How Much Is Just Enough

Let's start at the beginning—the basics of a sensible diet for the average healthy adult.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average healthy male weighs 154 pounds, and his female counterpart tips the scales at 121. The phrase that we often hear—Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) or Recommended Daily Intake (RDI)—refers to the levels of protein, vitamin, and mineral intake considered adequate to meet the nutritional needs of these exceedingly normal folks. Of course, if you weigh more than 50 pounds over or under those figures you'll need to adjust accordingly. And similarly, if you're pregnant, lactating, postmenopausal, or a kid, your requirements are different from what the RDA suggests.

That said, here's something to keep in mind: A guideline for dietary intake is laid out in the "Food Guide Pyramid," which breaks down the recommended number of servings for each of the five basic food groups (see the following figure). The groups are:

> Bread, cereal, pasta, and rice >- Vegetables

> Fruit

> Milk, yogurt, and cheese

> Meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs, and nuts

A sixth group, the one that makes most humans salivate, is pleasing to the palate but high in fat or calories. This group includes fats, oils, and sweets. Sadly, these substances have little (or no) nutritive value and should be eaten sparingly. (One can only imagine the frenzy caused by a study that said the best diet would include copious servings of ice cream, potato chips, mayonnaise, and bacon.)

Here's something else you should know. The six essential nutrients are:

>

Carbohydrates

>

Proteins

>

Fats

>

Vitamins

>

Minerals

>

Water

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The Food Guide Pyramid is a good visual representation of a healthful diet, emphasizing the need for complex carbohydrates.

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Before we get into the nuts and bolts of what and when to eat, let's do a quickie course in basic nutrition.

Carbohydrates (carbs), proteins, and fats are your sources of calories. Carbs supply four calories per gram and are classified as simple or complex. This isn't a psychological profile, but is based on the properties each possesses. Simple carbs, which are quickly converted to energy, are high in sugar and found in treats like cakes, cookies, jams, and soda.

Complex carbohydrates, which provide a more sustained and gradual release of glucose into the bloodstream, are found in pasta, bread, grains, and cereals. Complex carbs should be the mainstay of your diet.

Fats don't provide a lot of vitamins and minerals, but they serve a valuable role in your diet. For example, without ingesting some fat—about two tablespoonfuls a day— your body couldn't process or absorb vitamins A, D, E, or K.

Protein, which forms the structural basis for muscle tissue, supplies energy only when there aren't enough calories available from carbs and fat. Foods high in protein include meat, milk, eggs, and legumes.

That's the basics on what we eat. While many experts disagree on the precise figures, it's our informed opinion that a good diet should consist of 60 to 65 percent carbohydrates, 10 to 12 percent protein, and 20 to 30 percent fat. Here's a helpful key to figure out how much of each type of food you should eat.

First you need to figure out your basal metabolic rate (BMR). Your BMR is the amount of energy (calories) you burn just to keep going if you did nothing but lie in bed staring at the wall. (The ultimate couch potato doesn't even use the remote control.) It's both amusing and informative to figure out the approximate number of calories that your body needs each day to maintain your weight. To figure out your BMR for one day, get your calculator and punch in the following numbers. This estimate should be within 15 percent of your actual BMR.

For example: Jonathan weighs 172 pounds. To find out his metabolic rate, he multiplies 172 by 24, which is 4,128, which he divides by 2.2 to get 1,876. So, without exercising, he needs to consume 1,876 calories each day to maintain his body weight, and thus to lose weight, he needs to eat fewer than 1,876 calories. Now Jonathan actually does more than lie prone for the day. In fact, he burns about 1,500 or so calories each day cycling, running, and lifting weights, which means he breaks even at more than 3,300 calories a day. (By way of comparison, the average sumo wrestler consumes 4,600 calories a day.) Being able to approximate your metabolic rate allows you to have an idea of how many calories your body needs each day.

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