Healthy eating

Expert reviewer, Mr Paul McArdle, Registered Dietitian
Next review due June 2023

A healthy, well-balanced diet means eating food from a variety of food groups to get the energy and nutrients that your body needs. There's no one type of food that can provide all the nutrients a human body needs – so it's important to eat a wide range of foods.

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Why is healthy eating important?

Following a healthy diet can help you to feel your best. It can also help you to:

What’s more, if you have a health condition, improving your diet can be an important part of managing your condition.

How much do I need to eat?

It’s important to eat the right amount of energy (measured in calories or kilojoules) to be able to carry out all your normal everyday activities. Even processes like breathing and thinking use up energy.

If you take in exactly what you use up, you're in energy balance – sometimes known as weight maintenance. Taking in more energy than you need leads to putting on weight, whereas taking in less than you need will cause you to lose weight.

The exact amount of energy you need will depend on many things including your age and how active you are. But in general, women need around 2,000 calories a day, and men around 2,500 calories. As well as supplying your body with energy, eating the right types of food in the right amounts can help look after your overall health.

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How can I eat healthily?

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.

An image showing the recommended balance of the five major food groups

These proportions represent your diet as a whole, not necessarily every meal. So, try to eat a wide variety of foods from the Eatwell Guide over the course of the day and week to help give your body all the nutrients it needs.

Eat five portions of fruit and veg a day

Aim to eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables each day. Fruit and vegetables contain a lot of essential vitamins and minerals, which help to keep you healthy and your body working properly. They're also a good source of fibre. It's a good idea to eat a wide range of different types and colours of fruit and vegetables to get all the nutrients you need.

Your five portions of fruit and vegetables don't all have to be fresh – dried, frozen, tinned, and juiced fruit and vegetables count too. But remember that a 150ml glass of fruit juice or smoothie only counts as one portion. This is the case no matter how many different types of fruit and vegetables your juice or smoothie contains. And it still only counts as one portion if you drink more than 150ml or more than one glass. This is because the processing removes some of the fibre from the fruit, and these drinks contain a lot of naturally occurring sugars.

Include healthy, wholegrain starchy foods in every meal

Starchy foods contain carbohydrates and are an important source of energy. They're also a good source of other nutrients and fibre.

Aim to include some starchy foods with every meal. Wherever possible, choose wholegrain varieties over processed, refined carbohydrates (such as white bread or pasta). Your body takes longer to digest wholegrain foods – which means you're likely to feel fuller for longer.

If you eat lots of wholegrain food every day, it will also help to make sure you get enough fibre. Fibre is good for your digestive health – and is associated with a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and bowel cancer.

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 – aim to include moderate amounts in your diet. Proteins are essential to grow and repair tissues in your body, as well as being a source of energy.

If you aren’t vegetarian or vegan, 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. But 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) because 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 you need to help keep your bones strong. They’re also a good source of protein and vitamins. Two to three portions a day will provide you with all the calcium you need. 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 where you can. 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 green leafy vegetables, broccoli and oranges 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. The type of fat you eat is also important.

Saturated fat can raise your cholesterol levels and increase your risk of heart disease. 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, and 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 processed foods and some type of hardened fat.

Cut down on foods high in salt and sugar

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 if you eat or drink them often, you can put on 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 salt 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 (aim to have less than 6g a day).

Keep hydrated

The UK Government’s Eatwell Guide recommends drinking 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’re high in free sugars. So, limit your intake to one small glass (150ml) a day.


For more advice on healthy eating, as well as inspiration for mealtimes and healthy recipe videos, check out these articles from our experts:

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Related information

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  • Reviewed by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Freelance Health Editor, June 2020
    Expert reviewer, Mr Paul McArdle, Registered Dietitian
    Next review due June 2023