A healthy, balanced diet

We aim to give people access to reliable science-based information to support anyone on their journey towards a healthy, sustainable diet. In this section you can read about the balance of different foods and nutrients needed in the diet for good health and wellbeing.

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A healthy, balanced diet

We can probably all agree that eating a healthy, balanced diet is a good thing, but what does this mean in practice? This article will outline the principles behind healthy eating, and how these can be adapted to suit our individual likes, dislikes and dietary requirements. As well as thinking about how what we eat affects our health, it is also good to consider how it affects the planet. The good news is that healthier diets also tend to be more environmentally sustainable – read our page on healthier and sustainable diets to find out more.

The benefits of a balanced diet

Following a healthy, balanced diet helps make sure that our bodies get all the nutrients needed to work well from day to day and can also reduce the risk of diseases like heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer in the longer term.

There is no ‘one size fits all’ healthy diet and it is not just about eating less sugar, salt or saturated fat but also about what we should be eating more of, for example fruit and vegetables and fibre. Everyone is different and the principles of healthy eating can be adapted to suit you. The main principles are:

  • including plenty of a range of fruit and vegetables – at least 5 A DAY
  • including plenty of fibre-rich foods, especially wholegrains
  • including a range of protein-sources especially beans, peas and lentils
  • including some dairy foods or fortified alternatives
  • choosing mainly unsaturated fats and oils, and
  • minimising foods and drinks that are high in fat, salt and sugars.

Remember everyone is different and you can make food choices following these principles to suit you.

A healthy, balanced diet

Healthy eating guidelines in the UK

Around the world, governments provide guidance on the balance of foods and drinks that make up a healthy diet. The guidelines vary in how they are presented but the message is similar; a healthy diet is about getting a balance and variety of foods from the main food groups.

In the UK, our healthy eating model is called the Eatwell Guide. Learn more about the Eatwell Guide on this page from the NHS. The guide has been developed scientifically, using modelling to look at the balance of different foods and drinks that provides the nutrients the body needs in the recommended amounts.

The Eatwell Guide shows the proportions that each of the food groups should make up in our diet and is designed to apply to most of us, although not to children under 2 years old as their dietary needs are different.

The main food groups that feature in the Eatwell Guide, as well as advice from many other organisations, are outlined below. Each section has a useful guide to that food group.

Fruit and vegetables - just eat more!

Diets high in fruit and vegetables are linked to a lower risk of diseases like heart disease, stroke and some types of cancer.

The fruit and vegetables group is the biggest in the Eatwell Guide and we are recommended to eat at least 5 A DAY. Fresh, frozen, dried and canned fruits and vegetables all count towards our 5 A DAY.  Not many of us are achieving this, with only around 1 in 3 adults and 1 in 10 11-18 year olds getting their 5 A DAY.

Fruit and vegetables provide a range of essential nutrients and fibre, as well as chemical compounds that occur naturally in plants that may have health benefits. 

Different types and colours of fruits and vegetables contain different combinations of important nutrients like: 

  • vitamin C - important for maintaining healthy body tissues.
  • vitamin A - important for maintenance of normal vision, skin and the immune system.
  • folate - important for normal and healthy blood formation.
  • fibre – helps to maintain a healthy gut.
  • potassium – helps to maintain a healthy blood pressure and is also important for the normal functioning of the nervous system

So, to get the most nutritional benefit out of your 5 A DAY, try to have a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. You could think about including a range of colours and find different ways of including fruit and vegetables at meals and snacks.

Fruit and vegetables can also help you maintain a healthy weight as they are also generally low in calories, so you can have plenty for relatively few calories.

What counts as a portion?

Fresh, frozen or canned:

A portion of fruit or vegetables is 80g. This is around:

  • 1 medium sized piece of fruit such as a banana, apple, pear, orange or nectarine
  • Half of a large grapefruit or avocado
  • 1 dessert bowl of salad
  • 3 heaped tablespoons of cooked vegetables like broccoli, peas or carrots.
  • 2 or more small fruits such as plums, satsumas, kiwi fruit or apricots

Dried and juice: 

  • A heaped tablespoon (30g) of dried fruit
  • 150 ml glass of unsweetened 100% fruit or vegetable juice or smoothie counts as a maximum of 1 of your 5 A DAY.

Beans and pulses

  • Three heaped tablespoons of beans, lentils or chickpeas counts as a maximum of 1 of your 5 A DAY. 

You can find out more about 5 A DAY portion sizes by reading this NHS page.

Including fruit and vegetables in meals and snacks

Try to include at least one portion of fruit and vegetables at every meal and some snacks, for example:

  • add fresh or dried fruit to breakfast cereal or porridge
  • snack on fresh fruit or vegetable sticks
  • experiment with salads – you could try using red cabbage or sliced Chinese cabbage, adding brightly coloured vegetables such as grated carrot or sliced pepper and including left over cooked vegetables like broccoli or peas
  • add plenty of vegetables to dishes like pasta sauces, stews or curries – frozen or canned vegetables can be a quick and easy way to do this
  • try fruit-based puddings like fruit salad, sliced melon or canned or dried fruits with plain yogurt

 

Fruit and vegetables

A guide to the 'Fruit and vegetables' food group

pdf

Starchy foods – go for wholegrain and higher fibre

Also known as ‘carbs,’ starchy foods like bread, pasta, potatoes, rice and other grains are one of the main food groups included in healthy dietary guidelines all over the world. These foods sometimes get a bad press or are thought of as fattening but they are a key source of fibre as well as vitamins and minerals such as iron, calcium, folate and B vitamins. What is important is the types and portion sizes we eat. For a healthier diet, we should choose more wholegrains and higher fibre foods, such as wholemeal breads, wholemeal pasta, wholegrain breakfast cereals or oats and potatoes with skins.

Try swapping white versions of bread, pasta or rice for wholegrain versions, go for wholegrains cereals or oats and try other types of wholegrains such as bulgur wheat, quinoa, freekeh, barley and spelt.

Read our page on starchy foods in a healthy diet to find out more.

Potatoes, bread, rice, pasta and other starchy carbohydrates

A guide to the food group 'Potatoes, bread, rice, pasta and other starchy carbohydrates'

pdf

Protein foods – have a variety

In the Eatwell Guide, this food group is called ‘Beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins'. This group obviously provides protein but protein-rich foods are also sources of vitamins and minerals.  It is a good idea to eat a variety of different types, and especially to include more plant-based sources of protein like beans, lentils or chickpeas as these are higher in fibre and naturally low in fat. Nuts and seeds (plain, unsalted) are included in this food group and contain vitamins, minerals and fibre.

They are also high in fat but the majority of this is ‘healthier’ fat (unsaturated) and are a nutritious option in moderation, keeping portion sizes small like a small handful.

We should be eating at least two portions (2 x 140g cooked weight) per week of sustainably sourced fish (fresh, frozen or canned), including a portion of oily fish. Oily fish includes salmon, sardines, mackerel and trout. Fish are good sources of lots of vitamins and minerals. In particular, oily fish are natural sources of vitamin D and are the richest source of a special type of fat called long chain omega-3 fatty acids, which may help to prevent heart disease.

Meat can be part of a healthy diet and can be a source of several vitamins and minerals including iron, zinc and selenium. We are advised not to eat too much red or processed meat as high consumption has been linked with a higher risk of bowel cancer. You can cut down the fat content of meat by choosing leaner cuts such as lower fat mince, cutting off visible fat and taking the skin off poultry and using less fat when cooking, such as grilling instead of frying. 

Read our page on protein in a healthy diet to find out more. 

Beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins

A guide to the 'Beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins' food group

pdf

Dairy foods and alternatives – go for lower sugar

This food group includes milk, yogurt and cheese as well as plant-based alternatives to these. Dairy foods are an important source of calcium as well as protein, iodine and B vitamins. The nutritional content of dairy alternatives varies depending on what they are made from (such as soya, rice or oats) and whether they are fortified. If having dairy alternatives it is best to choose those that are fortified with calcium and ideally other vitamins and minerals.

Dairy foods contain saturated fat and, although some studies suggest that despite their saturated fat content, dairy foods like milk, cheese and yoghurt have a neutral effect on heart health. However lower-fat versions of milk, cheese and plain yoghurt are also lower in energy (calories) and so can be helpful if you are trying to manage your weight.

Dairy and alternatives

A guide to the 'Dairy and alternatives' food group

pdf

Fats and oils - choose unsaturated types

There are different types of fats and oils in the diet – those that are mostly saturated such as butter, coconut oil, ghee, lard and palm oil and those that are mostly unsaturated such as vegetable (usually rapeseed), sunflower and olive oils and spreads made from these. High intakes of saturated fat are linked to higher blood cholesterol and swapping saturated for unsaturated fats has been shown to reduce blood cholesterol and risk of heart disease. So it is a good idea to choose unsaturated fats and oils most of the time for cooking and spreading.

All fats are high in calories, even unsaturated fats, so it is important to us them in small amounts to avoid adding more calories than you need.

Read our page on fat in a healthy diet to find out more.

Oils and spreads

A guide to oils and spreads in the diet

pdf

Foods high in fat, salt and sugar – keep portions small

Foods high in saturated fat, salt and sugar such as crisps, sweets, biscuits, cakes, chocolate and sugary drinks are not within the main food groups of the Eatwell Guide as they are not needed as part of a healthy diet. Sometimes called ‘treat foods’ we probably all know that these are foods to eat less of. If you do include them then it is best to have small portions – for example those that provide about 100-150kcal such as a small chocolate biscuit bar, 4 small squares of chocolate, 2 small biscuits, a small multipack bag of crisps, a mini muffin or a small chocolate mousse.

When it comes to sugary drinks it is best to swap these for water or sugar free versions.

Foods high in fat, salt and sugar

A guide to foods high in fat, salt and sugar in the diet

pdf

Different dietary patterns

The main food groups above are the building blocks of a healthy, balanced diet but they can be put together in different ways, based on our culture, preferences and dietary requirements. There are a whole range of different types of eating but the key principles of a healthy dietary pattern that run through all of these are:

  • including plenty of a range of fruit and vegetables – at least 5 A DAY
  • including plenty of fibre-rich foods, especially wholegrains
  • including a range of protein-sources especially beans, peas and lentils
  • including some dairy foods or fortified alternatives
  • choosing mainly unsaturated fats and oils, and
  • minimising foods and drinks that are high in fat, salt and sugars.

Applying these principles to your diet will help make sure it is balanced and healthy. There are a whole range of diets out there in books, in the press and on social media, some of which claim to have specific effects on health or to help with weight loss. It is not always easy to work out whether these diets are healthy – they may be promoted by doctors or mention scientific studies. However, diets that do not follow the healthy eating principles above, for example those that cut out whole food groups or severely limit the variety of foods you can eat are probably going to be difficult to stick with and not likely to be good for your health in the longer term.

The Mediterranean diet is often thought of as one of the healthiest eating patterns and features plenty of fruit, vegetables, pulses, wholegrains, olive oil, fish and smaller amounts of meat, dairy, eggs and sugary foods. A Mediterranean diet contains a higher proportion of fat than other healthy eating patterns, but most of this is unsaturated fats from olive oil, nuts and seeds and oily fish. This style of eating may reduce the risk of heart disease and have other potential health benefits. If this way of eating works for you then that is great! However, it is not the only way to eat healthily, and may not work for everyone.

Vegetarian and vegan diets have had a lot of interest and some research suggests that these diets may reduce the risk of heart disease. A healthy, balanced vegetarian or vegan diet will typically provide plenty of vegetables, pulses and wholegrains and so be rich in fibre and low in saturated fat. Read our page on vegetarian and vegan diets to find out more.

The term ‘plant-based diet’ is increasingly popular but there is some confusion about what it means. Some people think this refers to a vegetarian or vegan diet, but many authoritative bodies agree that plant-based eating means proportionately choosing more of your foods from plant sources and so is a diet mainly made up of plant foods, but may still include meat, fish, eggs and dairy foods. Most healthy eating guidelines, including the Eatwell Guide recommend a mainly plant-based diet. The two biggest food groups; fruit and vegetables and starchy foods, are both plant-based and we are also encouraged to eat more beans and pulses and to use plant-based oils and spreads. So you can make your diet more ‘plant-based’ by including a wider variety of fruits and vegetables, including wholegrains as well as choosing more plant-based sources of protein.

There are a whole range of other popular diets such as keto, paleo or meal replacement products, some of which claim to have specific effects on health or to help with weight loss.

Read our information on how to put a healthy diet into practice including planners, tips and information on portion sizes.

 

Last reviewed June 2021. Next review due June 2024.

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