Nutrition: How to Make Healthier Food Choices

Nutrition: How to Make Healthier Food Choices Family Doctor Logo

Why is healthy eating important?

When combined with exercise, a healthy diet can help you lose weight, lower your cholesterol level, and improve the way your body functions on a daily basis.

People of diferent ages and activity levels have different calorie needs. How much you eat of a certain type of food, such as fruits and vegetables, should depend on your individual calorie needs. For example, a person who needs 1,000 calories per day will have food serving requirements that are different from somone who needs 1,600 calories per day. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s website offers good information about nutrition for children and adults.

Following are some ways to make healthier food choices:


Whole-grain breads are low in fat; they’re also high in fiber and complex carbohydrates, which help you feel fuller longer and prevent overeating. Choose breads whose first ingredient says “whole” in front of the grain, for example, “whole wheat flour” or “whole white flour” enriched or other types of flour have the important fiber and nutrients removed. Choose whole grain breads for sandwiches and as additions to meals.

Avoid rich bakery foods such as donuts, sweet rolls and muffins. These foods can contain more than 50% fat calories. Snacks such as angel food cake and gingersnap cookies can satisfy your sweet tooth without adding fat to your diet.

Hot and cold cereals are usually low in fat. But instant cereals with cream may contain high-fat oils or butterfat. Granola cereals may also contain high-fat oils and extra sugars. Look for low-sugar options for both instant and granola cereals.

Avoid fried snacks such as potato chips and tortilla chips. Try the low-fat or baked versions instead.

Instead of this:Try this:
Croissants, biscuits, white breads and rollsLow-fat whole grain breads and rolls (wheat, rye and pumpernickel)
Doughnuts, pastries and sconesEnglish muffins and small whole grain bagels
Fried tortillasSoft tortillas (corn or whole wheat)
Sugar cereals and regular granolaOatmeal, low-fat granola and whole-grain cereal
Snack crackersCrackers (animal, graham, rye, soda, saltine, oyster)
Potato or corn chips and buttered popcornPretzels (unsalted) and popcorn (unbuttered)
White pastaWhole-wheat pasta
White riceBrown rice or wild rice
Fried rice, or pasta and rice mixes that contain high-fat saucesRice or pasta (without egg yolk) with vegetable sauces
All-purpose white flourWhole-wheat flour

Fruits and Vegetables

Fruits and vegetables are naturally low in fat. They add flavor and variety to your diet. They also contain fiber, vitamins and minerals.

Margarine, butter, mayonnaise and sour cream add fat to vegetables and fruits. Try using nonfat or low-fat versions of these foods. You can also use nonfat or low-fat yogurt, low-fat salad dressing, or herbs as seasonings instead.

Instead of this:Try this:
Fried vegetables or vegetables served with cream, cheese or butter saucesAll vegetables raw, steamed, broiled, baked or tossed with a very small amount of olive oil and salt and pepper
CoconutFruit (fresh)
French fries, hash browns and potato chipsBaked white or sweet potatoes

Meat, Poultry and Fish

Beef, Pork, Veal and Lamb – Baking, broiling and roasting are the healthiest ways to prepare meat. Lean cuts can be pan-broiled or stir-fried. Use either a nonstick pan or nonstick spray coating instead of butter or margarine.

Trim outside fat before cooking. Trim any inside, separable fat before eating. Select low-fat, lean cuts of meat. Lean beef and veal cuts have the word “loin” or “round” in their names. Lean pork cuts have the word “loin” or “leg” in their names.

Use herbs, spices, fresh vegetables and nonfat marinades to season meat. Avoid high-fat sauces and gravies.


Baking, broiling and roasting are the healthiest ways to prepare poultry. Skinless poultry can be pan-broiled or stir-fried. Use either a nonstick pan or nonstick spray coating instead of butter or margarine.

Remove skin and visible fat before cooking. Chicken breasts are a good choice because they are low in fat and high in protein. Use domestic goose and duck only once in a while because both are high in fat.


Poaching, steaming, baking and broiling are the healthiest ways to prepare fish. Fresh fish should have a clear color, a moist look, a clean smell and firm, springy flesh. If good-quality fresh fish isn’t available, buy frozen fish. Try to eat seafood twice a week.

Most seafood is high in healthy polyunsaturated fat. Omega-3 fatty acids are also found in some fatty fish, such as salmon and cold-water trout. They may help lower the risk of heart disease in some people.

Cross-over Foods

Dry beans, peas and lentils offer protein and fiber without the cholesterol and fat of meats. Once in a while, try substituting beans for meat in a favorite recipe, such as lasagna or chili.

TVP, or textured vegetable protein, is widely available in many foods. Vegetarian “hot dogs,” “hamburger” and “chicken nuggets” are low-fat, cholesterol-free alternatives to meat.

Instead of this:Try this:
Regular or breaded fish sticks or cakes, fish canned in oil, seafood prepared with butter or served in high-fat sauceFish (fresh, frozen, canned in water), low-fat fish sticks or cakes and shellfish (such as shrimp)
Prime and marbled cutsSelect-grade lean beef (round, sirloin and loin)
Pork spare ribs and baconLean pork (tenderloin and loin chop) and turkey bacon
Regular ground beefLean or extra-lean ground beef, ground chicken and turkey breast
Lunch meats such as pepperoni, salami, bologna and liverwurstLean lunch meats such as turkey, chicken and ham
Regular hot dogs or sausageFat-free hot dogs and turkey dogs


Choose skim milk or low-fat buttermilk. Substitute evaporated skim milk for cream in recipes for soups, sauces and coffee.

Try low-fat cheeses. Skim ricotta can replace cream cheese on a bagel or in a vegetable dip. Use part-skim cheeses in recipes. Use 1% cottage cheese for salads and cooking. String cheese is a low-fat, high-calcium snack option.

Plain nonfat yogurt can replace sour cream in many recipes. (To maintain texture, stir 1 tablespoon of cornstarch into each cup of yogurt that you use in cooking.) Try mixing frozen nonfat or low-fat yogurt with fruit for dessert.

Skim sherbet is an alternative to ice cream. Soft-serve and regular ice creams are also lower in fat than premium styles.

Instead of this:Try this:
Whole or 2% milkNon-fat or 1% milk
Evaporated milkEvaporated non-fat milk
Regular buttermilkButtermilk made from non-fat (or 1%) milk
Yogurt made with whole milkNonfat or low-fat yogurt
Regular cheese (examples: American, blue, Brie, cheddar, Colby and Parmesan)Low-fat cheese with less than 3 grams of fat per serving (example: natural cheese, processed cheese and nondairy cheese such as soy cheese)
Regular cottage cheeseLow-fat, nonfat, and dry-curd cottage cheese with less than 2% fat
Regular cream cheeseLow-fat cream cheese (no more than 3 grams of fat per ounce)
Regular ice creamSorbet, sherbet and nonfat or low-fat ice cream (no more than 3 grams of fat per 1/2 cup serving)

Fats, Oils and Sweets

Eating too many high-fat foods not only adds excess calories (which can lead to obesity and weight gain), but can increase your risk factor for several diseases. Heart disease, diabetes, certain types of cancer and osteoarthritis have all been linked to diets too high in fat. If you consume too much saturated and trans fats, you are more likely to develop high cholesterol and coronary artery disease.

Sugar-sweetened drinks, such as fruit juice, fruit drinks, regular soft drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks, sweetened or flavored milk and sweetened iced tea can add lots of sugar and calories to your diet. But staying hydrated is important for good health. Substitute water, zero-calorie flavored water, non-fat or reduced-fat milk, unsweetened tea or diet soda for sugary drinks. Talk with your family doctor or a dietitian if you have questions about your diet or healthy eating for your family.

Instead of this:Try this:
CookiesFig bars, gingersnaps and molasses cookies
Shortening, butter or margarineOlive, soybean and canola oils
Regular mayonnaiseNonfat or light mayonnaise
Regular salad dressingNonfat or light salad dressing
Using fat (including butter) to grease panNonstick cooking spray

Other Organizations

  • U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Pyramid