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Healthy Living Message: Eat Wisely

Developed by the National Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention (NCP) as part of the VHA Preventive Care Program

Key Message for Veterans:

Eat wisely to maximize your health. Eat a variety of foods including vegetables, fruits and whole grains. It is important to include fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products in your diet, and limit total salt, fat, sugar, and alcohol.

Key (basic) recommendations for eating wisely

Vegetables & Fruits

  • Eat enough vegetables and fruits (fresh, canned, or frozen) while staying within your energy needs. Aim for 5-9 servings of vegetables and fruits every day (two and one half cups of vegetables and two cups of fruit per day). Fresh, canned or frozen fruit is preferred over fruit juice.

  • Choose a variety of vegetables and fruits each day. In particular, make selections from the different vegetable groups several times a week. Choices should include: dark green (i.e., broccoli, kale, spinach); orange (i.e., carrots, pumpkin, tomato); legumes (i.e., kidney, pinto and black beans, lentils, and peas), starchy vegetables (i.e., potato, corn, plantain) and other vegetables (i.e. beets, eggplant, artichokes, cabbage). Starchy vegetables contain more calories so choose these less often.

  • Canned, dried, and frozen fruits and vegetables are good options. Look for fruit without added sugar or syrups and vegetables without added salt, butter, or cream sauces.

Whole Grains

  • Bread BasketEat 3 ounces or more of whole-grain cereals, breads, crackers, rice, or pasta per day. One ounce is about 1 slice of bread, 1 cup of breakfast cereal, or ½ cup of cooked rice or pasta.

  • For many, but not all "whole-grain" food products, the words "whole" or "whole grain" may appear before the name (e.g., whole-wheat bread). But, because whole-grain foods cannot necessarily be identified by their color or name (brown bread, 9-grain bread, hearty grains bread, mixed grain bread, etc. are not always "whole-grain"), you need to look at the ingredient list. The whole grain should be the first ingredient listed. The following are some examples of how whole grains could be listed: whole wheat; brown rice; quinoa; buckwheat; whole oats/oatmeal; whole rye; bulgur (cracked wheat); sorghum; whole grain; barley; popcorn; millet; or wild rice.

Salt (sodium and potassium)

  • Eat less than 1 teaspoon of salt (approximately 2,300 mg of sodium) per day.

  • Choose foods with little added salt and prepare foods without salt when possible. At the same time, eat potassium-rich foods, such as vegetables and fruits. Good potassium sources are: orange juice, beet greens, white beans, potatoes, tomatoes, tomato paste, and bananas.

  • People, who are middle-aged or older, have high blood pressure, or who are African American should limit their sodium intake to 1,500 mg of sodium per day. They should also get the recommended potassium (4,700 mg/day) in what they eat and drink.

Key (additional) recommendations for eating wisely


  • Eat a variety of foods and beverages selecting from the basic food groups. Choose foods that are: high in fiber (whole-grains); have little added salt or sugars; and are low in saturated and trans fats, and cholesterol. Limit alcohol consumption.

  • Get the nutrients you need in a healthy way by following a balanced eating pattern, such as those provided by using the USDA MyPyramid food guide.

  • Maintain (or aim for) a body weight in a healthy range. To achieve your weight goals, balance the calories you take in from what you eat and drink with the calories you burn through activity.

  • Specific recommendations for calorie intake to maintain weight will vary depending on a person's age, sex, size, and level of physical activity. Recommended total energy intakes range from 2000 to 3000 calories per day for men and 1600 to 2400 calories per day for women.


  • Consume 3 cups per day of fat-free or low-fat milk or milk products such as yogurt or soft white cheese (cottage) cheese. If you do not or cannot consume milk, choose lactose-free milk products and/or calcium-fortified foods and beverages.


  • Cooked SalmonGo lean with protein. Choose lean meats and poultry. Lean beef cuts include round steaks (top loin, top sirloin, and top round) and roasts (round eye, top round, bottom round, round tip, arm, and chuck shoulder).

  • When selecting beef, choose cuts labeled "Choice" or "Select" instead of "Prime". "Prime" usually has more fat. Choose cuts with the least amount of visible fat (marbling). Even then, trim any visible fat before preparing the beef. Choose extra lean ground beef. The label should say at least "90% lean", 93% or 95% is even better.

  • Vary your protein choices by choosing fish more often. Look for fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids such as salmon, trout, and herring.

  • Choose dry beans or peas as a main dish or part of a meal. Consider including 2 or more meatless meals in your weekly menu. Some choices are: meatless chili with kidney or pinto beans; split pea, lentil, minestrone, or white bean soups; black bean enchiladas; rice and beans; veggie burgers or garden burgers, and chef salad with garbanzo or kidney beans.

  • Choose nuts as a snack, in salads, or in main dishes. Use nuts to replace meat or poultry, not in addition to meat or poultry (i.e. pine nuts in pesto sauce, slivered almonds on steamed vegetables, toasted peanuts or cashews in vegetable stir-fry, add walnuts or pecans to salads instead of cheese or meat.


  • Choose fiber-rich vegetables, fruits, and whole grains often.

  • Choose and prepare foods and beverages with little added sugar or other sweeteners that contain calories.


  • When selecting and preparing meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, and milk or milk products, choose lean (skinless), low-fat or fat-free varieties and do not add fat when you cook them.

  • The best cooking methods to capture flavor and retain nutrients in your food without adding fat or salt are to bake, broil, braise, roast, steam, sauté, poach, grill, or stir-fry. Drain off any fat that appears during cooking.

  • Look for foods low in saturated fats, trans fats, and cholesterol by using the Nutrition Fact Labels on food products. Daily Value listed as 5% or less is low, where a Daily Value listed as 20% or more is high.

  • Most of the heart-healthy fats you eat should be polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats such as those found in fish, nuts, and most vegetable oils. Limit saturated fats that are found in high-fat cheeses, high-fat cuts of meat, whole-fat milk, cream, butter, ice cream, palm kernel and coconut oils. Eat less than 10 percent of your total daily calories from saturated fats.

  • Avoid foods that contain trans fats. Trans fats are often found in commercial baked goods such as cookies, crackers, and pies. Some restaurants may also use oils with trans fats for frying.

  • Eat less than 300 mg of cholesterol each day. Cholesterol is found in animal based food such as meats, poultry, egg yolks, and whole milk. Limit egg yolks to 3 per week and choose egg whites or pasteurized egg white products as substitutes for whole eggs.

  • Keep your fat intake between 20 and 35 percent of your total calories.

Key recommendations for specific population groups

People over age 50

  • Should get enough vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 is naturally found in animal products, such as fish, meat, poultry, eggs, milk or milk products. The best sources of vitamin B12 include: breakfast cereals fortified with 100% Daily Value of vitamin B12 per serving, fish/seafood (trout, salmon, sockeye, tuna, clams), and supplements.

  • Older adults often have trouble absorbing vitamin B12 from foods. However, the type of vitamin B12 used in supplements and in fortified foods is absorbed the best.

Older adults, people with dark skin, and people who do not get exposed to enough sunlight

  • Should get extra vitamin D from vitamin D-fortified foods (cereal, breads, margarine, milk) and/or supplements. Foods naturally high in vitamin D are: fish liver oils (cod liver oil); fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines, tuna, eel); shitake mushrooms, and eggs.

  • Most people's bodies are able to make enough vitamin D if they can be out in the sun without sunscreen for 10-15 minutes at least twice a week.

Women of childbearing age and those in the first trimester of pregnancy

  • Should eat foods high in heme-iron and/or consume iron-rich plant foods or iron-fortified foods along with vitamin C-rich foods, which help iron absorption.

  • Vitamin C-rich foods include the following fruits: orange, orange juice, cantaloupe, strawberries, kiwi, guava, and mango; and vegetables: broccoli, asparagus, tomato, tomato juice, potato, and green and red peppers.

  • Heme-iron is iron found in animal sources (i.e. turkey, beef, mussels, shrimp, clams, and liver) and is absorbed best by the body.

  • Non-heme-iron is found in vegetable sources (i.e. enriched cereals, cooked beans, blackstrap molasses, and enriched pasta); it is not as easily absorbed.

  • Should consume adequate folic acid daily (from fortified foods or supplements) in addition to the folate in foods from a varied diet.

  • Foods that are a good source of folate include: fortified breakfast cereals, whole wheat products, leafy green vegetables, asparagus, oranges, liver, eggs, beans (kidney, black, Lima), and sunflower seeds.

Key recommendations about alcoholic beverages

  • If you choose to drink alcoholic beverages, drink moderate amounts.

  • Women should limit themselves to one drink per day and men to two drinks per day. Alcohol adds calories to your diet without providing the nutrition you need.

  • For additional information, please see the Healthy Living Message: "Limit Alcohol."

If you have questions or interest in making a healthy living change, please see your primary care team at the VA facility in which you receive health care.

Read More

Supporting Information: Definitions to terms used in the article

U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Institute on Aging (NIA) health information including brochures such as: Healthy Eating After 50; Osteoporosis: The Bone Thief; High Blood Pressure

The Food Guide Pyramid

Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, HHS

Healthfinder®:A Quick Guide to Reliable Information on Healthy Eating and Other Topics, HHS

U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), HHS

Office on Women's Health (OWH), HHS

Healthfinder: Eat Healthy

VHA National Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Program

Source Documents

HHS. Healthfinder: A Quick Guide to Reliable Information on Healthy Eating and Other Topics

HHS. US Department of Aguiculture and US Department of Health and Human Services Nutrition website

CDC. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Nutrition website

The Food Guide Pyramid website

Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion Dietary Guidelines website

Office of Women's Health Fitness and Nutrition website

The Guide to Community Preventive Services-Nutrition - website

Behavioral Counseling in Primary Care to Promote a Healthy Diet website

Recommended Community Strategies and Measurements to prevent Obesity in the United States website

Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) - Integrating Evidence-Based Clinical and Community Strategies to Improve Health

Updated August 1, 2011