What is a healthy balanced diet?
This section contains details on what a healthy diet should consist of and why each vitamin and mineral is an essential part of staying healthy.
The majority of people in this country eat too much fat and not enough fibre and for most people a healthy diet is simple and easy to do. The move towards a healthy diet may just mean eating more fruit, vegetables, bread, cereals, potatoes, and pasta.
People in the UK have a 1 in 3 chance of developing cancer at some time in their lives, eating a healthy diet, which includes 5 portions of different fruit and vegetables a day can help reduce the risk of developing heart disease or cancer.
There are 5 basic food groups and a healthy diet consists of eating a variety of foods from all of the groups but in the correct proportions.
1. Bread, potatoes, pasta, rice, noodles and breakfast cereals.
These foods mostly contain starch and should be the main part of all your meals. If possible try to choose high fibre varieties. This group of foods are an excellent source of fibre and are rich in vitamins from the B complex.
2. Fruit and vegetables.
This includes all frozen, fresh and canned fruit/vegetables as well as salad vegetables. These are all excellent sources of vitamins, minerals and fibre and are naturally low in fat and calories. You should try to eat at least 5 portions of fruit and vegetables every day.
The following is a guide as to how much equals 1 portion:
- 2 serving spoons of small vegetables, e.g. sweetcorn, peas or mixed frozen vegetables.
- 1 whole fruit, e.g. like an apple or banana.
- 1 medium slice of large fruits e.g. melon or pineapple.
- 2 medium fruits e.g. satsuma’s, plums or kiwi fruit.
- 1 small bowl of small fruits e.g. strawberries or grapes.
- 1 medium bowl of salad
- 2 tomatoes
- Half a cucumber
- 2 serving spoons of green and root vegetables e.g. cabbage, broccoli, carrots or parsnip.
- 1 glass of fruit juice.
3. Milk and dairy foods.
Milk and dairy products include cheese, yoghurt, milk and fromage-frais. They are rich in protein, calcium, vitamins and minerals. Eat or drink a moderate amount of these foods – about 2 to 3 servings per day. These foods contain a good source of calcium, which is essential to our diet, but as these foods can also be high in saturated fats try to choose reduced fat versions when possible.
4. Meat, fish, poultry and pulses.
Eating fish 1-2 times a week is good for you, especially if you eat oily fish (sardines, mackerel and salmon). All types of meats are included in this category and red meat is an excellent source of iron and vitamin B12, but try to choose the leaner cuts and trim off all visible fat before cooking. Lentils, nuts, peas and beans are also in this food group. Try to use lower fat versions of all these foods whenever possible. You should eat approximately 2 servings from this category each day.
5. Foods containing fats and sugars.
This last group contains butter, margarine, cream, ice-cream, low fat spreads, cooking oils, mayonnaise, salad dressings, cakes, biscuits, chocolate, sugary drinks, sweets, pastry foods and crisps. All of these foods tend to be high in fat and calories. Try not to eat these foods too often and when you do only have them in small amounts. If possible try to go for the healthier varieties for example sugar free sweets and low fat crisps.
Here are a few more pointers to guide you on a healthy balanced diet.
The best way to get all the vitamins, minerals and nutrients we need is to eat a variation of foods, no one food can provide us with all we need to keep our bodies healthy.
If you drink alcohol, keep within the limits. Too much alcohol may lead to high blood pressure, cirrhosis of the liver and heart disease. Try to spread your alcohol limits throughout the week and not have them all on one night. For more information on alcohol click here.
There are 2 main groups of carbohydrates:
Starchy foods include breads, potatoes(especially if you eat the skin), rice, cereals and pasta. Starchy foods give us energy and are not high in calories as long as you avoid adding extra fat or sugar to them. For example adding butter to a baked potato, sugar to cereals, or cooking them in fat (e.g.chips).
Sugar is not essential in our diet. It just provides us with calories and contains no other nutrients. Too much sugar can rot teeth and lead to excess weight. Cutting sugar out of your diet is one of the easiest ways to cut down calories without losing any nutrients. Try choosing low calorie drinks, cutting sugar out of tea and coffee and avoid eating cakes and sweets.
A small amount of fat is essential in our diets as it gives us energy but the majority of us eat far too much and should try to cut down.
There are 2 main types of fat.
1. Unsaturated fats (which includes polyunsaturated and monosaturated fats)– In moderation these can help lower cholesterol and help maintain a healthy heart. Good sources of these fats are found in vegetable oils like sunflower, soya or corn, oily fish like mackerel, sardines and pilchards, olive oils, margarines (labelled high in polyunsaturates)and avocado pears.
2. Saturated fats – A diet high in these types of fat will increase your cholesterol levels and also increase the risk of heart disease. These fats are found in high quantities in meat, dairy products like full-fat milk, cheese, and butter, pies, cakes, chocolate and biscuits.
As well as cutting down on fat intake you should try to eat foods containing unsaturated fats instead of saturated fats. You can cut down on your fat intake by reducing the amount of butter and margarine that you use and by avoiding biscuits, cakes and sweets. Try not to fry food, instead bake, grill, poach or microwave. Cut any visible fats off meats before cooking, and remove the skin from chicken and other poultry before cooking.
Fibre helps to keep our bowels working regularly and keeps thehealthy. It also provides us with some nutrients too.
Fibre can be found in breakfast cereals, wholemeal or granary bread, fruit and vegetables, wholegrain rice, pasta, potatoes (especially if you eat the skins), beans, pulses and lentils
Protein is essential for growth, repair and the healing of the body. Protein may be found in meats and poultry, fish, eggs, nuts, beans and lentils.
Most of us eat more salt that we need and we should try to cut down. Try to avoid salty snacks like crisps and nuts, do not add salt at the table. Try to add herbs and spices to food instead of salt and cut down on salty foods like ham and bacon. Also beware of ready meals which all contain lots of salt.
Vitamins and Minerals
Vitamins and minerals are essential for good health. The majority of us who maintain a healthy diet will have all the vitamins and minerals we require. If you are eating a varied diet, vitamin and mineral supplements are probably not necessary. If you feel you may have a vitamin or mineral deficiency and you suffer from any illnesses you should always consult your doctor before taking any supplements.
Vitamin A helps cells reproduce normally, it also helps us keep our skin and hair healthy. Vitamin A can be found in leafy green vegetables, liver, dairy products, prunes and apricots. Excess levels of vitamin A can be dangerous during pregnancy.
Vitamin B9 is also known as folate or folic acid. Vitamin B9 works with vitamin B12 in the formation of red blood cells. Foods high in vitamin B9 include green leafy vegetables, kidney beans, liver, chicken and whole grain breads and cereals. For more information on folic acid click here.
Vitamin C helps absorb iron, protects against infection and keeps blood vessels healthy. Vitamin C can be found in citrus fruits and juices, green vegetables, potatoes, frozen peas and tomatoes.
If you over cook vegetables or boil them in lots of water you will lose the vitamin C.
Vitamin D works with calcium to help prevent bones from thinning. Good sources of vitamin D include oily fish (herrings, mackerel, tinned sardines and pilchards)egg yolks, some margarine and fortified breakfast cereals.
Vitamin E is a fat-soluble nutrient with powerful antioxidant properties. Vitamin E reduces the risk of health problems from cancer to heart disease. Vitamin E also plays a crucial role in promoting overall health and immunity by protecting cell membranes. Vitamin E may be found in green leafy vegetables, wheat germ (bread and cereals), nuts, egg yolks and vegetable oils.
Minerals are substances required by the body for a variety of functions. We need some minerals in larger amounts than others. These include calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium and phosphorus. Others minerals such as iron, zinc, iodine, fluoride and selenium are also required but only in small amounts.
Calcium is the main mineral needed for the growth, protection and strength of bones and teeth. Calcium is found in dairy products, green leafy vegetables, canned salmon and brown bread.
Magnesium is present in all tissues including bone tissue. Magnesium is needed for bone, protein and fatty acid formation, making new cells, activating B vitamins, relaxing muscles and clotting blood. Magnesium is found in green leafy vegetables, wholegrain cereals, brown rice and nuts.
Potassium is a major mineral and is essential for the function of cells, including nerve cells. Potassium also helps with the proper function of the heart and kidneys. Potassium is present in bananas, grapes, beans, prunes, raisins, milk and vegetables.
Phosphorus is an essential component of all cells and is present in bones and teeth. Phosphorus can be found in dairy products, meat and fish.
Iron is part of haemoglobin, the oxygen carrying component of the blood. People who have an iron deficiency tire easily, this is because their body is starved of oxygen. Iron can be found in red meats, offal, fortified breakfast cereals, oysters and fish. If you drink a glass of orange juice with meals it will help you absorb more iron.
Zinc is essential for growth and to maintain fertility. Zinc may be found in dairy products, meat, fish, wholegrain cereals and pulses. Zinc can be supportive in the treatment of acne, athlete’s foot, brittle nails, the common cold and minor injuries.
Iodine helps with the formation, protection and function of the thyroid hormones. Iodine can be found in milk, table salt and seafood.
Fluoride helps prevent tooth decay and can help in the prevention of osteoporosis. Flouride can be found in canned fish, tea, cooked spinach and toothpaste.
Selenium promotes normal growth and development and is needed for proper immune function. Selenium can be found in cereals, brazil nuts, fish, red meats, eggs and cheese.