We are what we eat, and our bodies have a true biological need for the nutrients found in food. Not only must we consume calories to survive, but the decisions we make in our diet help keep us free of disease.

We typically don’t think of Americans as being malnourished, but many Americans with plenty of food in their diet are, in fact, lacking many of the important nutrients we need for our health and well-being. We know this because of the number of Americans who are obese or suffering from chronic diseases. The Department of Health and Human Services recently estimated over 78 million adults and 12 million children and adolescents are obese, and the CDC reported more than 100 million Americans have diabetes or prediabetes. The latest Dietary Guidelines of America (DGA) noted half of all Americans – 117 million people – have one or more preventable chronic diseases, many of which are related to poor eating patterns.

Establishing a healthy diet has become difficult for a variety of reasons: we’re busy, we don’t cook, we have picky eaters in the family, or we eat based on convenience. I have been a clinical health coach for more than eight years, and with so many fad diets making the news, one thing is clear: People are very confused about what they should eat.

Here are some basic guidelines you can follow to whip your diet into shape and make smart decisions when you open the pantry or fridge.

Nutrients

As humans, we require six essential nutrients to live, including protein, fat, carbohydrates, water, vitamins and minerals. Each nutrient is an essential component working together to achieve our survival. You’re probably familiar with the food pyramid or the MyPlate, both were designed to simplify the five major food groups: protein (both plant and meat varieties), dairy, fruits, vegetables and whole grains. By eating a variety from these food groups every day, taking into account any dietary restrictions like allergies or calorie needs, you will supply your body with what it needs to feel your best.

Variety

The variety of nutrients we get from the different food groups is equally important. The different colors of fruits and vegetables, for instance, represent the different micronutrients contained in those foods. Eating a variety of grains, dairy and proteins ensures your body has the necessary tools to fight disease, and it’s important to choose your foods wisely to make sure you’re getting these benefits out of the calories you consume. One trend we’ve seen recently is cutting certain food groups out of your diet completely. While this can be beneficial in the short-term to pinpoint intolerances or detox your digestive system, long-term abstinence from whole food groups can deplete your body of important nutrient profiles and negatively impact your body’s overall function.

Food vs. food product

A 2016 study published in the British Medical Journal found that more than half of what Americans eat is “ultra-processed.” Most of the food we eat has been processed in some way so it’s safe and palatable by the time it reaches our plate, but “ultra-processed” food contains formulations of several ingredients such as flavors, colors, sweeteners, emulsifiers and other additives used to imitate qualities of unprocessed food or disguise undesirable qualities of the final product. These additives have zero nutritional value. If more than half of our diet consists of ingredients the body has no use for, we are painfully neglecting our essential nutrient requirements. Look at the ingredient list. If you wanted to, could you gather all the listed ingredients to make it yourself? If not, it’s food product instead of food.

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Added sugar

The World Health Organization and The American Heart Association strongly recommend we consume no more than 10 teaspoons of added sugar per day to maintain health and prevent disease, yet Americans on average consume more than 22 teaspoons of added sugar each day. It is estimated that over 75 percent of the food found in common grocery stores contain added sugar. Added sugar is different from the natural sugar found in fruits, plain yogurts, milk and certain vegetables. If you take the time to search ingredient lists for sugar, you’ll begin to identify the 61 different names used for added sugar. As a guide, four grams of sugar is equal to one teaspoon.

In a nutshell, we eat to live and we must eat well to live well. The good news is, eating well is actually very simple and goes back to the basics: a variety of whole foods with minimal processing or added sugar.

Jaime J. Larese, MS RDN LDN is a licensed dietitian and the manager of Wellness and Community Outreach at St. Peter’s Health. She received her Bachelor of Arts in journalism from the University of Montana and a master’s degree in human nutrition and food science from the University of Maine. Originally from Idaho, she has lived and worked in Helena since 2012.

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