Eating a healthy balanced diet is all about eating varied foods in the right quantities. This doesn’t mean carefully measuring everything you eat or panicking if not all your meals are balanced, but is about eating generally well and basing your meals around the following recommendations.
About a third of your diet should come from fruit and vegetables, which are high in vitamins and minerals. They are also high in dietary fibre, which is important in maintaining a healthy digestive system. The recommended amount of fruit and veg is five portions a day.
Most canned, frozen or fresh fruit and vegetables count as one of your five-a-day.
Roughly 80g of fruit counts as one of your five-a-day. This is equivalent to two smaller fruits such as plums or satsumas, one medium-sized fruit such as an apple or orange, and a slice of a larger fruit such as a melon or pineapple. It is also equivalent to half a grapefruit.
A portion of veg should also be roughly 80g in weight. This is equivalent to a dessert bowl of salad, two spears of broccoli or cauliflower, and three heaped teaspoons of pulses, beans and peas. Note that beans and pulses count as a maximum of one of your five-a-day portions, however many you eat.
Potatoes, yams and plantain do not count as part of your five-a-day, as they come under the starchy section of your diet. This does not mean that they are not a valuable source of nutrients.
One 150ml glass of unsweetened fruit or vegetable juice counts as one of your five-a-day, but drinking two 150ml glasses does not equal two portions of your five-a-day. Always check the label of juices or smoothies you buy, as some of these contain a large amount of added sugar.
Ideally, your five portions should come from a variety of different sources, so eating five portions of your favourite fruit or veg is not a good idea. If you are struggling to reach your five-a-day, try adding one or two extra portions of vegetables to your main meals and snack on fruit. You can also add fruit to cereal or yoghurt to get an extra dose of fruit at breakfast.
Another third of your balanced diet should come from starchy foods. This food group includes potatoes, rice, pasta, bread and cereals. Try to choose wholegrain or wholewheat varieties of these foods where possible, as they contain more fibre and will keep you fuller for longer; and keep the skins on potatoes so you don’t miss out on their natural goodness.
Starchy foods are good for you because they give you energy and also contain vitamins and minerals. They also help maintain a healthy gut.
This category of food also contains grains such as cous cous, bulgar wheat, barley and quinoa.
As fruit and vegetables and starchy foods are the groups you should be getting the most of, try to base your meals around these groups. This may involve adjusting the way you plan your meals.
Eating protein is important for healthy bones, muscles, hair and nails, and although protein can come from meat and fish, other sources of protein are suitable for vegetarians and vegans.
Meat is a good source of protein and also contains iron and vitamin B12. However, if you eat more than 70g of red meat per day, you should consider cutting down as eating too much red meat can increase your risk of bowel cancer. Red meat is also often high in saturated fat, which is related to a number of health problems such as increased cholesterol.
Buying leaner cuts of meat is a good way to get protein while also cutting down on the amount of fat you are eating, and removing the skin from chicken or turkey can also help reduce the fat content of meat.
Fish is another good source of protein, and you should aim to eat two portions of fish per week, one of which should be oily fish. Oily fish contains Omega-3, which is important for preventing heart disease. Oily fish includes:
While non-oily fish includes:
If you think you are eating too much meat, try swapping at least one of your normal meat portions for fish, and then gradually increase the amount of fish you eat over time.
Other meat-free sources of protein are:
Milk and dairy products such as cheese and yoghurt are important for maintaining healthy bones and are good sources of both protein and calcium.
However, dairy products can be high in fat, sugar and salt (not necessarily at the same time), so make sure you check the labels of foods before you eat them. Try not to be swayed by products claiming to be ‘low-fat’ without properly reading the label, as some of these contain large amounts of added sugar or salt.
To reduce your fat intake while eating dairy products, switch full-fat milk for skimmed or semi-skimmed, and choose lower-fat cheeses, or stronger flavoured cheese (so that you eat less).
Butter and cream are also dairy products, and these should only be eaten occasionally. Again, always read the label of ‘low-fat’ alternatives to ensure that they are not high in salt and sugar.
A balanced diet contains some fat, but you should limit your intake of saturated fat as too much saturated fat can lead to many health issues such as obesity, Type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol. Switching saturated for unsaturated fats might mean switching butter for vegetable oil, or fatty meats for leaner meat and fish.
You should also aim to cut back on other foods high in fat such as biscuits, cakes and crisps. Only eat these foods occasionally. You will probably find that once you cut back on these types of food and replace them with healthy alternatives, you no longer crave them.
Too much sugar is not only bad for your teeth, but can also contribute to weight gain and feeling tired or sluggish after the initial ‘sugar high’. Check what you are drinking as alcohol can be high in sugar, and many other juices and soft drinks contain a lot of sugar. You should also try to cut back on sugary snacks, and if you take a lot of sugar in your tea and coffee, consider reducing this.
Many of us consume too much salt without realising it. Try to limit the amount of salt you add to your food and also carefully limit your intake of salty foods such as salted nuts, sausages and bacon, and check the labels of bought foods that are often high in salt such as pizza, soup and sauces. Where possible, make your own food from scratch so that you can control your salt intake.