When most of us think of November, we think of festive fall colors, cooler weather, and of course Thanksgiving. There are a few other observances this month that involve food and nutrition: Diabetes Month, Peanut Butter Lover’s Month, and Good Nutrition Month.
What does “Good Nutrition” mean? In general, it means eating an adequate amount of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, proteins and fats each day (and spread throughout the day) to keep your body healthy. The exact amounts of each of these groups will vary depending on your current health status, age, weight, and activity level.
For example, someone who has diabetes has to be very knowledgeable about how many servings of carbohydrates they eat at each meal/snack, as well as making sure each meal/snack is “balanced” so that it includes either protein, or healthy fat, or a lot of fiber with the carbohydrate portion in order to keep blood sugar levels stable. The timing of meals and snacks for someone with diabetes is also critical; it is much easier to keep blood sugar levels stable if meals and snacks are eaten about the same time each day, and if no more than 5 hours pass between meals.
For someone with kidney disease, they may have restrictions on how much potassium, phosphorus, and protein they can take in. A person with celiac has to follow a gluten free diet. A person who chooses to be vegan has to pay special attention to sources of vitamin D, zinc, vitamin B12, and calcium as these can be low in a poorly planned vegan diet. An athlete will need to consume many more calories (primarily from carbohydrate) than your average person (for example Tour de France cyclists consume upwards of 6000 calories daily). These are just a few examples of “specific” areas of nutrition that need to be taken into account for different people in order to make sure they are following “good nutrition” principles.
For proper brain function and adequate energy levels, we need carbohydrates. The exact amount is going to vary tremendously for the reasons previously given. For most people, however, some general rules do apply for our nutrient intake.
Most people benefit from limiting their saturated fat intake to no more than 10% of total calories, keeping trans fat intake as close to zero as possible (or no more than about 3 grams per day), and eating about 20% of total calories from mono- and polyunsaturated fat. All of us need to also make sure that some of our polyunsaturated fats include omega 3 and omega 6 fats (these are called essential fats because our bodies cannot make these two fats). In general, it is recommended that the average person consume at least 1% of their calories from omega 3, and up to 10% of their calories from omega 6. The best sources of these omega 3 and omega 6 fats are nuts, seeds, avocado, seaweed, seafood, and vegetable oils.
Most people should also consume at least 25 grams of fiber daily. Fiber helps keep your cholesterol at normal levels, stabilize blood sugar, give us a sense of fullness (so we do not over eat), and keeps us regular! We can meet this fiber goal by consuming the following foods daily: at least 5 to 9 servings of fruits and vegetables, 3 servings of whole grains, 1 serving of nuts/seeds. Consuming legumes (beans) at least 3 times per week can also contribute to our fiber intake.
As far as protein, most people consume way more protein that they need. Most people only need about 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight. Athletes do need about twice as much, but even most athletes easily meet their protein needs. People who have kidney problems will likely be put on a low protein diet.
We also need to make sure we are drinking an adequate amount of water daily in order to help our body excrete waste products efficiently. A good indicator that you are drinking enough water is the color of your urine; it should be very pale yellow. (Be aware that if you are taking a multivitamin with high levels of B vitamins (or a strict B complex supplement), this will likely cause your urine to be bright yellow. )
In summary, just make sure you eat a variety of foods from each food group daily (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and protein) and limit your intake of “junk foods” (desserts, chips, candy, soft drinks, etc.) as much as possible.