For a balanced diet, you need the right types and amounts of foods and drinks. This keeps your body healthy.
Know how many calories your body needs every day. A dietitian can help you determine your caloric needs based on your:
- Activity level
Know how many servings of dairy, fruits and vegetables, proteins, and grains and other starches your body needs each day.
A balanced diet also includes avoiding too much of some foods and making sure you get enough of others.
Stock up on healthy foods. Avoid foods like chips and candy. They are high in calories. They also do not have much nutrition. Eat healthy snacks instead, like carrots and bell peppers with hummus, an apple and a piece of string cheese, or yogurt with fresh fruit.
Choose different healthy foods from each food group. Eat foods from each group with every meal. Whenever you sit down to a meal, green vegetables should take up half of your plate.
Protein (meats and beans)
Avoid the fried options; baked, steamed, grilled, stewed, or broiled is better.
Good sources of lean protein include white meat turkey and chicken with the skin removed. Buffalo meat is also good.
Eat lean cuts of beef or pork. Trim away any visible fat.
Eat plenty of fish and shellfish, at least 2 times per week. Limit varieties that are high in mercury, such as:
- Tile fish
- King mackerel
Limit red snapper and tuna to once a week.
Beans are good sources of protein and fiber, including:
- Pinto beans
- Black beans
- Kidney beans
- Split peas
- Garbanzo beans
Nuts and seeds are part of a balanced diet. You can also eat tofu, tempeh, and other soy products.
Eggs are also a good source of protein. They are low in saturated fat, but they are very high in cholesterol. Ask your health care provider if it is ok for you to eat eggs. For most healthy people, it is fine to eat 1 to 2 eggs per day. The yolk is where most of the vitamins and minerals are.
Dairy (milk and milk products)
Always choose fat-free (skim) or low-fat (1%) dairy products, and try to consume 3 cups total per day. Cheese is also a healthy choice, but only in moderation. Limit your intake to 1.5 ounces of hard cheese per day.
Other good dairy choices are milk and buttermilk. Yogurt is best when it is fat-free or low-fat. Plain yogurt that you stir your own fresh or dried fruit into is better than fruit-flavored yogurts, which can contain added sugars.
Cream cheese, cream, and butter are not healthy dairy products.
Grains, cereals, and fiber
Grain products are made from wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal, barley, or other grains such as millet, bulgur, quinoa, and amaranth. Foods made with grains include:
- Breakfast cereals
There are 2 kinds of grains: whole grains and refined grains. Choose mostly whole-grain foods. They are much healthier for you because they have the entire grain kernel. These include:
- Whole-wheat flour
- Bulgur (cracked wheat)
- Whole cornmeal
- Brown rice
Check the ingredients list, and buy breads and pastas that list "whole wheat" or "whole grain" as the first ingredient.
Refined grains are changed to make them last longer. They also have a finer texture. This process removes fiber, protein, iron, and many B vitamins. Refined grains include white flour, white rice, or de-germed cornmeal. Eat fewer foods that often have refined grains, such as white flour and pasta.
Products with added bran, such as oat bran or bran cereal, are a good source of fiber. Just remember, they may not be whole-grain products.
Oils and fats
Oils are fats that are liquid at room temperature. Most of these oils are high in monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats. This is the best oil to use for cooking.
Many healthy oils come from plants, nuts, olives, or fish. Healthy choices include:
- Sunflower oils.
Any fats that are solid at room temperature contain saturated fats. Saturated fats are much less healthy for you and are often high in cholesterol. Animal fats, like butter and lard, are higher in saturated fats.
Saturated fats may be found in some foods. Some vegetable oils also have saturated fats. These are coconut, palm, and palm kernel oils.
You can reduce saturated fats in your diet by eating only a small amount of:
- Hard cheeses
- Whole milk
- Ice cream
- Fatty meats
Trans fats and hydrogenated fats are often found in fried foods. They are also in some donuts, cookies, and crackers. Many processed foods and margarines have them. Most of these foods are okay in moderation, but the recommendation is to limit trans fats as much as possible.
Avoid fried foods. Fried food absorbs the fats from cooking oils. This increases your fat intake. If you do fry, cook with polyunsaturated oils. Try to saute foods in a small amount of oil instead of deep-fat frying.
Boil, grill, poach, and bake fish, chicken, and lean meats.
Read food labels. Try to avoid foods that have partially-hydrogenated fats or trans fats. Limit foods that are high in saturated fats.
Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are lower in calories than other foods. They are also packed with fiber, vitamins, and minerals, as well as water. Eating many fruits and vegetables can help you control your weight. It may also reduce your risk of cancer and other diseases.
The fiber and water in fruits and vegetables helps fill you up. Replace high-calorie foods with fruits and vegetables. This can lower the calories and fat in your diet without leaving you feeling hungry.
Limit fruit juices to one 8-ounce cup or less per day. Whole fruits and vegetables are a better choice than juices because juices do not have the fiber to help fill you up.
Be careful not to eat too many fruits, since they do have calories. But try to eat 2 cups (4 servings) of fruit and 2 1/2 cups of vegetables (5 servings) per day for an average 2,000-calorie per day diet. You can always add more low-calorie vegetables to your diet.
Divide your dinner plate. Fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables. Fill the other half with whole grains and meat.
Replace half of the cheese in your omelets with spinach, onions, tomatoes, or mushrooms. Replace 2 ounces of cheese and 2 ounces of meat in your sandwiches with lettuce, tomato, cucumbers, or onions.
Add chopped broccoli, tomatoes, squash, onions, or green peppers to your dishes instead of pasta or rice. Use frozen or canned vegetables if you do not have fresh ones.
Limit snacks that do not have any nutritional benefits, such as cookies, cakes, chips, or candy. These should not be "everyday" treats.
Make sure you are drinking enough water, at least 8 cups per day. Limit sugar-sweetened beverages such as sodas and sweet teas.
For more information visit www.choosemyplate.gov.
Freeland-Graves JH, Nitzke S. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Total diet approach to healthy eating. J Acad Nutrition and Dietetics. 2013;113(2):307-17. PMID: 23351634 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23351634.
National Institutes of Health, National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Lifestyle Interventions to Reduce Cardiovascular Risk: Systematic evidence review from the lifestyle work group, 2013. Available at: www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-pro/guidelines/in-develop/cardiovascular-risk-reduction/lifestyle/index.htm. Accessed Nov. 6, 2014.
Review Date 10/28/2014
Updated by: Emily Wax, RD, The Brooklyn Hospital Center, Brooklyn, NY. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.