The carbohydrates, fats and proteins in the foods we eat provide our bodies with energy to fuel our physical activity and digestion, as well as powering our energy-hungry brains.
While our bodies can derive energy from all three of these food components, consuming each in the proper proportion will help you achieve balanced nutrition, maintain energy levels throughout the day, and contribute to longer-lasting satiety.
Below are the categories for each food group:
Vegetables and Fruits
Half of each major meal you consume should be vegetables or fruits. Because fresh fruits and vegetables are high in both water and fiber, and low in fat, these foods are typically low in overall calories. Thus, meals that are composed primarily of vegetables and/or fruits can help you control your total calorie intake. Also, fruits and vegetables provide high concentrations of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, compounds that facilitate cellular repair, can help to prevent cancer and maintain overall health. Particular group of nutrients are associated with each vegetable or fruit color group. For example, dark leafy greens are typically high in both iron and folic acid, while orange and yellow fruits and vegetables often contain potassium and vitamin C. Thus, by consuming a wide range of colors, you are more likely to achieve optimal levels of each vitamin and mineral.
Grains and Fiber
A quarter of your main meals should be comprised of grains, but these come in a number of forms, so you’ll have to be an attentive shopper to be sure you choose ones that give you nutritional benefit. There are two kinds of carbohydrates we’ll discuss here. The first is refined, or “simple”, carbohydrates, which means the sugars are broken down and therefore are much more quickly absorbed by your body. Simple sugars can lead to blood sugar spikes right after the meal, and these levels can then quickly fall after your body stores or uses the energy from the sugars you consume. Sugar is one form of energy for your body, and so when your blood sugar goes up, you’ll typically feel energized…aka a “sugar high”. But, when it falls quickly, you can be left feeling tired, and craving the high level again, which can propagate a vicious cycle of consuming more food and more calories to re-achieve that sensation. Steady levels of sugar in your blood are much more desirable, they can help reduce overeating and help you avoid the roller coaster feelings associated with oscillating high-then-low blood sugars.
Two large medical bodies have released recommendations on carbohydrate intake. The Institute of Medicine recommends that adults get between 45–65% of their energy from carbohydrates and the World Health Organization has similar guidelines and recommends a dietary carbohydrate intakes of 55–75%, and goes on to say that only 10% should be from simple carbohydrates.
Complex carbohydrates are the second type of carbohydrate we will discuss and are consumed in a less broken-down form. Therefore, it takes your body longer to digest them, keeping your blood sugar levels more level, and leaving you feeling fuller for a longer period of time. There is a standardized scale, called the “glycemic index” which rates foods on the degree of blood sugar elevation a person experiences after consuming certain foods. Using this scale may help you to choose foods that keep your blood sugar levels more steady.
Fiber is another component you can add to your diet and has many health benefit including helping you feel full and slowing sugar absorption.
See our article on fiber for more on this subject!
The keys to optimal protein consumption are quality and moderation. Most North Americans consume more than the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for protein. Rich sources of protein include meats, soy, legumes and nuts. However, it is important to bear in mind that many other foods in the diet, including grains and dairy, also contain protein, and thus contribute to overall protein intake. In selecting high quality meats, look for unprocessed meats and limit those meats that are high in saturated fat. (i.e. beef, lamb and pork other than tenderloin). A good rule of thumb for meat-eaters is to limit meat intake to one serving per day (or two small servings).
Some proteins such as salmon, nuts such as walnuts, pecans and hazelnuts, along with some oils such as flaxseed oil are loaded with Omega-3 fats. Intake of these fats have been suggested to decrease heart disease and stroke risk.1 The data is mixed on whether Omega-3 fat intake can help decrease the risk of cancer, with the most convincing data revolving around breast cancer reduction, according to the American Cancer Society.2 In order to enjoy the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, consider incorporating regular consumption of fish into your diet.
Appropriate levels of healthy fats in the diet are important for many reasons. Our bodies use fats in many ways. The membranes of all the cells in our bodies are made of fats, a layer of fat under of skin keeps us warm, and, fat stores provide energy when supplies of glucose run out. As with protein, quality and moderation are crucial. In addition, fats called “trans fats” and are added to extend the shelf life of processed foods.
There are 2 types of cholestrol: LDL - "bad" cholestrol and HDL - "good" cholestrol.Consumption of these fats may increase your “bad” or LDL cholesterol, and lower your “good” or HDL cholesterol. Avoiding this sort of fat as much as possible will have heart-protective qualities. Look for unprocessed oils (such as extra virgin olive oil), and steer clear of processed foods in order to avoid trans fats as much as possible.
Water, and unsweetened tea and coffee are better choices than sweetened beverages. Teas can include herbal infusions, which offer caffeine-free options. Many sweetened beverages contain high fructose corn syrup, which is a simple carbohydrate, and, as above, can lead to blood sugar spikes, adds extra calories and typically won’t keep you feeling full for too long.
If you follow the basics of creating this healthy plate, you'll be on your way to feeling your best and obtaining optimal health! Stay tuned for more articles on healthy eating and tips to help you make good dietary choices!
1Penny M. Kris-Etherton, PhD, RD; William S. Harris, PhD; Lawrence J. Appel. AHA Scientific Statement Fish Consumption, Fish Oil, Omega-3 Fatty Acids, and Cardiovascular Disease.
2American Cancer Society. www.cancer.org