If the New Year has you inspired to change your eating habits, the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services recently released the updated Dietary Guidelines for Americans to help you work toward a healthier lifestyle. These guidelines are revised every five years and serve as a guide for policymakers. They also serve as a tool for public health professionals and food service managers to help individuals start on a path to healthier living. For the first time, these guidelines encourage all of us to make healthy eating choices across the lifespan, which begins at pregnancy and progresses through adulthood.
Healthy eating is important at every stage of life. It supports growth and development and reduces our risk of developing a chronic disease like heart disease or diabetes. It also helps us manage chronic conditions. The Healthy Eating Index, much like a math test, measures how closely the foods and beverages we consume align with the guidelines. The closer the score is to 100, the more a diet aligns with recommendations for healthy eating patterns. In recent years, scores have ranged from 51 among adolescents to 63 for adults aged 60 years and older. This shows that no matter your age, we all have room for improvement.
The latest edition of the guidelines continues to encourage Americans to eat more nutrient-dense foods and beverages and limit those high in added sugars, saturated fat and sodium. Nutrient-dense foods help us meet our body’s nutrient needs without going overboard on calories. Examples of these types of foods include whole fruits and vegetables, whole grains like barley, oats, corn and wheat, low-fat dairy products like milk and yogurt, and lean meats.
A healthy eating pattern includes a variety of foods and beverages from all the food groups, with emphasis on nutrient-dense options in each. Aim to make half of your plate varying colors of whole fruit and vegetables. Choose whole grains for half of your daily grain intake. Vary your protein routine to include lean animal, seafood and plant sources, and move to low-fat or fat-free dairy. These recommendations are specific enough to guide you to the types of food groups to choose but broad enough to allow each of us to create personalized combinations of food and drink. You can customize your healthy eating pattern by considering these tips as well as your personal preferences, food budget and cultural traditions.
Small changes matter. Look at how you currently eat and identify one or two changes you can make to improve the health of everyone in your family. It may be as simple as replacing at least one soda with water each day, replacing chips with nuts at snack time or consistently serving a vegetable at dinner. You can also switch from bread, cereals and pastas made of refined grains to whole grain varieties. Another switch could be going from 2% milk to 1%. Start small by making one change, and it could lead to bigger results.
For more information on the new guidelines, contact the Meade County office of the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service.
Source: Courtney Luecking, extension specialist in health and nutrition
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