When it comes to nutrition, the habits we develop as young people will likely stay with us throughout our lives. Even small changes we make to our eating and drinking habits can have a huge impact on our health and the way we feel, now and in the long-run.
Are you getting all the nutrients you need in your diet? Many of us aren't, but by educating yourself and paying attention to what you eat, you can ensure that you're eating a balanced diet.
The best way to think about a healthy diet is that it should balance nutrients. This means you are getting a balance of the three main nutrients – carbohydrates, healthy fats, and protein – every day on average, and, additionally, you are not under eating or overeating. Click below to learn more about these three main nutrients as well as additional nutrients that your body requires.
Carbohydrates provide fuel for our brains and muscles as well as contain important vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, and phytochemicals which help prevent disease. Grains are often our main source of carbohydrates, although fruits and vegetables and other foods also contain carbohydrates.
Grains are divided into two groups: whole grains and refined grains. Whole grains contain the entire grain kernel – bran, germ, and endosperm. In the process of refining grains, fiber and many key nutrients – which reduce the risk of heart disease, colon cancer, and obesity – are lost. This is why it is so important to make sure that at least half of the grains you eat are whole grains, as follows:
- Female young adults (age 18 to 24) should have about six servings of grains each day, at least three of which should be whole grains.
- Male young adults (age 18 to 24) should have about eight servings of grains each day, at least four of which should whole grains.
- The average American eats less than one serving of whole grains each day.
- Substitute a whole-grain product for a refined product whenever you can. For example, eat whole-wheat bread instead of white bread, try whole wheat pasta instead of white pasta, or eat brown rice instead of white rice.
- If the label doesn't say "100 percent whole grain," check the ingredient list to see if the food contains any refined grains or flour, such as enriched/unbleached wheat flour, durum flour, semolina flour, or rice flour.
- Look for ingredients such as brown rice, bulgur, buckwheat, barley whole oats, whole rye, or wild rice. Make sure these whole grain ingredients are first or one of the first ingredients on the list.
- Brown color does not mean the food is whole grain. Bread can be brown because of molasses or other added ingredients. Read the ingredient list to see if it is a whole grain.
- Often times, if there is a blurb saying "made with whole grain," the food contains very little whole grains. Foods labeled as "multi-grain," "seven grain," "cracked wheat," or even "100-percent wheat" often contain a majority of refined wheat. Either way, any whole grains are better than none, so do your best to try the whole breads, pastas, cereals, and crackers in your meals and snacks.
- Use whole grains in mixed dishes, such as barley in vegetable soup or stews and brown rice or bulgur wheat in casserole or stir-fries.
- Popcorn, which is a whole grain, can be a healthy snack if made with little or no added salt and butter.
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There is such a thing as healthy fat, which means you cannot and should not avoid all fat in your diet. Healthy fats provide energy and essential fatty acids, which help to keep our skin healthy, help absorb certain vitamins, and play a key role in brain development.
We do not need a lot of fat each day, recommendations are less than 30 percent of your daily calorie intake. Try to steer yourself towards foods that contain monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids, which may reduce your risk of developing coronary artery disease and help lower blood pressure and triglycerides. These healthy fats can be found in avocados, olives, nuts, fish, and oils (such as olive oil or canola oil that has not been hydrogenated).
Meanwhile, try to avoid trans fats, saturated, and hydrogenated fats because these fats can raise cholesterol levels and cause cardiovascular health problems. These fats are found in beef, pork, chicken fat, butter, butter/cream/milk fat, processed food such as potato chips, and many desserts – such as cookies or ice cream. It is okay to eat these fats occasionally, but they should be avoided in everyday foods.
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Protein provides building blocks for bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, and blood in our bodies. Proteins are also used to make important enzymes, hormones, and vitamins. Protein helps normalize blood sugars, makes us feel alert, and provides a feeling of fullness.
It can be found in many places, including many plant products. Soy, dairy, and nut proteins can be very good options for vegetarians or those trying to avoid solid fats found in meat. When choosing protein foods, look for lean protein such as lean beef and pork, chicken or turkey, beans or tofu.
Doing this can help you avoid some of the trans fats found in many protein sources and balance your diet better. Try to make seafood the protein on your plate twice a week. Also try to make beans, peas, and soy products as a main dish at least a few times per week.
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Fruits & Vegetables
The American Dietetics Association (ADA) guideline recommends eating five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day. That is at least two servings at each meal, but less than 20 percent of young adults fulfill the recommended daily amount. You should try to make half of your plate vegetables and/or fruits at every meal!
Fruits and vegetables are low in fat and calories, but they are important sources of fiber and key nutrients, which are both important for a healthy, balanced diet. When we eat fruits and vegetables, we can avoid foods that are full of empty calories, or high in processed sugars/flour.
Simple substitutions such as eating steamed veggies rather than mac-n-cheese as your side dish or choosing strawberries and chocolate sauce rather than cheesecake for dessert can help make your meal more nutritious and help you avoid eating empty calories and unnecessary fat.
How do we go about fitting all these fruits and veggies into our day? Here are some tips:
- Choose fruits and vegetables (for example, baby carrots and celery or green beans) as a midday snack instead of chips or sweets.
- Add vegetables to the mix when you cook: it's easy to throw in a handful of spinach, broccoli, peppers, or peas to your pasta, stir-fry, or sandwich.
- Variety is important. Be sure you eat a variety of vegetables throughout the week, including dark greens vegetables (broccoli, kale, spinach, romaine lettuce, or bok choy), starchy vegetables (green peas, potatoes, or corn), red and orange vegetables (tomatoes, squash, pumpkin, or carrots), as well as beans.
- Try steaming, microwaving, lightly grilling, or eating raw vegetables rather than frying them or slathering them with oil.
- Buy vegetables in season. They cost less and are likely to be the most flavorful.
- Buy vegetables that are easy to prepare such as pre-washed lettuce, cut baby carrots, or a bag of frozen vegetables that can easily be heated in the microwave.
- Aim to make your plate colorful with fruits and vegetables at every meal. If you sit down and realize your plate only has one to two colors on it, you should probably get up and grab some fruits or vegetables to add!
- Note: some non-colorful fruits vegetables are still incredibly nutritious! Cauliflower, onions, bananas, and garlic are packed full of nutrients.
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Dairy is important for young adults because it provides a key source of calcium and vitamin D to help bone growth (bone growth continues throughout your twenties). Calcium deficiency during young adulthood can put you at risk for bone breakage and/or osteoporosis.
The dairy group also provides vitamin D, potassium, protein, and other key nutrient. Some dairy products might also contain high amount of fat and sugar.
The dairy group includes milk, cheese, yogurt, and fortified soy milk. Note that some foods (cream cheese, cream, and butter) are made from milk but have little to no calcium. In general, young adults need three dairy servings each day (one cup of milk or yogurt, or 1.5 ounces natural cheese all count as one serving ).
Whenever possible, your dairy choices should be low-fat or fat free to cut calories and saturated fat. For example, choose skim or 1-percent milk over whole milk. Furthermore, try to limit your intake of sugary dairy products such as chocolate milk, fruit yogurts, frozen yogurts, or pudding.
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Many foods, such as milk and fruits, contain naturally occurring simple sugars. These sugars are not harmful to our body, and in fact may contain essential vitamins and minerals. The sugars to be concerned about are added sugars – such as glucose, fructose, corn syrup, and high fructose corn syrup – which are often added to processed foods. Used sparingly and in moderation, added sugars can enhance the taste of food.
However, too much sugar can fill you up and displace other, more nutritious foods – contributing to excess calories and weight gain. These added sugars are found in a lot of foods: granola bars, cereals, sports drinks, soda, dessert foods, processed snack, the list goes on. Your best bet to avoid these sugars is to look at the ingredients list: if there is a processed sugar high up on the list, put that item down and try a healthier alternative.
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If your diet contains a wide variety of foods – including whole grain products, fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products, nuts, seeds, eggs, and meat – then you are probably getting all the vitamins and minerals your body needs. But it is difficult to eat all those things on a regular basis, especially confined to the restraints of your busy life.
If you are worried that you are not getting enough vitamins and minerals because you do not eat enough variety of foods, try a vitamin that gives you 100 percent of the daily recommended amounts.
Many young adults should take a multivitamin each day, and young women should take calcium with vitamin D to prevent osteoporosis (thinning of bone tissue and loss of bone density) and iron if periods are heavy to prevent anemia. If you are taking a vitamin or other supplements, make sure to tell a doctor what it is exactly that you are taking.
Find out the vitamins you should be getting, where to find them, and the daily amount needed.
Want to keep monitor your dietary goals? Track your progress on your health goals using your Young Adult WAY2GO! Dashboard.
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- Sonja Swenson, public health education intern
- Nicole Aguirre, college writer
Reviewed By: Nancy Brown, Ph.D.
Last Reviewed: July 2013
Below are links PAMF accessed when researching this topic. PAMF does not sponsor or endorse any of these sites, nor does PAMF guarantee the accuracy of the information contained on them.
Choose My Plate, Official Web site.
Vitamins and Minerals, United States Department of Agriculture: National Agricultural Library.