How to eat for health

You've probably seen many articles in the media telling you what to eat and not eat. All this information can be confusing. You may be left wondering how much of different types of foods you should eat to stay healthy.

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Eating for health

To help you choose foods wisely, the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture have developed several tools, including:

Eating in a healthy manner isn't hard at all. To help prevent heart disease, stroke, and perhaps other diseases, you should eat mainly:

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Grains (at least half of your grains should be whole grains, such as whole wheat, oatmeal, and brown rice)
  • Fat-free or low-fat versions of milk, cheese, yogurt, and other milk products
  • Fish, skinless poultry, lean red meats, dry beans, eggs, and nuts
  • Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats

Also, you should limit the amount of foods you eat that contain:

If you choose to drink alcohol, do so in moderation. For women, that means one drink per day. One drink is defined as:

  • 12 fluid ounces of regular beer
  • 5 fluid ounces of wine
  • 1.5 fluid ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits

Following a healthy eating plan doesn't mean that you can't indulge every now and then. If what you eat is generally low in fat (especially saturated and trans fat) and sugars and you are getting enough vitamins and minerals, you may indulge in a rich dessert or serving of fried food every once in a while. If, on the other hand, you eat a lot of high-calorie foods, you are likely to get all the calories you need quickly without getting enough vital nutrients.

Choose My Plate

ChooseMyPlate.gov. Diagram of a food plate with portions for fruits, vegetables, grains, and protein, with a small space reserved for dairy.Choose My Plate is a healthy eating plan that helps you:

  • Make smart choices from different food groups
  • Balance the number of calories you "burn" through physical activity with the number of calories you eat so that you maintain a healthy weight
  • Get plenty of healthy nutrients from the food you eat

Choose My Plate has five color-coded sections, each standing for a different food group. The food groups are:

  • Grains
  • Vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Protein
  • Dairy

Want to know the amount of each food group you need daily? Go to Choose My Plate and enter your age, sex, weight, height, and the amount of physical activity you get on most days. After entering this information, you'll get a customized food guide that will tell you how many calories a day you can eat to maintain a healthy weight. It will also tell you (in cups or ounces) how much of each type of food you should eat each day.

Heart-healthy eating

What you eat affects your risk for having heart disease and poor blood circulation, which can lead to a heart attack or stroke. Heart disease is the #1 killer and stroke is the #4 killer of American women.

To help you prevent heart disease and stroke, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute has developed three heart-healthy eating plans:

  • Heart-Healthy Diet is for people who do not have heart disease and want to keep their blood cholesterol levels at healthy levels. Unhealthy cholesterol levels can, in time, lead to heart disease.
  • Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes (TLC) Diet is for people with unhealthy blood cholesterol levels.
  • Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan is for people with high blood pressure, or hypertension. Hypertension can raise your risk of heart disease and stroke.

For more information on these eating plans, see our Heart-Healthy Eating Fact Sheet.

The Nutrition Facts label

You've probably seen the Nutrition Facts label on many food packages. The label states how many calories and how much saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, dietary fiber, and other nutrients are in each serving.

Here are the key steps for using the Nutrition Facts label:

  • Check the serving size and number of servings. The serving size for a food is based on the amount of that food that people usually eat at one time. Serving sizes are standardized for similar kinds of food so that you can compare the nutritional value of these foods. So, for instance, all cans of peaches should have the same serving size.
  • Pay attention to the number of calories. On the label, you'll find the number of calories per serving and the number of calories from fat in each serving.
  • The Nutrition Facts label shows the % (percentage) Daily Value (% DV) of certain nutrients contained in one serving of the food. The % DVs are based on a daily diet of 2,000 calories. You may need more or less than 2,000 calories per day. Still, the % DVs gives you a general idea of whether a food is low or high in a certain nutrient. Five percent or less is low; 20 percent or more is high.
  • Look for foods that are low in total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, and sodium. Trans fat doesn't have a % DV. But you should eat as little of it as possible.
  • Look for foods that are high in dietary fiber.
  • Look for foods that are high in potassium, vitamins A and C, calcium, and iron. Some food labels also show % DVs for other vitamins and minerals. You'll want to choose foods that are high in those nutrients as well.
  • When choosing a food for its protein content (such as red meat, poultry, dry beans, milk, and milk products), choose those that are lean, low-fat, or fat free.

How to read a food label (text version)

Pay attention to food ingredients

Besides the Nutrition Facts label, most food packages also have an ingredients list. Ingredients are listed in order by weight.

  • If you're trying to avoid foods with a lot of added sugar, limit foods that list added sugars as the first few ingredients.
  • If you're trying to increase your fiber intake, choose foods with a whole grain, such as whole wheat, listed as the first ingredient. Other whole grains are whole oats, oatmeal, whole-grain corn, popcorn, brown rice, wild rice, whole rye, whole-grain barley, buckwheat, triticale, bulgur (cracked wheat), millet, quinoa, and sorghum.

Other labels on foods you eat

Some foods have labels such as "fat-free," "reduced calorie," or "light." Below are some useful definitions for you.

Calorie terms:

  • Low-calorie – 40 calories or less per serving
  • Reduced-calorie – at least 25 percent fewer calories per serving when compared with a similar food
  • Light or lite – one-third fewer calories; if more than half the calories are from fat, fat content must be reduced by 50 percent or more

Sugar terms:

  • Sugar-free – less than 1/2 gram sugar per serving
  • Reduced sugar – at least 25 percent less sugar per serving when compared with a similar food

Fat terms:

  • Fat-free or 100 percent fat-free – less than 1/2 gram fat per serving
  • Low-fat – 3 grams or less per serving
  • Reduced-fat – at least 25 percent less fat when compared with a similar food

It's important to remember that fat-free doesn't mean calorie free. People tend to think they can eat as much as they want of fat-free foods. Even if you cut fat from your diet but consume more calories than you use, you will gain weight. Also, fat-free or low-fat foods may contain high amounts of added sugars or sodium to make up for the loss of flavor when fat is removed. For example, a fat-free muffin may be just as high in calories as a regular muffin. So, remember, it is important to read your food labels and compare products.

How to find the nutrient content of foods that don't have labels

When you get a pound of salmon in the meat department of your grocery store, it doesn't come with a Nutrition Facts label. The same goes for the fresh apples or eggplants that you get in the produce department. How do you find out the nutrient content of these foods?

You can use the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Nutrient Database. This is a bit harder than using the Nutrition Facts label. But by comparing different foods you can get an idea if a food is high or low in saturated fat, sodium, and other nutrients. To compare lots of different foods at one time, check out the USDA's Nutrient Lists.

Reducing and limiting your sodium

Sodium is a mineral that your body needs to function properly. But eating too much sodium may, in time, raise your blood pressure. And high blood pressure increases your risk of stroke, heart disease, heart failure, and kidney disease.

Most people should aim to eat less than 2300 milligrams (mg) of sodium per day. That's about 1 teaspoon of table salt. Yet most people in the United States get more sodium than they need each day. Most of this excess sodium comes from eating processed foods, such as frozen pizza and potato chips.

One way to limit the amount of sodium you eat is to check the sodium content on the Nutrition Facts label when buying food. The sodium content in similar foods can vary a lot. For instance, the sodium content in regular tomato soup may be 700 mg per cup in one brand and 1100 mg per cup in another brand. Choosing the brands with lower sodium content can be one way to lower the amount of sodium you eat.

Also, keep in mind that not all sodium in food is in the form of salt. Other food ingredients also contain sodium, such as:

  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • Baking soda
  • Baking powder
  • Sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite (used as preservatives in foods such as luncheon meats)

Another way to limit sodium is to use spices other than salt. There are plenty of salt-free spice combinations that you can find in your grocery store. It may take a while for you to get used to the taste. But give it time. After a while, you may like them better than salt.

Besides limiting the amount of sodium you eat, it is also a good idea to eat foods rich in potassium. A potassium-rich diet blunts the harmful effects of sodium on blood pressure. Aim to eat 4700 mg of potassium a day. See the Minerals section for a list of foods high in potassium. You can also use the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Nutrient Lists to find foods that include potassium, along with other nutrients.

Healthy recipes

You really can eat healthy foods that taste great! These yummy recipes have:

Get healthy with recipes that are full of flavor!

Healthy recipes

  • Delicious Heart-Healthy Latino Recipes (PDF) — This pamphlet has traditional Latino recipes that have less sodium and fat and are also good for your heart. Recipes are in English and Spanish.
  • Heart Healthy Home Cooking African American Style — Prepare your favorite African-American dishes in ways that protect you and your family from heart disease and stroke. These recipes will show you how to cut back on saturated fat, cholesterol, and salt, and still have great-tasting food. Delicious foods from spicy southern barbecued chicken to sweet potato pie are included.
  • Recipe Finder — This site allows you to search for healthy and affordable recipes. Each recipe includes nutritional information, ingredients, instructions, and cost per recipe and per serving.
  • Stay Young at Heart: Cooking the Heart-Healthy Way — Banana-nut bread? Barbecue chicken? Beef stroganoff? Pumpkin pie? Sound too good to be good for you? The recipes in this packet will convince you that healthy dishes can also be delicious. Each recipe also lists total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, and calories per serving.
  • When Delicious Meets Nutritious: Recipes for Heart Health (PDF) — The recipes in this fact sheet show you don't have to lose flavor to gain health. It helps you cook dishes that are low in saturated fat, total fat, cholesterol, and sodium. Try mouthwatering dishes such as Baked Salmon Dijon and Stir-Fried Beef and Vegetables.

Improving your food choices at home

There are many small ways that you can change your eating habits so that you eat healthier foods. Consider these tips when choosing or preparing your foods at home:

  • Fry foods with a little bit of olive oil rather than butter, margarine, or lots of vegetable oil.
  • Use canola oil when baking.
  • Prepare fish such as salmon or mackerel twice a week.
  • Sprinkle slivered nuts or sunflower seeds on your salads instead of bacon bits.
  • Eat Canadian bacon or lean ham instead of bacon.
  • Try low-fat frozen yogurt instead of regular ice cream.
  • Eat broiled, baked, roasted, or grilled chicken without the skin instead of fried chicken.
  • Add lettuce, tomato, and other vegetables, rather than cheese, to your sandwiches.
  • Eat extra lean ground beef (5% fat) instead of regular ground beef (25% fat).
  • Try whole-wheat tortillas instead of regular flour tortillas.
  • Try whole-wheat or multigrain bread instead of white bread.
  • Try low-fat, low-sodium crackers instead of regular crackers.
  • Eat water-packed rather than oil-packed tuna.
  • Use mustard, catsup, or low-fat mayonnaise on your sandwiches instead of regular mayonnaise.
  • Try making sandwiches with 95% to 97% fat-free lunch meats.
  • Use lemon juice, herb vinegar, or reduced-calorie salad dressings on your salads.
  • Choose nonhydrogenated peanut butter. You can tell that it's nonhydrogenated if there's some oil on top of the peanut butter. Hydrogenated peanut butter is all solid at room temperature.
  • Eat lower-fat cookies, such as graham crackers or fig bars.
  • Choose canned fruits packed in water rather than syrup.

Improving your food choices when eating out

In any restaurant:

  • Ask for salad dressing, gravy, or sauce on the side and use sparingly.
  • Choose main dishes that are broiled, baked, roasted, or grilled, instead of deep-fried or pan-fried.
  • Don't be afraid to make special requests, such as asking that something be cooked with less fat.

When ordering a sandwich:

  • Add lettuce and tomato.
  • Ask for whole-wheat or rye bread.
  • Choose mustard instead of mayonnaise.

At Chinese restaurants:

  • Have brown rice instead white rice.
  • Order a side dish of steamed broccoli.

At fast food places:

  • Order smaller burgers. Skip the cheese and bacon.
  • Order a grilled chicken sandwich.
  • Order garden or grilled chicken salads with low-fat dressings.
  • Choose water or low-fat milk instead of regular soda.

At pizza places:

  • Ask for vegetable toppings, such as mushrooms or peppers, rather than meat toppings.
  • Get whole-wheat crust.
  • Request half the cheese.
  • Eat a salad with low-fat dressing in place of a slice of pizza.

Should I take vitamin and mineral supplements?

Some people think that they can make up for a lifetime of unhealthy eating habits by popping a bunch of vitamin and mineral pills each day. Others start taking certain vitamin and mineral supplements because they see stories in the media stating that these supplements may reduce their chances of getting diseases.

If you haven't been eating healthy foods for a long time, vitamin and mineral supplements are probably not going to make up for your poor eating habits. And research on the effects of dietary supplements in preventing diseases is still in the early stages.

In general, people should be able to get all the nutrients they need, including all their vitamins and minerals, by choosing foods wisely. Besides vitamins and minerals, foods such as fruits and vegetables have other substances that promote health in ways that researchers are only now beginning to discover.

There are three main groups of people who might need a supplement:

  • Women who are pregnant or could become pregnant need 400 micrograms of folic acid daily to lower the risk of certain birth defects, including spina bifida. Folic acid pills are best. You also can take a multivitamin that contains at least 400 micrograms of folic acid or eat foods with folic acid.
  • People over age 50 may need more vitamin B12.
  • Older adults, people with dark skin, and people who don't get much sun exposure may need more vitamin D.

For these groups, eating foods fortified with these nutrients or taking the nutrients in pill form may be needed.

Before taking any supplement, you should talk with your doctor about whether you need the supplement and, if so, how much you should take. Taking a supplement is not without risks. Taking too much vitamin A during pregnancy, for instance, can cause birth defects. If you are taking a medicine for a health condition, supplements may interact with the medicine in ways that can harm your body. Your doctor will be able to tell you whether taking a supplement will help you or whether you're better off spending your money on healthy foods.

More information on eating for health

Read more from womenshealth.gov

  • Heart-Healthy Eating Fact Sheet — This fact sheet provides information on how healthy eating habits can help to reduce the risk of heart disease. It explains what a healthy portion is and how to make heart-healthy food choices.

Explore other publications and websites

  • ChooseMyPlate.gov — This interactive site is based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and gives information on how much of each food group you should eat each day. It also includes tips and resources for planning a well-balanced and healthy diet.
  • Food Ingredients & Colors (Copyright © International Food Information Council) — This brochure provides information about food additives such as coloring, preservatives, and artificial sweeteners. The brochure also answers common questions about food and color additives.
  • Fortify Your Knowledge About Vitamins — This fact sheet contains specific information on the different types of vitamins, including their risks, benefits, safety and how much vitamins your body really needs.
  • Just Enough for You: About Food Portions — This booklet provides information on the difference between a portion and a serving. It also includes tips on how to control portion size at home and when eating out.
  • Ten Tips Nutrition Education Series — This series has fact sheets with tips that can help you get started toward a healthy diet. Choose a change that you can make today, and move toward a healthier you.
  • Use Herbs and Spices Instead of Salt - Make foods tasty without using salt. This Web page has ingredients to use instead of salt.
  • Using Dietary Supplements Wisely — Herbal supplements are a type of dietary supplement that contain herbs, either singly or in mixtures. An herb (also called a botanical) is a plant or plant part used for its scent, flavor, and therapeutic properties.
  • Your Guide to Lowering Your Blood Pressure With DASH — This booklet offers a week's worth of sample menus and recipes created to follow the most recent nutritional guidelines. The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan features plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other foods that are heart healthy and lower in salt and sodium. It also provides additional information on weight loss and physical activity.

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