Home > Patients & Visitors > Health Library > Healthy Eating
Healthy eating starts with learning new ways to eat, such as adding more fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and cutting back on foods that have a lot of fat, salt, and sugar.
A change to healthier eating also includes learning about balance, variety, and moderation.
Healthy eating will help you get the right balance of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. It will help you feel your best and have plenty of energy. It can help you handle stress better.
Healthy eating is one of the best things you can do to prevent and control many health problems, such as:
Healthy eating is not a diet. It means making changes you can live with and enjoy for the rest of your life.
Diets are temporary. Because you give up so much when you diet, you may be hungry and think about food all the time. And after you stop dieting, you also may overeat to make up for what you missed.
Eating a healthy, balanced variety of foods is far more satisfying. And if you match that with more physical activity, you are more likely to get to a healthy weight—and stay there—than if you diet.
First, think about your reasons for healthier eating. Do you want to improve your health? Do you want to feel better? Are you trying to set an example for your kids?
Next, think about some small changes you can make. Pick ones you can keep doing.
Having support from others can be a huge help. The more support you have, the easier it will be to make changes. Ask family and friends to practice healthy eating with you. Have them help you make meals, and share healthy, delicious recipes and cooking tips.
If you need more help, talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian. Look online for groups that support healthy eating and share success stories.
Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.
Healthy eating is about balance, variety, and moderation.
Having a well-balanced diet means that you eat enough, but not too much, and that food gives you the nutrients you need to stay healthy.
You can get more information from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. These guidelines provide tips for eating well to stay healthy and lower your risk of diseases such as heart attack and stroke.
Calories, the energy in food, are another part of balance. The more active you are, the more calories you need. When you are less active, you need fewer calories.
How many calories you need each day also depends on your age, whether you are male or female, and activity level.footnote 1 Some life situations, such as being pregnant or breastfeeding, can also influence calorie needs. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest:
But knowing how many calories you need each day is just one part of healthy eating. Eating when you're hungry and knowing when you're full are also important.
Listening to your body
Young children are good at listening to their bodies. They eat when they're hungry. They stop when they're full.
But adults may ignore these signals. They may keep eating after they're full, or they may eat because they're bored or upset. If you ignore your body's signals for a long time (such as by dieting or overeating) you may lose your ability to notice them. You get out of practice. Other factors may influence what you eat.
Your body uses these signals to tell you when and how much to eat:
Eating a variety of foods can help you get all the nutrients you need. Your body needs protein, carbohydrate, and fats for energy. They keep your heart beating, your brain active, and your muscles working.
Along with giving you nutrients, healthy foods also can give you pleasure. They can taste great and be good for you at the same time.
Good sources of nutrients are:
To work well, your body also needs vitamins, minerals, and water.
For more information about nutrients, see:
In addition to nutrients, foods also contain other things that are important for good health. These include:
Moderation is your key to healthy, balanced eating. If your favorite foods are high in fat, salt, sugar, or calories, limit how often you eat them. Eat smaller servings, or look for healthy substitutes.
And yes, you can have desserts and treats now and then. All foods, if eaten in moderation, can be a part of healthy eating.
For more information, see:
Barriers are things that get in the way of making a change and staying with it. Changing your eating habits takes time and practice. It's normal to feel like you've slipped a little on your goals once in a while. But it's important to stay on track and keep trying.
There are many things, such as emotional eating or easy access to fast food, that can make it hard to change how you eat.
Finding your barriers and learning how to get around them can help you reach your healthy-eating goals.
Emotional eating means that you eat too much or too often for reasons other than hunger. You may eat because you're sad, depressed, stressed, or lonely. Or you may use food as a reward. Food can be soothing and distract you from what's really bothering you.
If you are an emotional eater, you may not listen to your body's natural signals. You may eat more than you need or want.
To find out what causes you to eat this way, keep an eating journal for a week or two. Write down everything you eat, plus the time of day and what you were feeling right before you ate. This will help you identify things that trigger emotional eating.
You may want to talk to a counselor for more help in understanding your emotions and eating habits.
Get more tips on dealing with emotions and eating.
It can be hard to eat healthy foods when fast food, vending-machine snacks, and processed foods are so easy to find. The good news is that there usually are healthy choices, even at fast-food restaurants.
Here are a few tips:
Lack of time is a common barrier to healthy eating. You may tell yourself that you're too busy or that you have more important things to do than shop for and make healthy meals.
But healthy eating doesn't have to take a lot of time. You can make a healthy meal just as quickly as an unhealthy one. You just need to plan, have the right foods on hand, and learn how to cook some quick and healthy meals.
Sometimes a food that seems like a good choice may not be so healthy. A "low-fat" cookie may have less fat, but it may have as much sugar and as many calories as a regular cookie. Potato chips that are "cholesterol-free" may still have a lot of fat, calories, and salt.
Use the Nutrition Facts label on packaged, canned, and frozen foods to help you make healthy choices. The label lists the nutrients, including the fat, salt, and sugar in each serving, and it tells you how many servings are in the package.
Find out more about health claims on food labels.
If you want to learn more, talk with your doctor or meet with a registered dietitian.
Making any kind of change in the way you live your daily life is like being on a path. The path leads to success. Here are the first steps on that path:
Your reason for healthy eating is really important. Don't do it just because your spouse, friend, or someone else wants you to. What makes you want to change how you eat?
Whatever your reason, you may already know what areas you want to work on. Maybe you want to cut back on high-fat snacks or eat more high-fiber foods.
If you aren't sure where to start, keeping a food diary can help. For a week or two, write down everything you eat. It will help you see which foods you need to eat more of and which foods you're eating too much of. Then compare what you are eating to the food-serving recommendations from the USDA food guide.
Ask yourself if you feel ready to begin taking steps toward big goals. If you're not ready yet, try to pick a date when you will start making small changes. Any healthy change—no matter how small—is a good start.
When you are clear about your reasons for wanting to make a change, it's time to set your goals.
Tips for setting goals
One Woman's Story:
"I didn't try to completely redo my whole diet. I focused on things that seemed reasonable at the time."— Dawn
Read more about how Dawn set goals.
It's perfectly normal to try to change a habit, go along fine for a while, and then have a setback. Lots of people try and try again before they reach their goals.
What are the things that might cause a setback for you? If you've tried to make lifestyle changes before, think about what helped you and what got in your way.
By thinking about these barriers now, you'll be better prepared to deal with them if they happen.
"It takes a lot of time to prepare vegetables."
"Fruits and vegetables are expensive."
"I eat out a lot at restaurants."
Use your personal action plan to write down your barriers and backup plans.
One Man's Story:
"I know the things that I like to eat, like baked goods, cookies, and stuff like that. I know that I'm never going to stop liking those."— Jeremy
Read more about how Jeremy avoids getting discouraged by setbacks.
The more support you have for eating healthier, the easier it is to make the change.
Tips for getting support
You can use your personal action plan to organize your support system.
"It does help to have partners and buddies that are going through this."— Loralie
Read more about how Loralie got the support of her family and friends.
Keeping track of your progress helps you see how far you've come. It can help motivate you to do more and help encourage you when you get off track.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Department of Agriculture (2015). 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans 8th ed. http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/. Accessed January 12, 2016.
Other Works Consulted
American Dietetic Association (2009). Position of the American Dietetic Association: Functional foods. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 109(4): 735–746. Also available online: http://www.eatright.org/About/Content.aspx?id=8354.
American Dietetic Association (ADA) (2009). Position of the American Dietetic Association: Nutrient supplementation. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 109(12): 2074–2085. Available online: http://www.eatright.org/WorkArea/linkit.aspx?LinkIdentifier=id&ItemID=8445.
Barberger-Gateau P, et al. (2007). Dietary patterns and risk of dementia: The three-city cohort study. Neurology, 69(20): 1921–1930.
Craig WJ, et al. (2009). Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian diets. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 109(7): 1266–1282. Available online: http://www.eatright.org/About/Content.aspx?id=8357.
Dodd JL (2012). Behavioral-environmental: The individual in the community. In LK Mahan et al., eds., Krause's Food and the Nutrition Care Process, 13th ed., pp. 229–250. St Louis: Saunders.
Environmental Working Group (2010). Shopper's Guide to Pesticides. Available online: http://static.foodnews.org/pdf/EWG-shoppers-guide.pdf.
Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine (2011). Dietary reference intakes (DRIs): Recommended dietary allowances and adequate intakes, elements. Available online: http://iom.edu/Activities/Nutrition/SummaryDRIs/~/media/Files/Activity%20Files/Nutrition/DRIs/New%20Material/2_%20RDA%20and%20AI%20Values_Vitamin%20and%20Elements.pdf.
Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine (2011). Dietary reference intakes (DRIs): Recommended dietary allowances and adequate intakes, vitamins. Available online: http://iom.edu/Activities/Nutrition/SummaryDRIs/~/media/Files/Activity%20Files/Nutrition/DRIs/New%20Material/2_%20RDA%20and%20AI%20Values_Vitamin%20and%20Elements.pdf.
Gallagher ML (2012). Intake: The nutrients and their metabolism. In LK Mahan et al., eds., Krause's Food and the Nutrition Care Process, 13th ed., pp. 32–128. St. Louis: Saunders.
Katz DL (2008). Dietary recommendations for health promotion and disease prevention. In Nutrition in Clinical Practice, 2nd ed., pp. 434–447. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
Murray DH, et al. (2012). Food and nutrient delivery: Planning the diet with cultural competency. In LK Mahan et al., eds., Krause's Food and the Nutrition Care Process, 13th ed., pp. 274–290. St Louis, MO: Saunders.
Murray MT (2013). Flavonoids: Quercetin, citrus flavonoids, and hydroxyethylrutosides. In JE Pizzorno, MT Murray, eds., Textbook of Natural Medicine, 4th ed., pp. 772–779. St. Louis: Elsevier.
National Institutes of Health, National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (2012). Oral Probiotics: An Introduction. Available online: http://nccam.nih.gov/health/probiotics/introduction.htm.
Office of Dietary Supplements, National Institutes of Health (2010). Calcium. Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet—Health Professional. Available online: http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Calcium-HealthProfessional.
Office of Dietary Supplements, National Institutes of Health (2011). Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Vitamin D. Available online: http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional.
Probiotics (2011). In A DerMarderosian et al., eds., Review of Natural Products. St Louis: Wolters Kluwer Health.
Ronzio RA (2013). Naturally occurring antioxidants. In JE Pizzorno, MT Murray, eds., Textbook of Natural Medicine, 4th ed., pp. 891–914. St. Louis: Elsevier.
Sofi F, et al. (2008). Adherence to Mediterranean diet and health status: Meta-analysis. BMJ, 337: a1344.
Thomas DW, et al. (2010). American Academy of Pediatrics Clinical Report: Probiotics and prebiotics in pediatrics. Pediatrics, 126(6): 1217–1231.
U.S. Department of Agriculture (2008). National Organic Program: Background and history. Available online: http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELDEV3004443&acct=nopgeninfo.
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service (2012). Nutrient data laboratory. USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 25. Available online: http://ndb.nal.usda.gov.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration (2008). FDA 101: Dietary Supplements. Available online: http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm050803.htm.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration (2009). Food Labeling Guide. Available online: http://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceComplianceRegulatoryInformation/GuidanceDocuments/FoodLabelingNutrition/FoodLabelingGuide/default.htm.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration (2009). Fortify Your Knowledge About Vitamins. Available online: http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm118079.htm.
Whitney E, Rolfes SR (2013). Vegetarian diets. In Understanding Nutrition, 13th ed., pp. 62–67. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Current as of:
September 8, 2021
Author: Healthwise StaffMedical Review: Kathleen Romito MD - Family MedicineRhonda O'Brien MS, RD, CDE - Certified Diabetes Educator
Current as of: September 8, 2021
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine & Rhonda O'Brien MS, RD, CDE - Certified Diabetes Educator
To learn more about Healthwise, visit Healthwise.org.
© 1995-2021 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.