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Patient education: Diet and health (The Basics)

Patient education: Diet and health (The Basics)

Why is it important to eat a healthy diet? — It's important to eat a healthy diet because eating the right foods can keep you healthy now and later in life. It can lower the risk of problems like heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and some types of cancer. It can also help you live longer and improve your quality of life.

What kind of diet is best? — There is no 1 specific diet that experts recommend for everyone to follow. People choose what foods to eat for many different reasons. These include personal preference, culture, religion, and nutritional goals. People also need to consider the cost and availability of different foods.

In general, experts recommend a diet that:

Includes lots of vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, and whole grains

Limits red and processed meats, unhealthy fats, sugar, salt, and alcohol

What are dietary patterns? — A dietary "pattern" means generally eating certain types of foods while limiting others. Some people need to follow a specific dietary pattern because of their health needs. For example, if you have high blood pressure, your doctor might recommend a diet low in salt.

If you are trying to improve your health in general, choosing a healthy dietary pattern can help. This does not have to mean being very strict about what you eat or avoid. The goal is to think about getting plenty of healthy foods while limiting less healthy foods.

Examples of dietary patterns include:

Mediterranean diet – This involves eating a lot of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole grains, and uses olive oil instead of other fats. It also includes some fish, poultry, and dairy products, but not a lot of red meat. Following this diet can help your overall health, and might even lower your risk of having a stroke.

Plant-based diets – These patterns focus on vegetables, fruits, grains, beans, and nuts. They limit or avoid food that comes from animals, such as meat and dairy. There are different types of plant-based diets, including vegetarian and vegan.

Low-fat diet – A low-fat diet involves limiting calories from fat. This might help some people keep weight off if that is their goal, but it does not have many other health benefits. If you choose to follow a low-fat diet, it is also important to focus on getting lots of whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables. Limit refined grains and sugar.

Low-cholesterol diet – Cholesterol is found in foods with a lot of saturated fat, like red meat, butter, and cheese. A low-cholesterol diet focuses on limiting the amount of cholesterol that you eat. Limiting the cholesterol in your diet can also help lower the amount of unhealthy fats that you eat.

Which foods are especially healthy? — Foods that are especially healthy include:

Fruits and vegetables – Eating a diet with lots of fruits and vegetables can help prevent heart disease and stroke. It might also help prevent certain types of cancer. Try to eat fruits and vegetables at each meal and also for snacks. If you don't have fresh fruits and vegetables available, you can eat frozen or canned ones instead. Doctors recommend eating at least 5 servings of fruits or vegetables each day.

Whole grains – Whole-grain foods include 100 percent whole-wheat bread, steel cut oats, and whole-grain pasta. These are healthier than foods made with "refined" grains, like white bread and white rice. Eating lots of whole grains has been shown to help with weight control. It can also lower the risk of several health problems, including colon cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.

Foods with fiber – Eating foods with a lot of fiber can help prevent heart disease and stroke. If you have type 2 diabetes, it can also help control your blood sugar. Foods that have a lot of fiber include vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, oatmeal, and whole-grain breads and cereals. You can tell how much fiber is in a food by reading the nutrition label (figure 1). Doctors recommend that most people eat about 25 to 34 grams of fiber each day.

Foods with calcium and vitamin D – Babies, children, and adults need calcium and vitamin D to help keep their bones strong. Adults also need calcium and vitamin D to help prevent osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is a condition that causes bones to get "thin" and break more easily than usual. Different foods and drinks have calcium and vitamin D in them (figure 2). People who don't get enough calcium and vitamin D in their diet might need to take a supplement.

Foods with protein – Protein helps your muscles and bones stay strong. Healthy foods with a lot of protein include chicken, fish, eggs, beans, nuts, and soy products. Red meat also has a lot of protein, but it also contains fats, which can be unhealthy.

Healthy fats – There are different types of fats. Some types of fats are better for your body than others. Healthy fats are "monounsaturated" or "polyunsaturated" fats. These are found in fatty fish, nuts and nut butters, avocadoes, olive oil, and canola oil. Eating foods with healthy fats, while avoiding or limiting foods with unhealthy fats, might lower the risk of heart disease.

Foods with folate – Folate is a vitamin that is important for pregnant people, since it helps prevent certain birth defects. It is also called "folic acid." Anyone who could get pregnant should get at least 400 micrograms of folic acid daily, whether or not they are actively trying to get pregnant. Folate is found in many breakfast cereals, oranges, orange juice, and green leafy vegetables.

What foods should I avoid or limit? — To eat a healthy diet, there are some things that you should avoid or limit. They include:

Unhealthy fats – "Trans" fats are especially unhealthy. They are found in margarines, many fast foods, and some store-bought baked goods. "Saturated" fats are found in animal products like meats, egg yolks, butter, cheese, and full-fat milk products. Unhealthy fats can raise your cholesterol level and increase your chance of getting heart disease.

Sugar – To have a healthy diet, it's important to limit or avoid added sugar, sweets, and refined grains. Refined grains are found in white bread, white rice, most pastas, and most packaged "snack" foods. Whole grains, such as whole-wheat bread and brown rice, have more fiber and are better for your health.

Avoiding sugar-sweetened beverages, like soda and sports drinks, can also help improve your health.

Red and processed meats – Studies have shown that eating a lot of red meat can increase your risk of certain health problems, including heart disease and cancer. You should limit the amount of red meat that you eat. This is also true for processed meats like sausage, hot dogs, and bacon.

Can I drink alcohol as part of a healthy diet? — Not drinking alcohol at all is the healthiest choice. Regular drinking can raise a person's chances of getting liver disease and certain types of cancers. In females, even 1 drink a day can increase the risk of getting breast cancer.

If you do choose to drink, most doctors recommend limiting alcohol to no more than:

1 drink a day for females

2 drinks a day for males

The limits are different because, generally, the female body takes longer to break down alcohol.

How many calories do I need each day? — Calories give your body energy. The number of calories that you need each day depends on your weight, height, age, sex, and how active you are.

Your doctor or nurse can tell you about how many calories you should eat each day. You can also work with a dietitian (nutrition expert) to learn more about your dietary needs and options.

What if I am having trouble improving my diet? — It can be hard to change the way that you eat. Remember that even small changes can improve your health.

Here are some tips that might help:

Try to make fruits and vegetables part of every meal. If you don't have fresh fruits and vegetables, frozen or canned are good options. Look for products without added salt or sugar.

Keep a bowl of fruit out for snacking.

When you can, choose whole grains instead of refined grains. Choose chicken, fish, and beans instead of red meat and cheese.

Try to eat prepared and processed foods less often.

Try flavored seltzer or water instead of soda or juice.

When eating at fast food restaurants, look for healthier items, like broiled chicken or salad.

If you have questions about which foods you should or should not eat, ask your doctor, nurse, or dietitian. The right diet for you will depend, in part, on your health and any medical conditions you have.

More on this topic

Patient education: Calcium and vitamin D for bone health (The Basics)
Patient education: Diabetes and diet (The Basics)
Patient education: Weight loss treatments (The Basics)
Patient education: Starting solid foods with babies (The Basics)
Patient education: High-fiber diet (The Basics)
Patient education: Vitamin supplements (The Basics)
Patient education: Vegetarian diet (The Basics)

Patient education: Diet and health (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Calcium and vitamin D for bone health (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: High-fiber diet (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Type 2 diabetes and diet (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Losing weight (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Starting solid foods during infancy (Beyond the Basics)

This topic retrieved from UpToDate on: Jan 02, 2023.
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