Nutrition: How to Make Healthier Food Choices

Last Updated March 2023 | This article was created by editorial staff and reviewed by Robert "Chuck" Rich, Jr., MD, FAAFP

A healthy diet has a many benefits, including maintaining your desired weight. It also can lower your cholesterol and prevent certain health conditions. A healthy diet fuels your body and gives you energy.

Path to improved health

The choices you make about what you eat and drink matter. They should add up to a balanced, nutritious diet. We all have different calorie needs based on our gender, age, and activity level. Health conditions can play a role too, including if you need to lose weight.

Choose food from all five groups and follow these tips.


Choose products that list whole grains as the first ingredient, such as whole grain breads or whole-wheat flour. Whole grains are low in fat and high in fiber. They also contain complex carbohydrates (carbs), which help you feel full longer and prevent overeating. Avoid products that say “enriched” or contain other types of grains or flours. They do not have the same nutrients.

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

Avoid rich sweets, such as doughnuts, rolls, and muffins. These foods often contain calories made up of more than 50% fat. Lighter options, such as angel food cake, can satisfy your sweet tooth without adding fat to your diet.

Instead of this: Try this:
Croissants, rolls, biscuits, and white breads Whole grain breads, including 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 Whole grain cereal, oatmeal, and low-fat granola
Snack crackers Lower fat, lower sugar crackers, such as animal, graham, rye, soda, saltine, and oyster
Potato or corn chips and buttered popcorn Pretzels (unsalted) and popcorn (unbuttered)
White pasta Whole-wheat pasta
White rice Brown or wild rice
Fried rice and rice or pasta mixes that contain high-fat sauces Rice or pasta (without egg yolk) that contain vegetable sauces
All-purpose white flour Whole-wheat flour

Fruits and Vegetables

Fruits and vegetables are low in fat. They provide flavor and variety to your diet. They also contain necessary fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Avoid adding unneeded fats to vegetables and fruits. This means avoiding margarine, butter, mayonnaise, and sour cream. You can use yogurt, healthy oils, or herbs to season instead.

Instead of this: Try this:
Regular or fried vegetables served with cream, cheese, or butter sauces Raw, steamed, boiled, or baked vegetables tossed with a small amount of olive oil, salt, and pepper
Fruits served with cream cheese or sugary sauces Fresh fruit with a small amount of nut (peanut, almond, or cashew) butter
Fried potatoes, including french fries, hash browns, and potato chips Baked white or sweet potatoes


Beef, pork, veal, and lamb

Select low-fat, lean cuts of meat. Lean beef and veal cuts have the words “loin” or “round” in their names. Lean pork cuts have the words “loin” or “leg” in their names. Trim off the outside fat before cooking it. Trim any inside, separable fat before eating it. Use herbs, spices, and low-sodium marinades to season meat.

Baking, broiling, grilling, and roasting are the healthiest ways to prepare these meats. Lean cuts can be pan-broiled or stir-fried. Use a nonstick pan or cooking spray instead of butter or margarine. Avoid serving your protein with high-fat sauces and gravies.


Chicken breasts are a good choice because they are low fat and high in protein. Only eat duck and goose occasionally because they are high in fat. Remove skin and visible fat before cooking. Baking, broiling, grilling, and roasting are the healthiest ways to prepare poultry. Skinless poultry can be pan-broiled or stir-fried. Use a nonstick pan or cooking spray instead of butter or margarine.


Most seafood is high in healthy polyunsaturated fat. Omega-3 fatty acids also are found in some fish, such as salmon and cold-water trout. Try to eat seafood twice a week. Fresh fish should have a clear color, a clean smell, and firm, springy flesh. If good-quality fresh fish isn’t available, buy frozen fish. Prepare fish by poaching, steaming, baking, broiling, or grilling it.

Non-meat proteins

Non-meat options include dry beans, peas, and lentils. They offer protein and fiber without the cholesterol and fat of meats. These are staple foods for people who are vegetarian or vegan. You can swap beans for meat in recipes, like lasagna or chili.

TVP, or textured vegetable protein, also is available. It is found in vegetarian hot dogs, hamburgers, and chicken nuggets. They are low-fat, cholesterol-free substitutes to meat.

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


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

Nonfat or Greek yogurt can replace sour cream in many recipes. Try mixing them with fruit for dessert. Skim sherbet and soft-serve frozen yogurt is lower in fat than ice cream.

Instead of this: Try this:
Whole or 2% milk Skim (nonfat), 1% , or non-dairy milk, such as soy, rice, almond, or cashew milk
Cream or evaporated milk Evaporated skim milk
Regular buttermilk Low-fat buttermilk
Yogurt made with whole milk Low-fat, nonfat, or Greek yogurt
Regular cheese, including American, blue, brie, cheddar, colby, and parmesan Low-fat cheese with less than 3 grams of fat per serving, such as natural cheese or nondairy soy cheese
Regular cottage cheese Low-fat, nonfat, and dry-cured cottage cheese with less than 2% fat
Regular cream cheese Low-fat cream cheese with less than 3 grams of fat per ounce, or skim ricotta
Ice cream Sorbet, sherbet, or frozen yogurt with less than 3 grams of fat per 1/2 cup serving

Fats, oils, and sweets

High-fat foods add excess calories to your diet. This can lead to weight gain and obesity or increase your risk for certain issues. Heart disease, diabetes, some cancers, and osteoarthritis have all been linked to diets high in fat. If you consume high amounts of saturated and trans fats, you are more likely to develop high cholesterol and coronary heart disease.

It is important that you stay hydrated for your health. However, sugar-sweetened drinks contain lots of sugar and calories. This includes fruit juices, soda, sports and energy drinks, sweetened or flavored milk, and sweet tea. Substitute water and other zero-calorie drinks. Water is great for your overall health and helps balance your weight. Specific water requirements differ based on your size and activity level. However, everyone should be drinking at least 64 ounces of water a day.

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

Things to consider

Being healthy is more than a diet — it’s a lifestyle. Combine healthy food choices with regular exercise and smart habits. Adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week. Children and teens should get at least 60 minutes of exercise every day. If you smoke, you should quit. You also should limit your alcohol intake. Women should have no more than one drink per day. Men should have no more than two drinks per day. Talk to your doctor if you need help quitting alcohol or smoking.

When you commit to a healthy lifestyle, you can reduce your risk of certain conditions. These include obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. If you’re worried, try making small changes to your diet over time. Talk with your family doctor or a dietitian if you have questions.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • How many servings should I eat from each food group?
  • If I’m on a strict diet, such as vegetarian or vegan, how can I make healthy food choices?
  • If I’m thin, can I simply eat whatever I want?


Academy of Family Physicians: Nutrition: Tips for Improving Your Health

U.S. Department of Agriculture: MyPlate



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