Nutrition: How to Make Healthier Food Choices

Nutrition: How to Make Healthier Food Choices

Having a healthy diet has a lot of benefits. It can help you lose weight or maintain your desired weight. It also can lower your cholesterol and prevent certain health conditions. In general, a healthy diet keeps your body running on a daily basis. Learn how to make healthier food choices.

Path to improved health

The choices you make about what you eat and drink matter. They should add up to a balanced, nutritious diet. We all have different calorie needs based on our gender, age, and activity level. Health conditions can play a role too, including if you need to lose weight.

Choose food from all five groups and follow the tips below.

Grains

Choose products that list whole grains as the first ingredient. For example, whole grain breads or whole-wheat flour. Whole grains are low in fat and high in fiber. They also contain complex carbohydrates (carbs), which help you feel full longer and prevent overeating. Avoid products that say “enriched” or contained with other types of grains or flours. They do not have the same nutrients.

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

Try not to eat rich sweets, such as doughnuts, rolls, and muffins. These foods often contain calories made up of more than 50% fat. Lighter options, such as angel food cake, can satisfy your sweet tooth without adding fat to your diet.

Instead of this:Try this:
Croissants, rolls, biscuits, and white breadsWhole grain breads, including 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 granolaWhole grain cereal, oatmeal, and low-fat granola
Snack crackersLower fat, lower sugar crackers, such as animal, graham, rye, soda, saltine, and oyster
Potato or corn chips and buttered popcornPretzels (unsalted) and popcorn (unbuttered)
White pastaWhole-wheat pasta
White riceBrown or wild rice
Fried rice and rice or pasta mixes that contain high-fat saucesRice or pasta (without egg yolk) that contain vegetable sauces
All-purpose white flourWhole-wheat flour

Fruits and Vegetables

Fruits and vegetables naturally are low in fat. They provide flavor and variety to your diet. They also contain necessary fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Try not to add unneeded fats to vegetables and fruits. This means avoiding margarine, butter, mayonnaise, and sour cream. You can use yogurt, healthy oils, or herbs to season instead.

Instead of this:Try this:
Regular or fried vegetables served with cream, cheese, or butter saucesRaw, steamed, boiled, or baked vegetables tossed with a small amount of olive oil, salt, and pepper
Fruits served with cream cheese or sugary saucesFresh fruit with a small amount of nut (peanut, almond, or cashew) butter
Fried potatoes, including french fries, hash browns, and potato chipsBaked white or sweet potatoes

Protein

Beef, pork, veal, and lamb

Select low-fat, lean cuts of meat. Lean beef and veal cuts have the words “loin” or “round” in their names. Lean pork cuts have the words “loin” or “leg” in their names. Trim off the outside fat before cooking it. Trim any inside, separable fat before eating it. Use herbs, spices, and low-sodium marinades to season meat.

Baking, broiling, grilling, and roasting are the healthiest ways to prepare these meats. Lean cuts can be pan-broiled or stir-fried. Use either a nonstick pan or cooking spray instead of butter or margarine. Avoid serving your protein with high-fat sauces and gravies.

Poultry

Chicken breasts are a good choice because they are low fat and high in protein. Only eat duck and goose once in a while, because they are high in fat. Remove skin and visible fat before cooking. Baking, broiling, grilling, and roasting are the healthiest ways to prepare poultry. Skinless poultry can be pan-broiled or stir-fried. Use a nonstick pan or cooking spray instead of butter or margarine.

Fish

Most seafood is high in healthy polyunsaturated fat. Omega-3 fatty acids also are found in some fish, such as salmon and cold-water trout. Try to eat seafood twice a week. Fresh fish should have a clear color, a clean smell, and firm, springy flesh. If good-quality fresh fish isn’t available, buy frozen fish. To prepare fish, you should poach, steam, bake, broil, or grill it.

Non-meat proteins

Non-meat options include dry beans, peas, and lentils. They offer protein and fiber without the cholesterol and fat of meats. These are staple foods for people who are vegetarian or vegan. You can swap beans for meat in recipes, like lasagna or chili.

TVP, or textured vegetable protein, also is available. It is found in vegetarian hot dogs, hamburgers, and chicken nuggets. They are low-fat, cholesterol-free substitutes to meat.

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

Dairy

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

Nonfat or Greek yogurt can replace sour cream in many recipes. Try mixing them with fruit for dessert. Skim sherbet and soft-serve frozen yogurt is lower in fat than ice cream.

Instead of this:Try this:
Whole or 2% milkSkim (nonfat), 1% , or non-dairy milk, such as soy, rice, almond, or cashew milk
Cream or evaporated milkEvaporated skim milk
Regular buttermilkLow-fat buttermilk
Yogurt made with whole milkLow-fat, nonfat, or Greek yogurt
Regular cheese, including American, blue, brie, cheddar, colby, and parmesanLow-fat cheese with less than 3 grams of fat per serving, such as natural cheese or nondairy soy cheese
Regular cottage cheeseLow-fat, nonfat, and dry-curd cottage cheese with less than 2% fat
Regular cream cheeseLow-fat cream cheese with less than 3 grams of fat per ounce, or skim ricotta
Ice creamSorbet, sherbet, or frozen yogurt with less than 3 grams of fat per 1/2 cup serving

Fats, oils, and sweets

Too many high-fat foods add excess calories to your diet. This can lead to weight gain and obesity, or increase your risk for certain issues. Heart disease, diabetes, some cancers, and osteoarthritis have all been linked to diets high in fat. If you consume high amounts of saturated and trans fats, you are more likely to develop high cholesterol and coronary heart disease.

It is important that you stay hydrated for your health. However, sugar-sweetened drinks contain lots of sugar and calories. This includes fruit juices, soda, sports and energy drinks, sweetened or flavored milk, and sweet tea. Substitute water and other zero-calorie drinks.

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

Things to consider

Being healthy is more than a diet — it’s a lifestyle. Combine healthy food choices with regular exercise and smart habits. Adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week. Children and teens should get at least 60 minutes of exercise every day. If you smoke, you should quit. You also should limit your alcohol intake. Women should have no more than one drink per day. Men should have no more than two drinks per day. Talk to your doctor if you need help quitting alcohol or smoking.

When you commit to a healthy lifestyle, you can reduce your risk of certain conditions. These include obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. If you’re worried, try making small changes to your diet over time. Talk with your family doctor or a dietitian if you have questions.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • How many servings should I eat from each food group?
  • If I’m on a strict diet, such as vegetarian or vegan, how can I make healthy food choices?

Resources

Academy of Family Physicians, Nutrition: Tips for Improving Your Health

U.S. Department of Agriculture, ChooseMyPlate

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