Foods to Meet Nutrient Needs

Does it matter where your calories come from?

When discussing weight loss, maintenance, or gain, although the bottom line is calories, the way you meet your calorie goal is important with regards to your overall health. What you eat is important in terms of maximizing your health, reducing risk of disease, and managing chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension (high blood pressure), heart disease, and cancer. What you eat is also important in terms of fulfilling emotional and social needs: enjoying of food, socializing, and identifying with culture and community.

Basics of a Healthy Eating Plan

Although the details change from one eating plan to another, there are some basic principles of healthy eating. The simplest principle is to focus on consuming a wide variety of foods from all food groups, paying special attention to choosing fresh, seasonal, and less processed varieties of foods. This approach will increase the likelihood that you will consume enough of the essential dietary nutrients (those that need to be obtained from the diet) and minimize the amount of added sodium and sugar. This simple rule also applies to vegetarians.

Below are descriptions of the major food groups with the recommended number of servings for a 2000-calorie adult eating plan. This information is adapted from the United States Department of Agriculture's ChooseMyPlate food guide. MyPyramid helps individuals identify a calorie intake goal to maintain a healthy weight, recommends appropriate number of servings from the various food groups as well as intake of essential dietary nutrients, and follows the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines For Americans (outlining healthier dietary choices that reduce risk of chronic diseases). If you would like more personalized recommendations for the number of servings, please visit MyPlate Checklist Calculator.

Food Group Servings for 2000 Calories Essential Dietary Nutrients Provided Serving Sizes & Notes
6, with at least half as whole grains Carbs, Dietary fiber, Folate, Iron, Magnesium, Phosphorus, Niacin, Riboflavin, Sodium, Thiamin, Vitamin B6, Zinc 1 slice bread
1/2 cup cooked rice, cereal, pasta, or grain
2 1/2 cups
Carbs, Dietary fiber, Folate, Magnesium, Potassium, Riboflavin, Vitamins A, B6, C, E, and Vitamin K
Starchy vegetables: Carbs, Copper, Dietary fiber, Niacin, Potassium, Thiamin, Vitamin B6
1/2 cup cooked
1 cup raw
Focus on dark green, orange, and other richly colored vegetables
2 cups Carbs, Dietary fiber, Folate, Magnesium, Potassium, Vitamin C 1/2 cup pieces
1 medium fruit
1/2 cup juice
Focus on whole fruits (instead of juice)
Milk & Dairy Substitutes
3 cups Calcium, Carbs, Magnesium, Phosphorus, Potassium, Protein, Riboflavin, Sodium, Thiamin, Vitamin A and Vitamin B12 Focus on skim or low fat milk, low fat yogurt, soy milk, and soy yogurt.
Low fat and fat free cheese can also be used (1 1/2 oz serving)
Lean Meat & Beans
5 1/2 oz Meat/Poultry: Iron, Niacin, Phosphorus, Protein, Sodium, Vitamin B12, Zinc
Fish/Seafood: Calcium (from small bones), Copper, Iodine, Iron, Niacin, Polyunsaturated Omega-3 fats, Phosphorus, Potassium, Protein, Selenium, Vitamins B6 and B12, Zinc
Dried Beans/Peas: Carbs, Copper, Dietary fiber, Folate, Iron, Magnesium, Phosphorus, Potassium, Protein, Thiamin, Vitamin B6, Zinc
1 oz meat/poultry/fish is equivalent to about 1/2 cup cooked dried beans or peas.
Heart Healthy Fats & Oils
2 Tbsp (6 tsp) Monounsaturated fats & Vitamin E: olive oil, peanut oil, avocados, nuts, and seeds
Polyunsaturated fats & Vitamin E: safflower, corn, sunflower, soy, and cottonseed oils, nuts, and seeds
Polyunsaturated Omega-3 fats: naturally fatty cold-water fish (e.g. salmon), flaxseed, flax oil, and walnuts.
Serving sizes (roughly)
1 Tbsp oil
2 Tbsp seeds
2 Tbsp nut butters
3 Tbsp nuts
1/3 – 1/2 avocado
Fish: aim for 2 servings/week

Some of Kathy's Favorite Foods and Why

Whole Grains

As a general rule, I favor whole grains over refined grains. However, refined grains are typically fortified with niacin, iron, thiamin, riboflavin, and folic acid, and will sometimes contain higher levels of these nutrients than will their whole grain counterparts. Nevertheless, if given a choice, I choose whole grains over refined as the dietary fiber will be significantly higher and the sodium typically lower than in refined grains. My favorites are oatmeal, buckwheat, whole wheat berries, and quinoa.


Dark leafy greens are nutritional powerhouses – you can't go wrong with any type. My favorites are Swiss chard and spinach. Although nutrient charts often show them to contain good levels of iron and calcium, the body does not absorb these minerals efficiently from these sources.

Sweet peppers. They have about twice as much Vitamin C as do oranges. Plus, they are very low in calories, look attractive in salads, and have a fresh, uncooked flavor.

For the standard serving size (1 potato), sweet potatoes are one of the best sources of potassium and Vitamin A (beta carotene) in the food supply. I love them because they taste good, are satisfying for the calories, and provide carbs. Carrots are also a favorite as they are high in Vitamin A (beta carotene), but low in calories and easy to snack on.


Berries are loaded with anti-oxidants, contain less sugar than do other fruits per standard serving size, are visually appealing, and go great alone or with low fat dairy products. If I could afford fresh berries year round, then I would eat them daily.

Milk and Dairy Substitutes

Skim or 1% dairy is best since whole milk and whole milk products are very high in saturated fat. For those who cannot tolerate lactose (milk sugar), yogurt is naturally very low in lactose. You can also buy lactose reduced milk.

For vegetarians, fortified soy milk and soy milk products are nearly identical to the nutrient content of cow's milk. Fortified rice milk, however, is a lot lower in protein and is not fortified with riboflavin.

Meat and Beans

The superstars by far are the naturally fatty fish, seafood, and dried beans and peas. These foods are chock full of nutrients. Fish/seafood contains the healthier type of omega-3 fats, with only a modest amount of calories. Of course, how you prepare these foods is important. To keep it healthy, do not bread and deep fry fish/seafood. There are a few rare species that are high in cholesterol yet very low in saturated fat. These are certain types of shrimp, squid, and octopus.

Clams and oysters are particularly high in iron for those of you who don't eat meat but do eat fish/seafood.

Heart Healthy Fats and Oils

Nuts and Seeds

I am a fan of most nuts and seeds (without added salt), as they provide healthier types of fats (polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats) as well as other vitamins and minerals. They are also very high in calories so I am careful to limit my portion size of these tasty fatty little treats. My favorites are: walnuts (polyunsaturated omega-3 fats, Vitamin E), almonds (monounsaturated fats, Vitamin E), Brazil nuts (magnesium, selenium), and pumpkin seeds (iron, magnesium, Vitamin K).


Olive oil. Simply can't beat this oil for monounsaturated fat content. Besides, a good olive oil makes everything taste better.

Peanut oil. A very close second to olive oil, and has a flavor more appropriate for certain cuisines.


Naturally fatty cold-water fish will be highest in polyunsaturated omega-3 fats that contain DHA, the most potent of all omega-3 fats. Unfortunately, some of these fish are also high in mercury. Click on the Food & Drug Administration's Mercury Levels in Commercial Fish and Shellfish for more information. Salmon is typically very low in mercury.

Katherine Isacks, MPS, RDN, CDE
Disclaimer: Please note that we cannot provide personalized advice and that the information provided does not constitute medical advice. If you are seeking medical advice, please visit a medical professional.

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