Eat Better
Hungry for ways to eat well and stay healthy? Choose foods wisely for yourself and your family. Healthy dietary patterns provide better weight control, and offer a strong line of defense against many chronic diseases. Children need to eat healthy for growth, development and optimal learning.

Eating Better

A healthy diet includes a variety of foods from the major food groups: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat/non-fat dairy products, lean protein-rich foods, nuts and seeds, and healthy fats. How do you choose a healthy eating plan? The amount you should eat depends on your age, sex, activity level, and whether you're trying to gain, maintain, or lose weight. The USDA's Choose MyPlate can help you pick the foods and determine the amounts that are right for you.

Look for the Nutrition Facts label on packaged foods to tell you portion sizes and how many calories are in each serving of food.

Using the Nutrition Facts Label

You can help your family eat better and balance their energy by learning to choose lower calorie, lower fat alternatives to some of their favorite foods. Use the Nutrition Facts label found on food packages to make smarter food choices.

This example below is a Nutrition Facts Label is from a macaroni and cheese dinner. You can also visit the U.S. Food and Drug Administration website to see more examples of the Nutrition Facts Label and what it can tell you.

Description: Growth chart example showing range of different BMI percentiles for height and age.
  • Keep these low: saturated fats, trans fats, and sodium
  • Get enough of these: vitamin D, calcium, potassium, and dietary fiber
  • Use the Percent Daily Value (% DV) column when possible; 5% DV or less is low, 20% DV or more is high

Healthy Eating Recommendations7

Aim to follow these key healthy eating recommendations from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans each day. The recommended amounts from each MyPlate food group for a 2,000-calorie diet are listed below.

  • Understand your calorie needs. Your personalized Daily Food Plan will help you identify your calorie needs. See "What Is Obesity?" for more.
  • Drink more water. Choose water instead of sugary drinks. Most people believe we need 8 glasses per day. But an Institute of Medicine panel1 recommends that fluid intake should be driven by thirst.
  • Vary your veggies. Get 2 1/2 cups of colorful veggies. Some colorful examples include:
    • Dark green: Spinach, broccoli, kale, bok choy, collard greens
    • Red & orange: Carrots, butternut squash, red peppers, sweet potatoes
  • Focus on fruits. Choose 2 cups of fresh, frozen, canned, or dried fruits. Examples to include: 1 small piece of fruit, 1 cup of berries or melon, 1/2 cup of other fruit (fresh, frozen, or canned without added sugar), or 1/4 cup of dried fruit.
  • Dig into dairy. Eat 3 cups a day of low-fat or fat-free dairy, such as milk, cheese or yogurt. Choose 1 cup of milk, 1 cup of yogurt, or 1 1/2 ounces of cheese (=1 cup). For those who are lactose intolerant, smaller portions (such as 4 fluid ounces of milk) may be well tolerated. Lactose-free and lower-lactose products are available. These include lactose-reduced or lactose-free milk, yogurt, and cheese, and calcium-fortified soymilk (soy beverage)170
  • Get more whole grains. Eat 6 ounces of grains. At least half the grains you eat should be whole grains (such as 100% whole wheat breads, whole-grain cereal, and brown rice). One-ounce examples include: 1 slice of bread, 1 cup dry cereal, or 1/2 cup cooked pasta, rice, or cereal.
  • Go lean with protein. Eat 5 1/2 ounces of lean meat, chicken, or fish. You can also serve up the equivalent amount of beans, tofu, or other protein-rich alternatives to meat. Aim for 8 ounces per week of fish.
  • Choose the right fats. Choose foods low in saturated fats and cholesterol, and avoid trans fat (look for 0 grams of trans fat on the label and no partially hydrogenated oil on the ingredient list). Most of the fats you eat should be plant-based, such as those found in olive or canola oil, avocados, nuts, and seeds. Keep total fat intake between 20 and 35 percent of your total daily calories.
  • Be selective about sugar. Look for foods and beverages low in added sugar. Other words for sugar you might see on food labels include agave nectar, cane sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, evaporated cane juice, fruit juice concentrates, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, molasses, sucrose, fructose, or glucose.
  • Look out for salt in foods you buy—it all adds up. Compare sodium in foods like soup, bread, and frozen meals—and choose the foods with lower numbers.

Eating for Weight Control

Choosing healthy foods means you're getting good nutrition with every bite. More than counting calories, it's important to make each calorie count.

How many calories do you need?

Your personalized Daily Food Plan identifies your calorie needs. Learn more about eating the right amount of calories for you, and tips for managing your weight.

How many calories are in the foods and beverages you eat and drink?

You can find the calorie content of any food or beverage using the Choose My Plate Food-a-pedia, looking at the Nutrition Facts label, or checking product or restaurant websites.

What are empty calories?

They are calories "empty" of nutritional value. Empty calories are the calories from solid fats and added sugars. Learn more.

What do you drink?

Calories in drinks are not hidden (they're listed right on the Nutrition Facts label), but many people don't realize just how many calories beverages can contribute to their daily intake. As you can see in the example below, calories from drinks can really add up. Check the list below to estimate how many calories you typically take in from beverages78.

Type of Beverage Calories in 12 ounces Calories in 20 ounces
Fruit punch 192 320
100% apple juice 192 300
100% orange juice 168 280
Regular lemon/lime soda 148 247
Regular cola 136 227
Sweetened lemon iced tea (bottled, not homemade) 135 225
Tonic water 124 207
Regular ginger ale 124 207
Sports drink 99 165
Fitness water 18 36
Unsweetened iced tea 2 3
Diet soda (with aspartame) 0* 0*
Carbonated water (unsweetened) 0 0
Water 0 0

*Some diet soft drinks can contain a small number of calories that are not listed on the nutrition facts label. (USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference) Consumers should be aware that they contain artificial sweeteners such as aspartame.

Other Eating Tips for Weight Management

  • A healthy breakfast goes a long way. Start your day with whole grains and lean protein to stay full and have calories to burn until lunch time.
  • Eat out wisely. Make smart choices when you're away from home. Pick healthy snacks and meals on the go.
  • Pay attention to portion sizes. These days, it's easy to overeat without realizing it. We're being served more and more food at each meal — even our dishes are getting bigger. Comparing real portions to everyday items is an easy way to help understand portion sizes — no measuring cup or scale needed. Download a serving size card to help you recall what a standard food serving looks like.
    Portion Trends
  • Avoid temptation. Keeping "impulse foods" such as chips, candy, ice cream, and soft drinks out of the house is a good way to help control your weight.
  • Separate emotions and eating. Stress, anxiety, boredom, loneliness, depression, and tiredness all can lead to overeating. Know when emotions and not hunger are the reason you are eating. Learn more about stress and support.

Healthy Family Eating - Strategies for Parents and Kids

Model healthy eating habits for your children. Making healthy meals is smart for the whole family, not just overweight children and adults. Teach your kids about healthy nutrition with these tips:

  • Start the day with a healthy breakfast.
  • Eat meals together at the table, and keep the TV off during mealtimes.
  • Intake of fruit juice should be limited to 4 to 6 oz per day for children 1 to 6 years old. For children 7 to 18 years old, juice intake should be limited to 8 to 12 oz or 2 servings per day171.
  • Help kids avoid junk food binges by keeping it out of the house. Limit highly processed and high fat, high calorie fast foods.
  • If you're pregnant, plan to breastfeed your baby. Studies show breastfed babies are at a lower risk of overweight later in life.
  • Avoid using food as a reward or punishment.

Encourage children to try healthy foods. Don't give up if your child doesn't like a particular food. It can take as many as 8 to 10 exposures before a child should accept a new food. It is fine if some foods are not accepted even then. You are responsible for what, where, and when your child eats. Your child should decide how much to eat. That way the child learns to tune into their own appetite and to stop eating when they feel full.

Children don't need to eat as much as adults. Avoid the temptation to make kids "clean their plates" before leaving the table.

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