A balanced diet

content supplied by NHS Choices

Despite what you see in some diet books and TV programmes, healthy eating can be really straightforward.

A diet based on starchy foods such as rice and pasta, with plenty of fruit and vegetables, some protein-rich foods such as meat, fish and lentils, and some milk and dairy foods (and not too much fat, salt or sugar) will give you all the nutrients that you need.

When it comes to a healthy diet, balance is the key to getting it right. This means eating a wide variety of foods in the right proportions.

But achieving that balance in modern life can be tricky. After a long day, it can be tempting to grab the first ready meal on the supermarket shelf, which is OK occasionally. But the nutritional labels on these foods show that many ready meals contain high levels of fat, added sugar and salt. If you eat ready meals too often, they'll upset the balance in your diet.

Food groups

The eatwell plate

All the food we eat can be divided into five groups. In a healthy diet you eat the right balance of these groups.

They are:

Most people in the UK eat too much fat, sugar and salt, and not enough fruit, vegetables and fibre.

1. Fruit and vegetables

Fruit and vegetables are a vital source of vitamins and minerals. It's advised that we eat five portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables a day.

There's evidence that people who eat at least five portions a day are at lower risk of heart disease, stroke and some cancers.

What's more, eating five portions is not as hard as it might sound. Just one apple, banana, pear or similar-sized fruit is one portion. A slice of pineapple or melon is one portion. Three heaped tablespoons of vegetables is another portion.

Having a sliced banana with your morning cereal is a quick way to get one portion. Swap your mid-morning biscuit for a tangerine, and add a side salad to your lunch. Add a portion of vegetables to dinner, and snack on dried fruit in the evening to reach your five a day. 

See 5 A DAY for more tips to help you get your five portions of fruit and veg.

2. Starchy foods

Starchy foods such as bread, cereals, potatoes, pasta, maize and cornbread are an important part of a healthy diet. They are a good source of energy and the main source of a range of nutrients in our diet. Starchy foods are fuel for your body.

Starchy foods should make up around one third of everything we eat. This means we should base our meals on these foods.

Try and choose wholegrain or wholemeal varieties, such as brown rice, wholewheat pasta and brown wholemeal bread. They contain more fibre (often referred to as 'roughage'), and usually more vitamins and minerals than white varieties.

Fibre is also found in beans, lentils and peas.

3. Meat, fish, eggs and beans

These foods are all good sources of protein, which is essential for growth and repair of the body. They are also good sources of a range of vitamins and minerals.

Around 15% of the calories that we eat each day should come from protein.

Meat is a good source of protein, vitamins and minerals such as iron, zinc and B vitamins. It is also one of the main sources of vitamin B12. Try to eat lean cuts of meat and skinless poultry whenever possible to cut down on fat. Always cook meat thoroughly.

Fish is another important source of protein, and contains many vitamins and minerals. Oily fish is particularly rich in omega-3 fatty acids.

Aim for at least two portions of fish a week, including one portion of oily fish. You can choose from fresh, frozen or canned, but canned and smoked fish can be high in salt.

Eggs and pulses (including beans, nuts and seeds) are also great sources of protein. Nuts are high in fibre and a good alternative to snacks high in saturated fat, but they do still contain high levels of fat, so eat them in moderation.

4. Milk and dairy foods

Milk and dairy foods such as cheese and yoghurt are good sources of protein. They also contain calcium, which helps to keep your bones healthy.

But some dairy products are high in saturated fat. Eating too much saturated fat can raise blood cholesterol levels and increase the risk of heart disease. To enjoy the health benefits of dairy without eating too much fat, use semi-skimmed milk, skimmed milk or 1% fat milks, lower-fat hard cheeses or cottage cheese, and lower-fat yoghurt.

5. Fat and sugar

Most people in the UK eat too much fat and too much sugar.

Fats and sugar are both good sources of energy for the body. But when we eat too much of them we consume more energy than we burn, and this can mean that we put on weight. This can lead to obesity, which increases our risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers.

But did you know that there are different types of fat?

Saturated fat is found in foods such as pies, meat products, sausages, cheese, butter, cakes and biscuits. It can raise your blood cholesterol level and increase your risk of heart disease. Most people in the UK eat too much saturated fat, which puts us at risk of health problems.

Unsaturated fats, on the other hand, can help to lower cholesterol and provide us with the essential fatty acids needed to help us stay healthy. Oily fish, nuts and seeds, avocados, olive oils and vegetable oils are sources of unsaturated fat.

For more information on fat and how to reduce it in our diets, see Fat: the facts.

Sugar occurs naturally in foods such as fruit and milk, but we don't need to cut down on these types of sugar. Sugar is also added to lots of foods and drinks such as fizzy drinks, cakes, biscuits, chocolate, pastries, ice cream and jam. It's also contained in some ready-made savoury foods such as pasta sauces and baked beans.

Most of us need to cut down on the foods with added sugar. Instead of a fizzy drink, for example, have a 100% fruit juice diluted with water. Make a pasta sauce yourself instead of buying a ready-made one. Have dried fruit for a snack instead of a chocolate bar.

Find out more about healthy eating in our Food and diet section.

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