Creating a Healthy Eating Pattern

Reprinted with permission of the American College of Sports Medicine.

As a part of an active lifestyle, it is important to consider incorporating a healthy eating pattern. Adequate physical activity, proper nutrition, and mind-body awareness is the combination to a balanced wellness regimen. Read on to learn more about how you can incorporate a healthy eating pattern into your lifestyle.

Shifting our focus to healthy eating patterns
An eating pattern is an individual’s habitual dietary intake and decisions regarding food and beverages over a continuous period of time. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans emphasize that eating patterns may be a predictive marker of overall health status and disease risk. An individual’s pattern of eating may change over life transition periods such as transitioning from adolescent to early adult.

Cultural or personal preferences may shift and can be incorporated into an individual’s pattern of eating. As long as the individual is following an overall healthy diet pattern during these transition periods, the health benefits sustain.

Benefits of a healthy eating pattern
Evidence shows that persons who consume a healthy, balanced diet over a continuous time period are at reduced risk of developing chronic diseases such as: type II diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and high cholesterol.

An individual’s pattern of eating should focus on including a variety of nutrient-dense foods while limiting empty calories. Nutrient dense foods are foods with a mix of high nutrient content and relatively low calories. Foods consisting of multiple vitamins, minerals, complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, and lean proteins are considered nutrient-dense. Empty calories offer minimal nutrients, but have relatively high calories providing little to no health benefit to the consumer. Solid fats and added sugars in both foods
and beverages are primarily responsible for empty calories in the American diet.

How to create a healthy eating pattern:
1) Choose vegetables from different subgroups – dark green, red and orange, legumes (beans and peas), starchy, and other
2) Consume the whole fruit versus fruit juice
3) Half or more of grains should come from whole grains
4) Choose low-fat or fat-free dairy products
5) A variety of proteins should be consumed including lean meats and poultry, eggs, seafood, nuts, seeds, soy products and legumes
6) Healthy fats and oils should be substituted for those containing saturated fat and/or trans fat
7) Research shows that a healthy eating pattern limits saturated fats and trans fats, added sugars, and sodium.

It’s recommended to consistently follow these guidelines in order to maintain an overall healthy eating pattern. This is especially important for when you change environments such as: work, school, or travel. Environment changes can be one of the most challenging obstacles to sustaining a healthy eating pattern due to food availability, time constraints, and other life stresses.

Special considerations for weight loss:
In order to promote weight loss, a caloric deficit must be created and maintained. In other words, a person must eat less than their body uses. To safely lose weight, it is important to remember the

  • Include nutrient-dense foods at each meal or snack opportunity. Try fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, eggs, nuts, seeds, lean protein, low-fat or fat-free dairy products.
  • Pre-plan meals and snacks so a healthy option is always available.
  • Drink plenty of fluids, especially water. Aim for at least 8-10 cups per day.
  • Distinguish eating out of boredom versus when you’re truly hungry.
  • Don’t skip meals. Instead aim for 5-6 small meals spread throughout the day.
  • Be aware of what barriers you have on your weight loss journey. Plan in advance how to overcome these challenges.

Follow these key strategies while creating your “on the go” nutrition plan:

  • Always prepare and plan in advance when possible
  • Identify food access at your destination (supermarkets, restaurants)
  • Familiarize yourself with your flight itinerary to identify appropriate options
  • Bring supplemental food in your school, work, or travel bag (water bottle, fruit, non-perishable bars)
  • Stay hydrated by drinking fluids regularly
  • Be aware of food safety standards and practices if you are traveling international

Nutritional needs should be met primarily through whole food sources versus supplements. A sports bar, sports drink, or other supplemental food may be an appropriate option for an athlete or other person at times, but should not replace a meal itself. Whole foods in their most natural, unprocessed form provide the body with the greatest variety of nutrients. When possible, incorporate as many whole foods in your eating pattern to maximize your nutritional benefit.

Hormone’s Role in Weight Maintenance
Research shows that those who consume an overall healthy eating pattern are likely to maintain a stable, healthy body weight. Nutritional deficiencies are less likely present when an individual is consuming a balanced, consistent diet. By optimizing nutritional status, the body is able to maintain homeostasis, or a balanced state.

The following hormones play a key role in managing the body’s homeostasis:

  • Insulin levels increase rapidly after a meal and help transport glucose (energy) to be used in the cells. The pancreas releases insulin into the bloodstream.
  • Leptin is released from the adipose (fat) cells. Leptin promotes the feeling of fullness and likely decreases with low caloric intake.
  • Ghrelin is released mainly from the stomach. It is known as the “hunger hormone” and is released when the stomach is empty.
  • Gastrin helps initiate the digestion process. It is released from the stomach when food enters.
  • Peptide YY (or PYY ) is secreted by the intestines and slows stomach motility, or the movement of food. It is released in the hours following a meal and may suppress appetite.
  • Cholecystokinin (CCK) is secreted by the small intestine. It triggers feelings of fullness in the brain and is released when protein and fat enter the small intestine.

There are several components that make up a healthy lifestyle including adequate physical activity and healthy dietary intake. Incorporating a healthy pattern of eating along-side regular exercise should be something that is sustainable for you from day to day and even on-the-go. These components are often key indicators of success in the long-term.

Copyright © 2017 American College of Sports Medicine. This brochure was created by Michelle Kulovitz Alencar, Ph.D., and Shelby Yaceczko, RDN, and is a product of ACSM’s Consumer Information Committee. Visit ACSM online at

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