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Understanding Food and Health

As parents, you want your family to be healthy -- yet sometimes it's hard to understand how. This information, from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, provides advice for healthy Americans age 2 years and over about food choices that promote health and prevent disease. You can find the complete Dietary Guidelines for Americans at

To meet the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, choose a diet with most of the calories from grain products, vegetables, fruits, lowfat milk products, lean meats, fish, poultry, and dry beans. Choose fewer calories from fats and sweets. The Dietary Guidelines describe food choices that will help you meet these recommendations.

Balancing What You Eat

You don't have to eat exactly the right amount of fat and calories at very meal or even every day. Health experts' guidelines about what to eat apply to diets consumed over several days. They don't refer to single meals or foods. So if you "splurge" for a family birthday celebration one day, make up for it by eating lighter the next day. Or, if you know you are going out for pizza tonight, eat a salad with a light dressing at lunch. You can also balance a meal by combining a main course that has higher fat ingredients with other side dishes that are very low in fat and calories. For instance, in the recipe section, combine the Pizza Pie With Mashed Potatoes with green beans and applesauce for an overall balanced meal.

The Importance of Healthy Eating for Your Entire Family

Healthful diets help children grow, develop, and do well in school. They enable people of all ages to work productively and feel their best. Food choices also can help to reduce the risk for chronic diseases, such as heart disease, certain cancers, diabetes, stroke, and osteoporosis that are leading causes of death and disability among Americans. Good diets can reduce major risk factors for chronic diseases -- factors such as obesity, high blood pressure, and high blood cholesterol.

People require energy and certain other essential nutrients. These nutrients are essential because the body cannot make them and must obtain them from food. Essential nutrients include vitamins, minerals, certain amino acids, and certain fatty acids. Foods also contain other components such as fiber that are important for health. Although each of these food components has a specific function in the body, all of them together are required for overall health. People need calcium to build and maintain strong bones, for example, but many other nutrients also are involved.

The carbohydrates, fats, and proteins in food supply energy, which is measured in calories. Carbohydrates and proteins provide about 4 calories per gram. Fat contributes more than twice as much -- about 9 calories per gram. Alcohol, although not a nutrient, also supplies energy -- about 7 calories per gram. Foods that are high in fat are also high in calories. However, many lowfat or nonfat foods can also be high in calories.

Physical Activity Fosters a Healthful Diet

Calorie needs vary by age and level of activity. Many older adults need less food, in part due to decreased activity, relative to younger, more active individuals. People who are trying to lose weight and eating little food may need to select more nutrient-dense foods in order to meet their nutrient needs in a satisfying diet. Nearly all Americans need to be more active, because a sedentary lifestyle is unhealthful. Increasing the calories spent in daily activities helps to maintain health and allows people to eat a nutritious and enjoyable diet.

What Is A Healthful Diet?

Healthful diets contain the amounts of essential nutrients and calories needed to prevent nutritional deficiencies and excesses. Healthful diets also provide the right balance of carbohydrate, fat, and protein to reduce risks for chronic diseases, and are a part of a full and productive lifestyle. Such diets are obtained from a variety of foods that are available, affordable, and enjoyable.

Eat a Variety of Foods

Foods contain combinations of nutrients and other healthful substances. No single food can supply all nutrients in the amounts you need. For example, oranges provide vitamin C but no vitamin B12; cheese provides vitamin B12 but no vitamin C. To make sure you get all of the nutrients and other substances needed for health, choose the recommended number of daily servings from each of the five major food groups displayed in the Food Guide Pyramid.

People who do not need many calories or who must restrict their food intake need to choose nutrient-rich foods from the five major food groups with special care. They should obtain most of their calories from foods that contain a high proportion of essential nutrients and fiber.

Growing Children, Teenage Girls, and Women Have Higher Needs for Some Nutrients

Many women and adolescent girls need to eat more calcium-rich foods to get the calcium needed for healthy bones throughout life. By selecting lowfat or fat-free milk products and other lowfat calcium sources, they can obtain adequate calcium and keep fat intake from being too high. Young children, teenage girls, and women of childbearing age should also eat enough iron-rich foods, such as lean meats and whole-grain or enriched white bread, to keep the body's iron stores at adequate levels.

Maintain or Improve Your Weight

Many Americans gain weight in adulthood, increasing their risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, certain types of cancer, arthritis, breathing problems and other illness. Therefore, most adults should not gain weight. If you are overweight and have one of these problems, you should try to lose weight, or at the very least, not gain weight. If you are uncertain about your risk of developing a problem associated with overweight, you should consult a health professional.

In order to stay at the same body weight, people must balance the amount of calories in the foods and drinks they consume with the amount of calories the body uses. Physical activity is an important way to use food energy. Most Americans spend much of their working day in activities that require little energy. In addition, many Americans of all ages now spend a lot of leisure time each day being inactive, for example, watching television or working at a computer. To burn calories, devote less time to sedentary activities like sitting. Spend more time in activities like walking to the store or around the block.

If you are overweight and have excess abdominal fat, a weight-related medical problem, or a family history of such problems, you need to lose weight. Healthy diets and exercise can help people maintain a healthy weight, and may also help them lose weight. It is important to recognize that overweight is a chronic condition which can only be controlled with long-term changes. To reduce caloric intake, eat less fat and control portion sizes. If you are not physically active, spend less time in sedentary activities such as watching television, and be more active throughout the day.

Children need enough food for proper growth. To promote growth and development and prevent overweight, teach children to eat grain products; vegetables and fruits; lowfat milk products or other calcium-rich foods; beans, lean meat, poultry, fish or other protein-rich foods; and to participate in vigorous activity. Limiting television time and encouraging children to play actively in a safe environment are helpful steps. Although limiting fat intake may help to prevent excess weight gain in children, fat should not be restricted for children younger than 2 years of age. Helping overweight children to achieve a healthy weight along with normal growth requires more caution. Modest reductions in dietary fat, such as the use of lowfat milk rather than whole milk, are not hazardous. However, major efforts to change a child's diet should be accompanied by monitoring of growth by a health professional at regular intervals.

Source: Dietary Guidelines for Americans Fourth Edition, 1995; U.S. Department of Agriculture; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Home and Garden Bulletin No. 232;

Amounts of Calories(1) and Key Nutrients(2)
Needed by Most Girls Ages 4-18
[Many but not all key nutrients are included(3)]

 Girls, age 4-8Girls, age 9-13 Girls, age 14-18
Calories1,310 to 1,593(4)1,660 to 1,992(5)2,036 to 2,024(6)
Protein (g/d)193446
Fat (g/d)NDNDND
Carbohydrates (g/d)130130130
Fiber (g/)(7)253126
Vitamin A (µg/d)400600700
Vitamin C (mg/d)254565
Vitamin D (µg/d)(7)555
Thiamin (mg/d)
Riboflavin (mg/d)
Niacin (mg/d)81214
Vitamin B6 (mg/d)
Folate (µg/d)200300400
Vitamin B12 (µg/d)
Calcium (mg/d)(7)8001,3001,300
Iron (mg/d)10815
Zinc (mg/d)589

Abbreviations: g/d = grams per day; mg/d = milligrams per day; µg/d = micrograms per day; ND = not determined

(1) Calories are based on reference weights/heights and activity levels. For specific calorie amounts for each year of age, see the chart below.

(2) Adapted from Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrates, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids (Macronutrients), Vitamins and Elements from the Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine, the National Academy of Sciences; 2001 and 2002.

(3) For complete listing of all nutrients, visit

(4) Based on girls with low activity level, a weight range of 34.8 to 56.4 pounds and a height of 39.8 to 50.4 inches. (Sedentary girls need fewer calories and very active girls need more.)

(5) Based on girls with low activity level, a weight range of 63.9 to 100 pounds and a height of 52.4 to 61.8 inches. (Sedentary girls need fewer calories and very active girls need more.)

(6) Based on girls with low activity level, a weight range of 108.8 to 123.8 pounds and a height of 63 to 64.2 inches. (Sedentary girls need fewer calories and very active girls need more.)

(7) Data for fiber, vitamin D and calcium represents Adequate Intakes (AIs). The adequate intake is believed to cover needs of all individuals in the group, but lack of data, or uncertainty in the data, prevent being able to specify with confidence the percentage of individuals covered by this intake.

Estimated Energy Requirements (EER) for Girls 8-12 Years of Age(1)

Age [years]Reference Weight [lb.]Reference Height [inches]Sedentary PAL(2)Low Active PAL(2)Active PAL(2)Very Active PAL(2)

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