A healthy varied diet
Apart from breastmilk, no single food contains all the essential nutrients the body needs to be healthy and function efficiently. The nutritional value of a person's diet depends on the overall balance of foods that is eaten over a period of time, as well as on the needs of the individual. A healthy diet is likely to include a large number or variety of foods, from each of the food groups, as this allows us to get all the nutrients that we need.
We need energy (calories or kilojoules) to live and this is provided by the carbohydrate, protein and fat in our diets (as well as alcohol). But the balance between these nutrients must be right for us to remain healthy. Getting the right amounts of vitamins, minerals, dietary fibre and water is also important for health.
So, what becomes as important as the type of foods we eat, is how often and how much we include different foods and drinks in our diet. All foods and drinks can be part of a healthy diet, so you don’t have to give up the things that are a real treat, as the key message is that it is the overall balance of foods and drinks that is important for health.
As well as having the right balance of foods and drinks, it is also important to consume the right amount of calories for you. In the UK, most adults are either overweight or obese and this means that many of us are eating and drinking more calories than we need and need to consume fewer calories in order to lose some excess weight.
The food groups
We can think of all foods as belonging to one of five different food groups:
- Bread, rice, potatoes, pasta and other starchy foods
- Fruit and vegetables
- Milk and dairy foods
- Meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non-dairy sources of protein
- Foods and drinks high in fat and/or sugar.
We will look at these food groups in more detail on the following pages, but let’s first think about the proportions of these food groups in our diet.
Our diets should be based on bread, rice, potatoes, pasta and other starchy foods and rich in fruit and vegetables. A variety of foods from these two groups should make up two-thirds of the food we eat. Most of the remaining third of the diet should be made up of milk and dairy foods, meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non-dairy sources of protein, with limited amounts of foods and drinks high in fat and/or sugar. Most of us eat too much salt and it is a good idea to check food labels to find those with a lower salt content and to minimise the amount of salt you add to food at home.
It might be helpful for you to think of your diet as a big plate, with sections representing the different food groups. This is the healthy eating model that we use in the UK to describe a healthy varied diet and it is called the eatwell plate.
It’s a good idea to aim to achieve this balance every day, although it is not necessary to achieve it at every meal and you might find it easier to get the balance right over a longer period such as a week.
This guide is appropriate for most people over the age of two years, including: vegetarians; people of all ethnic origins; people who are a healthy weight for their height as well as those who are overweight; and pregnant women. People under medical supervision or with special dietary requirements may want to check with their doctor if this general description of healthy eating applies to them.
Children under the age of two years have high energy needs compared to their size and capacity for food so some of the foods (especially those low in fat or high in fibre) included on the eatwell plate are not suitable for them. But between the ages of two and five years, children can make a gradual transition towards the type of diet shown in the eatwell plate.
For most healthy people, eating a healthy varied diet will provide all the vitamins and minerals the body needs. There are certain times in our lives when we may benefit from taking supplements, e.g. when you are thinking about having a baby or when you get older and you need to take a vitamin D supplement. But you should remember that supplements cannot replace a healthy diet.
- © British Nutrition Foundation 2013