Eating a wide range of foods that include a variety of nutrients is the easiest way to have a healthy diet.
On this page, you'll learn why your body needs each of the following nutrients, and which foods you'll find them in:
- Vitamins and minerals
Proteins give your body amino acids — the building blocks that help your body's cells do all of their everyday activities. Proteins help your body build new cells, repair old cells, create hormones and enzymes, and keep your immune system healthy. If you don't have enough protein, your body takes longer to recover from illness and you're more likely to get sick in the first place.
During treatment for breast cancer, some people may need more protein than usual. Good sources of protein are lean meat, fish, poultry, and low-fat dairy products, as well as nuts, dried beans, peas, and lentils.
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Carbohydrates give your body a little more than half of the calories it needs to function each day. Carbohydrates give you quick energy — which is why you hear about athletes "carbo loading" before a big event. They're fueling their bodies for the challenge to come.
Fruits, vegetables, bread, pasta, grains, cereal products, crackers, dried beans, peas, and lentils are all good sources of carbohydrates. Many of them are also good sources of fiber, which your digestive system needs to stay healthy.
Sugar (white and brown), honey, and molasses are also carbohydrates. But these types of carbohydrates are high in calories and don't offer any other benefits (like vitamins and minerals). Whole grains and fruits and vegetables are healthier sources of carbohydrates than refined grains and sugars.
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Fats give your body the fatty acids it needs to grow and to produce new cells and hormones. Fat also helps some vitamins move through your body. Vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat-soluble vitamins, which means they need some fat to be absorbed. They are also stored in the fatty tissues in your body and the liver. Fat also helps protect your organs against trauma. Your body stores excess calories as fat, which is saved up as reserve energy.
Fats give you more concentrated calories than carbohydrates or proteins. In other words, a teaspoon of fat will have more calories than a teaspoon of carbohydrate or a teaspoon of protein.
There are three basic types of fats:
- Saturated fats, found mainly in meat and whole-milk products, are only found in foods that come from animals, not those that come from plants. Saturated fat is the type that raises your blood cholesterol level. Trans fats (also called trans-saturated fats or trans fatty acids) are formed when liquid vegetable oils go through a process called hydrogenation, in which hydrogen is added to make the oils more solid. Hydrogenated vegetable fats are used in food processing because they give foods a longer shelf-life and a desirable taste, shape, and texture. The majority of trans fat is found in shortening, stick (or hard) margarine, cookies, crackers, snack foods, fried foods (including fried fast food), doughnuts, pastries, baked goods, and other processed foods made with or fried in partially hydrogenated oils. Trans fat also raises your blood's level of "bad" cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein, or LDL), and lowers your level of "good" cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein, or HDL).
- Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are found in plant foods such as vegetables, nuts, and grains, as well as oils made from these nuts and grains (canola, corn, soybean). Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are polyunsaturated. Besides vegetables, nuts, and grains, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are found in coldwater fish such as tuna, salmon, and mackerel. Some studies have shown that eating foods that have mono or polyunsaturated fats can help reduce your levels of "bad" (LDL) cholesterol. Mono and polyunsaturated fats also may keep your triglyceride levels low. Triglycerides are a form of fat in your bloodstream. People with high triglyceride levels often have high total cholesterol, high LDL cholesterol, and low HDL ("good") cholesterol. Studies have linked high triglyceride levels to increased risk of stroke and heart disease.
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