Expert Questions and Answers
Browse common nutrition questions answered by Nutrition.gov's Registered Dietitians. Looking for other information on healthy eating? Ask your questions here.
I keep hearing about added sugars. Where can I find more information?
For information about added sugars, including examples of what ingredients to look out for on the food package, read What are added sugars? from Choosemyplate.gov. For tips on reducing your intake of added sugars, check out Cut Down on Added Sugars, based on the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
In addition, on May 20, 2016, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced the new Nutrition Facts label for packaged foods. The final rule requires “Includes X g Added Sugars” to be included under “Total Sugars” to help consumers understand how much sugar has been added to the product. For more information, check out Changes to the Nutrition Facts Label.
I heard that MyPyramid has been replaced. Is that true?
Yes. The MyPlate food guidance system replaced MyPyramid. MyPlate focuses on portion control and using the food groups to create a balanced diet.
What is a "healthy diet"?
A healthy eating pattern is one that provides enough of each essential nutrient from nutrient-dense foods, contains a variety of foods from all of the basic food groups, and focuses on balancing calories consumed with calories expended to help you achieve and sustain a healthy weight. This eating pattern limits intake of solid fats, sugar, salt (sodium) and alcohol. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans consumer pamphlet, Let's Eat For the Health of It, provides guidance for creating a healthy eating pattern to reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancer, and osteoporosis. Additional information on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans is available at https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/.
How can I find the newest Dietary Guidelines for Americans?
The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans serves as the current dietary guidance through 2020. You can find a copy of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans here.
I would like to get advice about my eating habits. Who should I talk to?
Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDN) are health professionals who are trained to provide counseling on nutrition and eating habits. An RDN can provide personalized dietary advice taking into consideration your health status, lifestyle, and food likes and dislikes. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has a Find a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist online search tool that allows you to locate an RDN in your geographical area. Be advised that this list may not include all RDNs in your area.
How many servings from each food group do I need each day?
The number of servings you need each day from each food group depends on your calorie needs. To determine your calorie needs and find the number of servings that is right for you, please visit the MyPlate Plan.
What are RDAs and DRIs?
From 1941 to 1989, the Institute of Medicine's Food and Nutrition Board (FNB) released the Recommended Dietary Allowances or RDAs. The RDAs are a single set of nutrient specific values. During deliberations in the mid-1990's, the FNB decided to replace this single set of values with multiple sets of values, including: Estimated Average Requirements (EAR), Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA), Adequate Intakes (AI), and Tolerable Upper Intake Levels (UL) for designated age groups, physiologic states (for example, pregnancy), and by sex. These values are collectively referred to as the Dietary Reference Intakes, or DRIs.
Visit the Food and Nutrition Information Center to access the full DRI reports here.
How much of a nutrient is too much?
The Food and Nutrition Board (FNB) defines the Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL) as the highest level of daily nutrient intake that is likely to pose no risk of adverse health effects to almost all individuals in the general population. This level is different for each nutrient. To view the UL for Vitamins and Elements (also referred to as minerals or electrolytes), please refer to the Tolerable Upper Intake Levels table from the Food and Nutrition Board (FNB).
I've heard that people should cut back on how much trans fat they eat but I'm confused about what trans fats are and what foods have them.
Check out the following resource from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that discusses trans fats and how to identify which foods contain them:
I know there are different types of fiber in foods and that they have different effects on the body. Can you tell me about them? How much fiber should I eat?
Yes, the fiber in foods is generally broken down into two broad types - soluble (also called "viscous") and insoluble. Both types have important health effects. According to the DRIs, the recommended intake for total fiber for adults up to 50 years of age is 25 grams per day for women and 38 grams for men. For those over 50, the recommended intake is 21 grams for women and 30 grams for men. See the DRI Macronutrient table.
To learn more about the types of fiber, their functions in the body, and food sources, check out Dietary Fiber from MedlinePlus.
How is food digested?
Digestion begins in the mouth, when we chew and swallow, and is completed in the small intestine. Digestion involves the mixing of food, its movement through the digestive tract, and the breakdown of food into smaller molecules. The digestive process varies for different kinds of food. The National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse website, Your Digestive System and How It Works, explains how food is digested and why digestion is important. This resource is also available in Spanish.
How do I know if nutrition information I find on the Internet is reliable?
The National Library of Medicine's MedlinePlus Guide to Healthy Web Surfing offers suggestions for evaluating the quality of health information on websites.
The National Library of Medicine's MedlinePlus Evaluating Internet Health Information Tutorial is a 16 minute presentation that also teaches you how to evaluate health information found on the Web.
Diet and Health Conditions
Is it true that men can get osteoporosis? I thought it just affected women.
Even though it is most often associated with women, men can also develop osteoporosis, a condition in which the bones become fragile and can break easily. In fact, based on data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it is estimated that by 2020, 3.3 million men will have osteoporosis. See Osteoporosis in Men and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases National Resource Center for more information, including steps to help prevent it.
What are the most common foods that people are allergic to?
What is the difference between a food allergy and a food intolerance?
Read about Food Allergy: An Overview (PDF|1.75 MB) from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Besides discussing the difference, it explains that food allergies can cause very serious reactions and why it is so important for people with true food allergies to have these allergies identified by a doctor.
How can I get nutrition advice about a medical condition?
- Talk with your doctor or other health professional about referring you to a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN). An RDN can provide personalized dietary advice taking into consideration your health status (such as other medical conditions), lifestyle, and food likes and dislikes.
- The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has a Find a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist service that allows you to locate an RDN in your geographical area with particular specialties (such as weight control, diabetes, digestive disorders, etc.). Be advised that this list may not include all RDNs in your area.
- Check with your local health department, hospitals, clinics, and Cooperative Extension for classes such as those on weight management, diabetes, etc.
- For background information, you may find it helpful to look on the Web. Information obtained online, however, does not take the place of personalized advice from a qualified health professional, and some websites have inaccurate or misleading information. In looking for reliable information on the Web, you may want check out our Diet and Health Conditions section.
I just found out I have diabetes and need information to help me eat right.
NIH's National Diabetes Education Program is a great resource. You also may want to take a look at the Center For Disease Control's Tasty Recipes for People with Diabetes and Their Families (PDF 1MB). Remember, these resources do not take the place of consultation with your health care providers, including a Registered Dietitian.
Can you direct me to information on dietary supplements (including herbal supplements) and alternative medicine?
Many websites on the Internet related to dietary supplements are maintained by manufacturers and retailers who wish to sell you supplements. Such information may be biased or misleading. While we can direct you to some reliable information on the Internet, keep in mind that it is for information purposes only and does not take the place of personalized advice from a qualified health professional who is familiar with your health situation. We advise that you discuss dietary supplements and alternative medicines with your health care provider.
General dietary supplement information:
- Fact Sheets on Vitamins and Minerals
- Fact Sheets on Botanicals
- Overview of Dietary Supplements provides an overview of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and its role in dietary supplement labeling.
- Tips for Dietary Supplement Users: Making Informed Decisions and Evaluating Information
- How to Report Adverse Reactions & Medical Product Problems to the FDA links to the Adverse Reactions Monitoring System which FDA maintains to keep track of adverse reactions from dietary supplements.
- MEDLINEplus for Herbal Medicine links to a variety of up-to-date news and background information about herbal supplements.
Alternative Medicine Information:
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH)
Provides information on complementary and alternative medicine to practitioners and the public.
- NCCIH Clearinghouse
An information service to enhance understanding about complementary and alternative medicine research.
Toll-free phone number: 1-888-644-6226 or E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Should I check with my physician or health care provider before taking a dietary supplement?
If you are pregnant, nursing a baby, or have a chronic medical condition, such as, diabetes, hypertension or heart disease, you should always check with your physician, health care provider or pharmacist before purchasing or taking any supplement. Keep in mind that the ingredients in dietary supplements are not tested or approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). For more information on this or the FDA's role in Dietary Supplement Regulation please visit the Question and Answer section of the FDA's website.
Is it true that I can get all the vitamins/minerals I need from the food that I eat?
There is insufficient evidence to either recommend for or against the use of multivitamin/mineral supplements for the prevention of chronic diseases for healthy Americans. It is recommended that you try to get all the vitamins/minerals you need by eating nutrient-dense forms of foods, while balancing calorie intake with energy expenditure. Nutrient-dense foods contain essential vitamins and minerals, and also fiber and other naturally occurring substances that may have positive health effects. For more information, see the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Can a supplement help me lose weight?
According to the National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements, you should always check with your health care provider before taking a supplement. For some people, a supplement can have harmful side effects and could interact with prescription and over-the-counter medications. Also, the FDA regulates weight-loss supplements differently from prescription or over-the-counter drugs. As with other dietary supplements, the FDA does not test or approve weight-loss supplements before they are sold. Manufacturers are responsible for making sure their supplements are safe, and that the label claims are truthful and not misleading. For more information, see the Weight Loss Fact Sheet for Consumers, from the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements.
How can I burn off my stored body fat?
We all need some body fat, but if stored fat is excessive it may increase risk of diet-related diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers. This is particularly true if excess fat is in the abdominal area. Check out Ways to Be Active, a publication from the President's Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition, to learn more.
According to the CDC, a body mass index, or BMI, of 25 or higher is an indication that your weight may be unhealthy. Also, a waist circumference of over 40 inches in men and over 35 inches in women indicates excessive abdominal fat if BMI is 25 or higher. Calculate your BMI and find information on measuring your waist size from CDC.
The best strategy for losing excess weight and stored body fat involves calorie reduction, increased physical activity, and a behavior change plan. See Interested in Losing Weight? from Nutrition.gov to learn more.
How many calories do I need to burn to lose a pound of weight?
You need to burn off 3,500 calories more than you take in to lose 1 pound. This translates into a reduction of 500 calories per day to lose 1 pound in a week, or 1000 calories per day to lose 2 pounds in a week. (1-2 pounds per week is generally considered to be a safe rate of weight loss.) This can be achieved by eating fewer calories or using up more through physical activity. A combination of both is best. See CDC's Finding a Balance website to learn more.
I'm on a diet to lose weight. Do I still need to exercise?
Physical activity is a key component of helping you move toward a healthier weight, as it can help you achieve the appropriate calorie balance. People who exercise regularly may be more likely to keep the weight from coming back after losing weight. Check out the following resources on physical activity:
I would like to gain weight. How can I do this in a healthy manner?
Losing, gaining or staying at the same weight all depend on how many calories you eat and how many calories your body uses over time. If you eat more calories than you use, you will gain weight; conversely, if you eat fewer calories than you use, you will lose weight. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’Healthy Weight Gain website provides some information and advice on how to gain weight and remain healthy.
Because many Americans are overweight, there are many resources geared toward losing weight. Some of these resources explain the principles of weight balance and can provide guidance for you to gain weight in a healthy manner; you will just need to focus on portion sizes for weight gain, rather than weight loss. One such resource is Aim for a Healthy Weight from the National Institute of Health’s National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. There are many other weight control resources on the Healthy Weight section of Nutrition.gov.
If you would like personalized advice, or you want to know how many calories or what types of foods are best for you, Registered Dietitians (RD) are health professionals who can physically assess you and your needs. In the United States, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has a referral service to registered dietitians. You can find a dietitian in your area by using the Find a Registered Dietitian referral service on their website.
I am a 42 year old female weighing 200 pounds and I am 5’5”. Can you provide a diet that will help me lose weight?
We are unable to provide nutrition counseling or create a personalized weight loss plan, however we can point you towards some interactive tools and information that may be helpful. Nutrition.gov’s Strategies for Success website contains a variety of credible weight management resources. In addition, the Body Weight Planner, from the National Institutes of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), allows users to make personalized calorie and physical activity plans to reach a goal weight within a specific time period and to maintain it afterwards.
If you would like a more specific meal plan and want to speak with a nutrition professional, ask your doctor to refer you to a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN). The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics also has a Find a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist tool that allows you to locate an RDN in your area.
How can I get enough nutrients without consuming too many calories?
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans encourages you to choose a variety of nutrient-dense foods and beverages to help achieve recommended nutrient intakes. Foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, and lean protein foods can help you get the nutrients you need without excess calories. Avoid excess calories by limiting consumption of foods high in added sugars and solid fats, and alcoholic beverages; these provide calories but are poor sources of essential nutrients. See USDA's ChooseMyPlate.gov to learn more about choosing nutrient-dense foods. And, because calorie intake must be balanced with physical activity to control weight, stay active. See the NIH Weight-Control Information Network's Tips to Help You Get Active.
When I eat more than I need what happens to the extra calories?
Consuming extra calories results in an accumulation of stored body fat and weight gain. This is true whether the excess calories come from protein, fat, carbohydrate, or alcohol. See CDC's Finding a Balance website to learn more about the calorie balance equation.
Shopping, Cooking and Food Safety
Does USDA have recipes for people on a budget?
Yes, you can search the USDA MyPlate Kitchen for economical and tasty recipes.
How can I avoid foodborne illness and food poisoning?
The four most important points to remember are: 1. Wash your hands frequently 2. Cook to proper temperatures 3. Refrigerate foods promptly 4. Avoid cross contamination. For more food safety information:
FoodSafety.gov, Gateway to Government Food Safety Information
How long should I keep leftover food?
According to Foodsafety.gov, when refrigerated, most cooked leftovers can be kept for 3 to 4 days, and should be reheated to 165 degrees before consuming. Check out Storage Times for the Refrigerator and Freezer for more information on safe food storage. For other food safety resources, visit Nutrition.gov's Food Storage and Preservation page. You can also submit your food safety related questions to Ask Karen, part of the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service.
Where can I get information on food labeling?
USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) regulates the labeling of meat and poultry. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for all other foods. Information on labeling is available from FDA's Food Labeling & Nutrition website. Or check out the FDA's Nutrition Education Resources and Materials website.
Where can I find healthy recipes for different ethnicities?
Nutrition.gov collects recipes for a variety of ethnicities including Native American, Latino, and African American on the Ethnic Cooking page.
I've just moved to a new area and would like to find out if there is a farmers market nearby.
USDA's National Farmers Market Directory can help.
Years ago I received information from USDA on canning fruits and vegetables and would like to know how to get updated information.
The extensive USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning is online. It contains detailed information on canning fruits, vegetables, poultry, red meats, and seafood.
What's In Food
Where can I get information on the level of calories, fat, protein, vitamins and minerals in various foods?
The USDA's Food Data Central has 5 online searchable databases of nutrient composition, which can be used to search for nutrients in common foods. FNIC's Nutrient Lists from Standard Reference Legacy (2018) provide lists of which foods have the most and least content of specific nutrients.
For additional resources, see our What's in Food section.
What is the difference between calories and kilocalories?
The "calorie" we refer to in food is actually kilocalorie. One (1) kilocalorie is the same as one (1) Calorie (upper case C). A kilocalorie is the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water one degree Celsius. Please visit USDA's Food Composition Laboratory for additional information.
I cannot find the food I am looking for in the USDA's FoodData Central. Are there any other places I can look to find the nutrient content of foods?
If you cannot find a food item, or are searching for a food that is not common in the U.S., there are several International Food Composition Resources available where you may be able to find nutrient information on the food you are looking for.
Where can I find a chart or list of foods with calcium?
Find the calcium content in common foods by using the USDA's FoodData Central. You can create a list, sorted either alphabetically by food description or in descending order by calcium content in common household measures. You can also find a list of common foods that have the most and least amounts of calcium in the Nutrient Lists from Standard Reference Legacy (2018) on the FNIC website.
Is the USDA added sugars report still available?
The USDA Food Composition Laboratory has removed the added sugars report from their website. This is due to constant changes in formulations for commercial foods, the primary contributor of added sugars to the diet. No research method can measure added sugars alone, so their amounts must be estimated or supplied by food companies, many of which are not willing to make public such proprietary information. The Agricultural Research Service provides additional information about this decision.
Is there a law that requires food labels to list ingredients that commonly cause food allergies?
The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004, which went into effect January, 2006, requires that food labels identify in plain English if the product contains any of the eight major food allergens - milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat and soybeans.