Why is healthy eating important?
A healthy balanced diet can help you to maintain a healthy weight and reduce your risk of health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and some types of cancer. A healthy diet also provides the energy and nutrients that your body needs for your normal activities.
The four main food groups are carbohydrates, fruit and vegetables, proteins and dairy or dairy alternatives. Dietary fats also have an important role in the body. However, you should avoid eating too much fat. Eating certain types of fat will be more beneficial for your cardiovascular health.
What can I do to eat more healthily?
Try these seven tips to help you have a healthy and balanced diet, and maintain a healthy weight.
1. Eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day
Fruit and vegetables contain lots of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants which are essential to our body’s processes. They are also great sources of fibre. It is recommended that we try to have five portions of fruit and vegetables a day.
One portion includes:
- one apple
- two satsumas
- one banana
- three heaped tablespoons of vegetables
- one handful of grapes
You don’t have to eat fresh fruit and vegetables only – dried, frozen, tinned, and juiced fruit and vegetables count too.
It's also a good idea to eat a wide range of types and colours to get a combination of all the nutrients you need.
2. Include starchy carbohydrates with meals (choosing wholegrains when possible)
Starchy carbohydrates are an important source of energy. You should aim to include some starchy carbohydrates with every meal. Go for wholegrain options if you can (for example, whole oats, wholemeal or granary bread and wholewheat pasta). Wholegrains have many nutritional benefits and are a rich source of fibre.
Fibre is beneficial for your gut health and may lower your risk of heart disease, diabetes and bowel cancer. As wholegrains are digested slowly by the body, they also help you to feel fuller for longer.
3. Include a source of protein with every meal (including two portions of fish a week)
Proteins are important for the growth and repair of tissues in your body. Beans, lentils and other pulses are great alternatives to meat because they are high in both protein and fibre, but low in fat. Plant-based sources of protein are also now widely available such as tofu and mycoproteins .
If you do eat meat you should try to limit processed meats. Choose leaner cuts of meat, trim any fat/skin off and try to grill your meat rather than frying it.
Aim to eat two portions (140 grams) of fish a week. One of these should be an oily fish, such as mackerel, salmon or pilchards. Oily fish is a rich source of omega-3 that can help to keep you healthy. If you don't eat fish, you can get some omega-3 fatty acids from nuts, seeds and soya products.
4. Include some calcium-rich dairy foods or alternatives
Calcium is important for keeping your bones healthy. Milk and dairy products, such as cheese and yoghurt, are important sources of calcium, as well as protein and vitamins. Some dairy foods however, can be high in fat and sugar.
When buying food check packaging labels and try lower-fat and reduced-sugar options. For example, you could choose skimmed/semi-skimmed milk or reduced fat yoghurts.
If you don’t eat dairy products, you can still get calcium from:
- calcium-fortified cereals
- calcium-fortified milk alternatives
- fish such as salmon and sardines
Vitamin D is also needed to help your body to absorb calcium. It’s made under your skin from sunlight. It can also be found in foods such as egg yolk, oily fish and some breakfast cereals. Experts recommend that adults take a 10 microgram vitamin D supplement during the winter months. You can buy these supplements from supermarkets, health food shops or pharmacies.
5. Swap saturated for unsaturated fats and keep overall fat consumption to a minimum
Although including some fat in your diet is important, fats are a very concentrated source of energy. So try and consider the amount you have, including the type of fat you eat.
Saturated fat can raise your level of a certain type of cholesterol called LDL (low-density lipoprotein). This can build up over time and increase your risk of heart disease. Foods high in saturated fats include processed meats, butter, cheese, chocolate, cakes, pastries and biscuits.
It's best to avoid eating too much saturated fat. Try swapping it with moderate amounts of unsaturated fat alternatives, such as:
- olive oil
- rapeseed oil
- nuts and seeds
6. Cut down on foods high in salt and sugar
Free sugars (for example, sugars often added to biscuits, cakes, syrups and sugary drinks) often provide energy, but with very little nutritional value. Adults should eat no more than 30g of sugar a day– this is around the same as six teaspoons.
Foods and drinks that are high in sugar usually contain a lot of calories. This is something to keep in mind if you are trying to prevent weight gain. Regularly having sugary foods and drinks can also increase your risk of tooth decay.
Eating too much salt can raise your blood pressure, which can increase your risk of developing coronary heart disease. Salt is included in many processed food products to add flavour, texture and for preservation. When you’re shopping check food labels for salt content and aim to have less than 6 grams a day.
7. 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 intake, they are also high in free sugars. It’s best to limit this to one small glass (150ml) a day.
Sugary drinks should be swapped for diet/sugar-free alternatives and alcohol should be kept to a minimum. It is recommended that adults have no more than 14 units of alcohol a week.
A balanced diet and keeping hydrated can help to improve your energy levels and overall health.