Forget Low-Fat and Low-Sugar, Concentrate on a Healthy Eating Pattern

By Penelope Clark, MS, RDN, CDN
Healthy Eating Pattern - Salad with fruits and nuts

You want to eat healthfully, but what's the best way to do it? Some of today's popular diets say to cut sugar while others restrict fat. "Who can blame the confused consumer when diet books and trends point in different directions," says Jennifer McDaniel, MS, RDN, CSSD, LD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "I love to remind my clients that inherently they already know how to eat healthfully. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats and lean proteins will always prevail."

A Healthy Eating Pattern

Rather than eating an exclusively low-fat or low-sugar diet, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends that you focus on your overall eating pattern. "Our overall health is not determined by one meal; instead, our health is crafted by a series of lifelong choices and eating patterns," says McDaniel. Focus on eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, low-fat dairy, seafood and nuts. Meanwhile, eat less red and processed meats, sweetened drinks, desserts and refined grains

McDaniel says that fruits and vegetables should be the "star of the show" when filling your plate. "Supporting cast include whole grains, lean proteins, low-fat dairy and a serving of healthy fats," she says. "While not every plate requires each food group, pairing at least two or three different foods optimizes nutrition and the pleasure of eating."
McDaniel says that while it's important to understand the value of portion control, people should not ignore their bodies' hunger and satiety signals. "I teach my clients to tune in, paying attention to feelings of hunger and fullness," she says. "Our body should tell us how much to eat. Portion size should parallel our hunger and fullness."

The Skinny on Fat

The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans emphasizes oils rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids as part of a healthy eating pattern, and recommends limiting saturated and trans fats. Choosing the right kinds of fats, including those from fatty fish such as salmon, vegetable oils, nuts and seeds is especially important.

5 Tips for Making Good Decisions about Fat

  • Try grilled, steamed or baked salmon, trout or mackerel instead of fried or breaded fish.
  • Vary your protein choices by eating more seafood and legumes.
  • Choose lean cuts of meat and remove visible fat. Remove skin and fat from poultry.
  • Choose low-fat or fat-free dairy products. 
  • Top salads with nuts or seeds instead of croutons. Use vegetable oil-based salad dressings instead of cream-based dressings.

The Skinny on Sugar

The average American consumes more than 13 percent of daily calories from added sugars — yet the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting added sugars to less than 10 percent of daily calories. By going above 10 percent, it's difficult to maintain an overall healthy eating pattern. Added sugars can be found in foods such as sugar-sweetened beverages and refined grain snacks and desserts. Naturally occurring sugars in foods such as fruit and milk are not added sugars.

"For most Americans, reducing added sugars doesn't mean they have to scrutinize every food label," says McDaniel. "While there are 'hidden' sugars in foods, most of us can reduce added sugars by focusing on the biggest offenders: sugar sweetened beverages, sweet snacks and desserts."

3 Tips for Reducing Added Sugar

  • Re-think sweets: Save sugary desserts for special occasions.
  • Instead of a post-dinner dessert, close out a family mealtime with a cup of decaf coffee or herbal tea — but enjoy it without added sweeteners or cream.
  • Switch from sweetened yogurt with added fruit to plain low-fat yogurt. Then, add fresh fruit for a nutritious, naturally sweet mid-morning snack. Fruit and low-fat dairy contain natural sugars that provide nutrients that promote health.

Your Personalized Healthy Eating Pattern

For more help developing a personalized healthy eating pattern that includes appropriate amounts of healthy fats and sugars, contact a registered dietitian nutritionist.

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