The amount and type of food you eat has a major influence on your health. Eating a well-balanced diet can reduce your risk of various diseases as well as help you to maintain a healthy weight.
There are certain times when it can be particularly important to make sure you’re following a healthy diet – for instance, if you want to lose excess weight or if you’re watching what you eat because you’re pregnant. However, it’s important to eat a healthy diet throughout your life, no matter what age you are – there’s never a bad time to make some changes and improve your eating habits.
- Why is healthy eating important?
- A balanced diet
- Getting the balance right
- Improving your diet
- Making changes
Why is healthy eating important?
There is good evidence that eating a healthy diet can reduce your risk of obesity and illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke, osteoporosis and some types of cancer.
The food you eat contains several different types of nutrients, which are all required for the many vital processes in your body. Key nutrients in your diet include the following.
- Carbohydrates – these provide you with energy.
- Proteins – these are another source of energy and essential for the growth and repair of all tissues in your body.
- Fats – these are a very concentrated source of energy and also have a number of other roles, including helping to transport essential vitamins around your body.
- Vitamins and minerals – there are many different vitamins and minerals, which are all important to keep your body healthy and functioning.
Another important element of your diet is fibre. Fibre isn’t classed as a nutrient, but it’s essential to keep your digestive system healthy and certain types of fibre can help to control your blood cholesterol levels.
A balanced diet
You need to eat a range of foods to get all of the nutrients and fibre your body needs. The five main food groups are:
- starchy foods including bread, pasta, rice and potatoes
- fruit and vegetables
- milk and other dairy foods
- meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non-dairy sources of protein
- foods high in fat or sugar
Eating the right balance of foods from these groups will make sure your body gets all it needs to stay healthy.
The image below shows proportionately how much food you should eat from each of the different groups to enjoy a balanced and healthy diet. This includes everything you eat during the day, including snacks. You don’t have to give up the less healthy foods you like, just adjust the amount of them you eat in proportion to the amount of healthy foods in your diet.
Getting the balance right
Starchy foods contain energy in the form of carbohydrates, and release this energy slowly throughout the day. You should eat starchy foods as your main source of energy.
Starchy foods include bread, pasta, cereals, rice and potatoes. Choose wholegrain or wholemeal varieties where possible, and brown rice, as they are particularly high in fibre.
Fruit and vegetables
Fruit and vegetables are good sources of many nutrients, in particular vitamins, minerals and fibre. Aim to eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables each day. Your five portions don’t all have to be fresh – dried, frozen, tinned, and juiced fruit and vegetables count too.
Milk and other dairy foods
Milk and dairy products such as cheese and yoghurt are important sources of protein, calcium and vitamins.
Choose lower-fat options such as semi-skimmed or skimmed milk and low-fat yogurts.
Some dairy foods, such as butter and cream, have a high fat content so you should eat these in much smaller amounts.
Meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non-dairy sources of protein
Meat, fish and alternatives, such as beans, pulses, eggs and nuts are all important non-dairy sources of protein.
Try to eat two portions of fish a week (one portion is about 140g). One of these portions should be oily fish, such as mackerel, salmon or pilchards. Oily fish is particularly rich in long chain omega 3 fatty acids, which can help prevent heart disease.
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. Try to limit the amount of processed meat you eat (such as sausages and beef burgers) as these foods often contain a lot of fat and may increase your risk of bowel cancer.
Foods high in fat and sugar
Fat is an important part of your diet but you don’t need very much. Try to eat less fat overall, but remember that the type of fat you eat is also important. Try to replace foods that are high in saturated (bad) fats such as butter, pastries and cheese with foods that are rich in unsaturated (good) fats such as avocado and olive oil.
Sugary foods such as sweets and biscuits provide you with energy but not many nutrients. Eating sugary foods can cause tooth decay and gum disease, so try to limit the amount you eat.
Improving your diet
Aim to eat three balanced meals a day with healthy snacks in between if you need them. Breakfast is important so don’t skip it, especially if you’re trying to lose weight.
Generally, if you want to improve your diet there are certain foods you should aim to eat more of and others that you should eat less of. Some examples are listed below.
- fruit and vegetables
- foods high in fibre, such as wholegrain bread, beans, pulses, potatoes with the skins on
- low-fat dairy products, such as semi-skimmed milk, low-fat cheese and yoghurt
- starchy foods, such as wholemeal rice, pasta and bread
- processed meat products, such as sausages, salami, meat pies and burgers – replace these with lean meat with the skin and fat removed
- foods high in salt, such as crisps and processed foods such as ready meals and sauces
- sugary foods and drinks, such as fizzy drinks, sweets and biscuits
- high-fat foods, such as cream, butter, and cakes
Changing your eating habits should be a gradual process. Don’t be tempted to make drastic changes overnight or fall into the trap of making common dieting mistakes. Small, day-to-day changes will have a much bigger and more long-lasting effect.
If you’re having trouble making changes to your diet or you’re worried that you’re not getting all of the nutrients you need, talk to your GP. He or she may be able to give you some practical advice or refer you to a dietitian who can help you further.