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We have the internet—we can easily find out what nutrients are needed for a balanced diet. But it’s never that straightforward. Between the pyramids, pie charts, complex food labels, and your friend who took one nutrition class and thinks he’s a dietitian, it can get a little confusing. Not to worry. We’ve simplified all that info here to give you a real person’s guide to a balanced diet.

Keep an open mind, experts say. “Your tastes change over time, and you may like different things, or like things you didn’t in the past,” says Kristi King, senior dietitian at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and a clinical instructor at Baylor College of Medicine, Texas.

Protein

Protein is essential. We need protein to build muscle tissue and for growth. Foods that contain protein, such as meat, fish, eggs, and dairy, also tend to be rich in other nutrients, such as Vitamins B and E, iron, zinc, and magnesium.

Most Americans are already getting enough protein, according to the US Department of Agriculture. You may be getting more protein than you think from foods like beans, nuts, seeds, or eggs (these are likely healthier protein sources than meat, according to the World Health Organization). Chicken, turkey, and fish are healthier choices than red meats (like beef and lamb). Processed red meats (e.g., sausages and bacon) are rough on your body; make them an occasional treat.

Here’s how to figure out how much protein you need
Multiply your body weight in pounds by 0.336. Unless you’re a serious athlete, you probably don’t need more.

For example:

  • If you weigh 150 lbs. you need 50 grams of protein a day (0.336 x 150 = 50.4)
  • If you weigh 200 lbs. you need 67 grams of protein a day (0.336 x 200 = 67.2)

Protein sources
Steak (size of a pack of cards) = 42 grams
Chicken breast = 30 grams
Most fish fillets = 22 grams
½ cup tofu (size of a pack of cards) = 20 grams
2 Tbsp. peanut butter = 8 grams
1 egg = 6 grams

More plant-based protein sources

Eating excessive amounts of processed meat and red meat can be problematic. There’s evidence that consuming them in high amounts regularly (especially processed meat) may increase the risk of cancer, according to a 2015 report by the World Health Organization.

Quick guide:
Processed foods (e.g., hot dogs, bacon, sausage, pre-packaged deli meats)
Red meat (e.g., beef, pork, and lamb)

The average American consumes roughly 4.5 ounces (128 grams) of meat per day, according to a 2011 study published in Public Health Nutrition. Try reducing your meat intake and fill up on plant-based protein sources, such as:

  • Lentils
  • Chickpeas
  • Nut butters (e.g., peanut, almond, cashew)
  • Edamame
  • Almonds and walnuts
  • Tempeh
  • Spinach
  • Kale
  • Chia seeds
  • Pumpkin or sunflower seeds

The Vegetarian Resource Group is a great source of information for vegetarians (people who don’t eat meat) and vegans (people who don’t consume any animal products). Meat-eaters can also find a lot
of great info.

Carbohydrates

You don’t have to be a marathon runner to enjoy carbs. “Choose good carbs, not no carbs,” says the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, Massachusetts (on its website).

Complex carbohydrates, like those found in whole grains, provide quick energy to your muscles, help you feel full, and contain fiber and many essential nutrients.

Grains are more nutritious when they’re whole, meaning that they contain the entire grain or kernel. Whole grains include steel-cut oats, brown rice, whole wheat flour, and quinoa. Refined grains (such as white flour) have had the bran and germ removed; this strips out some of the protein, fiber, and nutrients. Consume refined grains more sparingly than whole grains.

“Starchy” vegetables—like potatoes, carrots, and lima beans—also contain carbs. On average, it’s recommended that no more than a quarter of your plate consist of starchy foods (carbohydrates), according to the American Diabetes Association.

Things to look out for:

  • Avoid or go easy on sugary beverages (e.g., fruit juice, soda, sports drinks).
  • Potato chips don’t count as healthy whole grains—sorry. Chips and other processed snacks tend to be made with added sugar or refined grains, which are easy to overeat and cause energy spikes
    and crashes.
  • Have a sweet tooth? That’s OK; just try keeping it in check. Eat sweets sparingly and check out our UCookbook segment for healthier swaps and recipes.

Here’s a guide to how a nutritious plate might look.

Fruits & veggies

When we’re choosing vegetables and fruits, colors matter. Each color indicates different health benefits. For example, carrots are good sources of Vitamins A and E, while blueberries contain Vitamin C, manganese, and fiber. Try to make your plate as colorful as possible.

Creative advice from students on how to eat more fruits and vegetables

“I always put veggies in my smoothies, usually spinach, kale, arugula, or avocado. You can fit a ton of fruit and veggies into one small smoothie.”
—Caitlin C., fifth-year student, Northeastern University, Massachusetts

“Avocados are that extremely versatile friend that’s always there to bring you veggie- and fruit-filled joy. Whether it’s chopped up alongside some scrambled eggs, seasoned and mashed up on some on-the-go toast, or as a secret smoothie ingredient, avocados are a brilliant and welcome addition to any meal in need of a healthy boost.”
—José D., graduate student, Columbia University, New York

“A great way to add more vegetables to your diet is by making a stir-fry. You can make a big batch of stir-fry with 3–4 different vegetables, such as peppers, broccoli, carrots, celery, and onion, and a meat or substitute of your choice, e.g., beef, chicken, shrimp, lentils, black beans, and tofu. You can add a sauce, as well, to turn up the flavor.”
—Lindsay M., third-year undergraduate, Queen’s University, Ontario

How much should you eat?
The US Department of Agriculture has developed these evidence-based dietary guidelines:

  • Aim for 5–9 servings of veggies and fruits every day.
  • Aim to fill half of your plate with vegetables and fruits at every meal.

Here are some ideas

  • Orange carrots, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, pumpkin
  • Yellow bell peppers, squash, cauliflower, bananas, yellow/green apples
  • Blue blueberries, boysenberries, red cabbage
  • Red raspberries, cranberries, beets, grapes
  • Green arugula, chard, collards, spinach, kale, broccoli, celery

“I toss whatever veggies I have into a pan and cook them up. I add them to wraps, quinoa, or salads throughout the week,” says Caitlin C., a fifth-year student at Northeastern University in Massachusetts.

Or try a smoothie.

Fats

Our bodies need fat. It’s a macronutrient that provides us with energy. Fats are extremely dense sources of energy, so a little goes a long way. We also need fat to maintain our cell membranes, provide cushioning for our organs, and absorb vitamins.

Healthy fats come from plant sources, like seeds and nuts, olive oil, and avocados. They’re also in fish, especially salmon, sardines, tuna, and herring.

“I like avocados because they’re rich in taste, flavorful, and healthy. I eat them in the morning sliced over toast and scrambled eggs or sometimes I make homemade guacamole and use it instead of mayo,” says José M., a graduate student at Boston University, Massachusetts.

Saturated fats come from animal products, including milk fats, butter, and meat (especially red meat). Eating a lot of saturated fats can raise LDL (bad) cholesterol levels and may increase your risk of heart disease. You should limit your saturated fat intake to roughly 7 percent of your total daily calories, the American Heart Association recommends. In other words, try to eat very little of it.

Trans fats are especially problematic. These start as vegetable oils but are processed before being put into packaged foods, such as pizza dough, cookies, crackers, and french fries. Avoid items that have “hydrogenated” and/or “partially hydrogenated” oils in them (code for trans fats).

Finding balance

The point is this: Try to find balance in your diet. Just as with everything else in life, you’ve got to find what works for you. That might mean making a smoothie in the morning to amp up your fruit and veggie consumption or trading your hash browns for hummus. Whatever tactic you take, try your best to fit in important nutrients while still allowing yourself room for the occasional indulgence.

See more than 50 names used for sugar on food labels.

Get help or find out more

The Nutrition Source: Harvard School of Public Health
http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/

Learn more about balanced eating and nutrition: US Department of Agriculture
http://www.choosemyplate.gov/

Recipes and tips for college students: Minnesota State University, Mankato
https://www.mnsu.edu/shs/healtheducation/bmc/

10 things to know about nutrition labels: West Virginia University
http://well.wvu.edu/articles/nutrition_labels



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Katie Kretschmer is a freelance writer and graduate of Columbia University.

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Joanna Carmona is communications coordinator at the National Patient Safety Foundation. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Student Health 101. She has also edited collegiate textbooks for Cengage Learning and creating language learning materials for the US Department of Defense, libraries, and other educational institutions. Her BA in Spanish is from the University of New Hampshire.