A hamburger or a salad? A baked potato or French fries? A milkshake or orange juice? A candy bar or an apple? We have to make choices about what we eat every day.
New food guidelines and the food pyramid that goes with them emphasize that we should eat more fruits, more vegetables, and more whole grains than we typically do now. We should also avoid lots of sugar, salt, and certain types of fats. And we should get plenty of exercise.
The best way to stay healthy is to eat foods packed with nutrients.
As a young person, you might not think that these recommendations apply to you. After all, you might consume greasy pizza and sugared soda pop every day and feel just fine. Or perhaps you stay skinny no matter how many French fries and candy bars you eat.
There are plenty of reasons to swallow your pride instead of a milkshake and pay attention to the guidelines, says Joan Lyon. She's a nutritionist at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in Alexandria, Va.
Evidence continues to build that eating certain kinds of foods protects people from cancer, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, weak bones, and other health problems. Eating the wrong kinds of foods, on the other hand, causes your body harm.
As a dietician in the U.S. Army for 21 years, Lyon worked with a lot of young soldiers. They didn't think it mattered what they ate, she says. They felt like they were going to live forever.
But, if you don't pay attention to what you eat when you're young, Lyon says, it's really, really hard when you're old and you find yourself sick and unable to do much about it.
Every 5 years, the U.S. government enlists scientists to update a document called "Dietary Guidelines for Americans" and a food pyramid illustration that goes with it. (See "Building a Food Pyramid.") As scientists learn more about the human body, nutrition, and disease, they adjust the guidelines to reflect the new information.
The cover of the latest edition of "Dietary Guidelines for Americans."
Lyon was a member of a large staff that helped a team of 13 scientists put together the latest set of guidelines. The USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services released the guidelines in January.
Coming up with new guidelines every 5 years is a complicated process. More than a year before the new report is due, experts gather the latest scientific evidence on vitamins, minerals, and various foods. They discuss the findings. Sometimes, different studies seem to give opposite results. Sometimes, the evidence is incomplete.
"It's a very long process," Lyon says. "People can interpret science in different ways even when they're looking at the same data." It's sometimes tough to come up with firm conclusions that everyone agrees with.
And new discoveries keep coming along. A team of researchers in England and Denmark, for example, recently discovered a compound in carrots that appears to reduce a rat's chances of developing cancer.
This kind of study wouldn't have carried much weight with the USDA committee, though, because the scientists prefer to look at studies involving people. If researchers were to repeat the rat experiment with people and got similar results, the 2010 guidelines might end up suggesting that we eat more carrots.
More than the old guidelines, the 2005 recommendations focus on weight control, Lyon says. (See "Packing Fat.")
"There's an energy equation," she says. "The calories you take in need to balance the amount of energy you expend in terms of physical activity and exercise, or you'll end up gaining weight. You need to make your calories work for you."
Getting plenty of exercise is an important part of controlling your weight.
The best way to stay healthy, Lyon says, is to eat foods that are packed full of nutrients.
Instead of the five servings of fruits and vegetables that used to be recommended, the new guidelines suggest that adults eat even more than that: 2 cups of fruit and 2 1/2 cups of vegetables each day.
Kids should adjust the amounts of fruits and vegetables based on energy needs and size. It might be worth talking to your doctor or school nurse for advice on the amounts that are best for you.
The widths of the colored triangles in the new food pyramid show roughly how much of different food groups a person should eat: Grains (orange), vegetables (green), fruits (red), oils (yellow), milk (blue), and meat and beans (violet). The new pyramid also emphasizes the need for exercise and the steps that a person can take every day to improve his or her diet and lifestyle.
The guidelines also recommend that people 9 years old and up should drink three cups of low-fat or fat-free dairy products each day and eat lots of whole grains. Brown rice and whole-wheat bread, for example, are better choices than white rice and plain bagels.
Whole grains are important because they don't go through all of the processing that strips fiber, magnesium, calcium, and other nutrients from many starchy foods. Look on labels for ingredients such as whole oats and whole wheat.
The new recommendations distinguish between different kinds of fats, as well. Young people between the ages of 4 and 18 should get between 25 and 35 percent of their calories from fat, the experts say.
But most of this fat should come from nuts, vegetable oils, and fish. You should avoid a type called "trans fats," which appear on labels for cookies, crackers, and other foods as "hydrogenated" or "partially hydrogenated" oils.
As far as exercise goes, the document recommends 30 to 60 minutes of activity for adults on most days of the week and at least 60 minutes of exercise for kids every day.
As much sense as the new guidelines make, many people still have a hard time changing their habits, even when they know what's best for their health.
Eating lots of fruits and whole grains is an important part of a balanced diet.
If you already eat lots of fruits, veggies, and whole grains, then keep up the good work. If you don't, Lyon says, try to start with just a few small changes, one at a time.
"Reach for fruit instead of candy," she says. "Try unsweetened beverages instead of soda. Get out and exercise and do physically active things with your friends." Eventually, these will become your new habits.
Long blamed for encouraging people to eat unhealthily, some companies are now joining in to help improve diets. Kraft Foods, for example, recently announced that it will stop advertising Oreos and other snack foods to kids younger than 12. And General Mills recently began making all of its cereals with whole grains.
More than ever, kids are making their own choices about how to spend their time and what to put in their mouths. Even if you feel fine, it might be worth learning how to read labels on the food you eatand keeping the food guidelines in mind next time you order a meal.
"If you follow the guidelines," Lyon says, "they can help you feel better and look better. They can help you have clearer skin, healthier hair, and give you more energy."
Who could complain about that?
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Word Find: Food Pyramid