The foods and drinks you choose are important to maintaining a healthy weight. This article offers advice on making good food choices to manage your weight.
A Balanced Diet
For a balanced diet, you need to choose foods and drinks that offer good nutrition. 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
- Medical conditions
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 such as fresh produce, lean proteins, low-fat dairy, and whole grains. Limit foods like chips and candy and other empty calories. "Empty calories" are foods that are low in healthy nutrients and high in sugar, fat, and calories. Focus on choosing snacks with fiber and protein 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 are lower in calories and saturated fat.
Good sources of lean protein include white meat turkey and chicken with the skin removed. Buffalo meat is also a lean option.
Eat lean cuts of beef or pork. Trim away any visible fat.
Eat plenty of fish, especially fatty fish such as salmon and sardines, at least 2 times per week. Limit varieties that are high in mercury, such as:
- Tile fish
- King mackerel
Also limit red snapper and tuna to once a week or less.
Beans are good sources of protein and fiber, including:
- Pinto beans
- Black beans
- Kidney beans
- Split peas
- Garbanzo beans
Vegetarian proteins such as 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. For most healthy people, it is fine to eat 1 to 2 whole 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 (0.72 liter) total per day. Be careful with flavored milks that may contain added sugars. 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 high in saturated fat and should be consumed in moderation.
Grains, cereals, and fiber
Grain products are made from wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal, barley, or other grains such as millet, bulgur, 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 healthier for you because they have the entire grain kernel and have more protein and fiber than refined grains. These include:
- Bread and pasta made with whole-wheat flour
- Bulgur (cracked wheat), amaranth, and other grains
- 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
Monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fat. These are the healthiest type of fat. Many healthy oils come from plants, nuts, olives, or fish. They are liquid at room temperature.
Healthy choices include:
- Sunflower oils
Saturated fats. These are fats found mostly in animal products such as butter and lard. They are also found in coconut oil. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature. It is best to try and reduce the amount of saturated fat in your diet.
You can limit your intake of these fats by eating only a small amount of:
- Whole milk products
- Ice cream
- Snack foods such as cookies, cakes, and crackers that contain these ingredients
Trans fats and hydrogenated fats. This type of fat is often found in fried foods. They are also in some donuts, cookies, and crackers. Many processed foods and margarines have them. The recommendation is to limit your intake of trans fats as much as possible.
Things you can do to help limit your intake of unhealthy saturated fats and trans fats include:
- Limit 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
Many fruits and vegetables are low in calories and are also packed with fiber, vitamins, and minerals, and water. Adequate intake of 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. Including more fruits and vegetables in your diet can lower the calories and fat in your diet without leaving you feeling hungry.
Limit fruit juices to one 8-ounce (0.24 liter) 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.
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 (56 grams) of cheese and 2 ounces (56 grams) of meat in your sandwiches with lettuce, tomato, cucumbers, or onions.
You can reduce your portion of rice or pasta by stirring in broccoli, chopped bell pepper, cooked squash or other vegetables. Many stores now sell "riced" cauliflower and broccoli that can be used along with or in place of rice to increase your vegetable intake. Use frozen vegetables if you do not have fresh ones. People who are on a low sodium diet may need to limit their intake of canned vegetables.
Healthy Eating Tips
Limit snacks that do not have any nutritional benefits, such as cookies, cakes, chips, or candy.
Make sure you are drinking enough water, at least 8 cups (2 liters) per day. Limit sugar-sweetened beverages such as sodas and sweet teas.
For more information visit www.choosemyplate.gov.
Obesity - managing your weight; Overweight - managing your weight; Healthy diet - managing your weight; Weight loss - managing your weight
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Heimburger DC. Nutrition's interface with health and disease. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 213.
National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute website. Lifestyle interventions to reduce cardiovascular risk: systematic evidence review from the lifestyle work group, 2013. www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/lifestyle-interventions-reduce-cardiovascular-risk. Accessed October 11, 2018.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. U.S. Department of Agriculture website. 2015 - 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/resources/2015-2020_Dietary_Guidelines.pdf. Updated December 2015. Accessed October 11, 2018.
Review Date 7/14/2018
Updated by: Emily Wax, RD, CNSC, University of Virginia Health System, Charlottesville, VA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.