By Ruth Ann Clayton, RD

Every January as the New Year rolls around the subject of resolutions rears its ugly head.  At the top of the list might be weight loss, more exercise, better eating and so on.  Diets are begun but many times fade into the early weeks of the New Year.  Perhaps it is being viewed the wrong way.  Instead of the common diet programs of eliminating carbs, fat, meat, butter or whatever, why not start by investigating which foods (or calories) might have brought on the extra weight?

Since I do not know what each of you is eating I cannot answer the question individually.  What I can do is give you “food for thought”.  (Pardon the play on words.)  In all seriousness, there is legitimate data which can show where most American’s are getting the bulk of their calories.

Since 1980 the United States Department of Agriculture and the United States Department of Health and Human Services has been publishing the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.  By law it is reviewed every five years.  The Dietary Guidelines for Americans is based on the most recent scientific evidence and provides advice for choosing a healthy eating pattern.  The last publication was 2010.  Another one will be coming soon. Amazingly the recommendations do not changed significantly with each publication.  The goal of the publication is to put scientific knowledge to work and promote healthy eating and physical activity and improve the health of all Americans ages 2 years and older.

The document, with over 100 pages, (, is a good read and gives key recommendations and detailed discussions.  Its recommendations encompass two overarching concepts:

  1. Maintain calorie balance over time to achieve and sustain a healthy weight.  Those who have the most success are those who give continued attention to the foods they consume and are physically active.
  2. Focus on consuming nutrient-dense foods and beverages.   The emphasis is on nutrient-dense vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products, seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, beans and peas, and nuts and seeds.  Vegetarian foods are also included in the document.

One of the most interesting charts in the document is the Top 25 Sources of Calories Among American Adults 19+ Years and Older.  I don’t believe these highest sources of calories have changed significantly in the past few years, nor will you, when you check out the list.  Here are the top 10 caloric foods for adults from the list.  1: Grain-based desserts.  2:  Yeast breads.  3:  Chicken and chicken mixed dishes.  4:  Soda/energy/sports drinks.  5:  Alcoholic beverages.  6: Pizza.  7: Tortillas/burritos/tacos.  8: Pasta/pasta dishes.

9:  Beef and beef mixed dishes. 10: Dairy desserts.   Incredibly for children aged 2-18, pizza moves up to number 2 and soda to number 3.

The highest source of calories, grain-based desserts, includes cake, cookies, pie, cobbler, sweet rolls, pastries and donuts.  The second highest, yeast breads, includes white bread, rolls, whole-wheat bread and bagels. Chicken calories come from fried and baked, chicken strips, stir-fries, and casseroles.  Pasta includes macaroni and cheese, spaghetti, lasagna, and ravioli.   The dairy desserts are from ice cream, frozen yogurt, sherbet, milk shakes and puddings.

Now let’s consider the Guidelines second recommendation which I mentioned above:  Focus on consuming nutrient-dense foods and beverages.  The reference to eat whole grains is recommending 100% whole grain breads and pastas, not sweetened desserts.  Beef and beef dishes should be lean, with poultry and seafood being a better choice.  Beans and peas are not listed in the top 25 except where they might be included in burritos or tacos.  Further down in the list fried white potatoes, or french fries, are number 16 but fruits and vegetables, being lower in calories, are not in the top 25.  Wouldn’t they be a better choice?

The foods providing the largest source of calories for adults and children are fueling an overweight nation.  As you read the list, visualize the higher calorie foods.  Their lack of color variety and texture tells you they are more a source of starch, sugar and fats, than good nutrition.  It is more to the point that we may not need to be on a restrictive diet but do need to look at our own eating pattern and make changes.  It is more important to maintain calorie balance from childhood through adulthood with the calories coming from nutrient-dense foods and beverages than to follow each New Year’s faddish diet trend.

Now that you know these calorie sources, I encourage you to move the high calorie and less nutrient-dense foods to the bottom of the list of foods you consume.  Combining that step with an increase in physical activity will go a very long way to improve your health and reduce your chances of acquiring diet-related chronic diseases.  The same is true if your goal is to lose weight.  You are well served to consider the quality of the foods you eat before you join the fad diet parade.

  1. In case you are wondering, burgers are #11 and potato and corn chips are #13 on the list.

Ruth Ann Clayton, Registered Dietitian, is active in both the American Dietetics Association and Dietitians in Integrative and Functional Medicine Dietetic Practice Group. Her nationally accredited Dietetic Internship and her years of experience in public health and hospital settings reflect her commitment to your health and well being.

As the co-owner of Nature’s Way, she uses her comprehensive background to research products, read labels, investigate manufacturers and provide information for her customers.