Tips for Improving Your Health

Do I need to change what I eat?

If you answer yes to any of the following questions, you may need to talk about improving your 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?
  • 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 registered dietitian, a member of the health care team who specializes in nutrition counseling?

Won’t it be hard to change my eating habits?

Probably, but even very small changes can improve your health considerably. The key is to keep choosing healthy foods and stay in touch with your doctor and dietitian, so they know how you are doing. Here are a few suggestions that can improve your eating habits:

  • Find the strong points and weak points in your current diet. Do you eat 4-5 cups of fruits and vegetables every day? Do you get enough calcium? Do you eat whole-grain, high-fiber foods regularly? If so, you’re on the right track! Keep it up. If not, add more of these foods to your daily diet.
  • Keep track of your food intake by writing down what you eat and drink every day. This record will help you see if you need to eat more from any food groups (such as fruits, vegetables or dairy products) or if you need to eat less of a food group (such as processed or high-fat foods).
  • Think about asking for help from a dietitian, 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 and diets from different sources often 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. Short-term diets may help you lose weight, but they are hard to keep up and may even be unhealthy in the long run.
  • Good nutrition doesn’t come in a vitamin pill. Only take a vitamin with your doctor’s recommendation, as your body benefits the most from eating healthy, whole foods.
  • Eating a variety of foods is best for your body, so try new foods!
  • Stories from people who have used a diet program or product, especially in commercials and infomercials, are advertisements. These people are usually paid to endorse what the advertisement is selling. Remember, regained weight or other problems that develop 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 unhealthy fat. If you currently eat a lot of fat, try just one or two of the following changes, or those suggested in our handout on healthier food choices:

  • Rather than frying meat, bake, grill or broil it. Take the skin off before eating chicken or turkey. 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. Use low-fat or nonfat versions of these condiments.
  • Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables both with your meals and as snacks.
  • When eating away from home, watch out for “hidden” fats (such as those in salad dressing and desserts) 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 dietitian.
  • Drink no- or low-calorie beverages, such as water or unsweetened tea. Sugar-sweetened drinks, such as fruit juice, fruit drinks, regular soft drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks, sweetened or flavored milk and sweetened iced tea can add lots of sugar and calories to your diet. But staying hydrated is important for good health.

Balanced nutrition and regular exercise are good for your health, even if your weight never changes. Try to set goals that you have a good chance of reaching, such as making one of the small diet changes listed above or walking more in your daily life.

Eight tips for healthy eating

Get started

These practical tips cover the basics of healthy eating, and can help you make healthier choices:

Base your meals on starchy foods

Starchy foods should make up around one third of the foods you eat. Starchy foods include potatoes, cereals, pasta, rice and bread. Choose wholegrain varieties (or eat potatoes with their skins on) when you can: they contain more fibre, and can help you feel full.

Most of us should eat more starchy foods: try to include at least one starchy food with each main meal. Some people think starchy foods are fattening, but gram for gram the carbohydrate they contain provides fewer than half the calories of fat.

Eat lots of fruit and veg

It’s recommended that we eat at least five portions of different types of fruit and veg a day. It’s easier than it sounds. A glass of unsweetened 100% fruit juice (150ml) can count as one portion, and vegetables cooked into dishes also count. Why not chop a banana over your breakfast cereal, or swap your usual mid-morning snack for a piece of fresh fruit?

Eat more fish

Fish is a good source of protein and contains many vitamins and minerals. Aim to eat at least two portions of fish a week, including at least one portion of oily fish. Oily fish contains omega-3 fats, which may help to prevent heart disease. You can choose from fresh, frozen and canned: but remember that canned and smoked fish can be high in salt.

Oily fish include salmon, mackerel, trout, herring, fresh tuna, sardines and pilchards. Non-oily fish include haddock, plaice, coley, cod, tinned tuna, skate and hake. If you regularly eat a lot of fish, try to choose as wide a variety as possible.

Cut down on saturated fat and sugar

We all need some fat in our diet. But it’s important to pay attention to the amount and type of fat we’re eating. There are two main types of fat: saturated and unsaturated. Too much saturated fat can increase the amount of cholesterol in the blood, which increases your risk of developing heart disease.

Saturated fat is found in many foods, such as hard cheese, cakes, biscuits, sausages, cream, butter, lard and pies. Try to cut down on your saturated fat intake, and choose foods that contain unsaturated fats instead, such as vegetable oils, oily fish and avocados.

For a healthier choice, use just a small amount of vegetable oil or reduced-fat spread instead of butter, lard or ghee. When you’re having meat, choose lean cuts and cut off any visible fat.

Most people in the UK eat and drink too much sugar. Sugary foods and drinks, including alcoholic drinks, are often high in energy (measured in kilojoules or calories), and if eaten too often, can contribute to weight gain. They can also cause tooth decay, especially if eaten between meals.

Cut down on sugary fizzy drinks, alcoholic drinks, sugary breakfast cereals, cakes, biscuits and pastries, which contain added sugars: this is the kind of sugar we should be cutting down on, rather than sugars that are found in things such as fruit and milk.

Food labels can help: use them to check how much sugar foods contain. More than 22.5g of total sugars per 100g means that the food is high in sugar, while 5g of total sugars or less per 100g means that the food is low in sugar.

Eat less salt

Even if you don’t add salt to your food, you may still be eating too much. About three-quarters of the salt we eat is already in the food we buy, such as breakfast cereals, soups, breads and sauces. Eating too much salt can raise your blood pressure. People with high blood pressure are more likely to develop heart disease or have a stroke.

Use food labels to help you cut down. More than 1.5g of salt per 100g means the food is high in salt. Adults and children over 11 should eat no more than 6g of salt a day. Younger children should have even less.

Get active and be a healthy weight

Eating a healthy, balanced diet plays an essential role in maintaining a healthy weight, which is an important part of overall good health. Being overweight or obese can lead to health conditions such as type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, heart disease and stroke. Being underweight could also affect your health. Check whether you’re a healthy weight by using our Healthy weight calculator.

Most adults need to lose weight, and need to eat fewer calories to do this. If you’re trying to lose weight, aim to eat less and be more active. Eating a healthy, balanced diet will help: aim to cut down on foods that are high in fat and sugar, and eat plenty of fruit and vegetables.

Don’t forget that alcohol is also high in calories, so cutting down can help you to control your weight.

Physical activity can help you to maintain weight loss or be a healthy weight. Being active doesn’t have to mean hours at the gym: you can find ways to fit more activity into your daily life. For example, try getting off the bus one stop early on the way home from work, and walking. Being physically active may help reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. For more ideas, see Get active your way.

After getting active, remember not to reward yourself with a treat that is high in energy. If you feel hungry after activity, choose foods or drinks that are lower in calories, but still filling.

If you’re underweight, see our page on underweight adults. If you’re worried about your weight, ask your GP or a dietitian for advice.

Don’t get thirsty

We need to drink about 1.6 to 2 litres of fluid every day to stop us getting dehydrated. This is in addition to the fluid we get from the food we eat. All non-alcoholic drinks count, but water and lower-fat milk are healthier choices.

Try to avoid sugary soft and fizzy drinks that are high in added sugars and calories, and are also bad for teeth. Even unsweetened fruit juice is sugary, so try to limit how much you drink to no more than one glass (about 150ml) of fruit juice each day.

When the weather is warm, or when we get active, we may need more fluids.

Don’t skip breakfast

Some people skip breakfast because they think it will help them lose weight. In fact, research shows that eating breakfast can help people control their weight. A healthy breakfast is an important part of a balanced diet, and provides some of the vitamins and minerals we need for good health. A wholegrain, lower-sugar cereal with fruit sliced over the top is a tasty and nutritious breakfast.

World’s Tiniest ‘Preemies’ Growing Up Healthy

At the same hospital in 2004, Rumaisa Rahman took over the title of world’s tiniest infant, weighing in at 0.57 pounds. She was one of twins, and she spent 50 days on a ventilator in the neonatal intensive care unit at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Ill.

At her five-year checkup, Rumaisa weighed 34 pounds and had grown to 3 feet, 3 inches. She was attending first-grade on an individual learning plan. She wears glasses because of retinopathy of prematurity, an eye problem common in preemies.

Madeline, whose mother had been treated for infertility, was the only survivor among triplets. Her mother, like Rumaisa’s, had severe preeclampsia, a life-threatening condition in pregnant women that can only be cured by delivering the baby or babies. Madeline was on a ventilator for 65 days. She had a heart condition and also had retinopathy.

Madeline also wears corrective lenses, but she drives and is in good health. At 65 pounds and 4 feet, 6 inches, she’s still small. Now a college senior, she’s an honors student majoring in psychology.

Both girls are living proof that even the smallest preemies can survive and lead normal lives, although not all do so well. Updates on their progress appear online Dec. 12 and in the January 2012 issue of Pediatrics.

Dr. Jonathan Muraskas, a professor of neonatal-perinatal medicine and a member of the medical team for both girls, said, “You always worry about [future health] when babies undergo so much stress in the uterine environment. Down the road, as they’re reaching their teens, they’re at risk for diabetes, heart disease.”

Survival in these tiny infants is much more dependent on how many weeks the pregnancy lasts, rather than weight at birth, he emphasized.

“The big story is that gestational age is much more important than birth weight,” Muraskas said. At 25 and 26 weeks, Rumaisa and Madeline were relatively “old” compared to some preemies, and each extra week makes a difference.

“At 23 weeks, survival is about 20 percent — of those that survive, 80 to 90 percent have significant, devastating handicaps,” Muraskas said. “At 27 weeks, newborns weigh about two pounds. The rate of significant neurodevelopmental handicap — blindness, profound deafness, cerebral palsy — drops to about 5 to 10 percent.”

Female preemies do much better. “If Madeline and Rumaisa were male, it would probably be a whole other story,” said Muraskas.

Prenatal steroids — given to prevent severe brain damage and developmental problems — were another factor in their favor, and Rumaisa received surfactant to help immature lungs.

“These are remarkable case reports — these are extremely small babies,” said Dr. Eric Eichenwald, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas Health Science Center. “The technical aspect of their care is immense. Imagine putting an intravenous catheter in someone that small. They’re at high risk for injury and infection,” he explained.

“The college student [Madeline] is still extraordinarily small; it’s great that’s she neurodevelopmentally normal,” he said.

With tiny preemies, ethical issues often arise.

“The big decision: do you resuscitate a baby the size of a cellphone?” Muraskas asked. “At 25 weeks — today, and even back in the 1990s — chances are that everyone will be resuscitated in the U.S.,” he said.

“At 22 weeks, they commonly resuscitate in Japan,” Muraskas added. “Twenty-three to 24 weeks is what we call the gray area. A lot of it is respecting the parents’ wishes.”

“Another ethical dilemma is when one [unborn] twin is doing better than the other, when do you interfere for the littler baby, putting the more normally developing baby at risk?” Eichenwald added.

“For every baby like this who survives, nine out of 10 don’t,” he said. “It’s important for the public to know that a baby who weighs less than a pound has an extremely low [chance] of survival.”

“The key thing,” agreed Muraskas, “is you don’t want parents to read this and think: ‘My premature baby was two pounds and didn’t survive; did I, or my doctors, nurses, etc., do something wrong?’ The answer is no.”

With patients like Rumaisa and Madeline, “it is rewarding,” he said. “I feel very fortunate to have played a part.”