The foods you choose to eat can have a direct impact on your ability to enjoy life to its fullest. Understanding food will help you make healthy eating decisions that benefit you and your family.

Food Basics

Grocery stores are full of fresh, packaged and frozen food options. More variety is available than ever before and there may be a number of foods in grocery stores that are new to you. Learning more about the types of food available is an enjoyable way to increase healthy food in your diet and experiment with new cuisines and flavours.

Basic foods can be broken into groups:

Vegetables and Fruit: Includes fresh, frozen, canned and dried produce like beans, carrots, corn, lettuce, apples and blueberries. Try to include produce of various colours each day as each vegetable and fruit has different amounts of vitamins and minerals that are important for health.

Grain Products: Includes whole grains, bread, cereals, bannock, crackers, pasta, etc. These are important sources of energy for our brain and muscles.

Protein Sources: Includes meat, fish and seafood, dairy and plant-based proteins. Protein sources are important to build strong healthy bodies.

Health Canada has developed Canada’s Food Guide to give Canadians clear messages about what it means to eat a healthy, balanced diet. There is no longer a focus on food groups and servings, but a general look at what your healthy plate should include: one half vegetables and fruit, one quarter whole grains, one quarter protein sources. Though oils are not included in the food groups, the recommendation is to choose healthy unsaturated oils/fats over saturated solid fats in cooking.

It is sometimes difficult to determine the category of a food that combines a number of food groups, so use the healthy plate guidelines to balance your meals.
For example, a lasagna might contain whole grain noodles, ground beef, tomato sauce and cheesy spinach filling. Look at the food components and see how it fits into the recommended healthy plate. Healthy eating guidelines suggest half of your plate be filled with vegetables and fruit, so adding a side salad to this dish would bring it closer to a balanced meal.

For more information, read the article Canada’s Food Guide.

Fundamentals of Nutrition

The food we eat is made up of carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins and minerals. These substances together are called nutrients.

Our bodies need nutrients for energy to live each day, to be active, to grow and to protect us from getting sick. The foods we eat may have one nutrient, or a few nutrients, but there is no one food that has all of the nutrients we need. This is why we need to eat a variety of foods that contain different essential nutrients. Eating a diet of foods that contain a variety of the essential nutrients we need is called eating a balanced diet.

Carbohydrates are found in many foods. They give us energy that our bodies can use easily. Examples of foods with carbohydrates are fruits and vegetables, whole grain breads and cereals, dairy products like milk and yogurt and any sugary foods.

Fats also give us energy. Our bodies do need some fats, but if we eat too much fat it gets stored on our body and in our blood vessels. Too much fat is not healthy and can lead to heart disease and obesity. Examples of foods with fats are nuts and seeds, meat, cheese, pastries, ice cream, and oils and butter.

Proteins are foods that build and repair our bodies. We need proteins to grow and build muscles. The best sources of protein are eggs, lean meats and poultry, fish, low fat dairy products, nuts and seeds, pulses (beans, peas and lentils) and soy products.

Vitamins and Minerals are essential nutrients that our bodies need to survive and grow. They do not provide energy, but they keep us healthy and protect us from getting sick. Different foods have different nutrients, so you can make sure you get enough vitamins and minerals by eating a balanced healthy diet.

Understanding Calories

Calories are a unit of energy. Your body needs calories for living each day, and those calories come from food and drinks. When you read that a food item has 100 calories per serving, that is the amount of energy your body could get from eating or drinking it.

Calories are burned everyday in everything you do, from breathing, to laughing and especially with physical activity. A certain number of calories are needed from foods in order to live and grow, but if you eat too many calories, the body stores them as fat. Each person burns energy at different rates and has different energy requirements (depends on factors like age, activity levels, gender and if you are pregnant or breastfeeding).

Foods that contain a lot of calories but very few nutrients are called empty calorie foods. Examples of these foods are sugary sodas, candy and fast food. These foods should be limited in your diet as they are not healthy.

Foods that contain many nutrients but less calories are called nutrient-dense foods. Examples of these foods are whole grains, leafy greens, eggs, salmon and shellfish. You should try to include many of these foods in your healthy diet.

Read these articles next:
Canada Food Guide
Healthy Eating Habits