Components of a Balanced Diet

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When the word 'diet' comes to mind, most people think of salads and near-starvation as they munch unenthusiastically on celery sticks and rice crackers. But a balanced diet—as in eating the right things in the right combination as opposed to depriving yourself—is actually a healthier way to go about reaching and maintaining a desirable weight and living a healthy lifestyle. Getting to know the six basic food groups can help set you on the right path for healthier eating.

Grains

Grains come in two types—whole and refined. Whole grains are the healthier of the two, as these are not made mostly from white flour as refined grains are. Things like whole-wheat products, oatmeal and popcorn are examples of whole grain foods, while refined grains make things like most breads and pastas. Whole grains are also naturally high in nutrients and fiber and should be make up 6 to 11 of your daily servings.

Vegetables

Veggies are great sources of antioxidants and vitamins like A and C, and are low in fat and calories. There are many different varieties to suit just about every taste, so you're sure to find at least a few you like. Carrots with a touch of low-fat dressing make a healthy snack, and you can spruce up that boring celery by adding just a bit of peanut butter. Try to incorporate four servings of vegetables into your daily routine.

Fruits

As vegetables, fruits are also great sources of antioxidants and vitamins. They're equally good fresh, frozen or canned, although you're more likely to reap the benefits of their full potential when they're fresh, as that's when you can take advantage of the fiber their pulp contains. Mix different types together, such as strawberries and kiwis, and blend them with ice to make a tasty and healthy smoothie. Three to four servings of fruits a day is ideal.

Meat and Dairy

The meat group surprisingly includes beans and nuts, as these foods are all great sources of protein, along with other important nutrients such as iron and zinc. The dairy group includes not only the obvious choices like milk and cheese but also yogurt. Two to three servings of meat and dairy a day are recommended, although doctors are suggesting that fewer servings of red meat and more oily fish are beneficial.

Sugars

One of the two lowest levels on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's food pyramid, this group includes both pure sugar and foods that are mostly calories with little nutrients, such as cookies, cupcakes and ice cream. Sure they're tasty and make us feel good—thanks to the endorphin rush the sugar causes—but those empty calories can add up, causing excess weight gain. So these types of foods should be limited to only small amounts per day.

Oils

The second of the lowest two levels on the food pyramid, this group includes cooking oils, salad dressings and mayonnaise. As with sugars, oils are calorie dense and should be consumed sparingly. It's important not to cut all oils out of your diet, however, as they provide us with beneficial fats, such as omega-3 fatty acids, and healthy alternatives, such as olive and canola oils and fish oil, are available.

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