Does Your Health Depend on the Variety of Your Diet?

Tuesday, October 24, 2006 - 2:25pm

By Rose Giordano

Remember when you were a kid and your mom insisted that you at least try new foods? As usual mom was right. Eating a variety of foods is important because the type and amount of nutrients we need are spread throughout many different foods. It would be almost impossible to meet our daily nutritional requirements by consuming only a few types of foods as a regular diet. What’s disappointing is that many Americans are still following a limited diet, missing many of the important nutrients that help fight disease.

Not all foods contain quality protein

For example, food sources differ in the quality of proteins that they contain. Proteins are made up of amino acids. Some of those amino acids are "essential”, meaning that we need to eat them in order to be healthy. Following a diet that does not include essential protein may lead to a condition of protein deficiency.

Complete vs. incomplete proteins

A complete protein contains all nine of the essential amino acids that our body needs. Some examples of complete proteins are beef, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs and soybeans. Egg protein and breast milk protein are the best available proteins because they contain all of the essential amino acids that our body needs.

It is possible for proteins to be "incomplete.” That is, they do not contain all nine essential amino acids. Vegetarians have to deal with this dilemma on a regular basis. However, it is still possible to have a healthy diet and eat incomplete proteins. The key is to eat those foods that compliment each other.

Complimentary foods for optimal nutrition

You can achieve optimal nutrition by combining foods that contain proteins which make up for the other’s deficiencies. For example, by combining grains and legumes you can create a meal that contains a complete protein. Although these foods are considered incomplete proteins, together they compliment each other, replacing the missing amino acid of their paired food. Strict vegetarians can also meet their protein needs by regular consumption of soy and soy products. Soy protein is the only plant product that is a complete protein.

Pregnant moms should watch their protein

During pregnancy, it is extremely important that moms eat the correct amount of protein. Deficiency of the essential amino acids can have damaging effects to the unborn child, such as mental retardation and/or reduced growth.

In the general population, protein deficiency can also cause edema (water retention), intestinal discomfort and infections.

Children at the dinner table

Food variety is especially important in children since it is common for them to prefer only a limited amount of foods. Parents of young children can have a profound influence on the quantity and variety of food that is brought into the home by introducing foods on a regular basis. By age two, a child’s diet does not have to differ from that of the rest of the family.

Special considerations for the elderly

The homebound elderly are often at risk for developing protein-calorie malnutrition. In this condition a person is starved for any food or calories. The body responds by breaking down muscle tissue for protein, which gives sufferers a wasting away appearance.

Remember the five food groups

There is a common misconception that to be healthy you must give up the foods you enjoy. With a little planning, you can eat a variety of foods and include them into your favorites. This way you are able to meet all your nutrient needs throughout the day without the feeling as though you’re missing out.

One way you can meet your daily nutrient requirements is to choose a variety of foods from the five major food groups:

  1. Milk, yogurt and cheese
  2. Meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs and nuts
  3. Vegetables
  4. Fruits
  5. Bread, cereal, rice and pasta

A dinner consisting of a small bowl of pasta and meatballs, side salad, glass of milk, and an apple covers all five food groups.