The foods you eat and the lifestyle choices you make play a major role in your health. Healthy choices can:
Reduce your risk for developing chronic diseases.
High blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers are related to diet and food choices.
Control symptoms of medical conditions.
High blood pressure, high blood sugar, and high cholesterol can be improved by diet and food choices.
Below, we outline 6 steps to improving your overall health, including how to manage your weight, control your food portions, understand food labels, increase your physical activity, and make healthy food choices. We also answer some frequently asked questions about healthy lifestyles. At the end of this resource, there are 3 sample menus that include healthy meals for you to try.
Gaining or losing weight is related to diet and exercise. If you take in more calories than your body needs, you are likely to gain weight. To achieve a healthy weight, you must eat fewer calories, increase your physical activity, or both. There are many health benefits to maintaining a healthy weight, including lowering your risk for various chronic diseases. Obesity can increase your risk for:
Cancers of the colon, breast, prostate, and esophagus
High blood pressure
Other chronic diseases, such as asthma, arthritis, and gallbladder disease
Find out your body mass index (BMI)
BMI is a measurement of the amount of fat in your body based on your height and weight. It can help you learn if your weight is healthy or not. A healthy BMI for an adult is between 18.5 and 24.9.
Find your BMI on the chart below. First, find your height in the left-hand column. Go across to the next column on the same line and find your weight.
Next, look at the corresponding BMI at the top of your column. This is your BMI.
If your BMI is 18.5 to 24.9, your weight is considered normal.
If your BMI is 25 to 29.9, you are considered overweight.
If your BMI is 30 or above, you are considered obese.
For example, if you are 65 inches (5 feet, 5 inches) tall and you weigh 168 pounds, then your BMI is 28. This means you are considered overweight. Your goal should be to achieve a BMI that puts you in the normal range.
If your BMI is above 25, look for the weights that correlate with a healthy BMI for your height. That should be your target weight.
Find out your caloric need
Finding out how many calories your body needs can prevent you from gaining or losing weight. There are 3500 calories in 1 pound of body weight. This means that if you eat an extra 500 calories a day (from any type of food), you could gain 1 pound in a week.
Your age, muscle mass, amount and type of exercise you do, and overall health affect your caloric need. In general, the older you are, the fewer calories you need. However, if you have a lot of muscle or exercise a lot, you need more calories. Use this formula to calculate the number of calories you need each day:
Your body weight in pounds x 12 = your estimated daily caloric need
If you need to lose weight, subtract 500 calories from your estimated caloric need. If you need to gain weight, add 500 calories to your estimated caloric need.
Reading and understanding food labels can help you make wise food choices. The label below lists the nutritional content of a 1-cup serving of macaroni and cheese. The arrows point to the boxes on the right, which explain what each line means.
This food label shows that macaroni and cheese is high in total fat, saturated fat, and trans fat. It also does not contain any fiber. Due do the high fat content and lack of fiber, this food would not be a healthy choice.
Physical activity is a necessary part of a healthy lifestyle. By doing at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise on most days of the week, you can stay fit. You can burn about 150 calories a day or about 1000 calories a week by doing moderate exercise.
To stay at your current weight, do at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity on most days of the week.
If you need to lose weight, do at least 60 to 90 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity each day.
A gym is not the only place to exercise. Here are some activities that provide moderate to vigorous exercise:
Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
Get off the bus or subway 1 stop early and walk the rest of the way.
Walk to work, class, or the store or walk your pets.
Take a 2-mile brisk walk in 30 minutes.
Increase your time spent on household tasks, such as vacuuming, mopping, dusting, and washing dishes (45 to 60 minutes).
All fats have the same number of calories, but some fats are healthier than others. Cut back on the total amount of fat in your diet. Limit the amount of saturated fat you eat. Limiting fat, especially saturated fat, can keep your heart healthy and make it easier to maintain your weight.
“Good” cholesterol” versus “bad” cholesterol
Cholesterol is a fat-like substance. It is found only in foods that come from an animal source, such as meat, eggs, and dairy. Cholesterol travels in the blood in packages called lipoproteins. There are 2 types of lipoproteins: “good” and “bad.”
Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is “bad” cholesterol. It can clog your arteries and cause heart disease.
High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is “good” cholesterol. It takes cholesterol out of your body.
Types of fats
Monounsaturated fats come from plant sources. They are mostly found in:
These fats can lower your total cholesterol and LDL levels. They will not lower your HDL level.
Polyunsaturated fats also come from plant sources. They are found in:
These fats can lower your total cholesterol and do not raise LDL levels.
Saturated fats are found in:
Meat and chicken fat
Whole milk and milk products
Coconut, palm, and palm kernel oils
Eating foods with too much saturated fat can raise your total cholesterol and LDL levels.
Trans fats are formed when hydrogen is added to oil. These are also called “partially hydrogenated” fats or oils. Trans fats are found in:
Many fried, baked, and processed foods
Margarine and butter-like products
Trans fats can raise your total cholesterol and LDL levels. They can also lower your HDL level. Choose foods that say “zero (0) trans fat” on the label. Try not to eat processed foods that contain partially hydrogenated oils, such as some crackers, cookies, peanut butter, and breaded frozen foods.
Omega-3 fatty acids are needed for good health, especially for heart health. They are found mainly in oily fish. It is recommended that you eat at least two 4-ounce servings of omega-3 rich fish per week. Fish that have omega-3 fatty acids include:
Foods that contain smaller amounts of omega-3 fatty acids include:
Leafy green vegetables
Omega-6 fatty acids are also necessary for good health, since these can't be made by your body. However, your body needs only small amounts of them. Omega-6 fatty acids are found in vegetable oils, margarine, baked goods, and processed foods.
How much fat is OK to eat?
20% to 35% of your diet can come from fat.
If you eat 1200 calories a day, you can eat up to 26 to 46 grams of fat per day.
If you eat 2000 calories a day, you can eat up to 44 to 78 grams of fat per day.
10% or less of the total fat in your diet can come from saturated fat.
If you eat 1200 calories per day, you can eat up to 12 grams of saturated fat per day.
If you eat 2000 calories per day, you can eat up to 20 grams of saturated fat per day.
Mono and polyunsaturated fats
While no specific amounts of these fats are recommended, the guidelines recommend eating foods rich in these healthy fats, while staying within your total fat allowance.
Tips for trimming fat from your diet
Limit spreads that are high in fat. These include:
Choose lean cuts of meat, such as skinless chicken or turkey and fish.
Eat no more than 18 ounces of red meat per week.
Remove the fat and skin from your meat before cooking it.
Bake, broil, grill, steam, or poach your foods.
Pan fry your foods with nonstick cooking spray; avoid deep frying your foods.
Add more flavor to your foods with herbs and spices instead of butter or oil.
Use fruit or fruit juices in your marinades. Try kiwi, papaya, lemon, or lime juice.
Use vegetable stock or low-sodium tomato juice instead of butter or oil to cook your vegetables, meats, and seafood.
Refrigerate your soups and skim off the fat layer that forms on top.
Make scrambled eggs or omelets by using 1 yolk with 2 egg whites. Or use an egg substitute product.
Choose canned tuna or sardines that are packed in water rather than oil. Otherwise, drain oil-packed canned tuna or sardines to decrease the fat.
Cook with canola or olive oil. These oils have the least amount of saturated fat.
Fruits and vegetables
Eating many different kinds of fruits and vegetables can help protect you against chronic diseases. Fruits and vegetables are:
Rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals (good substances that are found only in plant foods)
Rich in fiber
Low in calories, fat, and cholesterol
Eat at least 2 ½ cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruit per day. Include fruits and vegetables in most of your meals and snacks. Choose whole or cut-up fruits and vegetables rather than juices. Juices contain little or no fiber, which is important for healthy bowel function.
The list below shows the best fruit and vegetable sources for vitamin A (carotenoids), vitamin C, folate, and potassium. These are important nutrients to have in your diet.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that as part of a healthy eating plan, people should eat more fruits and vegetables. This includes choosing from a variety of fruits and vegetables. You can do this by selecting from different colors of fruits and vegetables, such as dark green, red, and orange. Also, legumes (beans, lentils) contain many essential vitamins and nutrients and should be incorporated into your diet.
On a weekly basis, your meals should include:
3 cups of dark green vegetables (broccoli, spinach, collard greens, kale)
3 cups of legumes (lentils, kidney beans, pinto beans, chickpeas)
3 cups of starchy vegetables (corn, potatoes, green peas)
6 ½ cups of other vegetables (tomatoes, onions, cauliflower, green beans)
See the sample menus at the end of this resource for ideas on how to incorporate these foods into your diet.
Fiber and whole grains
Fiber is an important part of your diet because it:
Helps regulate bowel movements and prevent constipation
Provides a feeling of fullness
Helps with weight loss
Can help reduce cholesterol
Can lower the risk for diabetes, heart disease, and obesity
Plant foods are the best sources of fiber. In addition to fruits and vegetables, eating a variety of whole grains, cereals, legumes, nuts, and seeds can provide the fiber you need.
Your fiber needs are based on the amount of calories you take in. Women usually need about 25 grams of fiber per day and men need about 35 grams of fiber per day.
To make sure you are getting enough fiber, eat whole grains. They contain more vitamins, minerals, and fiber than refined or processed grains. Read your ingredient labels carefully to find out if the foods you choose have whole grains. Food labels must have the word “whole” right before the name of the grain. For example, when choosing a wheat bread or pasta, the label must read “whole wheat,” not “enriched wheat flour.”
To get more fiber and whole grains in your diet:
Eat foods such as whole-wheat bread, brown rice, barley, whole oats, oatmeal, bran cereals, and popcorn.
Try pancakes, muffins, or bread mixes made with whole-wheat or buckwheat flour.
Choose a whole grain like barley and add a small amount of dried fruit or toasted nuts.
Add beans to rice, pasta, salad, and soups.
Choose fresh fruit and vegetables instead of juices.
Increase your fiber intake gradually and drink at least 64 ounces of liquid (8 full glasses) each day.
Use this chart to choose foods that are good sources of fiber.
Our bodies need some salt, but too much salt can increase your risk for:
High blood pressure
Congestive heart failure
Salt is made up of sodium and chloride. The body needs about 2300 mg of sodium per day, or about 1 teaspoon of salt. The average US diet contains 3000 to 7000 mg of sodium each day. Nutrition labels list the amount of sodium in a serving size, rather than the amount of salt. Foods that are low in sodium (less than 140 mg or 5% of the Daily Value) are low in salt.
Salt that is found naturally in food makes up only about 10% of the salt we eat in a typical day. Adding salt to your food adds another 5% to 10%. The remaining 75% of salt in our diet comes from salt that is added during manufacturing. Fast foods and packaged and processed foods are high in salt and sodium. A fast-food cheeseburger and medium serving of French fries has about 1370 mg of sodium.
To lower the amount of salt in your diet:
Do not add salt to your food at the table.
Avoid preparing and cooking food with salt.
Use fresh herbs and spices for flavoring.
Read labels on all packaged foods to find the amount of sodium per serving.
Buy foods that say “low sodium,” “very low sodium,” “salt free,” and “sodium free” on the labels. Low-sodium foods have less than 140 mg of sodium per serving.
Limit ketchup, soy sauce, and salad dressing, as these are usually high in sodium.
Limit pickled and cured foods (sauerkraut, pickles, hot dogs, bacon, and processed lunch meats).
When you are eating out, choose plain foods and avoid sauces and condiments. Ask the waiter to have no additional salt added to your food.
If your blood pressure is high, choose foods that are naturally low in sodium and rich in potassium. Potassium is a mineral that helps keep blood pressure within a normal range. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends that adults should have at least 4700 mg of potassium each day. Even if your blood pressure is normal, foods that are rich in potassium should still be part of your diet. If you are concerned about your blood pressure, be sure to talk to your doctor or nurse. Add some of the potassium-rich foods listed below to your daily diet.
Foods Rich in Potassium
Food (½-cup serving size)
Amount of Potassium
Tomato (3-inch diameter)
Calcium and vitamin D
Your body needs calcium in your diet everyday to keep your bones and teeth strong and to maintain healthy muscle and nerve function. When you are not getting enough calcium from your diet, your body makes up for this by taking calcium from your bones. If this calcium is not replenished by your diet, your bones can become weak and brittle. This is called osteoporosis. It puts you at greater risk for bone fractures.
Most of your bone mass is made during childhood and early adulthood. However, you are never too old to improve your bone health. Eat foods that are rich in calcium and vitamin D. Take part in daily weight bearing activities, such as walking, jogging, lifting weights, or jumping rope, to strengthen your bones.
Here are tips for getting more calcium in your diet:
Have at least 2 to 3 servings of skim or low-fat dairy every day. Include milk, yogurt, or cheese. If you have trouble tolerating lactose (a sugar found in milk products), try lactose-free products, such as Lactaid® milk or soy products.
Almonds, leafy greens, soybeans, canned sardines, and salmon are also good sources of calcium.
Foods such as cereals and orange juice usually have added calcium.
Many people, including women during menopause, need calcium supplements. Check with your doctor or a dietitian to find out more about your calcium needs.
Without vitamin D, your body can't absorb the calcium in your diet. Vitamin D is found in fortified dairy products and some fatty fishes. However, most people get all the vitamin D they need from sunlight. If you are housebound, you may need to take a vitamin D supplement. Women who wear coverings for religious reasons may also need to get their vitamin D from supplements.
The table below lists the daily amount of calcium and vitamin D you need based on your age.
Daily Recommended Intake
1 to 3 years
4 to 8 years
9 to 18 years
19 to 50 years
51 to 70 years
Alcoholic beverages provide calories but contain few nutrients. If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. This means having no more than 1 drink a day if you are a woman and no more than 2 drinks a day if you are a man. One drink equals:
12 ounces of beer
5 ounces of wine
1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor
Evidence suggests that excessive alcohol intake can cause:
Cirrhosis of the liver
Cancer of the mouth
Cancer of the head and neck
Cancer of the esophagus
Breast cancer (evidence not as strong)
Colon cancer (evidence not as strong)
Some studies have shown that moderate drinking can decrease the risk for heart disease by increasing HDL levels (good cholesterol). However, it is still not a good idea to start drinking alcohol if you don't already.
These are the basic guidelines for a healthier diet and lifestyle. It is best to make gradual changes, focusing on one change at a time. Set goals to achieve success. Once you have reached one goal, move on to the next. If you would like nutrition information and counseling, call (212) 639-7071 to set up an appointment with a dietitian. He or she can help you plan a healthy diet and lifestyle.
A well-balanced diet with a variety of foods usually has the right amount of vitamins and minerals. However, some people may have different nutritional needs and may benefit from taking a vitamin or mineral supplement. Examples are:
People whose immune systems do not function well
Women who are pregnant or may become pregnant
People on very low-calorie diets
Ask your doctor or dietitian if you need to take any minerals or supplements.
Do I need a commercial wash to reduce the amount of pesticides on my produce?
Washing fruits and vegetables with water alone reduces pesticide residue as well as a commercial wash.
Are fresh fruits and vegetables more nutritious than frozen, canned, or dried?
Fresh fruits and vegetables are considered more nutritious. However, frozen and dried products without added sauces can also be healthy choices. These fruits and vegetables are picked and packaged at the peak of freshness and keep many of their nutrients. Avoid canned vegetables. Most are high in sodium.
Should I buy only organic fruits and vegetables?
Organic foods are grown with little fertilizer and no pesticides. Some studies suggest organic foods may have higher amounts of phytochemicals (compounds found in plants that have a beneficial effect on health), but there is not currently enough research to support this claim. Whether or not you buy organic, it is best to wash all of your produce well.
There are certain fruits and vegetables that may contain higher amounts of pesticides, including:
You may wish to buy these products organic.
Should I buy hormone-free meat and dairy products?
Many people are concerned about hormones added to foods. The USDA does not allow hormones to be given to pigs, chickens, turkeys, and other fowl. However, hormones can be given to cattle and sheep. The amount of hormones that come from sheep and cattle is very small compared to what the human body produces each day. If you are concerned, choose a mostly plant-based diet. This means eating mostly fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds and reducing your meat intake.
Is a vegetarian diet healthier for me?
Not always. Many healthy diets include animal products. A vegetarian diet can lower the risk of some diseases, such as heart disease, kidney stones, and gallstones. The benefits include a lower intake of saturated fat, cholesterol, and animal protein. Vegetarian diets also have more antioxidants, folate, magnesium, potassium, and fiber. Try a diet that is mostly made up of plants. Talk to a dietitian to make sure that your vegetarian or mostly plant-based diet has all the nutrients you need.