Susan B. Sloane, BS, RPh, CDE, has been a registered pharmacist for more than 20 years and a Certified Diabetes Educator for more than 15 years. Her two sons were diagnosed with diabetes, and since then, she has been dedicated to promoting wellness and optimal outcomes as a patient advocate, information expert, educator, and corporate partner.

The nation is obsessed with nutrition these days. From Dr. Oz to Michelle Obama, proponents of healthy eating are spreading their message loud and clear: people in the United States need to change their eating habits!

The interpretation of how to implement this much-needed change varies, but the premise remains the same. As people in the U.S., we demand increasingly larger burgers, extra size to our value meals, more cheese on our pizza, more sugar, and more preservatives. As a culture, we have been taught to always seek the bigger and better option because our society affords us the freedom. This ingrained notion may be slowly decreasing not only our productivity but also our life expectancy.  

The epidemic of being overweight

It is no great secret that more people in the U.S. are overweight than ever before. It is becoming acceptable to be grossly overweight. We are heavier and more sedentary than ever before. Children substitute video games for outside play. Adults have been opting for the elevator instead of the stairs and the easy fast food option instead of bringing healthy lunches to work. 

It is also no great surprise that the condition known as diabesity is at an all-time high. Let’s step back for a second and think about that last sentence. We have now gone so far as to change our language to accommodate the obesity epidemic.

New dietary standards

The 2010 DGAC (Dietary Guidance Adherence Committee) released a report to help us understand what changes need to be made to affect change and establish healthy diet standards in this country. The DGAC was established jointly by the USDA and the US Department of Health and Human Services to assess and advise the general population on proper eating habits. 

The findings of this report stated that people in the U.S., of all ages, consume too few vegetables, fruits, whole grains, dairy products, and seafood, and eat too many foods with added sugars, solid fats, sodium, and refined grains. This is hardly a recipe for a “happy meal.”

With this knowledge, the question now becomes: what is the recommended prescription for a balanced healthy diet?

9 healthy diet tips

1. The general consensus seems to lean toward a plant-based diet that includes vegetables, cooked dry beans and peas, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. It features moderate amounts of lean meats, poultry, and eggs. 

2. Energy-dense high-fat foods should be replaced by more nutrient-dense food choices. Research has shown that energy-dense foods are much cheaper per calorie and more readily available, making them hard to turn down in this economy. Frequent consumption of sugared soda and other energy-dense foods have been linked to poverty, low education, high prevalence of TV watching, less physical activity, and obesity.

3. Saturated fats should constitute less than seven percent of total calories; instead of saturated fat, use mono or polyunsaturated fat.   

4. Sodium consumption should be no more than 2300 mg per day. People with hypertension may want to keep sodium intake even lower. Sodium is found in many canned foods and heavily processed meat products.

5. Read labels carefully. Food companies are notorious for substituting one unhealthy ingredient for another. For example, low-fat yogurt often has more sugar to provide better taste.

6. Fish is a wonderful option to incorporate in any diet plan, and most nutrition experts suggest that you eat at least two servings of fish per week. Fish is loaded with protein, vitamins, and minerals, and low in saturated fat. Many types of fish are also rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are necessary for proper brain growth and have been shown to have a protective effect against heart disease. Deep-water fish such as wild salmon, sardines, herring, and sablefish are high in omega-3 fatty acids. Most seafood, with the exception of shrimp, is low in cholesterol. Three ounces of shrimp contain approximately 125 mg of cholesterol, so shrimp should be consumed only in moderation.

Now for the disclaimer: Nearly all fish can contain traces of mercury, which can be toxic at high levels. The FDA and the EPA advises young children and women who are pregnant, nursing, or trying to become pregnant not to eat more than 12 ounces of seafood per week. The fish that seem to have the highest mercury content are shark, king mackerel, and tilefish. It is important to keep the this information in mind, but don't let it deter you from eating fish altogether. 

7. Let us not forget to mention one of the most powerful tools in the diet arsenal: fiber. Adding fiber to a diet plan has been shown to help keep blood sugars down, help with weight control, and even prevent certain cancers.  

The amount of fiber that is recommended for a healthy diet can vary depending on whom you ask. It is helpful to aim for at least 40 grams of fiber daily. Start increasing your fiber intake slowly if you are not used to it in order to avoid sudden changes in bowel habits or gastrointestinal discomfort. Choose beans, vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. Aim for at least three grams per serving and 10 to 15 grams per meal.

8. The recommended amount of protein in the diet for most adults is 10 to 15 percent of your daily calories. Meats are not necessary to achieve this if a plant-based diet is being utilized. Meals that provide a variety of vegetables, legumes, and grains can contain sufficient protein for a diet plan. Eating fish and lean meats is also an option.

9. Calcium is another important component of a balanced diet. Good calcium sources include green vegetables, beans, figs, milk, and low-fat dairy products. Skim milk is the best option, and several cheese and yogurt choices are available with low-fat content. Calcium is one of the most important dietary minerals for growth, maintenance, and reproduction, and it has been shown to decrease incidences of osteoporosis. It may also reduce incidences of certain types of cancer and help with weight loss.  

Put this information into action

Most of us understand what constitutes a healthy diet, but that understanding has not yet made a significant difference in the eating habits of the majority of people in the United States. A recent report published by the NPD Group Inc. called “Healthy Eating Strategies by Generation” found that 80 percent of the population studied (nearly 170 million people) have a diet that needs improvement. 

The cause of this epidemic in obesity and diabetes has perplexed many experts in healthcare. If we have the knowledge, we should also have the power to follow these recommendations. Many have blamed product labeling that is difficult to interpret. In response to this, the Grocery Manufacturers Association announced a new front-of-package labeling program to help consumers identify healthy products.

Note: Guidelines for healthy diets vary from person to person depending on underlying health conditions. For example, a person with kidney disease will have protein restrictions and someone who suffers from colitis may not be able to eat a lot of fiber. For those who are able, a visit with a registered dietitian can be extremely helpful.