Food Variety: The Spice of Life

A Tale of Two Diets

Because eating a variety of foods is so important, the nutrition professionals in Australia launched a food campaign to encourage Australians to eat 20 to 30 different foods a week. Currently, most Australians eat only 15 to 18 different foods. I'd dare say the same holds true in this country (if not fewer different foods)!

More: Battle of the Foods: 14 Winning Nutrition Picks

Let's count the number of foods typically eaten by two types of active people:

Diet Profile #1: The Weight-Conscious Exerciser
1. Oatmeal

2. Turkey breast

3. Pita bread

4. Lettuce

5. Tomato

6. Rice cakes

7. Apple

8. Energy bar

9. Yogurt

10. Grilled chicken

11. Sweet potato

12. Broccoli

Oops! That's only 12!

More: 12 Healthy Power Food Pairs

Diet Profile #2: Junk-Food Junkie

1. Coffee

2. Big Mac

3. Coke

4. Chocolate-chip cookies

5. M&Ms

6. Pizza

7. Chinese fried rice

8. Ice cream

9. Potato chips

10. Beer

How many of these items even count towards "real" food?

More: Top 10 Super Foods for Endurance Athletes 

What's your number?

Now, it's your turn to do your math. For the fun of it (and education as well), write down what you eat for a week and count the number of different foods you consume. How did you do? If the number looks grim, here are some tips for enhancing food variety:

Bread: Select from a variety -- pumpernickel, rye, whole wheat, multi-grain, sunflower seed. Top with jam, peanut butter, almond butter, low-fat cottage cheese, light cream cheese.

Sandwich fillings: There's life beyond turkey breast! Lean roast beef (the kind you can get in a deli) is a fine alternative -- and offers far more vitamins and minerals. Peanut butter provides positive fats that lower the risk of heart disease. Tuna with light mayo is OK, as is hummus.

More: 3 Foods Your Heart Will Love

Snacks: Be creative and bypass yet-another rice cake, pretzel or energy bar. How about almonds and dried fruit, yogurt with granola, an apple with low-fat cheese, vegetable soup with rye crackers or graham crackers with peanut butter? Target two foods per snack (and three-plus foods per meal).

Consider cutting back on energy bars that are little more than sugar-coated vitamin pills with a little added protein. They commonly lack fiber and phytochemicals -- the important components of the fruits they tend to displace from the athlete's snack menu.

More: Learning to Snack Strategically

Pasta: Plain pasta isn't a vitamin-packed food. Pasta meals get their nutritional power from the tomato sauce on top, the veggies on the side, and the accompanying protein in the lean beef, turkey, tofu or beans added to the sauce. Round out the pasta meal with low-fat milk, salad (lettuce, carrot, pepper, tomato), crusty whole grain bread, and berries for dessert. You'll enjoy a 10-food sports meal that invests in both performance and health!

More: 6 Extra Energy Sources

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