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Nutrition can have a big impact on your overall health. Smart nutrition is about making food choices that produce a positive, rather than negative, impact. In fact, making smart food choices can help you maintain a healthy weight, lower your risk for a number of diseases, and even strengthen your immune system.

Nutritionally Dense Food vs. Empty Calories

Get the most out of your calories by eating nutritionally dense food. These foods are relatively low in calories, but high in nutrition, so they can help you maintain a healthy weight while giving you a good dose of vitamins, minerals, protein, and fiber. At the same time, you'll want to cut down your intake of foods with "empty calories"—those that have high calorie counts with little nutritional benefit. These foods often get their extra calories from saturated fats and added sugars. That's why a piece of fruit in the morning will do you more good than a sugary pastry would.

Be Generous

Fruits and vegetables

Fruits and vegetables are a natural choice for nutritionally dense foods, so you can be generous when serving up these highly nourishing treats. In fact, according to ChooseMyPlate.gov, fruits and vegetables should make up half of your plate at any given meal—about 30 percent vegetables and 20 percent fruit. You can choose a diverse selection of colors to add variety in both flavor and nutrition.

How many servings of fruits and vegetables do you need each day? This depends on your age, sex, and level of physical activity. Visit the Fruits and Veggies: More Matters page to learn more and get a personalized recommendation about your daily fruit and vegetable quota.

Whole grain foods

Grains should also account for a sizable portion of your plate—about 30 percent. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends that whole grains make up at least half of those grains. Whole grains not only can give you more fiber, but they usually contain more nutrients, too.

Lean sources of protein

Lean protein is important to a smart diet—about 20 percent of your plate. There are many good sources of lean protein, including:

  • Lean meats (chicken, turkey, beef, pork, etc.)
  • Seafood (fish, shellfish, etc.)
  • Soy products (tofu, veggie burgers, soy beverages, etc.)
  • Eggs
  • Beans and nuts

Dairy and other calcium-rich foods

Dairy products can be a good source of protein and calcium, especially if they're nutritionally dense low-fat and fat-free versions. Dark leafy vegetables, like turnip greens, kale, Chinese cabbage, and mustard greens, are naturally rich in calcium, too. Other calcium-fortified food sources include cereals, breads, and some juices, as well as soy, rice, and nut beverages.

Water

Drinking plenty of water is an important part of proper nutrition. Foods like raw fruit and vegetables can also help keep you hydrated. It's important to realize that your body can have trouble distinguishing hunger from thirst pangs, so being well hydrated can often keep you from eating too much. Sometimes, when you think your body is saying "I'm hungry," it could actually be trying to tell you that it simply needs more water.

Be Aware, Reduce, and Avoid

While some foods clearly get the "green light" nutritionally, others deserve a yellow or even a red light. Approach saturated fats, added sugars, and other high-calorie/low-nutrition foods with caution. Sodium should also be on your list of "yellow light" foods, too, and in some cases, it deserves a red light.

Sodium

Be aware of your sodium intake. When choosing meals and snacks, keep in mind the average person should limit daily sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams (mg) or less. For people sensitive to the effects of sodium or who are at risk of experiencing certain medical conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease, daily sodium intake should be 1,500 mg or less.

To minimize your salt intake:

  • Limit processed foods, which can be high in sodium.
  • Keep track of your daily sodium intake.
  • Try flavoring foods with herbs, spices, and other seasonings—instead of salt.
  • Remember meals from restaurants can be high in sodium. Check the nutritional and sodium content of a restaurant's food, either on its menu or online.

Fats, trans-fatty acids, and cholesterol

Be aware of your saturated fat consumption. Less than 10 percent of your calories should come from saturated fat – that is 22 grams per day for a 2,000 calorie eating pattern. The main sources of saturated fats in the U.S. diet include mixed dishes containing meat, cheese or both such as burgers, sandwiches, tacos, and pizza. Snacks, sweets and frozen dairy products also contribute to saturate fat intake. To lower your saturated fat consumption:

  • Read labels and choose packaged foods lower in saturated fats and higher in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats
  • Consume smaller portions of foods higher in saturated fats or consume them less often.
  • Instead of cooking with butter, lard or coconut oil, cook with unsaturated fats such as olive, soybean, corn and sunflower oils

Intake of trans fat should be as low as possible. Individuals can limit their intake of trans fats by choosing foods that are low in artificial sources of trans fat. Check the ingredients list for worked like "partially hydrogenated," "hydrogenated" and "shortening." Although food manufacturers and restaurants have reduced the amount of artificial trans fats in recent years, they can still be found in some desserts, microwave popcorn, frozen pizza, margarines, and coffee creamers.

 

A limit for dietary cholesterol is not included in the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. However, foods that are higher in dietary cholesterol, such as fatty meats and high-fat dairy products, tend to also be higher in saturated fats. Because of this commonality, Food Patterns that are limited in saturated fats will also be lower in cholesterol. Eggs and shellfish are unique in that they are higher in dietary cholesterol but not saturated fats, and thus, can be consumed along with a variety of other choices within the protein foods group.

Sugars and other simple carbohydrates

Be aware of your daily sugar consumption. Less than 10 percent of your calories should come from added sugars. To decrease your sugar intake:

  • Read nutrition facts to limit your sugar and sugary snacks.
  • Drink water, unsweetened tea, or coffee, instead of sugary beverages.
  • Avoid simple carbohydrates (like white rice, white bread, enriched white pasta, etc.)

Alcohol

Alcohol is high in calories with minimal nutrition. So, if you're limiting your calories and you want every calorie to count, avoid the empty calories in alcohol.

Calorie Balance

Keeping an eye on the calories you consume vs. those you burn through activity is a daily balancing act. Remember, lower levels of physical activity on any given day mean you'll need to consume fewer calories.

When is the last time someone told you, "Good for you!"? You can say it to yourself—and mean it—once you start using some of these tips for smart nutrition.