The Basics: Overview
Eating healthy means following a healthy eating pattern that includes a variety of nutritious foods and drinks. It also means getting the number of calories that’s right for you (not eating too much or too little).
Use your calories to eat a variety of healthy foods.
To eat healthy, be sure to choose:
- Whole grains
- Fat-free or low-fat dairy products
- A variety of foods with protein, including seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, beans, peas, nuts, seeds, and soy products
Limit certain nutrients and ingredients.
Sodium is found in table salt – but most of the sodium we eat comes from packaged food or food that's prepared in restaurants.
Added sugars include syrups and sweeteners that manufacturers add to products like sodas, yogurt, and cereals – as well as things you add, like sugar in your coffee.
Saturated fats come from animal products like cheese, fatty meats and poultry, whole milk, butter, and many sweets and snack foods. Some plant products like palm and coconut oils also have saturated fats.
Refined grains and starches
Refined grains and starches are in foods like cookies, white bread, and some snack foods.
The Basics: Health Benefits
A healthy eating pattern can help keep you healthy.
Eating healthy is good for your overall health – and there are many ways to do it.
Making smart food choices can also help you manage your weight and lower your risk for certain chronic (long-term) diseases.
When you eat healthy, you can reduce your risk for:
- Heart disease
- Type 2 diabetes
- High blood pressure
- Some types of cancer
Take Action: Track Meals
Making small changes to your eating habits can make a big difference for your health over time. Here are some tips and tools you can use to get started.
Keep a food diary.
Knowing what you eat now will help you figure out what you want to change. Print this food diary [PDF - 36 KB] and write down:
- When you eat
- What and how much you eat
- Where you are and who you are with when you eat
- How you are feeling when you eat
For example, you might write something like: "Tuesday 3:30 pm, 2 chocolate chip cookies, at work with Mary, feeling stressed."
Take Action: Shop Smart
Shop smart at the grocery store.
The next time you go food shopping:
- Make a shopping list ahead of time. Only buy what's on your list.
- Don't shop while you are hungry – eat something before you go to the store.
Use these tips to make healthy choices:
- Try a variety of vegetables and fruits in different colors.
- Choose fat-free or low-fat dairy products.
- Replace old favorites with options that are lower in calories, sodium, added sugars, and saturated fat.
- Choose foods with whole grains – like 100% whole-wheat or whole-grain bread, cereal, and pasta.
- Buy lean cuts of meat and poultry. Eat a variety of foods with protein – like fish, shellfish, beans, and nuts.
- Save money by getting fruits and vegetables in season or on sale. Get more smart shopping tips for veggies and fruits.
Take Action: Check the Label
Read the Nutrition Facts label.
Understanding the Nutrition Facts label on food packages can help you make healthy choices.
First, look at the serving size and the number of servings per package – there may be more than 1 serving!
Then check out the calories. Calories tell you how much energy is in 1 serving of a food. In general:
- 100 calories per serving is moderate
- 400 calories per serving is high
To stay at a healthy weight, you need to balance the calories you eat and drink with the calories you burn. Learn more about watching your weight.
Next, look at the percent Daily Value (% DV) column. The DV shows you if a food is higher or lower in certain nutrients. Look for foods that are:
- Lower in added sugars, sodium, and saturated fat (5% DV or less)
- Higher in fiber, calcium, potassium, iron, and vitamin D (20% DV or more)
You can also use the DV to compare food products. Just be sure to check and see if the serving size is the same.
The picture below shows an example of a Nutrition Facts label.
To learn more about the Nutrition Facts label:
Take Action: Healthy Families
Be a healthy family.
Parents and caregivers are important role models for healthy eating. You can teach kids how to choose and prepare healthy snacks and meals.
- Use this chart to help your family make healthy choices at the store [PDF - 139 KB]. Take your child with you to the store and explain the choices you make.
- Turn cooking into a fun activity for the whole family. Let your young child help with these kitchen tasks [PDF - 258 KB]. Older kids and teens can help with even more!
- Check out these quick tips for making healthy snacks.
- Get more ideas on how to be a healthy role model for your kids.
If you have a family member who has a hard time eating healthy, use these tips to start a conversation about how you can help.
Take Action: Eating Out
Eat healthy away from home.
You can make smart food choices wherever you are – at work, in your favorite restaurant, or out running errands. Try these tips for eating healthy even when you are away from home:
- At lunch, have a sandwich on whole-grain bread instead of white bread.
- Skip the soda – drink water instead.
- In a restaurant, choose dishes that are steamed, baked, or grilled instead of fried.
- On a long drive or shopping trip, pack healthy snacks like fruit, unsalted nuts, or low-fat string cheese sticks.
Take Action: See Your Doctor
If you are worried about your eating habits, talk to a doctor.
If you need help making healthier food choices, ask your doctor for help. Your doctor may refer you to a registered dietitian. A registered dietitian is a health professional who helps people with healthy eating.
What about cost?
Under the Affordable Care Act, the health care reform law passed in 2010, most health plans must cover diet counseling for people at higher risk for chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.
Depending on your insurance, you may be able to get diet counseling at no cost to you. Check with your insurance company to find out what’s included in your plan.
For information about other services covered by the Affordable Care Act, visit HealthCare.gov.
Manage your high blood pressure or diabetes.
If you or a loved one has high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, or heart disease, talk with your doctor or a registered dietitian about how to stay healthy. If you need to follow a special diet, check out these websites:
Content last updated October 15, 2020
This information on healthy eating was adapted from materials from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Department of Agriculture.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Dietary Guidance Review Committee