Essentials for Eaters and Dieters

Healthy Lifestyles

Smart Selections
Smart Selections
Healthy Lifestyles
Food Selection



What Does the American Diet Look Like?

Food Guide Pyramid
Food PyramidPeople in the United States have been gaining weight. Within the past 30 years, there has been an enormous increase in the number of obese people in America. In fact, 2 out of 3 people in the United States are considered overweight or obese. The question is how do we stop gaining the excess weight and begin to lose it?

The United States Department of Agriculture introduced the new Food Guide Pyramid in 2005 (pictured to the right). Foods within each group are similar to each other but not identical. It is best to select a variety of foods to meet your needs. The new guide introduced a term “discretionary calories”, which is the allowance of calories that can be taken from calorie-dense, low nutrient foods. These foods are mostly high in added fats and sugars and tend to be over-consumed. Thus, the guide recommends discretionary calories to 13-22% of total calorie intake (shown in lightly shaded area in the top of the right figure. As you can see, there are no “bad” foods that must be avoided at all times. Some foods just need a little more planning in order to fit into a balanced and healthful eating pattern. See the 3-day sample menu for examples.

What do we actually eat?
Food Pyramid Cut OutHowever, according to a profile of what Americans really eat, most people are not following these recommendations very closely. In fact, the average American diet is better represented by the altered food guide pyramid shown left.

First, the big light-colored triangle shows that nearly half of the calories consumed come from foods that are calorie dense foods with added fats and sugar. Although these foods can be part of healthy meal, it becomes difficult to have a balanced meal if these foods make up half or more of the foods eaten each day.

Second, average Americans eat fewer fruits and vegetables than the recommendation. This is shown in the above pyramid as an empty space between green (vegetables) and red (fruits) bars.

Balance a meal by reducing foods high in fats and sugar
If you are eating like the Pyramid above, it is almost impossible to make your meal healthy. You will need to reduce the amount of added fats and sugars in your diet and increase the consumption of fruits and vegetables so your overall eating pattern reflects the balanced food Guide Pyramid above. These modifications will improve your health and simple changes can help you maintain a healthy weight long term.

It is important to consume a balanced quantity of all of the food groups. Any food can be included into a diet, as long as the overall diet is healthy and balanced. You do not have to expel all chips, cookies and ice cream. You can still eat these foods periodically, but you will need to find a variety of foods from the base of the Pyramid that you can enjoy every day.

How do we know what is “healthy?” — Nutrition Research and the Media
Every magazine, newspaper and local news program seems to promote the latest nutrition trend, regardless of its merits. Study results are sensationalized and taken out of context, blurring the line between fact and fiction. How can anyone make sense of this? It’s important to understand the following points about scientific research:

  • Scientific research is a slow and deliberate process. Media coverage is not. Nothing in research is regarded as fact after just one study, or even a handful of studies. Scientists are skeptical of new findings and you should be too.
  • Sometimes studies don’t agree. Discordant results are part of the investigative process and may be caused by differences in methods, sample population, or any number of unknown external factors. It takes many decades of peer-reviewed research studies and expert discussion to reach a consensus. Even then, the consensus may change when more data becomes available.
  • Not all sources are equal. An article on a website may or may not represent the results of a study accurately. Even trustworthy resources can sometimes make mistakes. The resources below are national organizations that value accurate representation of nutrition research:
The American Dietetic Association
National Agricultural Library, USDA
National Library of Medicine

United States Department of Agriculture. (2005). MyPyramid, An online reference describing the new Food Guide Pyramid, and discusses each food group of the pyramid and the proportions of foods in each group that should be consumed.

Putnam J, Allshouse J & Kantor LS (2002). U.S. Per Capita Food Supply Trends: More Calories, Refined Carbohydrates, and Fats. Food Review 25(3):2-15. PDF



Body Mass Index (BMI)

What is the BMI?
Body Mass Index or BMI is a simple tool to measure a person’s ratio of weight to height. BMI can help estimate a person’s total body fat, which is related to the risk of chronic disease.

Why is BMI important?
As BMI increases, the risk for some disease increases. Some common conditions related to being overweight or obese include:

  • high blood pressure
  • high cholesterol
  • cardiovascular disease
  • type II diabetes
  • some cancers
  • osteoarthritis
  • stroke

For people who fall into the overweight and obese categories, even a small amount of safe weight loss (10-20 pounds) can help lower the risk of developing chronic diseases and improve life span.

How is BMI calculated?

You can calculate your BMI by clicking here or using the one of the following formulas:

BMI = (Weight in Pounds) / (Height in Inches)2 X 703


BMI = Weight in Kilograms / (Height in Meters)2

What does my BMI indicate?
Use the following chart to determine what your BMI suggests.


Weight Status

Below 18.5






30.0 and Above


Is BMI always accurate?
BMI has some limitations because it only estimates a person’s body fat, it is not an actual measurement. BMI only takes into account a person’s overall weight. It does not differentiate between the amount of fat and the amount lean muscle a person has. For this reason, two people can have the same calculated BMI, but actually have different percentages of body fat. Due to the fact that muscle weighs more than fat, BMI may be inaccurate for athletes and others who have a muscular build because it incorrectly overestimates body fat. It may also underestimate the amount of body fat in people with petite frame sizes while overestimating body fat in people with larger frames.

The men below have the same height, weight, and calculated BMI, but different actual or measured percentages of body fat.

men BMI

What else should I consider?
BMI is just one of many factors related to developing a chronic disease. Other factors that may be important to look at when assessing your risk for chronic disease include diet, physical activity, and family history of disease.



Physical Activity & Eating Habits

Health Benefits of Physical Activity
A balanced diet and physical activity are two key components for staying in good health. Participating in regular physical activity can reduce the risk of numerous health problems, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and colon cancer. Exercise is beneficial to everyone, including elderly persons, adults, children, teens, and people who have conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes. It can help elderly people stay fit and reduce the risk of falls that they might have.

Incorporating Activity into Your Daily Life
hlineJust doing what you normally do is not enough activity to stay in good health, unless your job provides an opportunity of heavy physical activity. Therefore, most of us need to implement more activities into the daily routine. Some simple ways to add more activity to your lifestyle are taking the stairs instead of the elevator, walking to class instead of taking the bus, and walking briskly rather than slowly. If the distance were too far to walk, then perhaps taking a bike would be a better option.
In addition to increasing the activity level in the daily routine, you will need to incorporate time into your schedule for physical activity 2-3 times a week. You can choose from many different activities. Like for healthy eating, choose activities that you like and do them regularly. If you do not like running, then do not select that as your means of exercise. Not only will you dread working out, but you are less likely to stick with it. Getting a group of friends together to exercise can also make it more enjoyable. In addition, taking a class or joining a club such as tennis, dance, or martial arts is a good idea. Make working out a priority and see that it is done.

How many calories are burned by exercise?
Physical activity is good for health, but exercise alone is rarely enough to sustain healthy weight loss. Regular exercise complements a balanced diet to help you stay in a healthy weight range. For example, a 12 oz. can of regular soda contains approximately 150 Calories. You would need to engage in moderate intensity walking for about half an hour to burn off this one can of soda, or skip out on those calories altogether and choose water instead. A good rule of thumb is that every mile you walk or run burns 100 Calories. If you run, it will take less time, but it will still burn the same amount if you run a mile or if you walk a mile. You can easily overeat more than 1,000 Calories a day if your food comes mostly from the top of the pyramid in the Eaters section. You will need to walk for more than 3 hours (or ten miles of walking/running) to burn off the extra calories consumed in one day!

Click here for information about activities and the calories they burn.

Courtesy of Central Illinois Aikikai
Martial Arts
Martial Arts 2
Importance of Physical Activity during Weight Loss
The amount of activity that you engage in does have an effect on weight loss. Reducing the amount of physical activity that you do reduces the efficiency of weight loss. More importantly, if you are too tired to exercise during weight loss, it is very likely that you are not dieting correctly. A diet for weight loss is different from weight maintenance. Make sure that you are getting enough nutrients that are needed to keep weight loss going for several months (see Dieters section).

For more information about physical activity, intensity levels, and examples on how to add activity to your routine, check out the Links section.


Beyond Vitamins and Minerals -
Importance of Fruits and Vegetables

By increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables, you can reduce your risk for chronic diseases like cancer and heart disease. Nutritive components like vitamins and minerals are important to good health but they aren’t the only reason to eat a good variety of fruits and vegetables. Non-nutritive components like fiber, antioxidants and other phytochemicals may help prevent chronic disease. This classifies fruits and vegetables as a “functional food.”

What is it about fruits and vegetables that makes them functional?
There is something about eating plenty of fruits and vegetables that helps people lower their blood pressure, maintain a healthy weight, and lower their risk for numerous chronic diseases like cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. Studies on the clinical and population-wide scales have demonstrated that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables does more for a person’s health than a multivitamin containing the same blend of known vitamins and minerals. So we know the health benefits go beyond the nutritive components (i.e. calories, vitamins and minerals). Many labs have explored the mechanisms behind these effects by isolating and studying individual non-nutritive components found in fruits and vegetables: antioxidants, phytochemicals, and fiber:

Some vitamins and minerals can act as antioxidants (vitamins A, C, E, and selenium), but there are thousands of other plant compounds that have potential antioxidant properties. Scientists are still trying to discover and categorize all of them.

The term “phytochemical” simply means any compound a plant makes. These compounds are important for color, taste, scent, growth, and defensive mechanisms of the plant. There are probably hundreds of thousands of different phytochemicals and scientists have only begun to examine a few of them.  So far,  phytochemicals appear to have unique beneficial effects on human health.

Fruits and vegetables contain fiber, which helps to prevent constipation and other conditions including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and kidney stones. Fiber from fruits and vegetables adds bulk to your meals which prevents overeating and helps you feel full on fewer calories. Fruits and vegetables contain both soluble and insoluble forms of fiber.

Scientists have only just begun to explore how eating plenty of fruits and vegetables leads to better health. In the meantime, make fruits and vegetables a regular part of your daily meal pattern and reap the health benefits for yourself.

Additional Benefits of Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits and vegetables add a lot of volume and only a small number of calories to a well-balanced eating pattern. This helps reduce the intake of  other calorie-dense foods eaten at a meal. Fruit juices and canned fruits are more calorie-dense than their fresh and frozen counterparts and should be used less often. Fresh, frozen and canned vegetables are great any time.

Fruits and vegetables add variety, texture, and flavor to every meal. If you are not accustomed to eating fruits and vegetables, you may need to try them a few different ways to find something you like.

For more information on the benefits of fruits and vegetables, storing and preparing fresh produce, and getting your 5-A-Day the colorful way, visit our Links section

Form and Function: Fresh, Frozen, Canned, and Juiced
The processing of fruits and vegetables from their fresh forms to other forms (i.e. canned, frozen, juiced) changes some of the properties of the food. Some positive changes include making the product more convenient, digestible, and attractive. For example, frozen vegetable blends are a colorful and easily prepared addition to any meal. Even though some nutrients are destroyed during processing, a well-balanced diet rich in many forms of fruits and vegetables should provide all the nutrients you need for good health.

Some forms of fruit processing introduce undesirable changes like adding sugary syrups (canned fruit) or removing fiber (juices) that make the final product much more calorie-dense than the original whole fruit. It is easier to overeat when most of your fruit comes from canned fruits and juices. Select fresh and frozen fruits most of the time.

Appetite Control

The Hunger/Satiety Scale
Hunger has a wide range of intensities. Pay attention to your hunger and fullness cues. Imagine hunger as a scale from 1 to 10 where 1 is hunger to the point of light-headedness, 5 is no hunger, and 10 is “Thanksgiving full” where you may even start to feel pain. Ideally, you want to stay in the middle of this range between slightly hungry and comfortably full. If you allow yourself to get too hungry, everything starts to look good and it’s easy to overeat. On the other hand, if you are always eating before you feel hungry, you are ignoring the natural signals that help you maintain a regular body weight. It is important to stop eating just before you feel full because it takes time for the brain to get the fullness message. Some days you will be more active and require more energy than others, so respond to hunger cues appropriately.

Mixed meals promote balanced nutrition and increased satiety
In animal studies, low-protein meals result in increased food intake overall. If a meal is low in protein, more calories must be consumed in order to get the required amount of protein for growth.  This phenomenon has not been studied in humans. We believe eating an adequate amount of protein (10-20% of calories from protein) with every meal and snack will help regulate appetite.

Calorie-free sweeteners and appetite control
The body uses sensory cues to determine proper energy balance. There is evidence from animal studies that the brain associates the sweetness of traditional sugars with the calories they provide, thus reducing appetite when intensely sweet foods are consumed. Long-term use of calorie-free sweeteners (i.e. aspartame, saccharin, sucralose, acesulfame-K, etc.) can eliminate the connection between sweetness and satiety, leading to improper appetite cues. This phenomenon has not been well-studied in humans. It is our opinion that if you choose to use calorie-free sweet foods, use them consistently so your appetite can adjust to the appropriate intake level.

Liquid calories vs. solid calories
Calories consumed in the form of liquids (regular sodas, coffee/tea, juices, and milk) slip in under the appetite “radar.” In one study, people were given a daily snack (450 kcals) in the form of a liquid (regular soda) or a solid (jelly beans). Drinking the liquid snack did not change the participants’ eating habits. They continued to eat normally, thus adding those calories to their regular intake. Eating the solid snack, however, led to a change in food intake that actually balanced participants’ energy needs and maintained a steady calorie level. This phenomenon has been demonstrated in numerous other human studies, though there is a considerable amount of variability. It is our belief that if you choose to consume liquid calories in the form of soft drinks and fruit juices regularly, it will become more difficult to regulate food intake through appetite cues.

Essentials for Eaters and Dieters | Version 2.0
Copyright ©2005, 2006 University of Illinois Board of Trustees