Feb 15, 2004 Table of Contents

Please note: This information was current at the time of publication. But medical information is always changing, and some information given here may be out of date. For regularly updated information on a variety of health topics, please visit familydoctor.org, the AAFP patient education Web site.

Information from Your Family Doctor

Nutrition: Tips for Improving Your Health

Am Fam Physician. 2004 Feb 15;69(4):923-924.

What is good nutrition?

Good nutrition is one of the keys to good health. Good nutrition means eating foods that have a lot of vitamins and minerals in them, and foods that are not high in fat. For most people, foods that are high in fiber are a good choice, and almost everyone should eat five servings of fruits and vegetables every day.

Good nutrition also means watching how much you eat, so that you are not eating more calories (energy) than you use up each day.

Do I need to change what I eat?

If you answer yes to any of the following questions, you may need to talk about nutrition with your doctor:

  • Has your doctor talked with you about a medical problem or a risk factor, such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol?

  • Did your doctor tell you that this condition could be improved by better nutrition?

  • Do diabetes, cancer, heart disease, or osteoporosis run in your family?

  • Are you overweight, or have you gained weight over the years?

  • Do you have questions about what kinds of foods you should eat or whether you should take vitamins?

  • Do you think that you would benefit from seeing a nutritionist? (A nutritionist is a registered dietitian who specializes in nutrition counseling.)

Will it be hard to change my eating habits?

Probably, but even small changes can improve your health a lot. The main point is to keep trying to eat the right foods. Stay in touch with your doctor and nutritionist, to let them know how you are doing. Here are a few suggestions to help you improve your eating habits:

  • Find the strong points and weak points in your current diet. Do you eat three to five servings of fruits and vegetables every day? Do you get enough calcium? Do you eat high-fiber foods regularly? If so, good! You are on the right track. Keep it up. If not, you can learn the changes you need to make.

  • Make small, slow changes, instead of trying to make big, fast changes. Small changes will be easier to stick with.

  • Every few days, keep track of your food intake by writing down everything you ate and drank that day. Use this record to help you see if you need to eat more from food groups such as vegetables and fruits, or less from food groups such as meat and poultry.

  • Think about asking for help from a nutritionist if you have not already done so—especially if you have a medical problem that requires you to follow a special diet.

Can I trust nutrition information I get from newspapers and magazines?

Nutrition tips from different sources can sometimes disagree with each other. You should always check with your doctor first. Also, keep in mind this advice:

  • There is no “magic bullet” when it comes to nutrition. Short-term diets may help you lose weight, but they are difficult to keep up and even may be unhealthy in the long run.

  • Good nutrition does not come in a pill. You can take a vitamin pill to be sure you are getting enough vitamins and minerals, but your body benefits the most from the vitamins in healthy foods.

  • Eating small amounts of a variety of foods is best for your body. Learn to try new foods.

  • Remember, stories from people who have used a diet program or product, especially the ones in commercials and infomercials, are advertisements. Regained weight or other problems that come up after someone has completed the program are never talked about in those ads.

What changes can I make now in my diet?

Almost everyone can benefit from cutting back on fat. If you currently eat a lot of fat, try just one or two of these changes:

  • Eat three to four servings of low-fat dairy products every day. You can use reduced-fat cheeses and fat-free yogurt. For example, if you make pizza at home, try using part-skim mozzarella cheese on top.

  • If you eat meat, eat it baked, grilled, and broiled rather than fried. Take the skin off before eating chicken. Eat fish at least once a week.

  • Cut back on extra fat, such as butter or margarine on bread, sour cream on baked potatoes, and salad dressings.

  • Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables with your meals and as snacks.

  • When eating away from home, watch out for “hidden” fats (such as that in salad dressing and desserts) and be especially careful of oversized portions.

  • Read the nutrition labels on foods before you buy them. If you need help understanding the labels, ask your doctor or your nutritionist.

  • During the day, drink no-calorie or low-calorie beverages, such as water, unsweetened tea or coffee, and diet soda.

Balanced nutrition and regular exercise are good for your health even if your weight never changes. So try to set goals that you have a good chance of reaching, such as making one of the small changes in this handout or walking one more day per week.


This handout is provided to you by your family doctor and the American Academy of Family Physicians. Other health-related information is available from the AAFP online at http://familydoctor.org.

This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.

Copyright © 2004 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.
This content is owned by the AAFP. A person viewing it online may make one printout of the material and may use that printout only for his or her personal, non-commercial reference. This material may not otherwise be downloaded, copied, printed, stored, transmitted or reproduced in any medium, whether now known or later invented, except as authorized in writing by the AAFP. Contact afpserv@aafp.org for copyright questions and/or permission requests.

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