Why is healthy eating important?
Following a healthy diet can help you to keep a healthy weight, as well as helping you to feel your best. There's also good evidence that eating a healthy diet can reduce your risk of:
If you've already been diagnosed with one of these conditions, improving your diet can be an important part of managing your condition.
How much do I need to eat?
Your diet should give you the right amount of energy (measured in calories or kilojoules) you need to do all your normal everyday activities. Even processes like breathing and thinking use up energy.
You're in energy balance if you take in exactly what you use up. Taking in more energy than you need leads to weight gain, whereas taking in less than you need will cause you to lose weight.
The amount of energy you need depends on things such as your age and how active you are. But generally, women need around 2000 calories a day, and men around 2500 calories.
It's not just about counting calories though. It's also important to eat the right types of food and in the right proportions for good health.
How can I eat more healthily?
Eating more healthily may mean cutting down portion sizes to reduce the overall amount you eat. Or it may mean making changes to your diet to include more or less of certain types of food.
The UK Government's Eatwell Guide aims to help people understand what proportions of different food groups they need to achieve a healthy, balanced diet.
These proportions represent your diet as a whole – they are what you should be aiming for over a whole day or even a week – not necessarily every meal time. You can see it's recommended that starchy foods and fruit and veg make up the largest proportion of our diet. Proteins and dairy foods (or alternatives) are recommended in moderate amounts, while unsaturated oils are considered healthy in small amounts.
Here we look at some key actions you should be aiming for, if you want to eat more healthily.
Eat five portions of fruit and veg a day
Ideally, we should be eating at least five portions of fruit and vegetables each day. Most people don't eat enough. Fruit and vegetables contain a lot of essential vitamins and minerals, which help to keep us healthy and our bodies functioning properly. They're also a good source of fibre. It's a good idea to eat a good range of different types and colours of fruit and veg to get all the nutrients you need.
Your five portions of fruit and veg don't all have to be fresh – dried, frozen, tinned, and juiced fruit and vegetables count too. A glass of fruit juice or smoothie only counts as one portion though, no matter how many glasses you drink.
This is because the processing removes some of the fibre from the fruit. These drinks also contain a lot of sugar.
To find out what counts as a portion of fruit or veg, read our information on portion size.
Include healthy, wholegrain starchy foods with every meal
Starchy foods contain carbohydrates, and are our most important source of energy. They're also a good source of other nutrients and fibre. It's recommended that we include more healthy starchy foods in our diet. People often think that starchy food is fattening. In reality, gram for gram, carbohydrates provide half as many calories as fat. Often, it's the combination with high-fat foods such as a creamy pasta sauce or butter on toast that makes them more calorific.
When you can, choose wholegrain foods over processed, refined carbohydrates (such as white bread or pasta). Wholegrain foods take longer to be digested in your body – which means you're likely to feel fuller for longer.
Eating lots of wholegrain food every day will also help to make sure you get enough fibre. Fibre is good for your digestive health – and has also been associated with a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and bowel cancer. Aim to include some starchy carbohydrates – preferably wholegrain – with every meal. For tips and ideas on getting the right amounts, see our information on portion sizes.
Eat moderate amounts of protein – including two portions of fish a week
Meat, fish, beans, pulses, eggs and nuts are all important non-dairy sources of protein – and we should aim to include moderate amounts in our diet. Proteins are essential to grow and repair tissues in your body, as well as being a source of energy.
Aim to eat two portions of fish a week. One of these should be an oily fish such as mackerel, salmon or pilchards. If you don't eat fish, you can get some omega-3 fatty acids from nuts, seeds and their oils. You may also want to consider taking a supplement containing omega-3 fats.
Limit the amount of red and 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. 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.
Beans, peas and lentils are a great alternative to meat because they're low in fat while being high in fibre, protein, vitamins and minerals.
Include some calcium-rich dairy foods or alternatives
Milk and dairy products such as cheese and yoghurt are an important source of calcium, which we need to keep our bones strong. They are also a good source of protein and vitamins. A couple of portions a day will provide you with all the calcium you need – check our portion sizes guide to find out more. Dairy foods can be high in fat, so check the labels and choose lower-fat and reduced-sugar options, such as semi-skimmed or skimmed milk. Or you may prefer to have smaller amounts of the full-fat versions.
If you're vegan or lactose intolerant, you’ll need to find other sources of calcium and vitamin B12, which are in dairy food. Some other types of food like curly kale, watercress and sesame seeds naturally contain calcium but it's hard to get enough from these sources. Instead, look out for foods fortified with calcium, such as calcium-enriched soya milk, rice-drinks, yoghurts and desserts.
Swap saturated for unsaturated fats
Fats are a really concentrated source of energy and they also have other roles, such as helping to transport essential vitamins around your body. They are 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 your cholesterol levels and increase your risk of heart disease and stroke. It's found in foods such as fatty or processed meats, butter, cheese, cream, chocolate, cakes, pastries and biscuits.
It's best not to have too much saturated fat in your diet. Try to swap saturated fats with foods rich in unsaturated (good) fats when you can. Unsaturated fats are found in oils such as olive oil and rapeseed oil. They can help to lower your cholesterol levels. Include small amounts of these in your diet and swap butter for lower-fat spreads.
Trans fats are another type of fat that can raise your cholesterol levels, increasing your risk of heart disease. They're potentially even worse for your health than saturated fats. Food manufacturers have now reduced the amount of trans fats in many foods, but they may still be present in certain foods. These include biscuits, pies, cakes and fried foods, as well as takeaway foods. Limiting these types of food will help keep your intake of both saturated and trans fats to a minimum.
Cut down on foods high in salt and sugar
As with fat, most of us eat too much sugar. Some foods, such as fresh fruit, contain some natural sugars. But sugars are also added to many foods such as sweets, cakes, biscuits, chocolates and fizzy drinks. These additional sugars are called free sugars. Fruit juices are also high in free sugars. Foods and drinks high in sugar are usually high in calories, so eating or drinking them too frequently can make you gain weight. Regularly having sugary foods and drinks also puts you at risk of tooth decay. Guidelines recommend that you don’t eat more than 30g of free sugars a day – this is around the same as seven sugar cubes.
It's also a good idea to be careful about how much salt you have in your diet. Salt is added to many processed food products during manufacturing to add flavour, texture or for preservation. Eating too much is strongly linked to high blood pressure, which in turn raises your risk of stroke and coronary heart disease. Check food labels to make sure the food you're eating is low in salt as well as low in sugar.
The Eatwell Guide recommends that we should be aiming to drink around six to eight glasses of fluid a day. This includes water, low-fat milk and any other sugar-free drinks such as tea and coffee. Although fruit juice and smoothies can count towards your fluid consumption, they are high in free sugars. So limit your intake to one small glass (150ml) a day.
You can tell if you're getting enough fluids, as your urine should be a pale, straw colour. If you're not drinking enough, it'll be darker, and you'll also feel thirsty.
If you're looking for inspiration of where to get started with some healthier eating ideas, try our recipes below. They contain a range of different food types to help you towards a healthy, balanced diet.
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 reduced-fat cheese, grated
- 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.
- 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.
- Serve with grilled chicken, tofu or fish, and new potatoes.
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
- 4 wholegrain rolls, split and toasted (one roll per burger)
- 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 mixture 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 the 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.
- Add spinach, the patties and cucumber to the toasted bottom halves of the rolls. Finally, add the roll tops to make a sandwich.
- A healthy balanced diet. British Nutrition Foundation. www.nutrition.org.uk, last reviewed October 2016
- The Eatwell Guide. Public Health England, July 2016. www.gov.uk
- Healthy eating. BDA – The Association of UK Dietitians. www.bda.uk.com, published August 2016
- A quick guide to the Government's healthy eating recommendations. Public Health England, February 2017. www.gov.uk
- Preventing excess weight gain. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), March 2015. www.nice.org.uk
- Cardiovascular disease. Oxford handbook of nutrition and dietetics (online). Oxford Medicine Online. oxfordmedicine.com, published December 2015
- Diabetes. Oxford handbook of nutrition and dietetics (online). Oxford Medicine Online. oxfordmedicine.com, published December 2015
- National diet and nutrition survey results from years 5 and 6 (combined) of the rolling programme (2012/2013 – 2013/2014). Publich Health England and the Food Standards Agency, September 2016. www.gov.uk
- Fruit and vegetables. British Nutrition Foundation. www.nutrition.org.uk, last reviewed October 2016
- Starchy foods (carbs). British Nutrition Foundation. www.nutrition.org.uk, last reviewed October 2017
- Potatoes, bread, rice, pasta and other starchy carbohydrates. British Nutrition Foundation. www.nutrition.org.uk, last reviewed November 2016
- Carbohydrates and health. Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN), 2015. www.gov.uk
- Macronutrients and energy balance. Oxford handbook of nutrition and dietetics (online). Oxford Medicine Online. oxfordmedicine.com, published December 2015
- Beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins. British Nutrition Foundation. www.nutrition.org.uk, last reviewed November 2016
- Healthy eating for vegans and vegetarians. British Nutrition Foundation. www.nutrition.org.uk, last reviewed 31 March 2017
- Micronutrients. Oxford handbook of nutrition and dietetics (online). Oxford Medicine Online. oxfordmedicine.com, published December 2015
- Calcium counts! British Nutrition Foundation. www.nutrition.org.uk, last reviewed September 2014
- Foods and drinks high in fat, salt and sugars. British Nutrition Foundation. www.nutrition.org.uk, last reviewed November 2016
- Trans fats. British Dietetics Association. www.bda.uk.com, published January 2017
- Salt and health. Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, 2003. www.gov.uk
- Salt and cardiovascular disease. Consensus Action on Salt & Health (CASH). www.actiononsalt.org.uk, accessed 14 November 2017
- Cardiovascular disease prevention. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), June 2017. www.nice.org.uk
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Reviewed by Pippa Coulter, Freelance Health Editor, January 2018
Expert reviewer, Mr Paul McArdle, Registered Dietitian
Next review due January 2021
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