Dietary Guidelines: Fruit and Other Foods and Nutrients to Increase

There are a multitude of food products on the market today clamoring for consumers’ attention, some with a degree of validity but many with overly inflated claims of cure-alls and magical elixirs. Sorting through all the conflicting messages can be at best confusing and at worst misleading and even detrimental to health if one eats too much of the wrong foods and beverages. I wanted to see what the latest well-researched studies were telling us about what we truly should be consuming more of in our diet to improve our nutrition and overall health, so I turned to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ ” 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans ” for objective, unbiased information.

This article is one in a series of articles that summarizes some of the key components of the dietary guidelines. The goal is to sort through what could be a daunting amount of information on food and nutrition to get to the core ideas of healthful eating so that we can start implementing positive changes to our diet right away. The good news is that the dietary guidelines presents the information in a straightforward, easy-to-follow way, broken down into 6 chapters across 95 pages. One of the most helpful chapters for individuals wishing to make positive changes to their diet is chapter 4, “Foods and Nutrients to Increase,” which is the focus of this article. In addition, I refer to the “American Dietetic Association Complete Food and Nutrition Guide” by Roberta Larson Duyff (3rd edition, 2006), which is bursting with facts across its 720 pages.

The foods that the dietary guidelines recommends individuals increase in their diet include fruits and vegetables, whole grains, milk and milk products, proteins, seafood, and unsaturated oils. It should come as no surprise that these foods all conform to the dietary guidelines’ goal that individuals source more of their calorie needs from nutrient-dense foods instead of from nutrient-poor ones, such as foods with added sugars and saturated fats, which are currently being consumed in far too high quantities by the American public.

Fruits and Vegetables

Individuals are encouraged to boost their consumption of fruits and vegetables for a few key reasons. First, fruits and vegetables provide excellent sources of nutrients that are often underconsumed in the American diet, including folate, magnesium, potassium, dietary fiber, and vitamins A, C, and K. Second, a higher consumption of fruits and vegetables is linked to a reduced risk of many chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, and may help prevent certain types of cancer. The third benefit offered by fruits and vegetables is their low amount of calories. Although individuals vary in the amount of calories they need each day based on gender, age, and physical activity level, the general guideline is to consume the equivalent of about 2 cups of fruit and 2.5 cups of vegetables each day.

The dietary guidelines encourages people to consume a variety of fruits and vegetables to obtain the wide range of nutrients that they offer. Vegetables are often grouped into the following categories: dark-green leafy vegetables such as spinach and broccoli, orange and yellow vegetables, beans and peas, and starchy vegetables such as potatoes. Interestingly, beans and peas (which consist of lentils, black beans, kidney beans, pinto beans, split peas, black-eyed peas, garbanzo beans, and lima beans) can count towards either the vegetable group or the protein/meat group because they offer such high-quality protein. In addition, beans and peas provide good dietary fiber, potassium, iron, zinc, and potassium.

Research indicates that regardless of whether fresh, canned, or frozen varieties of fruits and vegetables are used, they all provide the same nutritional quality. In addition, studies have shown that both conventional and organically grown fruits and vegetables offer the same nutritional value. Many consumers get their fruits and vegetables by drinking juice, but the dietary guidelines recommends that individuals get their fruits and vegetable requirement from food sources whenver possible because of the beneficial fiber they contain. If juice is consumed, only 100% juice is recommended.

Whole Grains

Unlike refined grains, which remove the bran and germ from the grain, a whole grain contains the entire edible part of the grain. Americans already consume enough grain in their diets, but too much of this amount comes from refined grains instead of whole grains. When refined grains are processed, much of their nutrients, such as B vitamins and iron, as well as dietary fiber, is lost. While many refined grain products put back much of these substances through “enriched” grain products, important nutrients are still lost in the process.

The dietary guidelines recommends that individuals boost their whole grain consumption so that at least half of their daily grain intake is from whole grains. Currently, less than 5% of Americans consume this proportion of whole grains. Consuming whole grains provides good levels of iron, magnesium, selenium, B vitamins, and dietary fiber. Whole grains have been linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, lower risk of type 2 diabetes, and better weight control. While there are many products that have the word “grain” on their packaging, such as “multigrain,” this may not necessary mean “whole grain,” so consumers are advised to look for a label that specifically has the words “whole grain.”

Milk and Milk Products

Individuals are advised to incorporate milk and milk products within their daily diet for important health reasons. Milk and milk products contain vital nutrients including calcium, vitamin D, and potassium. Part of the importance of consuming milk and milk products is the beneficial effect it has on bone health. Since the body has made much of its calcium in bones by age 20, consuming milk is strongly recommended for children and adolescents. Regular consumption of milk and milk products has been shown to benefit bone health of people of all ages, however, with the key goal for individuals ages 30 and over to slow the depletion of calcium levels over the years through regular milk and dairy consumption. Milk has also been linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, as well as lower blood pressure.

Despite the dietary guidelines’ emphasis on milk and milk products, many Americans still do not consume enough from this category. According to the American Dietetic Association, only about 14% of girls and 36% of boys ages 12-19 consume adequate amounts of calcium. When milk products are consumed, often they are in the form of higher-fat cheeses. People should instead favor fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products, such as yogurt and low-fat cheeses. Soy milk and other milk substitutes can be consumed, as long as they are fortified with calcium and vitamins A and D. Adults are advised to consume 3 cups of milk or milk products each day, while children can get by with a little less.

Protein Foods

Many Americans probably consume enough protein, but often it is not from the most beneficial sources. A high consumption of protein currently comes from meat and poultry, which are high in solid fats, as well as from eggs, which have high cholesterol (in the egg yolks). Instead, the dietary guidelines recommends that individuals choose more protein from seafood, nuts, and seeds, whose fats come from more healthful polyunsaturated and monounsaturated oils. When meats and poultry are consumed, lean varieties should be chosen. When nuts and seeds are consumed, unsalted varieties ought to be consumed because they have lower sodium. Protein-rich foods also have the added benefit of being high in B vitamins (niacin, thiamin, riboflavin, and B6), vitamin E, iron, zinc, and magnesium. For more information on plant-based proteins, refer to the section on vegetarian eating in my article in this series “Dietary Guidelines: Recommended Eating Styles.”


Seafood, especially fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, and trout, has been shown to have heart-healthy benefits. In addition, seafood contains beneficial polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids. Although some concern has arisen over methyl mercury levels found in some fish (especially king mackerel), the benefits of consuming seafood are said to outweigh the risks, according to the dietary guidelines. Seafood consumption is even recommended for pregnant or nursing mothers, as it can have a positive effect on a baby’s cognitive development. The dietary guidelines recommends that individuals increase their seafood consumption from the current level of about 3.5 ounces a week to approximately 8 ounces a week.

Unsaturated Oils

The dietary guidelines urges Americans to replace their trans fat and saturated fat consumption with more healthful plant-based oils, which provide essential fatty acids and vitamin E. Switching to monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats has also been linked to lower cholesterol levels. More healthful choices of oils include canola, corn, olive, peanut, safflower, soybean, and sunflower oils. Coconut, palm kernel, and palm oil are considered high in saturated fat, however. Whichever type of oil is used, individuals should use only a small amount. For more information on the different types of oils (polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, saturated, and trans fat) see the section on fats in the first article in this series, “Dietary Guidelines: General Recommendations and Macronutrients.”


Water is not specifically mentioned in the dietary guidelines as a food component to increase in the diet, but because water is really the nutrient the body needs in the most amount, this seems like as good a place as any to discuss the importance of proper water intake. Depending on each person, the human body is made up of between 45% and 75% water, which is the equivalent of about 10 to 12 gallons. Although the human body is capable of surviving up to six weeks without food, it cannot last for more than a week or so without water.

Although it would be nice to have a set amount of how many cups of water to drink each day, the amount of water needed will vary from person to person, depending on physical activity level, the amount of heat stress, and other factors. The Institute of Medicine advises individuals to consume an adequate intake (AI) of water of 3.7 liters (125 ounces) for males ages 19 and over and 2.7 liters (91 ounces) for females ages 19 and over. This is roughly the equivalent of 12.5 cups or more for men and 9 cups or more for women. Teenagers and children require a little less. Urine that is dark colored is a sign that one is consuming an insufficient amount of water, while urine that is pale or colorless is an indication that proper water levels are being met.

Water from all beverages-including coffee, tea, juices, and even sodas-count towards the overall daily water intake. Although caffeinated beverages do have a mild diuretic effect (promoting water loss through urination), this effect is said to be relatively minor and is balanced out in the amount of water contained in the beverage. The primary concern with obtaining water from sugar-added drinks is the high calorie intake associated with such beverages. In fact, Americans 19 years and older consume an average of 400 calories (about the same as a 32-ounce regular soda) each day from beverages alone, according to the American Dietetic Association. This excess calorie consumption may lead to weight gain and inadequate nutrient intake as one fills up their daily calorie requirement from these “empty calories.”

An estimated 20% of one’s daily water intake comes not from drinking water itself but from the water contained in foods. Broccoli, for instance, is made up of 89% water, an apple is 86% water, and even cooked rice has a 70% water content. Lean body tissue holds more water than fat tissue, so individuals who are leaner have a greater proportion of water volume in their body. Water obtained from municipal water systems is said to be just as safe to drink as bottled water. In fact, people who consume bottled water may be missing out on the benefit of fluoride that is added to many municipal water supplies.


U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. ” Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010 .” 7th Edition, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2010. PDF.

Duyff, Roberta Larson and American Dietetic Association. “American Dietetic Association Complete Food and Nutrition Guide.” 6th Edition. Hoboken: Wiley & Sons, 2006. Kindle.

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