Why is healthy eating important?

When combined with exercise, a healthy diet can help you lose weight, lower your cholesterol level and improve the way your body functions on a daily basis.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Guide Pyramid divides food into 6 basic food groups, consisting of 1) grains, 2) fruits, 3) vegetables, 4) meats and beans, 5) dairy and 6) fats.

The USDA recommends an adult daily diet include the following:

  • 3 ounces of whole grains, and 6 ounces of grains total
  • 2 cups of fruit
  • 2 1/2 cups of vegetables
  • 3 cups fat-free or low-fat dairy

The following are some ways to make healthier food choices and to get the recommended amounts of whole grains, fruits, vegetables and dairy.


Whole-grain breads are low in fat; they’re also high in fiber and complex carbohydrates, which help you feel fuller longer and prevent overeating. Choose breads whose first ingredient says “whole” in front of the grain, for example, “whole wheat flour” or “whole white flour”; enriched or other types of flour have the important fiber and nutrients removed. Choose whole grain breads for sandwiches and as additions to meals.

Avoid rich bakery foods such as donuts, sweet rolls and muffins. These foods can contain more than 50% fat calories. Snacks such as angel food cake and gingersnap cookies can satisfy your sweet tooth without adding fat to your diet.

Hot and cold cereals are usually low in fat. But instant cereals with cream may contain high-fat oils or butterfat. Granola cereals may also contain high-fat oils and extra sugars. Look for low-sugar options for both instant and granola cereals.

Avoid fried snacks such as potato chips and tortilla chips. Try the low-fat or baked versions instead

Instead of this: Try this:
Croissants, biscuits, white breads and rolls Low-fat whole grain breads and rolls (wheat, rye and pumpernickel)
Doughnuts, pastries and scones English muffins and small whole grain bagels
Fried tortillas Soft tortillas (corn or whole wheat)
Sugar cereals and regular granola Oatmeal, low-fat granola and whole-grain cereal
Snack crackers Crackers (animal, graham, rye, soda, saltine, oyster)
Potato or corn chips and buttered popcorn Pretzels (unsalted) and popcorn (unbuttered)
White pasta Whole-wheat pasta
White rice Brown rice
Fried rice, or pasta and rice mixes that contain high-fat sauces Rice or pasta (without egg yolk) with vegetable sauces
All-purpose white flour 100% whole-wheat flour

Fruits and Vegetables

Fruits and vegetables are naturally low in fat. They add flavor and variety to your diet. They also contain fiber, vitamins and minerals.

Margarine, butter, mayonnaise and sour cream add fat to vegetables and fruits. Try using nonfat or low-fat versions of these foods. You can also use nonfat or low-fat yogurt or herbs as seasonings instead.

Instead of this: Try this:
Fried vegetables or vegetables served with cream, cheese or butter sauces All vegetables raw, steamed, broiled, baked or tossed with a very small amount of olive oil and salt and pepper
Coconut Fruit (fresh)
French fries, hash browns and potato chips Baked white or sweet potatoes

Meat, Poultry and Fish

Beef, Pork, Veal and Lamb
Baking, broiling and roasting are the healthiest ways to prepare meat. Lean cuts can be pan-broiled or stir-fried. Use either a nonstick pan or nonstick spray coating instead of butter or margarine.

Trim outside fat before cooking. Trim any inside, separable fat before eating. Select low-fat, lean cuts of meat. Lean beef and veal cuts have the word “loin” or “round” in their names. Lean pork cuts have the word “loin” or “leg” in their names.

Use herbs, spices, fresh vegetables and nonfat marinades to season meat. Avoid high-fat sauces and gravies.

Baking, broiling and roasting are the healthiest ways to prepare poultry. Skinless poultry can be pan-broiled or stir-fried. Use either a nonstick pan or nonstick spray coating instead of butter or margarine.

Remove skin and visible fat before cooking. Chicken breasts are a good choice because they are low in fat and high in protein. Use domestic goose and duck only once in a while because both are high in fat.

Poaching, steaming, baking and broiling are the healthiest ways to prepare fish. Fresh fish should have a clear color, a moist look, a clean smell and firm, springy flesh. If good-quality fresh fish isn’t available, buy frozen fish.

Most seafood is high in healthy polyunsaturated fat. Omega-3 fatty acids are also found in some fatty fish, such as salmon and cold-water trout. They may help lower the risk of heart disease in some people.

Cross-over Foods
Dry beans, peas and lentils offer protein and fiber without the cholesterol and fat of meats. Once in a while, try substituting beans for meat in a favorite recipe, such as lasagna or chili.

TVP, or textured vegetable protein, is widely available in many foods. Vegetarian “hot dogs,” “hamburger” and “chicken nuggets” are low-fat, cholesterol-free alternatives to meat.

Instead of this: Try this:
Regular or breaded fish sticks or cakes, fish canned in oil, seafood prepared with butter or served in high-fat sauce Fish (fresh, frozen, canned in water), low-fat fish sticks or cakes and shellfish (such as shrimp)
Prime and marbled cuts Select-grade lean beef (round, sirloin and loin)
Pork spare ribs and bacon Lean pork (tenderloin and loin chop) and turkey bacon
Regular ground beef Lean or extra-lean ground beef, ground chicken and turkey breast
Lunch meats such as pepperoni, salami, bologna and liverwurst Lean lunch meats such as turkey, chicken and ham
Regular hot dogs or sausage Fat-free hot dogs and turkey dogs


Choose skim milk or low-fat buttermilk. Substitute evaporated skim milk for cream in recipes for soups, sauces and coffee.

Try low-fat cheeses. Skim ricotta can replace cream cheese on a bagel or in a vegetable dip. Use part-skim cheeses in recipes. Use 1% cottage cheese for salads and cooking. String cheese is a low-fat, high-calcium snack option.

Plain nonfat yogurt can replace sour cream in many recipes. (To maintain texture, stir 1 tablespoon of cornstarch into each cup of yogurt that you use in cooking.) Try mixing frozen nonfat or low-fat yogurt with fruit for dessert.

Skim sherbet is an alternative to ice cream. Soft-serve and regular ice creams are also lower in fat than premium styles.

Instead of this: Try this:
Whole or 2% milk Non-fat or 1% milk
Evaporated milk Evaporated non-fat milk
Regular buttermilk Buttermilk made from non-fat (or 1%) milk
Yogurt made with whole milk Nonfat or low-fat yogurt
Regular cheese (examples: American, blue, Brie, cheddar, Colby and Parmesan) Low-fat cheese with less than 3 grams of fat per serving (example: natural cheese, processed cheese and nondairy cheese such as soy cheese)
Regular cottage cheese Low-fat, nonfat, and dry-curd cottage cheese with less than 2% fat
Regular cream cheese Low-fat cream cheese (no more than 3 grams of fat per ounce)
Regular ice cream Sorbet, sherbet and nonfat or low-fat ice cream (no more than 3 grams of fat per 1/2 cup serving)

Fats, Oils and Sweets

Eating too many high-fat foods not only adds excess calories (which can lead to obesity and weight gain), but can increase your risk factor for several diseases. Heart diseasediabetes, certain types of cancer and osteoarthritis have all been linked to diets too high in fat. If you consume too much saturated and trans fats, you are more likely to develop high cholesterol and coronary artery disease.

Sugar-sweetened drinks, such as fruit juice, fruit drinks, regular soft drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks, sweetened or flavored milk and sweetened iced tea can add lots of sugar and calories to your diet. But staying hydrated is important for good health. Substitute water, zero-calorie flavored water, non-fat or reduced-fat milk, unsweetened tea or diet soda for sweetened drinks. Talk with your family doctor or a dietitian if you have questions about your diet or healthy eating for your family.

Instead of this: Try this:
Cookies Fig bars, gingersnaps and molasses cookies
Shortening, butter or margarine Olive, soybean and canola oils
Regular mayonnaise Nonfat or light mayonnaise
Regular salad dressing Nonfat or light salad dressing
Using fat (including butter) to grease pan Nonstick cooking spray

Other Organizations

  • U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Pyramid

Written by editorial staff