Oleic acid is one of the most common monounsaturated fatty acids in myelin. It makes up 55 to 85 percent of the fatty acids in olive oil and is also found in avocados and oils from tree nuts such as almonds, pecans, peanuts and macadamias.

Include healthy fat sources to your diet to reduce risk of cardiovascular disease. In a study published in the 2013 April issue of "The New England Journal of Medicine," researchers investigated the effect of the Mediterranean diet with additional healthy fats on the risk for cardiovascular events, such as stroke or heart attack. Participants at high risk for cardiovascular disease were assigned to one of three diet groups: the Mediterranean diet plus olive oil, the Mediterranean diet plus nuts or a control diet that included advice to reduce dietary fat. Those who consumed the Mediterranean diet supplemented with olive oil or nuts significantly decreased their risk of cardiovascular events and cardiovascular-related mortality. In fact, this study was stopped five years early as it was deemed unethical to continue.

Eat healthy fats regularly to reduce inflammation. Mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids found in plants and fish are anti-inflammatory. An article in the May 2010 issue of "Nutrition Reviews" by Paul Ross, R. Wall, Gerald Fitzgerald and Catherine Stanton, states that increased consumption of fatty fish or fish oil supplements yields beneficial anti-inflammatory effects, particularly for people with cardiovascular disease, inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis or other chronic diseases with intense inflammatory processes.

Keep It Clean

Avoid processed foods with artificial colors, flavors, additives and sugars. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest website, it’s best to steer clear of preservatives such as sodium nitrite and artificial sweeteners such as saccharin, aspartame and acesulfame-K. Caffeine, olestra and food dyes should also be avoided.

Choose fresh, whole foods instead of packaged goods for snacks. For example, eat an apple and two tablespoons of nut butter as opposed to a bagged vending machine item for an afternoon snack. Whole foods are naturally lower in sodium and sugar yet nutrient dense in comparison.

Prepare meals at home to avoid added sugar, sodium and oils that are often added in restaurant kitchens. In a research letter published in the 2013 July issue of JAMA, researchers found that on average, breakfast, lunch and dinner meals from 19 different sit down restaurants contained almost a full day’s worth of calories, fats and sodium. Nutritional information was pulled from the restaurant websites for inclusion in this analysis.


Include an assortment of fruits and vegetables into your diet to ensure that you acquire a variety of vitamins and minerals from your food choices. Interestingly, vegetables with similar colors tend to contribute similar nutrients.

Eat orange and yellow fruits and vegetables for rich sources of beta-carotene, potassium and vitamin C.

Choose green fruits and vegetables for calcium, folate and iron. Consume purple or blue-colored fruits and vegetables for quercetin, lutein and resveratrol.

Healthful Eating Practice

Eat slowly to improve digestion and possibly eat less. For you to eel satiated from a meal, your brain must receive a series of signals from digestive hormones and stretch receptors in your stomach. A study published in the 2008 July issue of "JAMA" found that slowed rates of ingestion were linked with significant decreases in calorie intake and increased satisfaction at meal completion.

Chew food completely to promote healthy digestion. Digestion begins in the mouth with salivary amylase to break down carbohydrates to simpler sugars. If one step in the digestive process is missed or not completed, the remainder of the chain will be affected. Incomplete or inadequate digestion of food in the gastrointestinal tract can result in indigestion, bloating and excess gas.

Stop eating when you feel satiated to prevent overeating and weight gain. In a study published in the October 2008 issue of "British Medical Journal," researchers investigated whether eating until “full” and speed of eating were associated with being overweight. Findings demonstrated that participants who ate “until full and ate quickly” were three times more likely to be overweight than participants from the “eat until full and did not eat quickly” group.