The key to a healthy, balanced diet is eating regular meals which contain a variety of foods.
Variety can make your diet more interesting and enjoyable, and will help you to meet micronutrient requirements, such as vitamins and minerals.
The eatwell plate offers a guide to achieving a healthy, balanced diet. It is based on UK government recommendations for the optimum balance of nutrients for healthy and overweight adults and children over the age of 5. Children between 2 and 5 years old should gradually incorporate these food groups in the proportions stated*.
There are 5 main food groups:
Aim to eat plenty of fruit and vegetables and starchy foods, and some foods from the protein, and milk and dairy foods groups. Foods and drinks that are high in fat and/or sugar should be consumed in smaller amounts.
Total dietary energy intake is comprised of varying proportions of macronutrients – these are carbohydrate, fat and protein.
How much carbohydrate should I eat?
Nutrition experts recommend that adults and children aged two years and above obtain approximately 50% of their daily calories from a variety of carbohydrate sources1. The bulk of these should come from starch-rich foods including bread, rice, pasta and other wholegrain and high fibre sources, and smaller amounts may come from sugars which are found naturally in foods such as fruit and vegetables.
The role of fat in a healthy, balanced diet
UK dietary guidelines advise approximately 35% of total daily calories from fats, with no more than 11% from saturated fats2.
Did You Know?: sugar provides less than half the calories provided by fat (4 calories per gram of sugar compared to 9 calories per gram of fat)
Fats can be divided into three types, depending on the fatty acids they contain:
Some dietary fat is essential as it is required for energy production and to supply essential fatty acids and transport fat-soluble vitamins around the body (vitamins A, D, E and K). Avoiding all foods that contain fat reduces the variety of foods eaten and can lead to nutritional deficiencies, but it is important to consider the type of fat consumed. Too much saturated fat, for example from fatty meats, full-fat dairy and some processed foods, can increase cholesterol levels in the blood and therefore increase the risk of health problems such as heart disease and stroke2.
PUFAs contain the Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) n-6 (omega-6) and n-3 (omega-3). These are termed essential because they cannot be made in the human body and must be supplied by the diet. N-6 PUFAs are common in most diets and are present in nuts, seeds, vegetable oils and margarines. N-3 PUFAs are less common in the UK diet, and are found in oily fish (such as mackerel, salmon, tuna, herring), linseeds, pumpkin seeds and walnuts. Recommendations suggest consuming at least 2 portions of fish a week, one of which should be oily, to obtain the necessary level of n-3 PUFAs2.
Incorporating foods that supply unsaturated fats, for example, avocado, nuts, seeds, oily fish and olive oil, into the diet will increase variety and help to ensure nutrient requirements are met.
Protein in the diet
Protein has many essential functions. It is necessary for growth and repair of tissues, transport of oxygen and nutrients in the blood and cells, a healthy immune system, and regulation of fluid levels within the human body. Requirements are especially high in young people, pregnant and nursing women and following traumatic experiences or physical injury.
Common sources of protein include: meat, dairy products, fish, eggs, cereals, nuts and pulses (peas, beans and lentils). By choosing lower-fat varieties of these foods, for example, semi-skimmed milk and leaner cuts of meat you can help to reduce the total fat content of your diet whilst still enjoying the nutritional benefits of protein-rich foods. UK recommendations suggest approximately 15% of daily calories from protein sources2.
All macronutrients provide different beneficial properties and it is therefore important to ensure a balance of these within your diet.
The UK Government 5-a-day initiative recommends eating a minimum of 400g of fruit and vegetables a day, or 5 portions per day, to reduce the risk of health problems, such as heart disease, obesity, stroke and type 2 diabetes1.
As well as being good sources of carbohydrate and dietary fibre, plus containing virtually no fat, fruit and vegetables also provide important vitamins and minerals.
Try to include at least five portions in your meals and snacks a day and remember that tinned, frozen or dried fruits and vegetables all count!
Examples of 1 portion include:
Note: potatoes do not count towards your 5-a-day as they are starchy carbohydrates2
Click here for the NHS eatWell plate to check the balance in your diet
The scientific evidence available to date shows that sugars can be included as part of a healthy, balanced diet and, providing that energy needs are met, are unlikely to adversely affect the nutrient quality of the diet or the variety of foods consumed1.
Did You Know?: the body cannot distinguish between added and natural sugars. Therefore the sugars within table sugar, an apple and tomato soup would all be processed by the body in the same way2
It is important to ensure that children are physically active and eat a healthy, balanced diet as this influences their growth and development. Encouraging children to eat a varied, healthy diet including lots of fruit, vegetables and starchy foods helps to ensure they have a good balance of necessary nutrients for their growth and development and reduces the risk of deficiency*.
For more information on dietary advice for children, see the British Nutrition Foundation
Many benefits can be gained from being active including increased energy levels and reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression1.
All types of physical activity are beneficial to health. The important thing is to find something you enjoy whilst getting the heart rate going regularly. Your heart doesn’t know if your muscles are dancing, jogging or cleaning the house – everything helps!
You might start by making simple changes to your daily routine, such as taking the stairs instead of the lift or walking short journeys instead of driving.
Recommended activity levels
Adults are advised to undertake at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity per week (of at least 10 minutes duration on each occasion). This roughly equates to 30 minutes of moderate intensity activity (equivalent to brisk walking or cycling) five days a week2.
For children aged between 5-18 years, activity recommendations include three types of physical activity each week: aerobic, muscle-strengthening and bone-strengthening activity2.