How to Manage Your Diet for Optimal Nutrition

Erin Coleman, R.D., L.D.
woman eating salad

Want to boost your nutrition but don't know how? You're not alone. Knowing what to eat, how much to eat, and how to keep disease risks low can be confusing, especially with so much contradictory nutrition information available on the internet. Fortunately, following a few simple recommendations makes it easier for you manage your diet for optional nutrition.

Meet Fluid Requirements

The first step in maintaining proper nutrition is meeting your daily fluid requirements. Doing so helps prevent dehydration and possibly lowers your risk for chronic diseases, according to a 2015 study published in Nutrition Reviews. The Food and Nutrition Board says women need just over 11 cups of fluid, and men (and lactating women) require about 16 cups of fluid daily. Water is the best choice, but any type of fluid counts.

Know Your Calorie Needs

Knowing how many calories your body requires daily can help you follow meal plans and maintain a healthy weight. The tables below show calorie needs based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015 recommendations for healthy adults.

MEN

Age

Sedentary

Moderately Active

Active

19 to 20

2,600

2,800

3,000

21 to 25

2,400

2,800

3,000

26 to 35

2,400

2,600

3,000

36 to 40

2,400

2,600

2,800

41 to 45

2,200

2,600

2,800

46 to 55

2,200

2,400

2,800

56 to 60

2,200

2,400

2,600

61 to 65

2,000

2,400

2,600

66 to 75

2,000

2,200

2,600

76 and older

2,000

2,200

2,400

WOMEN

Age

Sedentary

Moderately Active

Active

19 to 25

2,000

2,200

2,400

26 to 30

1,800

2,000

2,400

31 to 50

1,800

2,000

2,200

51 to 55

1,600

1,800

2,200

56 to 60

1,600

1,800

2,200

61 and older

1,600

1,800

2,000

Consider Weight Loss Calorie Requirements

If you're trying to shed pounds, you may need fewer calories daily than the chart above indicates. A good rule of thumb is women need 1,200 to 1,500 calories daily, and men (and women who exercise heavily) require 1,500 to 1,800 calories per day for safe and effective weight loss, notes the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

Use Meal Plans

mediterranean diet plan

Once you know your body's calorie requirements, you can determine how much food from each food group you need daily to meet protein, carbohydrate, fiber, healthy fat, vitamin, and mineral needs. Using Mediterranean meal plans is a healthy way to meet nutrient requirements because Mediterranean-style diets help protect you from chronic diseases, according to a 2014 review in Cancer Treatment and Research. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015 provides Mediterranean meal plans at different calorie allotments ranging from 1,000 to 2,200 calories per day. Vegetarian meal plans are also available. A sample 2,000-calorie Mediterranean meal plan includes:

  • 2½ cup of fruits
  • 2½ cups of vegetables
  • 6 ounces of grains
  • 2 cups of dairy foods
  • 6½ cups of protein foods
  • 6 teaspoons of oils
  • 260 calories from foods of your choice

Below are lists of foods and portion sizes from each food group, to help you accurately follow meal plans.

One Cup of Fruit

Choose fruit daily, such as:

  • 1 medium piece of fruit
  • 1 cup of grapes, berries, melon balls, applesauce, etc.
  • 1 cup of 100-percent fruit juice
  • ½ cup of dried fruit

One Cup of Vegetables

Choose veggies daily, including:

  • 1 cup of raw or cooked vegetables
  • 1 cup cooked legumes
  • 2 cups of leafy greens
  • 1 cup of vegetable juice

One Ounce of Grains

Select grains, such as:

  • 1 mini bagel
  • 1 regular slice of bread
  • ½ cup of cooked cereal, rice, other cooked grains (like quinoa), or pasta
  • 5 whole-wheat crackers
  • ½ English muffin
  • 1 pancake
  • 3 cups of popped popcorn
  • 1 small tortilla
  • 1 cup of ready-to-eat breakfast cereal

One Ounce of Protein Foods

Choose healthy sources of protein, including:

  • 1 ounce of fish, seafood, poultry, or very lean beef
  • 1 egg
  • 1 ½ egg whites
  • 1/2 ounce of nuts or seeds
  • 1 tablespoon of nut butter
  • ¼ cup of cooked legumes

One Cup of Dairy Foods

Chose low-fat dairy, including:

  • 1 cup of milk
  • 1 cup of soy milk
  • 1 cup of protein-fortified almond milk
  • ½ cup of evaporated milk
  • 1 cup of low-fat yogurt or Greek yogurt
  • 1 ½ ounces of hard cheese
  • 1/3 cup of shredded cheese
  • 2 cups of cottage cheese
  • ½ cup of ricotta cheese
  • 1 cup of frozen yogurt

One Teaspoon of Oils

Eat moderate amounts of fats or oils.

  • 1 teaspoon of vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon of soft, trans fat-free tub margarine
  • 1 teaspoon of mayonnaise
  • 1 tablespoon of mayonnaise-type salad dressing
  • 1 tablespoon of Italian salad dressing
  • 8 large olives
  • 1/6 avocado
  • 1 ½ teaspoons of nut butter
  • 1/3 ounce of nuts or seeds

Watch Sodium Intakes

Watching your sodium intake lowers your risk for high blood pressure and heart disease. The American Heart Association suggests getting 1,500 to no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium daily by choosing lower-sodium foods when possible. Check the nutrition facts label of your favorite foods to know how much sodium you're consuming each day.

Track Nutrients

Tracking your food, calorie, and nutrition intake (at least every now and then) helps determine if you're eating the right number of calories and getting recommended amounts of protein, carbs, healthy fats, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's FoodTracker allows you to do just that, by following these few, simple steps:

  1. Click on the FoodTracker link.
  2. Enter your daily food intake into the meals section by using the "search" field.
  3. Enter the amount of each food you've eaten.
  4. When you're finished, click on the "nutrients reports" link under the "my reports" tab.
  5. Click on the dates you want to analyze.
  6. Click on the blue "create report" button in the lower right corner of your screen.
  7. You'll then view a customized nutrition report to figure out if you're getting optimal nutrition.

Take a Multivitamin Supplement

Ask your doctor about taking a multivitamin supplement, especially if you experience symptoms of nutrient deficiencies, or your nutrition tracker uncovers deficiencies. Taking a multivitamin supplement is generally a good idea for deficiency prevention as well, especially for pregnant and nursing women. However, always check with your doctor to be sure.

Exercise Regularly

Regular exercise is another part of staying healthy and looking and feeling your best. Aim to get in 150 minutes of moderate-level physical activity, or 75 minutes of high-intensity aerobic exercise weekly (plus strength training at least two times per week) for optimal health. That's the recommendation set by the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.

Next Steps

Managing your diet for optimal nutrition is no easy task, but starting with a few simple recommendations will help get you on track in no time. Drinking plenty of water, using meal plans, exercising regularly, and taking a multivitamin supplement are the keys to proper nutrition and healthy weight management.

How to Manage Your Diet for Optimal Nutrition