A healthful diet means eating nutrient dense foods, in the right quantities, from all the major food groups.

People often think of “a diet” as a specific weight loss plan, but diet simply refers to the types and amounts of food a person eats.

A healthful diet must include a balance of several food groups, as no single group can provide everything the body needs for good health.

Making healthful food choices reduces a person’s risk of many chronic health conditions, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.

There is a wealth of information available, so designing a suitable, healthful diet can feel overwhelming. That said, a few simple changes can make a diet more nutritious and reduce the risk of many medical problems.

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A healthful diet often includes proportionate amounts of foods from each main group.

Having a balanced diet means eating foods from all main food groups in the right quantities. These food groups are:

  • whole grains
  • fruits
  • vegetables
  • protein
  • dairy
  • fats

The following sections discuss healthful choices from these food groups.

Whole grains are products made from the entire grain, which includes the germ and bran. In contrast, refined grains contain only part of the grain.

Whole grain foods have excellent health benefits. A meta-analysis from 2016 looked at 45 different studies, concluding that a high intake of whole grains helps protect against many health conditions, with benefits that include the following:

  • a lower risk of heart disease
  • a lower risk of cardiovascular disease
  • a lower total cancer risk
  • reduced all-cause mortality

Whole grain foods are high in fiber and are good sources of B vitamins and trace minerals, including iron, zinc, and magnesium. Grains lose much of their healthful properties if they have gone through a refining process.

Examples of whole grains are:

  • wholemeal bread
  • whole wheat pasta
  • whole grain cereals, such as oatmeal
  • corn

To make sure the grains are whole, look for the word “whole” or “whole grain” as the first ingredient that a manufacturer has listed on the package under nutritional information.

Fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamins, minerals, and fiber. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), choosing a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables is the best way to get all the vitamins and minerals the body needs.

The AHA recommend filling half of the plate with fruit or vegetables for each meal, making up 4.5 cups of each per day. This quantity can include fresh, frozen, and canned varieties.

For the most health benefits, people can check product labels and avoid canned, frozen, or dried products with high sodium or added sugars.

Juices labeled “100%” are part of this food group, but eating whole fruits or vegetables is better, as they will provide more fiber.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that a diet high in fruits and vegetables can help with weight management programs. The CDC also link this type of diet with a lower risk of many conditions, including:

All fruits and vegetables have health benefits, and healthcare professionals recommend that people consume a wide variety. Read about the top healthful fruits and most healthful vegetables here.

Protein is an important macronutrient that every cell in the body needs. It helps build and repair cells and body tissues, including the skin, hair, muscle, and bone. Protein is also important for blood clotting, immune system responses, hormones, and enzymes.

Many protein-rich foods also contain high levels of minerals, including iron, magnesium, and zinc.

Protein occurs in both animal and plant foods. Animal sources include meat, fish, and eggs. Beans, nuts, and soya are protein options for those following a vegan or vegetarian diet.

A general guideline from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends that people get 50 grams (g) of protein per day on a 2,000 calorie diet. Individual protein needs will vary, however, depending on a person’s activity levels and weight. A healthful diet should include a range of protein foods.

Read more about high protein diets and plant-based sources of protein.

Dairy products can be excellent sources of calcium. A calcium-rich diet promotes healthy bones and teeth.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the dairy food group contains:

  • fluid milk products
  • foods made from milk that retain their calcium content, such as yogurt and cheese
  • calcium-fortified soymilk, or soy beverage

Milk-based foods that do not retain calcium, such as cream, cream cheese, and butter, are not part of this food group.

The USDA suggest that people may need 2–3 cups of dairy products per day.

There is some controversy over whether dairy is good or bad for you.

Choose low fat or fat-free versions of dairy products, such as milks and yogurts, to benefit heart health. However, consuming dairy is not necessary to be healthy, as long as people get essential nutrients, such as calcium, from nondairy sources. Dairy alternatives can be part of a healthful diet.

Fats are an essential part of a healthful diet. Fats are necessary for nervous system function, energy, absorption of certain vitamins, and for skin, hair, and joint health.

Fats occur in both animal and plant foods. There are several main types of fats, and some are more healthful than others:

  • Monosaturated and polyunsaturated fats are healthful fats that can boost heart health. Good sources include avocados, fish, nuts, seeds, and olives.
  • Saturated fats and trans fats can raise total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or “bad” cholesterol. LDL can increase the risk of heart disease. Saturated fats usually come from animal products, including cream, fatty meat, and fried foods.

The FDA recommend that people get 78 g of fat per day in a 2,000 calorie diet. People should aim to get less than 10% of their daily calories from saturated fats.

Read about healthful high fat foods.

Along with choosing healthful foods from each food group, the following tips will help a person follow a healthful diet.

Tip 1: Manage portion size

People of different ages, sexes, and activity levels need different amounts of food, but many people take in more energy than they use. Research suggests that portion size is a key factor, and larger-than-needed portions lead to weight gain.

The AHA explain that a portion is what a person chooses to eat, while a serving is the amount of food manufacturers list on the nutrition facts label.

Examples of servings are one slice of bread and one wedge of melon. The AHS report that portion sizes in restaurants have increased dramatically over the years.

Paying attention to what a serving is, how many calories are in it, and how much food a person is eating can make the difference between obesity and maintaining a healthful weight.

Tip 2: Eat fresh and avoid processed

According to a 2018 study, ultra-processed foods may make up 60% of the calories people eat in the U.S.

Fresh foods are more likely to be “nutrient-rich,” while processed foods are often “energy-rich” from added fats and sugars. Processed foods not only contain added ingredients, including dyes and preservatives, but the processing itself can destroy nutrients.

Whole foods, such as fresh fruit, are a good source of vitamins and minerals. Many processed foods contain little nutritional value. Consuming a high proportion of processed foods can increase the risk of heart disease and diabetes.

Tip 3: Limit added sugars

Adding sugar to foods and drinks enhances the flavor but adds little or no nutritional value. Many people in the U.S. eat too much added sugars, leading to weight gain, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.

In contrast, naturally occurring sugars can have health benefits. These include fructose from fruit and lactose from dairy products.

The AHA recommend that people consume no more than 25 g of added sugars for females and 36 g for males. This amount does not include naturally occurring sugars, only added sugars.

Swapping cakes and cookies for fruit, and halving or cutting out the sugar added to coffee and tea, can reduce daily sugar intake. Condiments, such as ketchup, may also add more calories than a person realizes.

Replacing sweetened sodas with sparkling water and drinking alcohol in moderation can further reduce excess calories. The CDC recommend limiting alcohol intake to one drink per day for females and two drinks per day for males.

Find tips for cutting out sugar here.

Tip 4: Replace animal fats in the diet

Animal produce is often high in saturated fats and includes red meat, butter, cheese, and cream. Saturated fats are difficult for the body to break down, so levels of harmful cholesterol can rise, increasing the risk of heart disease.

The AHA recommend replacing foods high in saturated fats with more healthful options to lower cholesterol and improve the body’s fat profile. Healthful, unsaturated fats are in oily fish and nuts.

To reduce the amount of unhealthful fat in the diet:

  • choose lean meats, such as poultry
  • choose low fat dairy products
  • cook meat and chicken without the skin
  • limit red meat intake
  • grill or boil meat instead of frying
  • use vegetable oil rather than animal fat
  • replace some meat servings with oily fish, nuts, beans, or legumes

Tip 5: Sodium down, potassium up

Sodium, found in salt, is directly linked to high blood pressure because it increases water retention. Potassium can counteract the harmful effects of salt, so eating less sodium and more potassium is a change that can boost heart health.

Bananas, tuna, and butternut squash are good sources of potassium. Too much potassium can lead to irregular heart rhythms, though, so people can speak to their doctor or other healthcare practitioners before using supplements.

Limiting the intake of processed foods will reduce sodium intake, as manufacturers add salt during the processing. The majority of sodium in the American diet comes from processed and restaurant food, with relatively little coming from cooking or table salt.

To retain flavor when cutting down salt, try eating foods with herbs, such as basil, rosemary, garlic, oregano, paprika, and cayenne, or low salt condiments, such as yellow mustard. People can also buy low sodium seasonings.

Tip 6: Add calcium and vitamin D

Calcium is crucial for strengthening and maintaining bone structure. Vitamin D helps the body to absorb calcium.

While dairy is the best-known source, there are many plant-based sources of calcium.

Good sources of calcium besides dairy include:

Dietary sources do not provide enough vitamin D for the body. Sunlight is necessary to help the body synthesize vitamin D.

Exposing some bare skin to the sunlight each day will help maintain levels of calcium, and vitamin D. Here are some tips to get more vitamin D.

The most healthful diets involve eating a variety of nutrient dense foods from all major food groups, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, protein sources, and healthful fats.

Getting the right balance of sodium and potassium will help look after the heart, and cutting down on sodium-rich and processed foods can reduce the risk of chronic health conditions.

For best results, people are best to always follow a healthful diet alongside an active lifestyle.