Foods to Meet Nutrient Needs

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Does it matter where your calories come from?

Foods to Meet Nutrient Needs

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 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 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. MyPlate helps individuals identify a calories intake to maintain a healthy weight, recommends appropriate number of servings from food groups to meet that calories goal, and follows dietary recommendations of the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines For Americans (for health promotion).

Food Group: Grains

Serving for 2000 Calories 6 oz
Essential Dietary Nutrients Provided: Carbs, fiber, folate, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, niacin, riboflavin, sodium, thiamin, vitamin B6, and zinc.
Serving Sizes

Focus on whole grains

Food Group: Vegetables

Serving for 2000 Calories 2 1/2 servings
Essential Dietary Nutrients Provided: Carbs, fiber, folate, magnesium, potassium, riboflavin, vitamins A, B6, C, E, and K.
Starchy vegetables: carbs, copper, fiber, niacin, potassium, thiamin and vitamin B6
Serving Sizes

Focus on dark green, orange, and other richly colored vegetables

Food Group: Fruits

Serving for 2000 Calories 2 servings
Essential Dietary Nutrients Provided: Carbs, fiber, folate, magnesium, potassium, and vitamin C.
Serving Sizes

Focus on whole fruits (instead of juice)

Food Group: Milk & Dairy Substitutes

Serving for 2000 Calories 3 servings
Essential Dietary Nutrients Provided: Carbs, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, protein, riboflavin, sodium, thiamin, vitamins A, and B12.
Serving Sizes

Focus on lower fat, lower sugar choices if you are trying to control calories.

Food Group: Lean Meat & Beans

Serving for 2000 Calories 5 1/2 oz
Essential Dietary Nutrients Provided:
Meat/Poultry: iron, niacin, phosphorus, protein, sodium, vitamin B12, and zinc.
Fish/Seafood: calcium (from small bones), copper, iodine, iron, niacin, polyunsaturated omega-3 fats, phosphorus, potassium, protein, selenium, vitamins B6, B12, and zinc. Aim for 2 servings/week for heart health.
Dried Beans/Peas: carbs, copper, fiber, folate, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, protein, thiamin, vitamin B6, and zinc.
Cheese: calcium, phosphorus, protein, riboflavin, vitamin B12, and zinc. Egg: iron, pantothenic acid, phosphorus, protein, riboflavin, selenium, vitamin A, vitamin B12.
Serving Sizes

Food Group: Heart Healthy Fats & Oils

Serving for 2000 Calories 1-2 servings
Essential Dietary Nutrients Provided:
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 (DHA & EPA): naturally fatty cold-water fish (e.g. salmon).
Polyunsaturated omega-3 fats (ALA): flaxseed, flax oil, chia, canola oil, walnuts, and walnut oil.
Serving Sizes

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 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 lower compared to refined grains. Also, compared to the same amount of refined grains, whole grains cause a lower rise in my blood glucose after eating. I'll try just about any whole grain but these are what you will find in my pantry: steel-cut oats, brown rice, whole wheat couscous, whole wheat pasta, and whole grain barley.


Dark leafy greens are nutritional powerhouses - you can't go wrong with any type. My favorites are Swiss chard and spinach. They are high in vitamins A, C, E, and K, potassium, copper, magnesium, folate, riboflavin, and manganese. Although nutrient charts often show them to contain good levels of iron and calcium, absorption is poor from these sources.

Sweet peppers have about twice the vitamin C of oranges. Plus, they are very low in calories, look attractive in salads, and taste delicious either raw or cooked (especially grilled).

Sweet potato - one small baked potato (no, not fries!) has a ton of potassium and vitamin A (in the precursor form of beta carotene). I love them because they satisfy my craving for carbs while providing fiber and nutrients, and they taste great.

Roasted winter squash - think butternut, acorn, or delicata squash. These are lower in carbs and calories than potatoes but still provide that crave-worthy starch fix. Also, they are good sources of fiber and vitamin A.

Carrots are also a favorite as they are high in beta carotene, but low in calories and easy to snack on. Plus, fresh carrots have a nice sweet flavor despite being low in carbs.


Berries are loaded with antioxidants, contain less sugar than other fruits per standard serving size, are visually appealing, and go great alone or in yogurt, salads, or with cheese. If I could afford fresh berries year round, then I would eat them daily.

Nonfat Greek Yogurt

I love nonfat Greek-style yogurt because it tastes good, is satisfying, and it is a good source of protein and calcium. Lately, I have been exploring the low sugar flavors by Chobani 100 and Dannon Triple Zero. Those product lines use Stevia to keep the yogurt sweet while keeping the added sugars low. By the way, even if you have lactose intolerance you should be able to tolerate yogurt since the lactose sugar is broken down for you by the bacterial cultures.

Fish & Legumes

For me, the protein superstars are fish and legumes (dried beans and peas). These foods are not just high in protein, but they are modest in calories and chock full of other nutrients. Fish and seafood contain the super healthy omega-3 fats, while being high in protein and fairly low in calories. Of course, how you prepare these foods is important. To keep it healthy, do not deep-fat fry. Clams and oysters are particularly high in iron - even higher than red meat sources. And legumes are one of the best sources of fiber. Although many complain about the carb load of legumes, the types of carbs in legumes are good for your lower gut (they support healthy bacteria), appear to cause less of a rise in blood glucose compared to refined starch, are very affordable, and have loads of vitamins and minerals. I always buy "No Added Salt" canned legumes to save time and limit sodium.

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

Nuts, Seeds, and Oils

I am a fan of most nuts and seeds, 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 to 1/2 oz - 1 oz, depending upon what fits into my calories budget. My favorites are pecans, peanuts, and pumpkin seeds. Also, I have gotten away from using peanut butter and other nut butters and mostly consume the whole nut or seed now. This helps me control my calories intake, limits my intake of sodium and added sugars (hey, take a look at some of those nut butter ingredients), and I get the satisfaction of chewing and chomping (which also helps me slow down my rate of eating). And by the way, consumption of whole nuts appears to be related to lower heart risk, not consumption of nut butters.

Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) - this is by far my favorite oil for just about any savory dish. I cook with EVOO, but I also drizzle it onto veggies or toast. I have replaced most of my butter intake with extra virgin olive oil. I think the research on Mediterranean style diet and heart health is pretty compelling, so I have gradually transitioned from using mostly butter to using mostly EVOO. I still use butter, but much less of it. Given that I like a number of foods that are high in saturated fat (aged cheese and dark chocolate), I wanted to be mindful of my total intake. One of the benefits of this change is that my LDL level is lower yet my HDL level has stayed within the healthy range.

Last Updated on May 14, 2018

May 14, 2018
Katherine Isacks
Katherine Isacks, MPS, RDN, CDCES - Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist (CDCES)

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