Permission to Eat What You Want?

Printed with permission from the Cooper Institute.

Eating a Burger_JPG

Well, sort of. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recently published a position paper titled “Total Diet Approach to Healthy Eating” in which it stresses that the overall pattern of food that a person eats is more important to a healthy diet than focusing on single foods or individual nutrients (1). The great thing about this approach is that ALL foods can fit with this pattern if consumed in moderation with appropriate portion size and when it is combined with physical activity. Classifying foods as “good” or “bad” in their view is overly simplistic and may even lead to unhealthy eating behaviors.

In 2011, 82% of U.S. adults stated that they did not want to give up foods they like as a reason for not eating healthier (2). With this approach, they do not have to, however, keep in mind the “moderation and appropriate portion size” part. This should not be viewed as permission to go out and consume energy-dense foods and those that are low in nutrient-density at every meal. Doing so would lead to consuming calories above recommended limits and would be lacking in nutrients important for health. Rather it is important to find a balance between the foods and beverages you find enjoyable as well as those that provide proper nutrients all within your required energy needs.  Or in other words, it is permission to have high calorie and low nutrient density foods in small amounts some of the time. There is no need to deprive yourself of these foods as there is no one “perfect” food nor are there foods that should be “strictly” avoided (unless of course there are specific underlying issues oh let’s say like a food allergy!).

The message of balance and variety has long been that of The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. It is their hope that focusing on variety, moderation, and proportionality in the context of a healthy lifestyle can help reduce the nutritional confusion that is pervasive in our society. Emphasizing the total diet approach will hopefully be the answer for many who have had difficulty making positive lifestyle changes.

So in order to help you apply this to your life, here are some specifics about what the total diet approach emphasizes.

  • Variety—include foods from all MyPlate food groups and subgroups.
  • Balance—eat more of some foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat dairy) and less of others (high in saturated fats, trans fats, added sugars, cholesterol, salt, alcohol) as promoted by the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans. (Notice this says less of and does not say eliminate completely.)
  • Moderation—enjoy the foods you eat but control portion size.
  • Gradual improvement—take small steps each day to improve your diet. Adopting positive lifestyle behaviors doesn’t happen overnight but it can be done. Reward yourself for your progress.
  • Choose food—the nutrients found in food have far greater value (some of which have yet to be discovered) than those found in supplements.
  • Move more—physical activity complements the total diet approach as it lowers the risk of disease and aids in weight management. Pick activities you enjoy and do what you can. Every little bit counts towards your health!


1. Freeland-Graves JH, Nitzke S. (2013). Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Total diet approach to healthy eating. J Acad Nutr Diet. 113: 307-317. DOI: 10.1016/j.jand.2012.12.013

2. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Nutrition and you: Trends 2011. Accessed February 20, 2013.

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