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Choosing the right foods for a balanced diet

A balanced diet

Eating a balanced diet means you consume the right types and amounts of foods and drinks to keep your body healthy. To do this, you need to:

  • Know how many calories you should consume every day.
  • Know what size portions you should eat to meet your body’s needs for nutrients, without getting too much of some and not enough of others.
  • Stock your pantry and refrigerator with healthy foods. Get rid of high-calorie, low-nutrition foods like chips and candy and keep healthy snacks on hand.
  • Choose a variety of healthy foods from each of the food groups and eat foods from each group at every meal.

Food groups

Protein group (meats and beans)


  • Turkey or chicken with the skin removed, bison (also called buffalo meat)
  • Lean cuts of beef or pork, such as round, top sirloin, tenderloin (trim away any visible fat)
  • Fish or shellfish

Other good sources of protein include:

  • Pinto beans, black beans, kidney beans, lentils, split peas, or garbanzo beans
  • Nuts and seeds, including almonds, hazelnuts, mixed nuts, peanuts, peanut butter, sunflower seeds, and walnuts. But watch how much you eat.
  • Tofu, tempeh, and other soy-protein products

Do not eat more than 4 eggs per week. Although they are a good source of protein and low in saturated fat, eggs are very high in cholesterol. Try recipes with egg whites only.

Milk group (dairy products)

This group includes products made from milk.

Always choose fat-free (skim) or low-fat (1%) dairy products whenever you can. Healthy choices from this food group include:

  • Cheese: both hard cheeses and soft cheeses, such as ricotta or cottage cheese
  • Milk or buttermilk
  • Yogurt,fat-free or low-fat, regular or frozen
  • Ice milk or low-fat ice cream

Consume 3 cups per day of fat-free or low-fat milk or milk products. Items such as cream cheese, cream, or butter do not count as healthy dairy products.

Grains, cereals, and fiber

Grain products include any food made from wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal, barley, or another cereal grain. Products made with grains include pasta, oatmeal, breads, breakfast cereals, tortillas, and grits.

Grains are divided into either whole grains or refined grains. The key to eating healthy is to choose mostly whole-grain products.

Whole grains contain the entire grain kernel and are much healthier for you. Examples of whole grains are whole-wheat flour, bulgur (cracked wheat), oatmeal, whole cornmeal, and brown rice. To make sure you are buying or eating whole-grain products look for words such as whole grain or whole wheat.

Choose foods such as:

  • Whole wheat pasta
  • Wild rice
  • Whole-grain barley
  • Millet
  • Quinoa
  • Sorghum

Refined grains have been changed to make them last longer and give them a finer texture. However, this process takes out fiber, iron, and many B vitamins. Examples of refined grains include white flour, white rice, or what is called degermed cornmeal.

Limit foods items that are often made with refined grains, such as:

  • Flour and flour tortillas, crackers, corn tortillas, and pretzels
  • Noodles and pasta, such as spaghetti or macaroni
  • Most ready to eat breakfast cereals
  • White bread, sandwich buns, and rolls
  • White rice

Whenever possible, choose whole-grain products over products made from refined grains.

Products with added bran, such as oat bran, may be a good source of fiber. However, they may not be whole-grain products.

Oils and fats

Oils are fats that are liquid when sitting at room temperature. Most of these oils are high in monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats. This is the best type of oil to use in cooking or preparing foods.

Many healthy oils come from plants, nuts, olives, and some fish. Some healthy oils to choose from are:

  • Canola oil
  • Corn oil
  • Cottonseed oil
  • Olive oil
  • Safflower oil
  • Soybean oil
  • Sunflower oil

Solid fats are solid at room temperature. All of these contain what are called saturated fats. Saturated fats are much less healthy for your heart, blood vessels, and other parts of your body. Saturated fats often also contain cholesterol.

Saturated fats may be found in certain foods or may be man-made:

  • Fats found in animals and some fish are higher in saturated fats.
  • Trans fats and hydrogenated fats are found in fried foods, commercial baked goods such as donuts, cookies, and crackers, in processed foods, and in margarines.
  • Some vegetable oils -- coconut, palm, and palm kernel oils and -- also contain saturated fats. These fats are solid at room temperature.

Ways to reduce the amount of saturated fats in your diet:

  • Eat a small amount of egg yolks, hard cheeses, whole milk, cream, ice cream, butter, and fatty meats (or large portions of meats).
  • Cook fish, chicken, and lean meats by broiling, grilling, poaching, and baking.
  • Choose lean protein foods -- soy, fish, skinless chicken, very lean meat, and fat-free or 1% dairy products.
  • Avoid frying food because food absorbs the fats from cooking oils. This increases your fat intake. If you do fry, use polyunsaturated oils, such as corn oil.
  • Read food labels. Avoid foods that have saturated fats, hydrogenated oils, or trans fats.

Fruits and Vegetables

Fruits and vegetables are low in calories. They are also packed with fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Eating a diet that is rich in fruits and vegetables can help you control your weight. It may also reduce your risk of cancer and other diseases.

Because fruits and vegetables are high in fiber and water, they fill you up. Replace high-calorie foods with fruits and vegetables to reduce the amount of calories and fat in your diet without feeling hungry.

  • Adding a fruit to breakfast, vegetables to lunch (lettuce and tomato on your sandwich, baby carrots on the side, or a large bowl of vegetable soup) is a great way to get full on less calories.
  • Adding more cooked vegetables to dinner with a salad and or soup causes you to get full on less calories. It is also easily digestible, which is important if you are going to sleep within 2 - 4 hours of sleeping.

Eat 2 cups (4 servings) of fruit and 2 1/2 cups of vegetables (5 servings) per day for an average 2,000-calorie per day diet. Many fruits and vegetables have 100 or fewer calories a serving:

  • 1 cup grapes - 100 calories
  • 1 cup broccoli - 30 calories
  • One medium-sized apple - 72 calories
  • 1 cup carrots - 45 calories
  • ½ melon - 95 calories

A few tips for adding more fruits and vegetables into your diet:

  • Divide your dinner plate into quarters. Fill up two quarters (half) with fruits and vegetables. Fill the other two quarters with whole grains and meat.
  • Replace half of the cheese in your omelet with spinach, onions, tomatoes, or mushrooms.
  • Replace 2 ounces of cheese and 2 ounces of meat in your sandwich with lettuce, tomato, cucumbers, or onions.
  • Add chopped broccoli, tomatoes, squash, onions, or green peppers to your dishes instead of pasta or rice. Use frozen or canned vegetables if you don’t have fresh.
  • When you feel hungry during the day, don’t grab cookies or other unhealthy snacks. Instead, eat a handful of mini carrots or an apple.
  • Choose fresh fruit for dessert rather than cookies, cake, or pudding.

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Review Date: 10/5/2010

Reviewed By: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.

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