Plans for Healthy Eating—The First Step


A few years ago, Diana and Nick both turned 50. Like many of their friends, the Spencers thought that making some changes in their lives might be a good idea. They’d put on some weight, and their doctor said their cholesterol levels were going up. When they were younger, Nick and Diana were very active—they were known to dance until late at night whenever they could. They ate any food they wanted—donuts for breakfast on the weekends and lots of soda were standards. As the years went by, work, children, and errands left little time for physical activities, and the Spencers found themselves eating more fast-food meals. Now, the couple knows they should make better food choices. But how should they start? Where is information they can trust?

Diana and Nick can find nutrition information they can trust in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which contain advice about what and how much to eat and which foods to avoid. Every 5 years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) use the latest nutrition research to develop these Guidelines that encourage people to eat more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and lean sources of protein and dairy products; to choose foods that are low in added sugars and solid fats; and to limit salt (sodium) intake.

To help you create a healthy eating pattern, the Guidelines suggest two sensible eating plans: the USDA Food Patterns and the DASH Eating Plan (see below). DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. Both are healthy options, whether or not you have high blood pressure (hypertension). Both are flexible so you can probably include many foods you prefer. The USDA Food Patterns even include adaptations for people on vegetarian or vegan diets.

Here’s a tip

If your doctor suggests you follow a limited diet to manage a condition like diabetes or heart or kidney disease, you’ll need to find out how to make your special diet work with one of these eating plans. A dietitian can be really helpful.

The USDA Food Patterns

Forks with food

The USDA Food Patterns suggest that people over 50 keep an eye on calories while choosing a variety of healthy foods from five major food groups and limiting solid fats and added sugars. Calories are the way to measure the energy you get from food. How many calories you need depends on whether you are a man or a woman and how physically active you are each day. First, choose the calorie total that’s right for you from the chart below.

How Many Calories Do You Need?

If you are over age 50 and you want to stay at the weight you are now—not lose and not gain, how many calories do you need to eat each day? The Dietary Guidelines suggest:

For a woman
Not physically active
Moderately active
Active lifestyle
1,600 calories
1,800 calories
2,000-2,200 calories


For a man
Not physically active
Moderately active
Active lifestyle
2,000-2,200 calories
2,200-2,400 calories
2,400-2800 calories

Physical activity refers to the voluntary movements you do that burn calories. Brisk walking, dancing, and swimming are examples of moderate activity. An active lifestyle might include jogging, singles tennis, or swimming laps.

The chart below shows how to reach three different daily calorie totals. Suggestions are given as daily amounts, unless shown as weekly.

Daily Calorie Count Examples for the USDA Food Patterns
  1,600 calories 2,000 calories 2,600 calories
Grains 5 ounces or equivalent 6 ounces or equivalent 9 ounces or equivalent
Vegetables 2 cups 2-1/2 cups 3-1/2 cups
Fruits 1-1/2 cups 2 cups 2 cups
Protein foods 5 ounces or equivalent 5-1/2 ounces or equivalent 6-1/2 ounces or equivalent
Seafood 8 ounces/week 8 ounces/week 10 ounces/week
Meat, poultry, eggs 24 ounces/week 26 ounces/week 31 ounces/week
Nuts, seeds, soy products 4 ounces/week 4 ounces/week 5 ounces/week
Dairy products 3 cups 3 cups 3 cups
Oils 22 grams 27 grams 34 grams
Solid fats and added sugars (SoFAS) 121 calories 258 calories 362 calories

Let’s look more closely at the recommendations for the different food groups in the USDA Food Patterns. What foods are in each group? What are “protein foods?” How much of your daily fruit need is met by a medium banana? How should you count beverages? To answer these questions and more, below you’ll find more detailed information for the five major food groups, as well as oils and solid fats and added sugars. We’ve also included some examples of one ounce or an ounce-equivalent (something that gives you the same amount of nutrients as an ounce). The USDA Food Patterns food groups are:

  • Grains
  • Vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Protein Foods
  • Dairy Products
  • Oils
  • Solid Fats and Added Sugars (SoFAS)


Diana loves bread and pasta. It might be easy for her to eat too much from this food group. If she eats more than is suggested for her activity level, she’ll be eating too many calories.

Any food made from wheat, rye, rice, oats, cornmeal, barley, or another cereal grain is a grain product. In addition to bread and pasta, there are cereal, rice, grits, tortillas, even popcorn.

Look for grain choices that are low in saturated and trans fat and low in added sugar when possible. But be careful—low-fat baked goods can be high in added sugar.

Try to choose grain products made from whole grains. Make sure the first food on the ingredient list contains the word “whole,” such as whole wheat, whole oats, or whole grain. Other whole grains include popcorn, brown rice, wild rice, buckwheat, bulgur, and quinoa. Whole grains can help you add fiber to your diet. For more on fiber, see "Carbohydrates" below.

Here’s a tip

Be sure to make at least half your grains whole grains. Try whole wheat pasta, whole-grain English muffins, or a whole-grain bread, rather than basic white.

One ounce or an ounce equivalent:

  • Slice of bread
  • Half an English muffin
  • Mini-bagel
  • Small (2-1/2-inch) muffin
  • Cup flaked cereal
  • Half cup cooked rice, pasta, or cooked cereal
  • Two 3-inch pancakes
  • Three cups popcorn
  • 6-inch corn or flour tortilla


When Diana was growing up, she never wanted to eat vegetables. Maybe that was because her mother used to cook vegetables until they were very soft and sometimes tasteless. But now, Diana has learned to steam her vegetables until they are just crisp, and there are several she is happy to eat.

Sometimes, vegetables get a bum rap. That’s a shame because delicious vegetables come in a wide variety of colors and flavors. Dark green vegetables include broccoli, collard greens, spinach, and kale. Some red and orange vegetables are acorn squash, carrots, pumpkin, tomato, and sweet potato. Starchy vegetables are foods like corn, green peas, and white potatoes. Other vegetables include eggplant, beets, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, celery, artichokes, and onions. Beans and peas (not green peas) include black beans, garbanzo beans (chickpeas), lima beans, soybeans, and tofu. These can also be counted in the protein foods group. (See the tip below.)

One-half cup of vegetables equals:

  • Cup uncooked leafy vegetables
  • Six baby carrots or one medium carrot
  • Half a large baked sweet potato
  • Small (6-inch) ear of corn
  • Small baked potato
  • Large stalk of celery
  • Five broccoli florets
  • Half cup cooked green beans
  • Half large (3 x 4-inch) green pepper

Here’s a tip

Vary your veggies. Brighten your plate with vegetables that are red, orange, and dark green. They taste great and are good for you too.


Other than orange juice in the morning, the Spencers rarely ate fruit. When they bought fruit from the grocery store, they often forgot it was in the drawer in their fridge. When they had lunch in the cafeteria, fruit was not usually offered.

Nick and Diana are not alone. Older Americans generally do not eat enough fruit. Yet, there are so many choices—citrus fruits like oranges and grapefruits; different kinds of berries; fruits that grow on trees such as apricots, cherries, peaches, and mangoes; and others like figs, raisins, and pineapple. Try some that you haven’t eaten before. Fruits with skins like apples and pears provide extra fiber that promotes regularity.

One half cup of fruit equals:

  • Small piece of fruit such as a 2-inch peach or large plum
  • Half an 8-inch banana or half an orange
  • Quarter cup dried fruit
  • Four ounces of 100% fruit juice
  • Half a medium grapefruit
  • One-eighth of a medium cantaloupe
  • Half inch wedge of watermelon
  • Sixteen grapes
  • Four strawberries

Here’s a tip

Do you wonder how many vegetables and fruits you should eat at a meal? Look at your plate. Vegetables and fruits should fill up half the dish.

Protein Foods

Nick was surprised at how easy it was to eat more than the suggested amount of protein each day. His favorite lunch spot serves a burger that weighs a half pound—eight ounces. That’s more protein than Nick needs to eat in a whole day. He still has to count the egg he had for breakfast and what he has for dinner!

You might have a similar problem. But, simply cutting back on other food groups to keep your calories in line won’t solve the problem because you’ll be missing out on the nutrients those food groups give you. In addition to watching how much food with protein you eat, try to choose lean or low-fat foods. Higher fat choices count as added fats and oils. Try to eat seafood instead of meat at least twice a week to balance your proteins.

One ounce serving equals:

  • 12 almonds, 24 pistachios, or 7 walnut halves
  • Half ounce seeds such as hulled and roasted pumpkin, sunflower, or squash seeds
  • Tablespoon peanut butter
  • Half cup split pea, lentil, or bean soup
  • Quarter cup cooked beans
  • Quarter cup tofu
  • One egg
  • Falafel patty (2-1/4 inches, 4 ounces)
  • Two tablespoons hummus

Here’​s a tip

Are you confused about whether beans, peas, and foods made from soybeans should be counted as vegetables or protein foods? It’s up to you. Here’s an example: if you eat ½ cup of baked beans with dinner, you get to choose whether to count the beans as ½ cup of vegetables or 2 ounces of protein foods, depending on what else you’ve eaten during the day.

Dairy Products

Nick loves drinking milk, so it is not a problem for him to get 3 cups a day. But, Diana is not a milk drinker. There are lots of other ways for her to meet her daily dairy goal.

Most adults do not get enough dairy products. For your heart health, always try to pick from the many low-fat or fat-free choices in the dairy products food group. Choosing fat-free or low-fat milk and yogurt, rather than cheese, gives you important vitamins and minerals and less sodium and fat.

One cup of milk is the same as:

  • Cup or 8 ounces yogurt
  • 1-1/2 ounces hard cheese, such as cheddar, mozzarella, Swiss, or Parmesan
  • Third cup shredded cheese
  • Cup calcium-fortified soy beverage
  • Two cups cottage cheese
  • Cup pudding made with milk


Oils are high in calories, but they are also an important source of nutrients like vitamin E. If possible, use oils instead of solid fats, like butter, when cooking. Measuring your daily oils can be tricky—knowing what you add while cooking or baking is one thing. But oil is naturally part of some foods.

How much oil is in:

  • Half a medium avocado has three teaspoons of oil
  • Four large ripe olives have half teaspoon of oil
  • Tablespoon of peanut butter has two teaspoons of oil
  • Ounce of dry-roasted nuts has three teaspoons of oil
  • Ounce of sunflower seeds has three teaspoons of oil
  • Tablespoon of mayonnaise (not mayonnaise-type salad dressing) has 2-1/2 teaspoons of oil

Here’s​ a tip

The suggested amounts of oils are usually given in grams—how would you measure that? A teaspoon of oil has about 4.5 grams of fat.

Solid Fats and Added Sugars (SoFAS)

Can Nick follow his calorie plan and still have a glazed donut on Sunday morning?

Maybe Nick can still enjoy a Sunday treat. For most people, the USDA Food Patterns allow extra calories every day for solid fats and added sugars in the processed foods they eat. If Nick can meet his goals in each food group, choosing foods that are low in fat and without added sugar whenever possible, he might just have some calories left over each day. These extra calories can be used as he likes. On Sunday mornings, Nick could have a glazed donut—as long as he counts it as a grain and doesn’t go over his suggested limits for SoFAS.

Here’s a tip

Eating meats that are not lean, milk products that are not low-fat or fat-free, or foods with added fats and/or sugars count toward your daily SoFAS limit. That’s why you should always try to make low-fat or fat-free choices in all food groups.

People 70 and Older—Dietary Guidelines for Older Adults

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010 present a general outline for a healthy diet. But, as you age, some foods may be better than others for staying healthy and reducing your chance of illness. In 2007, the USDA’s Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University created a Modified MyPyramid for Older Adults for people 70 and older. It suggests that people 70 and older focus on foods that are nutrient dense, that is, foods that have a lot of nutrients but not a lot of calories. By choosing nutrient-dense foods, older people can get the health benefits of following the USDA Food Patterns without eating more calories than they need.

The food groups are shown in bands that differ in size and color. People 70 and older should eat more of foods shown in the wider bands and less of foods in the narrow bands. Within each band, nutrient-dense foods are featured. The glasses under the food bands remind you to get plenty of water. At the base, there are examples of physical activities. If you are 70 or older, use this to start working toward a healthier lifestyle.

Food Pyramid Copyright 2007 Tufts University. For full article, see Lichtenstein AH, Rasmussen H, Yu WW, Epstein SR, Russell RM.
Modified MyPyramid for Older Adults. J Nutr. 2008; 138:78-82.

The DASH Eating Plan

The Spencers’ neighbor, Carlos, just learned that his blood pressure is a little high. This news makes him especially curious about the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) Plan. His parents already have high blood pressure (hypertension), so this approach to eating might be a good way for him to reduce his chance of getting high blood pressure. And he wants to be able to tell his parents more about DASH.

The DASH Plan presents a slightly different way to look at how you eat. A number of major research studies have shown that following the DASH Plan can lower blood pressure. It emphasizes whole grains, fruits, vegetables, fat-free or low-fat dairy, seafood, poultry, beans, seeds, and nuts. It contains less salt and sodium, sweets, added sugars, fats, and red meats than the typical American eats.

DASH recommendations are spread over eight food groups. If you need to, refer back to “How many calories do you need?” Then see the appropriate column below for the amounts you should eat each day, unless given as weekly amounts:

DASH Plan Recommendations for Several Daily Calorie Count Examples
  1,600 calories 2,000 calories 2,600 calories
Grains 6 servings 6-8 servings 10-11 servings
Fruits 4 servings 4-5 servings 5-6 servings
Vegetables 3-4 servings 4-5 servings 5-6 servings
Fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products 2-3 servings 2-3 servings 3 servings
Lean meat, poultry, and fish 3-4 ounces or less 6 ounces or less 6 ounces or less
Nuts, seeds, and legumes 3-4 servings per week 4-5 servings per week 1 serving per day
Fats and oils 2 servings 2-3 servings 3 servings
Sweets and added sugars 3 servings or less per week 5 servings or less per week less than 2 servings per day

DASH is organized by servings for most food groups. A DASH serving equals:

  • Grains—one ounce or equivalent
  • Fruits—half cup cut-up fruit or equivalent
  • Vegetables—half cup cooked vegetables or equivalent
  • Meats, poultry, and fish—one ounce cooked meats, poultry, or fish or one egg
  • Nuts, seeds, and legumes—foods like two tablespoons peanut butter, third cup or 1-1/2 ounces of nuts, half cup cooked beans, or one cup bean soup
  • Fats and oils—one teaspoon soft margarine or vegetable oil, one tablespoon mayonnaise, and one tablespoon regular salad dressing or two tablespoons low-fat dressing
  • Sugars—one tablespoon jam or jelly, half cup regular jello, or one cup regular lemonade

Added Sugars

With both eating plans, added sugars mean more calories without more nutrients. For some people, added sugars can lead to higher levels of fats in the blood, raising their risk of heart disease. Read the ingredients label to see if the processed food you are eating has added sugar. Key words on the label to look for: brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, invert sugar, lactose, maltose, malt syrup, molasses, raw sugar, sucrose, sugar, and maple syrup.

Fecha de publicación: Septiembre 2011
Última actualización: Enero 22, 2015

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