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Nutrition 101: A Foundation for Healthy Eating

Healthy eating…what does that mean??

There are many variations of healthy eating patterns and a “healthy diet” can vary from person to person. That being said, one balanced approach to meal planning is the USDA “MyPlate” model, as shown above. This model includes all five food groups, focusing on generous servings of vegetables, plus fruits, grains, protein sources, and dairy. By filling half of our plate with vegetables and fruit, and a quarter of our plate with animal or plant protein, portion control of carbohydrate-rich foods in the form of grains and starchy vegetables naturally falls into place.


Vegetables are a nutrient-dense, low calorie food group that provide an abundance of vitamins and minerals, as well as fiber and phytonutrients. Phytonutrients are compounds found in plant foods and contribute to the color of plants: Different colors, different phytonutrients! Phytonutrients, vitamins, and minerals are key players in the health of the immune system, organ systems, brain health, cardiovascular health, and cellular function.

Aim for at least 2 ½ cup vegetables daily; you can work up gradually to this amount as your digestive system adjusts to the increase in fiber.


Like vegetables, fruits are rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytonutrients. In general, ½ cup of fruit is considered a serving. Berries and melon have a higher water content than many other fruits, so 1 cup is considered a serving. Two to three servings of fruit daily will bolster nutrient intake without adding excessive calories.


Grains are a rich source of energy in the form of carbohydrate. Complex carbohydrates are digested more slowly than simple carbohydrates and provide a higher fiber content. These attributes of complex carbohydrates lend to greater satiety, or the feeling of fullness. Therefore, it is recommended that whole grains are chosen more often than refined grains. Examples of whole grains include: Whole wheat bread products, pasta, tortillas, cereals, and crackers; brown, red, black, and wild rice. Corn tortillas, quinoa, and products made with grains such as sorghum, teff, millet, and oats are also whole grain.

Serving size varies with grain products, but the “1/2 cup rule” is helpful for cooked pasta, rice, quinoa, and cereals: ½ cup = 1 serving. Six or more grain servings are generally recommended/day, with at least half of these coming from whole grains. However, the number of grain servings appropriate for each individual is dependent upon caloric needs, blood sugar control, weight management, and individual preferences.

Starchy vegetables such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, winter squash, and corn can substitute for grains on the MyPlate model. Again, ½ cup cooked portion = 1 serving.


Protein molecules are essential building blocks of the human body. Muscle and bone are largely composed of protein. Protein plays a role in the immune system as well. Commonly consumed animal protein sources include beef, pork, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy products. Plant proteins provide fiber and phytonutrients in addition to protein. Legumes (pulses), seeds, nuts, nut butters, and soy products are favorite protein sources in many cultures around the world. Protein derived from grains compliment plant proteins, even when they are not consumed at the same meal. Be sure to include plant protein sources in your eating patterns for variety of nutrient provision. There are several guidelines for recommended protein intake. A protein serving the size of the palm of your hand at lunch and dinner, plus 1 or 2 oz. of protein at breakfast, is a great estimate to meet your individual protein needs. 0.8-1.2 grams protein/kg body weight is another way to estimate protein needs, but can vary with activity level/intensity and health conditions.


Dairy products are sourced from milk: Cow, goat, or sheep. Dairy foods are rich in protein, calcium, vitamin D (if fortified), and several B vitamins. Two-three servings of dairy each day is suggested. One 8 oz. cup of milk or yogurt, or one ounce of cheese, equals one dairy serving.

Variety is the spice of life... and of health! Be sure to choose a variety of foods within each food group throughout the week to strengthen your healthy eating foundation.

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About the author

Leslee Blanch

Leslee Blanch is a registered dietitian and group fitness instructor with a passion to promote wellness for individuals and for the community. As a Family and Consumer Sciences associate educator with University of Idaho Extension in Bonneville County, she offers a variety of wellness topics, including nutrition, fitness, and mental/emotional well-being.

Registered Dietitian
Certified Group Fitness Instructor

Family and Consumer Sciences Associate Extension Educator

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