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The Facts About Diet and Nutrition

Eating a nutritious diet in your day-to-day life is essential to support overall health.

A woman sits on the kitchen counter eating and a man stands by her cutting vegetables.

We all know keeping a nutritious diet is a vital component to maintaining health and well-being. However, knowing exactly how to do so and what combination foods constitute a nutritious diet can prove difficult.

This is especially true when the internet and popular media are flooded with information touting fad diets and detoxes, which promise to contain the "key to lasting health" and, more often than not, weight loss.

On a basic level, achieving a nutritious diet is primarily about what kinds of foods you consume—and how consistently you eat them—rather than focusing on the numbers game of counting calories.

What is good nutrition and a healthy diet?

A healthy and nutritious diet can vary greatly from person to person, based on preferred foods and specialized needs due to underlying health conditions, such as diabetes.

Generally, though, a person's diet is considered healthy and nutritious when the foods they eat promote health, energy and vitality, which is admittedly vague.

A balanced diet should contain a variety of nutrient-dense foods from different food groups. For example, a healthy and nutritious diet is typically made up of a majority of whole foods including fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds, whole grains, beans, lean meat, fish, and healthy fats from foods like olive oil and avocados.

Of course, having good nutrition doesn't mean you must stick to healthy foods 100 percent of the time.

Rather, the goal is to establish a consistent pattern of healthy eating so you build a healthy relationship with food. When you have an established pattern of healthy eating and achieve better control over habits, you'll be able to enjoy the more indulgent moments without the worry of derailing your well being.

What do I need to know about nutritional guidelines?

The United States government has issued guidance on nutrition for more than a century. In the early days, this came via advice in brochures and bulletins.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the country came to a turning point in the 1970s when the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs was established to focus on programs to address hunger and to investigate the link between nutrition and the health of Americans.

The committee found that national nutrition guidelines were needed to address the changes in the American diet that occurred in the preceding 50 years.

Since then, the government has updated the national nutritional guidelines on a five-year basis, often accompanied by ensuing controversy.

The most recent set of national nutritional guidelines for the period 2020 to 2025 recommended keeping a balanced diet with food from all the food groups, focusing on consuming nutrient-dense whole foods. The guidelines suggested avoiding foods and beverages with added sugars, saturated fats and too much sodium—all of which are characteristic of popular packaged and processed foods.

What are dietary reference intakes?

Dietary reference intakes, known as DRIs, are quantitative values that outline the recommended daily requirements, minimum daily needs and the maximum amounts that can be tolerated in a day for each nutrient.

DRIs were created by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies in the 1990s.

So how can we use DRIs? Well, the simple answer is to monitor the nutritional value of the foods you eat so you can ensure you're getting enough nutrients for your body to function at an optimal level. You may choose to use a journal or a phone app to help you record and keep track of what you eat.

What determines your calorie needs?

How many calories your body needs to function at its best depends on how old you are, how much you weigh, your height and how active you are on a regular basis.

While staying within recommended calorie limits is recommended, it's important to remember that all calories are not created equal. Eating 2,000 calories of processed foods is going to have a vastly different impact on your body's nutrition level than if you eat 2,000 calories of nutrient-dense whole foods.

For this reason, many find it helpful to focus more on the nutritional value of what they consume rather than the exact number of calories. The U.S. dietary guidelines recommend adults 21 years and older consume anywhere from 1,600 to 3,000 calories. Though the exact recommendation varies based on age and activity level, according to Cleveland Clinic.

What is the food guide pyramid?

The food guide pyramid was a nutritional education tool released by the USDA in 1992. The pyramid-shaped diagram was designed to show people how much of each food group they should eat. The bigger the section of the pyramid the more food from that section should be consumed relative to the smaller sections of other food groups above.

The food guide pyramid has been through revisions over the years but was ultimately done away with by the USDA. A new nutritional tool, called MyPlate, ultimately replaced the food guide pyramid.

MyPlate uses an illustration of a sectioned dinner plate to indicate how much of your plate should be covered by each food group. The new guide comes with digital tools to help individuals better plan nutrition.

What is the most important thing to read on food labels?

To ensure food is nutritious, you should start by ensuring it doesn't have any or is low in added sugars, sodium, refined sugar and saturated fats.

Take a moment to look at the "%DV" or daily value section, too. This section indicates the percentage of the daily value of each nutrient in the food. A daily value of 5 percent or less is considered low whereas a 20 percent of daily value or more is considered high, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Causes and risks of eating too much or too little

Overeating occurs when you eat past the point of being full, whereas undereating occurs when a person does not eat enough food to sustain their health, energy and vitality.

People overeat and undereat for many reasons, such as anxiety, depression, underlying health problems, eating disorders and more.

Eating too much or not eating enough can result in the following physical symptoms:

  • Acid reflux
  • Anemia
  • Bloating
  • Decreased libido
  • Diabetes
  • Heartburn
  • Infertility
  • Lethargy
  • Malnutrition
  • Nausea
  • Stomach pains
  • Weakened immune system

Some of the mental and emotional symptoms of overeating and undereating include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Low self-esteem
  • Poor body image

If you feel your eating habits may be in danger of getting out of your control, reach out to your doctor for help.

Diagnosis and testing of your nutritional status

To assess nutritional status, your doctor may start by asking you about your diet, how you feel, your energy levels and your overall mood. From there, they may order up lab tests to evaluate your nutrition status, which will measure cholesterol, levels of iron, vitamin D and vitamin B12. The tests may include measurements of blood sugar levels and hemoglobin A1C levels, which are useful in determining whether you may be diabetic or prediabetic.

In some cases, your doctor may determine your body fat percentage and your body mass index (BMI).

After evaluating the results of your lab work, physical health and self-assessment, your doctor will be able to determine your nutritional status and begin planning a treatment strategy based on the test results.

Treatments for poor nutrition

Treatment for poor nutrition may include a customized dietary plan from your doctor, prescribed medications, a daily exercise recommendation and in some cases, behavior therapy.

While nutrition is critical to overall health, so is consistent exercise. Some exercise every day—even if only a little—is better for your health than doing intense exercise sporadically and inconsistently. The CDC recommends adults partake in 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity each week and some muscle-strengthening activity at least two days per week.

Good nutrition paired with regular exercise sets the body up to fight off inflammation and disease, and promotes overall mobility, health, energy and vitality.

Prevention of poor nutrition and aftercare

Preventing poor nutrition begins with education. You need to know what a healthy and nutritious diet looks like before you can put one in practice.

You can do this by reviewing and following the national dietary guidelines and consulting with your doctor. Once you know what a nutritious diet looks like, you can ensure you are implementing said knowledge into your everyday life by making conscious choices.

For some people, this may happen during the grocery shopping stage, whereas others may benefit from keeping a food journal or using digital tools like MyPlate to ensure that your diet is meeting your nutrition needs.

Resources for patients/caregivers

There are online resources for patients and caregivers that offer support for anyone who wants to use diet and nutrition as tools to improve their health. Here are links to get you started:


What is the difference between diet and nutrition?

Diet and nutrition are often said in the same breath, but they are very different concepts. You can think of it like this—diet is what you eat and how much of it you eat. Nutrition, on the other hand, refers to your body's use of the nutrients in what you consume to fuel your body's function.

Why is diet and nutrition important?

Diet and nutrition are important to achieving good health, energy and overall vitality. Having a healthy diet and overall good nutrition is vital for your body to function optimally, fight disease and promote longevity.

What are the 7 nutrients in our diet?

There are seven main categories of nutrients that are essential to the body. These nutrients consist of the following: carbohydrates, fats, minerals, proteins, dietary fiber, vitamins and water. Having the required amount of each of these nutrients is critical to overall health and well-being.