Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 1999;59(6):1531-1532

See related article on taking a nutrition history.

Good health comes from eating a well-balanced diet. This means making sure you regularly eat foods that have a lot of vitamins and minerals in them, as well as foods that are not high in fat. You should drink milk every day to give your bones the calcium that makes them strong. Foods that are high in fiber are good for you, and you should try to eat several fruits and vegetables every day.

Do I need to make changes in my diet?

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 a change in your diet?

  • 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.)

Won't it be hard to change my diet?

Not necessarily. But it will take time, so try not to get discouraged. The key is to keep trying to eat the right foods and stay in touch with your doctor and nutritionist, to let them know how you're doing. Here are a few suggestions to help you change your diet:

  • 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're 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 large, fast changes. This will make it easier for the changes to become a part of your everyday life.

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

  • Think about asking for help from a nutritionist, if you haven't 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 conflict 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. There isn't one diet that works for every person. You need to find a diet that works for you.

  • Good nutrition doesn't come in a vitamin pill. You can take a vitamin pill to be sure you're getting enough vitamins and minerals, but your body benefits the most from eating healthy foods.

  • Eating all different kinds of foods is best for your body. Learn to try new foods.

  • Fad diets offer short-term changes, but good health comes from long-term effort and commitment.

  • Stories from people who have used a diet program or product, especially in commercials and infomercials, are a way to sell more of the product. Remember, weight gain or other problems that come up after the program is over are never talked about in the ads.

What changes can I make now in my diet?

Almost everyone can benefit from cutting back on fat in their diet. If your current diet is high in fat, try making these changes:

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

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

  • Cut back on the extra fat that sneaks into your diet, such as butter or margarine on bread, sour cream on baked potatoes, and salad dressings on salad.

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

  • When eating away from home, watch out for “hidden” fats and larger portion sizes.

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

  • Drink milk. Milk is important because it's a rich source of calcium. However, if you're still drinking whole milk, you're getting too much fat. Sometimes people try skim milk once and don't like the taste (or the way it looks in coffee). They go back to drinking whole milk. It might help to make a gradual change, starting with 2 percent milk. After three to six months, change to 1 percent milk. You might try mixing whole milk and 2 percent milk or 2 percent milk and 1 percent milk for a few weeks. Soon, you'll be able to enjoy drinking skim milk.

There are many health benefits to a low-fat, high-fiber diet, even if your weight never changes. So try to set goals you have a good chance of reaching, such as losing one pound a week or lowering your blood cholesterol level.

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Copyright © 1999 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.

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