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Prairie Fare: What is a Healthful Diet, Anyway?
By: Julie Garden-Robinson, NDSU Extension - 09/13/2018

Do you know anyone on a diet? Have you ever been on a diet?

The answer to both of those questions for everyone is "yes." Technically, we all are "on a diet."

According to the first definition in most dictionaries, a "diet" consists of the "kinds of food that a person, animal or community eats."

In other words, if you eat food, you are on a diet. Because you are alive and reading this, you must be eating food on a regular basis.

Most of the time, people think of "diets" as somewhat restrictive. Many people associate being "on a diet" with attempts to lose weight. Others follow diets because of medical, religious, cultural or other reasons.

Sometimes diets are described based on nutritional content. For example, have you heard of special diets that are low-fat, low-sodium, high-protein and/or low-carbohydrate?

Some diets are named after the person who developed the plan, the place where it was developed or the featured food in the diet.

Somewhere in my file cabinets, I have files of creatively named fad diets, including the cabbage soup diet, beer diet, grapefruit diet, cookie diet and popcorn diet. These were not long-term, sustainable diets, though. I would not recommend any of them.

When new information is released from a study, diets make headlines. Most recently, you may have read or heard about the link between restricting carbohydrates and shortening your lifespan.

The article was published in the respected Lancet Public Health journal. The authors analyzed data from 15,400 middle-aged adults from the Atherosclerosis Risk in Community study and published data from seven studies with 432,000 adults from 20 countries.

According to their analysis, those eating moderate amounts of carbohydrates (50 to 55 percent of total calories) lived four years longer. Those who ate high-carbohydrate diets lived one year longer.

In other words, skipping carbohydrates was not good for you.

The carbohydrate level associated with longer lifespans is consistent with the current recommendations in the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Numerous studies are considered when developing national guidelines every five years.

What's a healthful eating pattern, anyway?

In January 2018, the Mediterranean Diet and DASH Diet tied for the No. 1 spot as the top-ranked diets overall, according the annual U.S. News and World Reports rankings. I think most nutrition specialists would concur that these eating patterns are associated with better health.

The DASH diet, short for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, features a variety of food groups. On a 2,000-calorie diet, for example, the diet includes six to eight (1-ounce) servings of grains (focusing on whole grains); four to five (1/2-cup to 1-cup) servings of vegetables; four to five (1/2-cup) servings of fruit; two to three (1-cup) servings of fat-free or low-fat milk; about 6 ounces of lean meat, poultry or fish; and four to five weekly servings of nuts, seeds and legumes.

The DASH diet allows two to three daily servings of fats. One serving is 1/2 teaspoon of vegetable oil or soft margarine. It limits sweets and added sugars to five servings per week. One serving is 1 tablespoon of jelly or 1 cup of regular lemonade, for example.

The DASH diet has been shown to reduce high blood pressure, which, in turn, can reduce the risk of stroke, heart disease and blindness.

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