Guidelines for a Healthy Diet

To prevent disease, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend a healthy eating pattern

All food and drink choices matter. Healthy eating includes eating lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat or nonfat dairy products or fortified soy beverages, and lean proteins. The guidelines also emphasize:

  • Balancing the food you eat with your activity to reach and stay at a healthy weight.
  • Drinking alcohol in moderation, if at all.
  • Limiting foods high in salt, saturated fat, trans fat, and added sugar.

These guidelines from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) are updated every 5 years to promote health and reduce risk for major chronic diseases.

Key recommendations for the general public include the following.1

Balancing calories

  • Eat and drink the right amount for you. MyPlate is the U.S. government's food guide. It can help you make your own well-balanced eating plan.
  • Avoid oversized portions.
  • Prevent and/or reduce overweight and obesity through healthy eating and physical activity.
  • Control your total calorie intake to manage your weight. For people who are overweight or obese, this means eating fewer calories from foods and drinks.
  • Increase your physical activity, and reduce the time you are not moving.
  • Eat enough calories, but not too many, during each stage of life—childhood, adolescence, adulthood, pregnancy and breastfeeding, and older age.

Foods to increase

  • Make half your plate fruits and vegetables.
  • Switch to fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk.
  • Eat more vegetables and fruits.
  • Eat different vegetables, especially dark-green, red, and orange vegetables and beans and peas. Eat more whole fruits instead of drinking juice.
  • Eat at least half of all grains as whole grains, replacing refined grains with whole grains.
  • Eat more fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products, such as yogurt, cheese, or fortified soy beverages.
  • Eat different protein foods, such as seafood, lean meat and poultry, eggs, beans and peas, soy products, and unsalted nuts and seeds.
  • Replace some meat and poultry with seafood.
  • Replace protein foods that are higher in solid fats with choices that are lower in solid fats and calories and/or are sources of oils.
  • Use oils to replace solid fats, like butter, where possible.
  • Choose foods that provide more potassium, dietary fiber, calcium, and vitamin D. These foods include vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and milk and milk products.

For women who may become pregnant:

  • Eat foods that supply the type of iron that is more easily absorbed by the body. Examples are fish, poultry, and meat. And eat foods that are other sources of iron, such as lentils, beans, cereals, and grains.
  • Eat foods that help the body absorb iron, such as foods rich in vitamin C.
  • Get enough folic acid (from fortified foods and/or supplements).

For women who are pregnant or breastfeeding:

  • Eat 8 to 12 ounces of seafood a week. Vary the types of seafood you eat.
  • Avoid fish high in mercury by not eating tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, shark, swordfish, king mackerel, marlin, orange roughy, and bigeye tuna. Other types of fish, such as white albacore tuna, should only be eaten once a week (no more than 4 ounces).
  • If you are pregnant, take a prenatal supplement as recommended by your doctor.

For people 50 years and older:

  • Eat foods fortified with vitamin B12, such as fortified cereals.

Foods to reduce

  • Compare sodium in foods like soup, bread, and frozen meals—and choose the foods with lower numbers.
  • Drink water instead of sugary drinks.
  • Reduce daily sodium intake to less than 2,300 milligrams (mg).
  • Reduce calories from saturated fats to less than 10% of total calories by replacing them with unsaturated fats: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.
  • Limit trans fats, which are in partially hydrogenated oils and other solid fats.
  • Reduce the intake of calories from added sugar to less than 10% of total calories.
  • Limit foods that contain refined grains, especially refined grain foods that contain solid fats, added sugars, and sodium.
  • If you drink alcohol, drink it in moderation—up to one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men.

Healthy eating patterns

  • Choose a type of eating that gives you enough nutrition but not too many calories. Examples include the DASH dietMediterranean-style eating, and vegetarian.
  • Remember to count the calories in what you drink.
  • To reduce the risk of foodborne illness, follow food safety recommendations when preparing and eating foods.

1U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Department of Agriculture (2015). 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans 8th ed. Accessed January 12, 2016.

Current as of: August 22, 2019
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review: Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine & Elizabeth T. Russo MD - Internal Medicine & Rhonda O'Brien MS, RD, CDE - Certified Diabetes Educator