A diet is the combination of foods typically eaten by a specific group of people or other organisms. Human diets are determined by nutritional needs, the types of food available in a particular region, and cultural beliefs.
A balanced diet is one that provides all of the nutrients needed for good health and proper growth.
No single food can provide all the nutrients people require. As a result, people combine many different kinds of foods in many ways to meet their nutritional needs.
The nutrients we need include carbohydrates, fats, proteins, minerals, and vitamins. Carbohydrates mostly come from plants, and include starches and sugars. Fats come from both plants and animals, and include vegetable oils such as corn oil and olive oil, and animal fats from meat, fish, dairy products, and eggs.
Proteins are found in nearly all foods in varying amounts. Animal products, legumes, whole grains, and nuts are particularly rich in proteins.
Vitamins and minerals are also found in most foods in varying amounts. Different foods are rich in different vitamins and minerals. Orange vegetables such as carrots, sweet potatoes, and pumpkins are all high in vitamin A. Citrus fruits contain lots of vitamin C. Meat, legumes, and spinach provide iron. Dairy products are high in calcium.
Most animals have the same dietary requirements as people: vitamins and minerals, proteins, carbohydrates, and fats.
Herbivores are organisms that consume only plants. They digest the tough fibers in plants and do not need meat for nutrition. Herbivores are often called primary consumers because they are the first (primary) eaters of autotrophs, or organisms that produce their own food.
Some herbivores, such as pandas and koalas, have such specialized diets that they need to eat all day. Pandas mostly eat bamboo, while koalas mostly eat leaves from eucalyptus trees. Both bamboo and eucalyptus have very low nutritional value. Pandas and koalas must eat tons of the plants to fulfill their dietary requirements for nutrition.
Animals that eat meat are secondary consumers. Carnivores, which mostly eat meat, and omnivores, which eat both plants and meats, are secondary consumers. The diets of secondary consumers are often more varied than primary consumers. Because meat usually has more energy and calories than plants, secondary consumers often eat less often than primary consumers. While koalas and pandas eat for hours every day, a lion may only eat once a week.
Before the development of modern transportation and food storage, people’s diets depended on the plants and animals that thrived in the areas where they lived. Even today, people who live by the ocean tend to eat a lot of seafood. People in tropical climates have access to a variety of tropical fruits such as coconuts, bananas, or breadfruit. People in temperate lands can grow wheat easily, and people in warm, wet climates often grow rice in waterlogged soils.
Most traditional diets rely on a food staple—usually a grain or tuber (potato or root vegetable)—and a variety of other foods that are eaten in lesser amounts. For example, rice is prominent in Japanese cuisine, along with fish, noodles, soy products such as miso and tofu, vegetables, and tea.
In Mexico, corn is a staple food, often in the form of corn tortillas. The traditional Mexican diet also includes tomatoes, squash, sweet potatoes, and chocolate. Mexican foods are often flavored with chili peppers such as jalapenos, poblanos, and serranos.
Diet and Culture
Culture plays a major role in dietary choices. Our social values influence what we eat, how we prepare food, and when we consume it.
For example, culture dictates which edible plants and animals are considered food. In the United States, most people consider dogs and horses to be pets, not food. However, horsemeat is a common dish in Central Asian countries like Kazakhstan, and dog meat can sometimes be found in restaurants in some Southeast Asian countries, including Vietnam. Most westerners also object to the thought of eating insects, but they are considered delicacies in other parts of the world. People native to Australia and the island of New Guinea enjoy grubs. In Bali, Indonesia, dragonflies boiled in coconut milk are considered a delicacy. People in Ghana enjoy fried or roasted termites.
Religion often plays a role in diet. For example, Hindus will not eat beef because cattle are considered sacred. Jewish and Muslim beliefs forbid eating pork. Many Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists avoid eating animals altogether.
A diet that does not include meat, fish, or poultry is called a vegetarian diet. Religion is just one reason people choose to become vegetarians. Other reasons include personal health, concern for animal welfare, or concern about the environment.
Vegans are vegetarians who avoid all animal products, including eggs, milk, cheese, and honey.
In addition to affecting what people eat, culture also shapes how foods are prepared and served. For instance, people in India typically use a complex combination of spices to season their dishes. Japanese cuisine, on the other hand, embraces simplicity to showcase the freshness of the ingredients.
Traditional diets developed around the foods that were available in a particular location and the traditions of each particular cultural group. Today, however, we have the ability to import foods from all over the world, and modern communications make it easy for us to learn about and try many different cuisines. No one is surprised today to find Greek food in Cincinnati, Ohio; fast-food burgers in Tokyo, Japan; or a Pakistani restaurant in London, England.
In developed countries, many people have abandoned traditional diets in favor of highly processed foods. The high levels of sugar, salt, and refined grains in these foods, however, have led to increased levels of diabetes and heart disease. Obesity is a common problem in countries with an abundance of these inexpensive, high-calorie foods.
As a result, many people in developed countries are adopting new, healthier diets. For example, some people are choosing to buy only seasonal, locally grown foods. Others are seeking out organically grown foods. Many people seek out more humanely produced animal products such as free-range chicken or grass-fed beef. A lot of foods today also contain additives that increase their nutritional value, such as orange juice containing calcium or eggs fortified with omega-3 fatty acids.
Many people are also rediscovering healthier, traditional diets. For example, Native American communities have a high risk of diabetes. Recently, some Native American communities in California, such as the Pomo, have encouraged the use of acorns and acorn flour. Acorns were a staple food in the Pomo diet for centuries. A diet with acorns, squash, and other traditional ingredients is full of nutrients and does not contribute to a risk of heart disease or diabetes.
People who follow a raw foods diet wont eat any foods that are cooked. Raw food has many more nutrients than cooked food.
Many who follow a raw food diet are vegans or vegetarians, but some eat uncooked animal products as well.
Those who follow this diet must be careful when choosing foods because certain plants can be poisonous if they are not cooked. Raw animal products can also pose a risk of food poisoning.
Traditional diets are built around food pyramids. Healthy physical activity forms the widest part of the pyramid, the base. The foods that make up traditional diet pyramids are grown locally or have a history of preparation in the area.
There are four major types of traditional diet pyramids: Mediterranean diet, Asian diet, Latino diet, and vegetarian diet.
Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry abundance Noun
nut of an oak tree.
organism that can produce its own food and nutrients from chemicals in the atmosphere, usually through photosynthesis or chemosynthesis.
Encyclopedic Entry: autotroph bamboo Noun
type of huge, woody grass.
flesh of a cow used for food.
chemical element with the symbol Ca.
unit of energy from food, equal to the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of one kilogram of water by one degree Celsius.
type of sugar that is an important nutrient for most organisms.
organism that eats meat.
Encyclopedic Entry: carnivore cattle Noun
cows and oxen.
chili pepper Noun
plant native to the Americas whose fruit and seeds are cultivated for food and spice.
type of fruit tree, including lemon and orange.
all weather conditions for a given location over a period of time.
Encyclopedic Entry: climate coconut milk Noun
clear liquid contained in the center of a coconut.
sharing of information and ideas.
to use up.
a style of cooking.
cultural belief Noun
faith or custom created and supported by a community's traditional behavior.
learned behavior of people, including their languages, belief systems, social structures, institutions, and material goods.
having to do with the production of milk, cream, butter, or cheese.
food or dish notable for its rarity or cost.
developed country Noun
a nation that has high levels of economic activity, health care, and education.
disease where the body is unable to produce or regulate certain types of carbohydrates.
foods eaten by a specific group of people or other organisms.
Encyclopedic Entry: diet digest Verb
to convert food into nutrients that can be absorbed.
able to be eaten and digested.
to support enthusiastically.
tree native to Oceania.
material found in organisms that is colorless and odorless and may be solid or liquid at room temperature.
long, thin, threadlike material produced by plants that aids digestive motion when consumed.
material, usually of plant or animal origin, that living organisms use to obtain nutrients.
Encyclopedic Entry: food food staple Noun
food that is eaten frequently, either fresh or stored for use all year.
Encyclopedic Entry: food staple forbid Verb
to disallow or prohibit.
having to do with livestock or poultry that have been allowed to graze instead of being fed on a feed lot.
edible part of a plant that grows from a flower.
harvested seed of such grasses as wheat, oats, and rice.
Encyclopedic Entry: grain grass-fed beef Noun
meat from cattle that have been raised on grass pastures, not corn feed lots.
larval, or worm-like, stage of insect development.
heart disease Noun
illness affecting the heart and circulatory system.
organism that eats mainly plants and other producers.
Encyclopedic Entry: herbivore Hindu Noun
religion of the Indian subcontinent with many different sub-types, most based around the idea of "daily morality."
kind or gentle.
to bring in a good or service from another area for trade.
not costing a lot of money.
chemical element with the symbol Fe.
follower of the religion of Jainism, which supports nonviolence toward all living things.
medium-sized, hot chili pepper that is usually green.
having to do with the religion or culture of people tracing their ancestry to the ancient Middle East and the spiritual leaders Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
type of plant with a pod that splits, with seeds in the middle, such as peanuts.
animal flesh eaten as food.
nutrient needed to help cells, organs, and tissues to function.
thick paste made from soybeans, salt, and a grain (usually rice).
having to do with Islam, the religion based on the words and philosophy of the prophet Mohammed.
Native American Noun
person whose ancestors were native inhabitants of North or South America. Native American usually does not include Eskimo or Hawaiian people.
substance an organism needs for energy, growth, and life.
Encyclopedic Entry: nutrient nutrition Noun
process by which living organisms obtain food or nutrients, and use it for growth.
medical condition where excess body fat increases risk for disease and death.
omega-3 fatty acid Noun
chemical, usually found in plant oil, that has been linked to improved blood circulation and reduced risk for heart disease.
organism that eats a variety of organisms, including plants, animals, and fungi.
Encyclopedic Entry: omnivore organic Adjective
produced according to standards using limited amounts of chemical additives.
living or once-living thing.
large, mild chili pepper that is usually dark green.
people and culture native to Northern California.
meat from pigs.
domesticated birds, such as chickens.
primary consumer Noun
organism that eats plants or other autotrophs.
processed food Noun
food that has been chemically or physically altered from its natural form, for taste, preservation, or storage.
important or standing out.
one of many complex compounds, made of chains of amino acids, that make up the majority of all cellular structures and are necessary for biological processes.
a system of spiritual or supernatural belief.
greatly respected aspect or material of a religion.
fish and shellfish consumed by humans.
secondary consumer Noun
organism that eats meat.
small, hot chili pepper that is usually green or red.
top layer of the Earth's surface where plants can grow.
beans, or fruit, of the soybean plant, native to Asia.
exact or precise.
tasty and aromatic plant substances used in cooking.
carbohydrate found in many vegetables and cereals.
type of chemical compound that is sweet-tasting and in some form essential to life.
thick, soft substance of varying consistency made from soybeans.
flat, round bread made from corn or flour.
movement of people or goods from one place to another.
existing in the tropics, the latitudes between the Tropic of Cancer in the north and the Tropic of Capricorn in the south.
thick part of an underground stem of a plant, such as a potato.
person who does not eat meat or any animal product.
vegetable oil Noun
liquid fat extracted from a plant.
person who does not eat meat.
chemical substance that is necessary for health.
vitamin A Noun
chemical substance necessary for healthy eyesight and skin. Also called retinol.
vitamin C Noun
chemical substance important for health. Also called ascorbic acid.
flooded or overflowing with water.
health or well-being.
most widely grown cereal in the world.