A Healthful Diet: Are Individuals Missing the Big Picture?

Healthful eating includes selecting a wide and colorful array of foods from the five food groups, using healthful oils and eating just the right amount of calories. And, of course, it has to be pleasing to the palate.

However, the diets of many consumers are missing pieces that prevent them from enjoying all the benefits healthful eating has to offer. Health communicators can read on to learn about common consumer stumbling blocks and ideas to help them choose diets that are the picture of good health.

Stumbling block: Falling short on one or more food groups. Many people aren’t consuming the recommended amounts of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and dairy products. They might not know they’re falling short, how much they need, or how to get enough.
Solution: Urge them to follow an eating plan such as the MyPyramid or Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH). They’re balanced, based on sound science, and easy to follow. See the “Putting it All Together” sidebar for more information.

Stumbling block: Following the latest fad. Many popular diets are notorious for banning certain foods or even entire food groups. For example, many popular diets eliminate nutritious foods such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and dairy products. Generally, consumers know these diets aren’t the best for good health, but look to them as a temporary “quick fix” until they take off the pounds.
Solution: Give consumers the good news that a balanced eating plan is multi-purposed: it not only promotes good health, but can also help them lose weight and prevent health problems such as diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure. Fortunately, people tend to tire quickly of lopsided diets that exclude foods they like. Help them along by emphasizing the health benefits of the foods that they are excluding and how eating a balanced diet can help them feel better and have more energy. This may help motivate consumers.

Stumbling block: Missing the moderation message for favorite foods. Some consumers mistakenly believe that many foods they like, such as candy, desserts, or certain snacks are “bad” and can’t fit into a healthful diet. Ironically, the belief that favorite foods must be banned is a major obstacle that prevents many people from doing more to improve their diets.
Solution: As a health professional or nutrition educator it may be helpful to use a positive approach to teach consumers that they can enjoy treats as part of a balanced, healthful diet. Introduce interactive tools, such as MyPyramid Tracker (http://www.mypyramidtracker.gov/) to show consumers the whole picture, including what nutrient needs they have met and where they can fit in “treats.” Consumers can also learn to make “balance” a part of everyday living by practicing small trade-offs that can alleviate feelings of deprivation. For instance, if you eat a larger lunch, go for a lighter dinner of a bowl of soup and a small plate of salad.

Stumbling block: Not Viewing a food’s total nutrient package. Some people shun a nutritious food because it contains an ingredient such as added sugars or sodium. See “Know Your Numbers” for a 2000 calorie per day diet.
Solution: Encourage a total diet focus and explain how certain ingredients can make nutritious foods more palatable—for example, the sodium in a vegetable soup or sugars found in calcium-rich yogurt.

Stumbling block: Being confused about nutrients or “over focusing” on just one. Many consumers can tick off a whole list of basic nutrients such as carbohydrates, calcium, and vitamin C, as well as popular food components such as omega-3s and lycopene. But name recognition doesn’t mean consumers understand how nutrients benefit the body, what foods they’re found in, how much of a nutrient they are supposed to have in a day, or how to apply this information to their lifestyles. Also, when consumers constantly hear about one nutrient in the news, they sometimes think that’s the only one it’s important to pay attention to, such as including or excluding vitamin D, trans fat, sodium, etc.
Solution: Consumers find it motivating to hear about potential benefits from consuming a certain food or nutrient, which may encourage them to try new foods and expand their dietary horizons. So, explain that they need a full range of nutrients and food groups, and serve up the benefits, along with practical food-based tips like the ones in the “Know Your Numbers” tip box for a well-rounded diet.

Stumbling block: Losing sight of portions. Consumers sometimes interpret product attributes such as “fat-free” or “cholesterol-free” as license to consume large portion sizes.
Solution: Point out that foods with reduced or low levels of fat, cholesterol, or sodium can help them meet dietary recommendations, but don’t necessarily mean that the food is reduced in calories. Caution consumers to carefully read the serving size and calories per serving before deciding how much to eat.

Stumbling block: Taking a single-focus approach to healthful eating. Some people striving to eat well may ultimately short-circuit their own efforts by overdoing one healthful eating recommendation. For example, someone who fastidiously avoids dietary fat may not know they need to consume some fat to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins and phytonutrients in foods.
Solution: Take their interest in eating well to the next level by providing food-based tips that enhance their eating plans. For instance, if someone is only reducing sodium in their diet for blood pressure, encourage them to also increase potassium-containing foods such as fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products, because potassium helps normalize blood pressure.

Stumbling block: Wondering who’s the authority. Consumers say they’re bombarded with often-contradictory nutrition information from a variety of sources and find it difficult to separate science-based advice from faulty information. Consumer information sources range from health professionals and the government to the media and the Internet to the latest diet guru, family members, and the next door neighbor.
Solution: Help put contradictory information into context and establish yourself as the expert, repeatedly promoting scientifically sound nutrition information from sources such as the United States Department of Agriculture (www.mypyramid.gov) and the American Dietetic Association (www.eatright.org).

Stumbling block: Overlooking other lifestyle factors. Someone who eats well, but who is sedentary or smokes, doesn’t get the big picture of good health.
Solution: A balanced eating plan is a critical part—but not the only part—of a healthful lifestyle. Nutrition educators can encourage consumers to practice other health-promoting behaviors such as getting at least 30 minutes of physical activity a day, not smoking, managing stress, and getting enough sleep.

Putting It All Together: Two All-Encompassing Eating Plans
To achieve a balanced, healthful diet, the Dietary Guidelines recommend two similar eating patterns—MyPyramid, which is based on the USDA Food Guide—and the DASH Eating Plan. Both plans provide the framework for a healthful diet—including all five food groups with a focus on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat or fat- free dairy products—while offering flexibility and variety in food choices to suit individual preferences and dietary, including calorie, needs.


  • Energize your day with a balanced breakfast. Try whole grain cereal with strawberries and fat-free milk.
  • For healthy bones, enjoy a calcium-packed snack like your favorite low-fat yogurt.
  • Add nutritious veggies the easy way by heating canned soup with some frozen spinach or mixed vegetables.
  • Serve baked sweet potatoes as a side dish to get a boost of potassium, fiber, and vitamins A and C.
  • Enjoy a handful of nuts or sunflower seeds for healthful oils, fiber, and vitamin E.

The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans identified seven “nutrients of concern” in the diets of adults, meaning that many people aren’t consuming recommended amounts. These nutrients are shown on page 6, along with why it’s important to get enough and a few of their best food sources. For more information, visit the Dietary Guidelines Web site at www.healthierus.gov/dietaryguidelines.

1,000 mg/day*
Helps build and maintain strong bones; plays a role in muscle and nerve function. Milk, yogurt, cheese, fortified readyto- eat cereals, calcium-fortified beverages, collards, spinach, turnip greens, and soybeans, fortified foods and beverages
4,700 mg/day*
Helps maintain normal blood pressure by offsetting the effects of sodium; helps regulate the body’s fluid and mineral balance; helps with nerve impulse transmission and muscle contraction. Sweet potatoes, potatoes, beet greens, white beans, prune juice, yogurt, halibut, tuna, lima beans, bananas, and low-fat dairy products
25 g/day*
Insoluble fiber promotes digestive regularity; soluble fiber helps lower blood cholesterol levels. Dry beans such as navy, kidney, and lima beans; split peas; lentils; 100 percent bran cereals and whole grain breads; sweet potatoes; spinach; pears; raspberries; whole-wheat spaghetti; oatmeal
310 mg/day*
An important part of the body’s enzyme system; helps promote normal nerve and muscle function. Pumpkin seed kernels, Brazil nuts,100 percent bran cereals and whole grain breads, halibut, spinach, nuts, peanuts
Vitamin A
700 mg/day*
Promotes normal vision, and healthy cells and tissues. Liver, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, carrots, spinach, collards, kale, cantaloupe
Vitamin C
75 mg/day*
Helps form the body’s connective tissue; promotes healthy gums and capillaries. Guava, red sweet pepper, kiwi, oranges, strawberries, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, pineapple, potatoes
Vitamin E
15 mg/day*
Serves as an antioxidant that may help prevent the oxidation of LDL cholesterol. Fortified ready-to-eat cereals, nuts, seeds, peanuts, vegetable oils, wheat germ, avocados, spinach, sardines

* Recommended Daily Allowance and Adequate Intake are based on Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005

Know Your Numbers
Many people do not know how they stack up or how to manage nutrients of concern in a daily diet. Consumers can keep these in mind when checking the food label.


  • Total fat: Less than 65 grams
  • Saturated fat: Less than 20 grams
  • Cholesterol: Less than 300 milligrams
  • Sodium: Less than 2300 milligrams
  • Total carbohydrate: 300 grams
  • Dietary fiber: 25 grams