Food groups and nutrients

Millions of Americans take vitamin and mineral supplements every day. Most experts agree, however, that if one eats a healthy diet, there is probably no need to take daily supplements. Mineral and vitamin supplements cannot, completely make up for an unhealthy diet, such as one high in fat or low in fiber.Certain groups of people with special needs may benefit from taking supplements, however. These groups include pregnant women, frequent aspirin takers, heavy drinkers, and smokers.

Persons with special nutritional needs are advised to include in their dietary supplements the following vitamins and minerals: vitamin A (promotes good vision, healthy skin and mucous membranes and acts as an antioxidant), vitamin C (promotes healthy gums and teeth, aids in iron absorption, maintains normal connective tissue), vitamin E (aids the formation of red blood cells, acts as an antioxidant), folic acid (reduces the risk of certain birth defects, important in normal growth and metabolism), calcium (builds bone and teeth, helps regulate heartbeat), and iron (essential to formationof hemoglobin).

Fortunately, there are several federal guidelines available to help an individual plan a balanced diet. They include the United States Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA), and the United StatesDepartment of Agriculture's (USDA) Food Guide Pyramid and Dietary Guidelines. Both guides assert that to achieve a balanced diet, one must consume a variety of foods from each of four basic food groups each day. In the RDA formulation, these four food groups consist of a milk group (including milk productssuch as cheese and yogurt); a meat group (including meat, chicken, fish, beef, pork, lamb, and vegetable sources of protein such as beans, peas, nuts, and seeds); a fruit and vegetable group; and a grain group (breads and cerealssuch as whole grain breads, enriched breads, rice, and pasta). In 1992, the United Stated Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced its Food Guide Pyramid and Dietary Guidelines, which were intended to shift the eating habits of Americans to diets that are low in fat, low in calories, high in fiber, with an emphasis on five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. The Food Guide Pyramid includes the RDA's four food groups, but the Food Guide Pyramid also identifies specific amounts of these foods to be eaten daily. What is also novel in the Food Guide Pyramid is that grains form the foundation of the diet pyramid, followed by an abundance of fruits and vegetables.

The RDA guidelines include eating at least three meals each day, not skippingbreakfast, and above all, eating foods from each of the four food groups atevery meal in order to achieve a balanced diet. (The term balanced simply means that a diet adequately meets one's nutritional needs while not providing any nutrients in excess. A balanced diet provides optimal protein and complexcarbohydrates while supplying only moderate amounts of sodium, fats, and simple sugars. An unbalanced diet is one that can cause problems with maintenanceof body tissues, growth and development, brain and nervous system function, as well as problems with bone and muscle systems.)

The USDA also recommends the consumption of small amounts of fish and poultry, with only occasional inclusion of red meat in the diet to reduce the amountof saturated fat and cholesterol consumed. Along with the Food Guide Pyramid, the USDA promotes the following dietary guidelines for maintaining good health: Eat a variety of foods; maintain healthy weight; choose a diet low in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol; choose a diet with plenty of vegetables, fruits, and grain products; use sugars, salt, and sodium in moderation; and drink alcohol in moderation (if consumed at all). In 1993, the FDA mandated that all food packages show how much fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, dietary fiber, and sodium they contain, making it easier for the health-conscious consumer to abide by federal dietary guidelines.

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