Why is healthy eating important?
There's good evidence that eating a healthy diet can reduce your risk of:
- heart disease
- some types of cancer
Eat the right proportion of foods from the major groups in the image below to give your body all it needs to stay healthy.
So how much should each type of food make up in your daily diet? National guidelines recommend the following.
|Food group||Amount per day|
|Starchy foods||38 percent|
|Fruit and vegetables||40 percent
|Dairy and alternatives
|Non-dairy protein||12 percent|
|Oils and spreads
Starchy foods contain carbohydrates, which release energy slowly throughout the day. These are a major source of energy so it's a good idea to include them with every meal. They will fill you up so you're less likely to feel hungry and snack during the day.
Here are some examples of starchy foods and a suggested serving:
- two wheat biscuits or 50g of muesli (with no added sugar)
- two slices of medium sliced bread
- one medium (about 180g) baked potato or five boiled new potatoes
- five tablespoons of cooked rice, couscous, bulgur wheat or quinoa
- 75g dry spaghetti
- half a 10 inch thin-crust pizza
Tip: Choose wholegrain or wholemeal varieties where possible, and brown rice, as these are particularly high in fibre.
Fruit and vegetables
Eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables each day. One portion of fruit or vegetables is 80g. This is equivalent to:
- one apple, banana, pear or orange
- half an avocado or grapefruit
- two kiwi fruits (or a similar sized fruit)
- one slice of a large fruit like melon or pineapple
- three heaped tablespoons of fruit salad or stewed fruit
- one heaped tablespoon (30g) of dried fruit (such as raisins and apricots)
- a glass (150ml) of fruit juice or smoothie
- a cup of grapes, cherries or berries
- three heaped tablespoons of vegetables
- a dessert bowl of salad
Tip: Your five portions don't all have to be fresh – dried, frozen, tinned, and juiced fruit and vegetables count too. Remember though that a glass of fruit juice or smoothie only counts as one portion – no matter how many glasses you drink. This is because the processing removes some of the fibre from the fruit. They also contain a lot of sugar.
Dairy and alternatives
Milk and dairy products, such as cheese and yoghurt, are important sources of protein, calcium and vitamins. Eat moderate amounts of these – two to three portions of dairy foods a day will provide you with all the calcium you need.
One portion is equivalent to:
- 150g pot of yoghurt
- 30g of cheese
- 200ml of milk
If you're vegan or lactose intolerant you will need to find other sources of calcium, as well as vitamin B12, which is in dairy food. Look out for fortified foods such as:
- yeast extract
- calcium-enriched soya milk, yoghurts and desserts
- breakfast cereals
- calcium-enriched rice drinks and oat drinks
Tip: Check the labels and choose lower-fat and reduced-sugar options, such as semi-skimmed or skimmed milk. Or eat mature varieties of cheese so you max out on the flavour and eat less.
Non-dairy sources of protein
Meat, fish, beans, nuts, pulses, eggs and nuts are all important non-dairy sources of protein. Proteins give you energy and are essential to grow and repair tissues in your body.
Aim to eat two portions of fish a week (one portion is about 140g). Make one of these portions an oily fish, such as mackerel, salmon or pilchards. Oily fish is rich in long-chain, omega-3 fatty acids, which may help prevent heart disease, although more research is needed to prove this.
Limit the amount of processed meat you eat (such as sausages and beef burgers) as these foods often contain lots of fat and salt. They may also increase your risk of bowel cancer. Don't eat more than 70g a day. This is equivalent to:
- a small steak (the size of a pack of cards)
- three rashers of bacon or ham
- a quarter-pounder beef burger
For more information, see our article Red meat, processed meat and bowel cancer risk.
If you're vegetarian or vegan, make sure you eat plenty of beans, nuts and pulses to get the protein you need. Aim to eat three heaped tablespoons (80g) of beans and pulses (such as kidney beans, chickpeas and lentils) a day. Nuts and seeds contain healthy polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats as well as protein. Peanuts, almonds and cashews are particularly good protein sources. But don't eat too many because they are also high in calories – a small handful is all you need.
Tip: 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.
Fat and sugar
Many of us are conscious about the link between the amount of fatty food we eat and the amount that ends up on our hips. Yet in our eagerness to cut down on fat, it's very easy to up the amount of sugar we eat. Low-fat foods can often be pumped full of sugar so they won't help you on that quest to lose weight.
Singling out one nutrient is a bad idea and most of us should cut down on both fat and sugar anyway. A healthy diet is all about balance. If you eat the right balance of foods from the five major food groups and stick to sensible portion sizes, you're doing the right thing.
Fats are a really concentrated source of energy and they also have other roles, such as helping to transport essential vitamins around your body. It's an important part of your diet but you don’t need very much – most of us need to eat less. The type of fat you eat is also important.
Saturated fat can raise 'bad' cholesterol levels and increase your risk of heart disease. Men should have no more than 30g a day and women shouldn’t have more than 20g. Sources of saturated fat include:
- fatty cuts of meat
- processed meats, such as sausages and bacon
- chocolate, biscuits, cakes and pastries
- palm oil
- coconut oil
polyunsaturated (omega-3 and omega-6) fats can help to lower your level of 'bad' cholesterol. Sources include:
- omega-3 fats like oily fish
- omega-6 like vegetable oils, such as rapeseed, corn, sunflower oil, and nuts such as walnuts
Mono-unsaturated can help to maintain levels of 'good' cholesterol while reducing levels of 'bad' cholesterol. Sources include olive oil, rapeseed oil, avocados, nuts such as almonds, brazils and peanuts.
Men should have 65 g of unsaturated fats a day and women should 50g a day.
Tip: As you can see from the national guidelines, it's important 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. These are found in oils such as olive and rapeseed oil, for example. Eat these in small amounts and swap butter for lower fat spreads.
As with fat, most of us are currently eating too much sugar. It's added to a range of tempting foods such as sweets, cakes, biscuits, chocolates, fizzy drinks, and fruit juices, as well as some alcoholic drinks. These are called free sugars. If you eat a lot of these, they can make you gain weight as well as put you at risk of tooth decay. Added sugar isn't necessary for a healthy diet. Guidelines recommend that you don’t eat more than 30g of free sugars a day – this is around the same as seven sugar cubes.
A range of foods contain natural sugar; examples are fresh fruit, peas, sweetcorn and milk. These also contain a range of other nutrients such as fibre and vitamins, so they are better for you than products with added sugar. Aim to satisfy your sweet tooth with these natural sugars rather than added ones.
Tip: Eat foods high in sugar less often and in smaller amounts. If you have the occasional treat, try to have a small portion – try individually wrapped cakes so you aren't tempted to have another slice.
Fibre is another element of a healthy diet and there are two types.
- Insoluble fibre passes through your digestive system undigested and bulks up your faeces so they move through your digestive tract more quickly. This can help to prevent various bowel problems, such as constipation and diverticular disease.
- Soluble fibre is broken down by bacteria in your large bowel. It can help to control your cholesterol levels, which in turn reduces your risk of heart disease.
Aim to eat sources of soluble and insoluble fibre as they will both benefit your health but in different ways.
Soluble fibre is in:
- grains such as oats, barley and rye
- fruit, such as pears and plums
- beans and pulses, such as lentils and chickpeas
- root vegetables, such as carrots and potatoes
Insoluble fibre is in:
- high-fibre breakfast cereals
- wholemeal bread, pasta, and brown rice
- vegetables, nuts and seeds
Tip: Leave the skin on vegetables because you will get more fibre from them. Potato wedges are a tasty option, as are carrots sticks with hummus.
Recipe: Quinoa stuffed peppers
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped (1 cup)
- 1 tablespoon (tbsp) of olive oil
- 2 stalks of celery, finely chopped (½ cup)
- 1 tbsp of ground cumin
- 2 cloves of garlic, minced (2 teaspoons, tsp)
- 1 kilogram (kg) of frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
- 2 cans of diced tomatoes, drained (but keep the liquid)
- 1 can of black beans, rinsed and drained
- ¾ cup of quinoa
- 3 large carrots, grated (1½ cups)
- 1½ cups of grated reduced-fat cheese
- 4 large red bell peppers, halved lengthwise and ribs removed
- First, heat the olive oil in a saucepan over a medium heat. Add the onions and celery, and cook 5 minutes, or until soft. Add the cumin and garlic and sauté for 1 minute. Stir in the spinach and drained tomatoes. Cook for 5 minutes, or until most of the liquid has evaporated.
- Stir in the black beans, quinoa, carrots and 2 cups of water. Cover the saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer for 20 minutes, or until the quinoa is tender. Stir in 1 cup of cheese. Season with a small pinch of salt and pepper if you want.
- Preheat your oven to 170°C. Pour the liquid from your tomatoes into the bottom of a baking dish.
- Half fill each bell pepper with the quinoa mixture, and place them in the baking dish. Cover these with foil, and bake for 1 hour.
Uncover and sprinkle each pepper with the remaining cheese. Bake for 15 minutes more, or until the tops of the stuffed peppers are browned. Leave to stand for 5 minutes before serving.
Recipe: Grilled tofu or chicken breast with new potatoes and ratatouille
Ingredients for the ratatouille
- 1 medium aubergine, cut into 3cm cubes
- 3 courgettes, cut into thick round slices
- 3 carrots, cut into thick round slices
- 1 green pepper, cut into 3cm squares
- 1 red pepper, cut into 3cm squares
- 1 tsp of sunflower oil
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- ½ tsp of garlic, crushed
- ½ tsp of cayenne pepper
- a small pinch of salt and freshly ground black pepper for seasoning
- 400g of peeled tomatoes
- 1 tbsp of tomato purée
- ½ tsp of dried mixed herbs
- Heat the oil in a saucepan and fry the onions. Add the garlic and continue cooking until the mixture is golden brown.
- Add the aubergine, courgettes, carrots and peppers.
- Add the cayenne pepper, salt and black pepper.
- Add the tomatoes and tomato purée to the fried vegetables and stir. Add the dried herbs and stir again.
- Simmer on a low heat for 30 minutes or until the vegetables are tender and the sauce has thickened.
Remember to check that there’s enough liquid in the saucepan while it’s simmering. If not, add some extra water and stir well.
Recipe: Beetroot and bean burger
- 2 tsp of olive oil
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 1 carrot, peeled and coarsely grated
- 1 small beetroot, peeled and coarsely grated
- 2 tsp of korma curry paste
- 750g of four bean mix, rinsed and drained
- ½ cup of loosely packed, fresh coriander leaves
- 2 wholegrain rolls, split down the middle and toasted
- 1 handful of baby spinach leaves
- 1 cucumber, sliced into ribbons
- 20g of quinoa flakes, plus 2 extra tbsp for the coating
- Add 1 tsp of olive oil to a non-stick frying pan and warm to a medium heat. Add the onions and cook, while stirring, for 5 minutes or until softened. Add the carrot and beetroot and cook for another 2 minutes.
- Add the curry paste and cook, while stirring, for 1 minute. Then set the mix aside to cool.
- Mix the beans and coriander in a food processor until they’re coarsely chopped. Place the onion mixture and beans into a bowl. Use your hands to mix the two together until they’ve combined.
- Shape the mix into 4 flat patties. Place the remaining quinoa on a plate. Gently press your patties into the quinoa until they’re lightly coated.
- Heat your remaining oil in a large frying pan over a medium to high heat. Add your patties and cook for 3-4 minutes on each side until they’re golden. Then take them out of the pan and place them on a paper towel to drain.
- Open your roll and add spinach, the patties and cucumber. Finally, add the roll tops to make a sandwich.
The glycaemic index
Click on the image to open our infographic of the glycaemic index.
- Healthy eating. British Dietetic Association. www.bda.uk.com, reviewed November 2014
- Why 5%? Scientific Advisory Committee. www.gov.uk, published July 2015
- What are nutrients? British Nutrition Foundation. www.nutrition.org.uk, reviewed 4 January 2013
- Starchy foods. British Nutrition Foundation. www.nutrition.org.uk, reviewed May 2014
- The goodness in potatoes. European Food Information Council. www.eufic.org, published March 2010
- Healthy diet and enjoyable eating. PatientPlus. www.patient.co.uk/patientplus.asp, reviewed 18 February 2011
- Milk and dairy foods. British Nutrition Foundation. www.nutrition.org.uk, reviewed February 2014
- Vegetarian diets. British Dietetic Association. www.bda.uk.com, reviewed October 2014
- Fad diets. British Dietetic Association. www.bda.uk.com, reviewed October 2014
- Meat, fish, eggs, beans and non-dairy protein sources. British Nutrition Foundation. www.nutrition.org.uk, reviewed February 2014
- Iron and health. Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition. www.gov.uk, published 2010
- Healthy eating for vegans and vegetarians. British Nutrition Foundation. www.nutrition.org.uk, reviewed 27 May 2015
- Vegetarian and vegan mums-to-be. British Nutrition Foundation. www.nutrition.org.uk, reviewed April 2015
- Healthy snacking. British Nutrition Foundation. www.nutrition.org.uk, reviewed May 2014
- Healthy weight loss. British Nutrition Foundation. www.nutrition.org.uk, reviewed 21 December 2012
- Good fats and bad fats explained. British Nutrition Foundation. www.nutrition.org.uk, reviewed 27 May 2015
- Fat. British Nutrition Foundation. www.nutrition.org.uk, reviewed 6 July 2012
- Foods and drinks high in fat and/or sugar. British Nutrition Foundation. www.nutrition.org.uk, reviewed February 2014
- Sugar. British Dietetic Association. www.bda.uk.com, reviewed October 2014
- Cholesterol. British Dietetic Association. www.bda.uk.com, reviewed October 2014
- What is dietary fibre? British Nutrition Foundation. www.nutrition.org.uk, reviewed 26 June 2014
- Fruit and vegetables – how to get five a day. British Dietetic Association. www.bda.uk.com, reviewed July 2014
- The Eatwell Guide, Public Health England. www.gov.uk, updated March 2016
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Reviewed by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Bupa Health Content Team, July 2015.
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