But that means more than two-thirds of us have yet to get the message that balanced meals and proper nutrition are the keys to good health, the American Dietetic Association (ADA) says.
During the last decade, 28 percent of Americans, the highest percentage ever recorded, have changed their eating habits in an effort to improve their health, says Lola O'Rourke, a dietitian and ADA spokeswoman."There is more awareness of the need for good nutrition, and awareness is the essential first step toward making change," O'Rourke says.
Still, she adds, most people aren't taking advantage of the compelling research that shows how a good diet can reduce the risks of such major diseases as diabetes, cancer and heart disease, and improve many other areas of their lives.
"Improved health is clearly the primary benefit of good nutrition," O'Rourke says. "A healthy diet is better for long-term health, reducing the risk of chronic diseases.
"But it also gives people a greater sense of well-being, more energy," she says. "And among children, there is some research that shows that eating breakfast improves school performance."
Changing entrenched eating habits can be a hard thing to do. But there's a wealth of information to start you down the path to good nutrition.
One of the best places to start is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Guide Pyramid. It breaks down food into five groups, and recommends not only how many servings of each group to eat each day, but in what portion sizes, too.
- Bread, Cereal, Rice, and Pasta Group. It calls for six to 11 servings a day -- six for children, 11 if you're an adult male or active woman;
- Vegetable Group, three to five servings a day;
- Fruit Group, two to four servings;
- Milk, Yogurt and Cheese Group, two to three servings;
- Meat, Poultry, Fish, Dry Beans, Eggs and Nuts Group, two to three servings.
And go easy on the fats, oils and sweets, the pyramid warns.
Interestingly, portion sizes are smaller than you might think. A serving of meat, for instance, is only two to three ounces. A serving of cooked vegetables is half a cup. And a slice of bread equals one serving in the Bread, Cereal, Rice, and Pasta Group.
But "super-sized" meals, increasingly popular at many restaurants, can make limiting portions a challenge.
"Portion control is one of the most important aspects of eating well that people can do for themselves," says David Klurfeld, chairman of the department of nutrition and food science at Wayne State University in Detroit.
"Most people, for instance, eat more protein than they need. One serving of meat, about three or four ounces, the amount recommended in the Food Pyramid, is the size of a deck of cards," he says.
Klurfeld says it's also important to eat whole grain foods, like whole wheat, brown rice, oats, whole grain corn and oatmeal. And high-fiber foods, like fruits and vegetables, are not only good for you, they fill you up more so you don't overeat.
"If you eat two apples, it takes you 15 minutes to eat and you feel full for four hours," he says. "If you cook those apples into applesauce, it takes you about five minutes to eat and you're full for two hours. And if you squeeze the apples into juice and drink that, it takes about 30 seconds and you're hungry a half hour later."
Motivating people to change their diet often means getting them to change their mindset, O'Rourke says. Many are afraid they're going to have to "give something up."
"There's this idea of deprivation," she says. "But you can come up with a diet that includes your favorite food by cutting out fats in other areas of the diet that aren't as important to you. It's a matter of balance."
What to Do: To see the Department of Agriculture's Food Guide Pyramid, click here. It lists all the recommended foods and portion sizes, and offers many tips on choosing the right foods for you. And the American Dietetic Association has more than 200 tips on nutritious eating.