The amount and type of food you eat has a major influence on your health. If you eat a well-balanced diet, it can reduce your risk of various diseases as well as help you to maintain a healthy weight.
There are certain times when it can be particularly important to make sure that you follow a healthy diet, for instance, if you want to lose excess weight or if you’re watching what you eat because you’re pregnant. However, it’s important to eat a healthy diet throughout your life, no matter what age you are – there’s never a bad time to make some changes and improve your eating habits.
The food you eat contains several different types of nutrients, which are all required for the many vital processes in your body. Key nutrients in your diet include the following.
Another important element of your diet is fibre. Fibre isn’t classed as a nutrient, but it’s essential to keep your digestive system healthy and certain types of fibre can help to control your blood cholesterol levels.
You need to eat a range of foods to get all of the nutrients and fibre your body needs. The five main food groups are:
Eat the right balance of foods from these groups to make sure your body gets all it needs to stay healthy.
The image below shows proportionately how much food to eat from each of the different groups to enjoy a balanced and healthy diet. This includes everything you eat during the day, including snacks and drinks. You don't have to give up the less healthy foods you like, just adjust the amount of them you eat in proportion to the amount of healthy foods in your diet.
Starchy foods contain energy in the form of carbohydrates, and release this energy slowly throughout the day. Eat starchy foods as your main source of energy. They will make you feel full so you will be less likely to feel hungry and snack during the day.
Starchy foods include bread, pasta, cereals, rice and potatoes. Choose wholegrain or wholemeal varieties where possible, and brown rice, as they are particularly high in fibre.
Fruit and vegetables are good sources of many nutrients, in particular vitamins, minerals and fibre. Aim to eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables each day. Your five portions don't all have to be fresh – dried, frozen, tinned, and juiced fruit and vegetables count too.
Milk and dairy products, such as cheese and yoghurt, are important sources of protein, calcium and vitamins. Aim to choose lower-fat options, such as semi-skimmed or skimmed milk.
Meat, fish and alternatives, such as beans, pulses, eggs and nuts are all important non-dairy sources of protein.
Try to eat two portions of fish a week (one portion is about 140g). You might like to make one of these portions an oily fish, such as mackerel, salmon or pilchards. Oily fish is particularly rich in long chain omega 3 fatty acids, which may help prevent heart disease, although more research is needed to prove this effect.
Some types of meat are high in fat, so always cut off any extra fat and skin. Grill, bake or poach meat and fish rather than fry it. Try to limit the amount of processed meat you eat (such as sausages and beef burgers) as these foods often contain a lot of fat and may increase your risk of bowel cancer.
Fat is an important part of your diet but you don’t need very much. Try to eat less fat overall but remember that the type of fat you eat is also important. Try to replace foods that are high in saturated (bad) fats, such as butter, pastries and cheese with foods that are rich in unsaturated (good) fats, such as avocado and olive oil.
Sugary foods, such as sweets and biscuits provide you with energy but not many nutrients. They can also cause tooth decay and gum disease, so try to limit the amount you eat.
Aim to eat three balanced meals a day with healthy snacks in between if you need them. Breakfast is important so don’t skip it, especially if you’re trying to lose weight.
Generally, if you want to improve your diet, there are certain foods to aim to eat more of and others that it’s best to eat less of. Some examples are listed below.
It’s important to make gradual changes to your eating habits. Don't be tempted to make drastic changes overnight or fall into the trap of making common dieting mistakes. Small, day-to-day changes will have a much bigger and more long-lasting effect.
If you're having trouble making changes to your diet or you’re worried that you’re not getting all of the nutrients you need, talk to your GP. He or she may be able to give you some practical advice or refer you to a dietitian who can help you further.
Produced by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Bupa Health Information Team, August 2012.
For sources and links to further information, see Resources.
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This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the About our Health Information page.
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