Eating well means choosing a mix of healthy foods that give your body the nutrients it needs. Eating well also means consuming the right number of calories for your age, gender, and level of physical activity. You also need to know what foods to limit. And of course, it’s important to enjoy your meals.
To eat well, it’s best to choose a mix of nutrient-dense foods every day. Nutrient-dense foods are foods that are high in nutrients but low in calories. Look for foods that contain vitamins, minerals, complex carbohydrates, lean protein, and healthy fats.
plenty of fruits and vegetables
plenty of grains, especially whole grains
low-fat or fat-free milk and milk products
lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, and nuts
limited amounts of fats (saturated and trans fats should be as low as possible), cholesterol, salt (sodium), and added sugars.
Fruits, vegetables, and grains offer important vitamins and minerals to keep your body healthy. Most of these foods have little fat. They also have no cholesterol. Fruits, vegetables and grains are also a source of fiber, and eating more fiber may help with digestion and constipation and may lower cholesterol and blood sugar.
Fruits, vegetables, and grains and beans also give your body phytochemicals. Phytochemicals are natural compounds such as beta-carotene, lutein and lycopene. Like vitamins, minerals, and fiber, phytochemicals may promote good health and reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers. Research is underway to learn more about these natural compounds.
Eat a variety of fresh, frozen, canned, or dried fruits every day. To make sure you get the benefit of the natural fiber in fruits, you should eat most of your fruits whole rather than as juices. Fruits may be purchased fresh, canned, frozen, or dried and may be eaten whole, cut-up, or pureed.
Also, eat a variety of colors and types of vegetables every day. Broccoli, spinach, turnip and collard greens, and other dark leafy greens are good choices. You might also choose orange vegetables, such as carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, or winter squash. Vegetables may be purchased raw or cooked, frozen, canned, or dried/dehydrated. They may be eaten whole, cut-up, or mashed.
Foods made from grains are a major source of energy and fiber. Include grains in your diet every day. Any food made from wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal, barley, or another cereal grain is a grain product. Grains fall into two main categories: whole and refined. When choosing grain foods, try to make half your grains whole. In other words, at least half of the cereals, breads, crackers, and pastas you eat should be made from whole grains.
Whole grains are better sources of fiber and nutrients than refined grains, such as white flour or white rice. Refined grains have had both the bran and germ removed and don’t have as much fiber or as many nutrients as whole grains. Most refined grains are enriched, with some B vitamins and iron added back in after processing. However, fiber is not replaced.
Whole-grain foods, such as whole-wheat bread, are made with the entire seed of a plant, including the bran, the germ, and the endosperm. Together, they provide lots of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, healthy fat, carbohydrates, and fiber.
Try whole wheat pasta instead of regular pasta or use brown rice in a casserole in place of white rice. Look for “whole wheat” or “whole oats” rather than just “wheat” or “oats” on the ingredients list of packaged goods to make sure you’re getting whole grains.
Low-fat or fat-free milk and milk products should be among the foods you choose every day, too. These products provide calcium and vitamin D to help maintain strong bones. They also provide protein, potassium, vitamin A, and magnesium. Low-fat or fat-free milk, cheese, and yogurt are good options.
If you don’t drink milk, be sure to have other products that contain the nutrients that milk provides. Some cereals and juices are fortified with extra calcium and vitamin D. Salmon, sardines and mackerel are good sources of vitamin D.
If you avoid milk because of its lactose (milk sugar) content, you can get needed nutrients from lactose-reduced or low-lactose milk products. You might also drink small amounts of milk several times a day or take tablets with the enzyme lactase (available in most drugstores and grocery stores) before consuming milk products. Other sources of calcium include foods such as hard cheese, yogurt, boney canned fish like salmon or sardines, and calcium-fortified tofu or soy beverages.
Protein helps build and maintain muscle, bones, and skin, and you should include some protein in your diet every day. Meats and poultry are sources of protein, B vitamins, iron, and zinc. When buying meats and poultry, choose lean cuts or low-fat products. They provide less total fat, less saturated fat, and fewer calories than products with more fat.
For instance, 3 ounces of cooked, regular ground beef (70% lean) has 6.1 grams of saturated fat and 236 calories. Three ounces of cooked, extra-lean ground beef (95% lean) contains 2.6 grams of saturated fat and 148 calories.
Consider varying your sources of protein. Try replacing meats and poultry with fish or with bean, tofu, or pea dishes. These foods tend to be low or lower in saturated fats, and beans provide fiber. Pinto beans, kidney beans, black beans, chickpeas, split peas, and lentils are all healthy options. Look for ways to add nuts and seeds to your meals and snacks too, but keep amounts small since these foods can contain high amounts of fat.
Fats are a source of energy and help maintain healthy organs, skin and hair. Fats also help your body absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K. It’s okay to include some oils and fats in the foods you eat, but be aware that fat contains more than twice as many calories as protein or carbohydrates. Try to choose foods that are low in fat or fat free.
Some fats are better for you than others. Choose polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats when possible. Sources of better fats include vegetable oils such as soybean, corn, canola, olive, safflower, and sunflower oils. Polyunsaturated fat is also in nuts, seeds, and fatty fish. Walnuts, flaxseed and salmon are examples of foods with polyunsaturated fat.
Be sure to consume plenty of liquids, especially water. You need to replace the fluids you lose every day. You can increase your intake of water by eating fruits and vegetables, which have a high moisture content. This may help prevent constipation and dehydration. Other good choices are unsweetened tea, low-fat or fat-free milk, and 100 percent fruit juice.
Read the food labels on packaged foods and canned goods to learn what’s in the products you buy. All food labels contain a list of ingredients and nutrition information. Ingredients are listed in order by weight, which means that the ingredient present in the largest quantity is listed first and the ingredient present in the smallest quantity appears last. Nutrition information is found on the Nutrition Facts label.
The MyPyramid Plan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA, can help you choose a mix of healthy foods that are right for you. This online tool at www.MyPyramid.gov suggests what and how much to eat from each food group. The amount depends on your age, sex, and activity level.
Another balanced eating plan is the DASH eating plan. DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. It is designed to help prevent or manage high blood pressure, or hypertension. The plan suggests which foods to eat and how much to eat. Your doctor may recommend other eating plans to help manage health conditions that occur as you get older. For more information about DASH, contact the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute at 1-301-592-8573 or 1- 240-629-3255 (TTY)
Wholesome foods provide a wealth of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients you need to stay healthy. Eating properly is the best way to get these nutrients. However, if you have concerns that you are not eating as well as you should, you should talk to your doctor about taking a multivitamin and mineral supplement.