These days, nutrition information is everywhere. From diet books to newspaper articles, everyone seems to have an opinion about what you should be eating.
While you already know it's important to eat a healthy diet, you may find it more difficult to sort through all of the information about nutrition and food choices.
Here’s what you need to know:
Feel better today
The food and physical activity choices you make every day affect your health – how you feel today, tomorrow and in the future. The way to do it is:
- Make smart choices from every food group.
- Find your balance between food and physical activity.
- Get the most nutrition out of your calories.
Eating right and being physically active aren’t just a "diet" or a "program" – they are the keys to a healthy lifestyle. Good habits will help you reduce your risk of many chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, and certain cancers, and increase your chances for a longer life.
Make smart choices from every food group
The best way to give your body the balanced nutrition it needs is by eating a variety of nutrient-packed foods every day but stay within your daily caloric needs.
A healthy eating plan is one that:
- Is heavy in fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products.
- Includes lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, and nuts.
- Is low in saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, salt (sodium), and added sugars.
Mix up your choices within each food group
- Focus on fruits. Eat a variety of fruits (fresh, frozen, canned or dried) rather than fruit juice for most of your fruit choices. For a 2,000-calorie diet, you will need 2 cups of fruit each day (for example, 1 small banana, 1 large orange, and ¼ cup of dried apricots or peaches)
- Vary your veggies. Eat more dark green veggies, such as broccoli, kale, etc.; orange veggies, such as carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, and winter squash; and beans and peas, such as pinto beans, kidney beans, black beans, garbanzo beans, split peas, and lentils.
- Get your calcium-rich foods. Get 3 cups of low-fat or fat-free milk, or an equivalent amount of low-fat yogurt and/or low-fat cheese every day. If you don’t or can’t consume milk, choose lactose-free milk products and/or calcium-fortified foods and beverages.
- Make half of your grains whole. Eat at least 3 ounces of whole-grain cereals, breads, crackers, rice, or pasta every day (as noted in the ingredients). Once ounce is about 1 slice of bread, 1 cup of breakfast cereal, or ½ cup of cooked rice or pasta.
- Go lean with protein. Choose lean meats and poultry. Bake it, broil it, or grill it. And vary your protein choices – with more fish, beans, peas, nuts, and seeds.
- Know the limits on fats, salt and sugars. Read the Nutrition Facts label on foods. Look for foods low in saturated fats and trans fats. Choose and prepare foods and beverages with little salt and/or added sugars.
Find your balance between food and physical activity.
Becoming a healthier you isn't just about eating healthy—it's also about physical activity. Regular physical activity is important for your overall health and fitness. It also helps you control body weight by balancing the calories you take in as food with the calories you expend each day.
- Be physically active - for children and teens, 60 minutes may be appropriate - for at least 30 minutes most days of the week.
- Increasing the intensity or the amount of time that you are physically active can have even greater health benefits and may be needed to control body weight. About 60 minutes a day may be needed to prevent weight gain.
If you eat 100 more food calories a day than you burn, you'll gain about 1 pound in a month. That's about 10 pounds in a year. The bottom line is that to lose weight, it's important to reduce calories and increase physical activity.
Get the most nutrition out of your calories.
The number of calories that your body needs depends on your age, activity level, and whether you're trying to gain, maintain, or lose weight.* You could use up the entire amount on a few high-calorie items, but chances are you won't get the full range of vitamins and nutrients your body needs to be healthy.
Choose the most nutritionally rich foods you can from each food group each day—those packed with vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other nutrients but lower in calories. Pick foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products more often.
* 2,000 calories is the value used as a general reference on the food label. Calculate your number!
Most packaged foods have a Nutrition Facts label which you can use to make smart food choices quickly and easily. Try these tips:
- Keep these low: saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, and sodium.
- Get enough of these: potassium, fiber, vitamins A and C, calcium, and iron.
- Use the % Daily Value (DV) column when possible: 5% DV or less is low, 20% DV or more is high.
Check servings and calories. Look at the serving size and how many servings you are actually consuming. If you double the servings you eat, you double the calories and nutrients, including the % DVs.
Make your calories count. Look at the calories on the label and compare them with what nutrients you are also getting to decide whether the food is worth eating. When one serving of a single food item has over 400 calories per serving, it is high in calories.
Don't sugarcoat it. Sugars contribute calories but have few, if any, nutrients, so look for foods and beverages low in added sugars. Read the ingredient list and make sure that added sugars including glucose, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, maple syrup, and fructose are not in the first ingredients.
Know your fats. Look for foods low in saturated fats, trans fats, and cholesterol to help reduce the risk of heart disease (5% DV or less is low, 20% DV or more is high). Most of the fats you eat should be polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. Keep total fat intake between 20% to 35% of calories.
Reduce sodium (salt), increase potassium. Research shows that eating less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium (about 1 tsp of salt) per day may reduce the risk of high blood pressure. Most of the sodium people eat comes from processed foods, not from the saltshaker. Also look for foods high in potassium, which counteracts some of sodium's effects on blood pressure.
Don’t give in when you eat out or are on the go
Make smart food choices and watch portion sizes wherever you are. Try these tips:
- At the store, plan ahead by buying a variety of nutrient-rich foods for meals and snacks throughout the week.
- When grabbing lunch, have a sandwich on whole-grain bread and chose low-fat/fat free milk, water, or other drinks without added sugars.
- In a restaurant, opt for steamed, grilled or broiled dishes instead of those that are fried or sautéed.
- On a long commute or a shopping trip, pack some fresh fruit, cut-up vegetables, string cheese sticks, or a handful of unsalted nuts to help avoid impulsive, less healthful snack choices.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Dietary Guidelines for Americans
US Department of Health and Human Services