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Health Facts

Get the Most Nutrition Out of Your Calories

Each major food group provides a variety of nutrients, so it's important to include all food groups in your daily eating plan. You will enjoy many different foods while getting essential nutrients that help you get the most nutrition out of your calories.

Many Americans don't consume enough foods that contain calcium, potassium, fiber, magnesium, and vitamins A, C, and E. At the same time, many Americans consume too many foods high in calories, saturated and trans fats, cholesterol, added sugars, and salt.

Getting the nutrients you need through a healthy diet is essential for growth, development, and overall health. So, look for foods that are packed with vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other nutrients, but lower in calories. These foods should be the foundation of your diet. Eating nutrient-packed foods helps you stay within your calorie needs while meeting your nutrient needs.

What are my daily calorie needs?
There is a right number of calories for you to eat each day. Find your number on the Estimated Calories Needed table on the next page. For example, a 40-year-old, sedentary woman should aim for 1,800 calories a day, while a 25-year-old, sedentary male should aim for 2,400 calories a day. 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 that your body needs.

Eat a variety of nutrient-packed foods and beverages within and among the basic food groups, while limiting foods with saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, added sugars, salt, as well as alcohol. Select a variety of foods from each food group and within food groups. A healthy eating plan is one that:

Use the Nutrition Facts label.
Most packaged foods have a Nutrition Facts label. Use this tool to make smart food choices and find out how much you are actually eating. To use the label effectively:

Check servings and calories. Find out how much you are actually eating. Look at the serving size and how many servings you are consuming. If you are eating two servings, you are eating double the calories and the nutrients listed in the Nutrition Facts label for one serving of the food.

Check the percent Daily Value (% DV). For many nutrients, the Nutrition Facts label provides a % DV; 5% DV or less is low and 20% DV or more is high.

Read the ingredient list.
Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight from most to least. Make sure that those ingredients you want more of, such as whole grains (e.g., whole wheat) are listed first. Make sure that those you want to eat less of, such as added sugars, are not one of the first few ingredients. Some names for added sugars (caloric sweeteners) include brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, fruit juice concentrates, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, invert corn syrup, invert sugar, lactose, maltose, malt syrup, molasses, maple syrup, raw sugar, sucrose, and syrup.

You can get a big nutritional "bang for the bite" by making smart food choices. The comparisons on the right are some examples of how you can get more from your calories. Some people with increased needs for particular nutrients should select food sources of these nutrients more often. For example:

Smart Food Choices
Vitamin A 1 ounce pretzels = 0 IU (0% Daily Value) in 110 calories


1/2 cup carrot sticks, raw = 7,700 IU (150% Daily Value) in 30 calories
Vitamin C 1 12-fluid-ounce soft drink = 0 milligrams (0% Daily Value) in 160 calories


1 c (8 fluid ounces) orange juice = 110 milligrams (180% Daily Value) in 120 calories
Dietary Fiber 1 slice of white bread = 1 gram (4% Daily Value) in 80 calories


1 slice of whole-wheat bread = 2 gram (8% Daily Value) in 70 calories
Vitamin E 1 ounce of potato chips = 3 milligrams (10% Daily Value) in 152 calories


1 ounce almonds = 7 milligrams (25% Daily Value) in 160 calories

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service. 2004. USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 17. Nutrient Data Laboratory Home Page,

Estimated Calories Needed by Gender, Age, and Activity Levela
Gender Age (Years) Sedentaryb Moderately Activec Actived
Child 2 - 3 1,000 1,000 - 1,400e 1,000 - 1,400e
Female 4 - 8 1,200 1,400 - 1,600 1,400 - 1,800
9 - 13 1,600 1,600 - 2,000 1,800 - 2,200
14 - 18 1,800 2,000 2,400
19 - 30 2,000 2,000 - 2,200 2,400
31 - 50 1,800 2,000 2,400
51+ 1,600 1,800 2,000 - 2,200
Male 4 - 8 1,400 1,400 - 1,600 1,600 - 2,000
9 - 13 1,800 1,800 - 2,200 2,000 - 2,600
14 - 18 2,200 2,400 - 2,800 2,800 - 3,200
19 - 30 2,400 2,600 - 2,800 3,000
31 - 50 2,200 2,400 - 2,600 2,800 - 3,000
51+ 2,000 2,200 - 2,400 2,400 - 2,800
a These levels are based on Estimated Energy Requirements (EER) from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) Dietary Reference Intakes Macronutrients Report, 2002, calculated by gender, age, and activity level for reference-sized individuals. "Reference size," as determined by IOM, is based on median height and weight for ages up to 18 years and median height and weight for that height to give a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 21.5 for adult females and 22.5 for adult males.

b Sedentary means a lifestyle that includes only the light physical activity associated with typical day-to-day life.

c Moderately active means a lifestyle that includes physical activity equivalent to walking about 1.5 to 3 miles per day at 3 to 4 miles per hour, in addition to the light physical activity associated with typical day-to-day life.

d Active means a lifestyle that includes physical activity equivalent to walking more than 3 miles per day at 3 to 4 miles per hour, in addition to the light physical activity associated with typical day-to-day life.

e The calorie ranges shown are to accommodate needs of different ages within the group. For children and adolescents, more calories are needed at older ages. For adults, fewer calories are needed at older ages.