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A balanced diet

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Despite what you see in some diet books and TV programmes, healthy eating can be really straightforward.

A diet based on starchy foods such as rice and pasta, with plenty of fruit and vegetables, some protein-rich foods such as meat, fish and lentils, and some milk and dairy foods (and not too much fat, salt or sugar) will give you all the nutrients that you need.

When it comes to a healthy diet, balance is the key to getting it right. This means eating a wide variety of foods in the right proportions.

But achieving that balance in modern life can be tricky. After a long day, it can be tempting to grab the first ready meal on the supermarket shelf, which is OK occasionally. But the nutritional labels on these foods show that many ready meals contain high levels of fat, added sugar and salt. If you eat ready meals too often, they'll upset the balance in your diet.

Food groups

The eatwell plate

  • To help you get the right balance of the five main food groups, take a look at the Food Standards Agency's eatwell plate (PDF).
  • To maintain a healthy diet, the eatwell plate shows you how much of what you eat should come from each food group.

All the food we eat can be divided into five groups. In a healthy diet you eat the right balance of these groups.

They are:

  • Fruit and vegetables.
  • Starchy foods, such as rice, pasta, bread and potatoes. Choose wholegrain varieties whenever you can.
  • Meat, fish, eggs and beans.
  • Milk and dairy foods.
  • Foods containing fat and sugar.

Most people in the UK eat too much fat, sugar and salt, and not enough fruit, vegetables and fibre.

1. Fruit and vegetables

Fruit and vegetables are a vital source of vitamins and minerals. It's advised that we eat five portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables a day.

There's evidence that people who eat at least five portions a day are at lower risk of heart disease, stroke and some cancers.

What's more, eating five portions is not as hard as it might sound. Just one apple, banana, pear or similar-sized fruit is one portion. A slice of pineapple or melon is one portion. Three heaped tablespoons of vegetables is another portion.

Having a sliced banana with your morning cereal is a quick way to get one portion. Swap your mid-morning biscuit for a tangerine, and add a side salad to your lunch. Add a portion of vegetables to dinner, and snack on dried fruit in the evening to reach your five a day. 

See 5 A DAY for more tips to help you get your five portions of fruit and veg.

2. Starchy foods

Starchy foods such as bread, cereals, potatoes, pasta, maize and cornbread are an important part of a healthy diet. They are a good source of energy and the main source of a range of nutrients in our diet. Starchy foods are fuel for your body.

Starchy foods should make up around one third of everything we eat. This means we should base our meals on these foods.

Try and choose wholegrain or wholemeal varieties, such as brown rice, wholewheat pasta and brown wholemeal bread. They contain more fibre (often referred to as 'roughage'), and usually more vitamins and minerals than white varieties.

Fibre is also found in beans, lentils and peas.

3. Meat, fish, eggs and beans

These foods are all good sources of protein, which is essential for growth and repair of the body. They are also good sources of a range of vitamins and minerals.

Around 15% of the calories that we eat each day should come from protein.

Meat is a good source of protein, vitamins and minerals such as iron, zinc and B vitamins. It is also one of the main sources of vitamin B12. Try to eat lean cuts of meat and skinless poultry whenever possible to cut down on fat. Always cook meat thoroughly.

Fish is another important source of protein, and contains many vitamins and minerals. Oily fish is particularly rich in omega-3 fatty acids.

Aim for at least two portions of fish a week, including one portion of oily fish. You can choose from fresh, frozen or canned, but canned and smoked fish can be high in salt. For more detailed information on the health benefits of eating fish and shellfish and on how much to eat, see Eatwell's fish and shellfish pages.

Eggs and pulses (including beans, nuts and seeds) are also great sources of protein. Nuts are high in fibre and a good alternative to snacks high in saturated fat, but they do still contain high levels of fat, so eat them in moderation.

4. Milk and dairy foods

Milk and dairy foods such as cheese and yoghurt are good sources of protein. They also contain calcium, which helps to keep your bones healthy.

But some dairy products are high in saturated fat. Eating too much saturated fat can raise blood cholesterol levels and increase the risk of heart disease. To enjoy the health benefits of dairy without eating too much fat, use semi-skimmed milk, skimmed milk or 1% fat milks, lower-fat hard cheeses or cottage cheese, and lower-fat yoghurt.

5. Fat and sugar

Most people in the UK eat too much fat and too much sugar.

Fats and sugar are both good sources of energy for the body. But when we eat too much of them we consume more energy than we burn, and this can mean that we put on weight. This can lead to obesity, which increases our risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers.

But did you know that there are different types of fat?

Saturated fat is found in foods such as pies, meat products, sausages, cheese, butter, cakes and biscuits. It can raise your blood cholesterol level and increase your risk of heart disease. Most people in the UK eat too much saturated fat, which puts us at risk of health problems.

Unsaturated fats, on the other hand, can help to lower cholesterol and provide us with the essential fatty acids needed to help us stay healthy. Oily fish, nuts and seeds, avocados, olive oils and vegetable oils are sources of unsaturated fat.

For more information on fat and how to reduce it in our diets, see Fat: the facts.

Sugar occurs naturally in foods such as fruit and milk, but we don't need to cut down on these types of sugar. Sugar is also added to lots of foods and drinks such as fizzy drinks, cakes, biscuits, chocolate, pastries, ice cream and jam. It's also contained in some ready-made savoury foods such as pasta sauces and baked beans.

Most of us need to cut down on the foods with added sugar. Instead of a fizzy drink, for example, have a 100% fruit juice diluted with water. Make a pasta sauce yourself instead of buying a ready-made one. Have dried fruit for a snack instead of a chocolate bar.

There are many ways you can cut down on the amount of fat and sugar in your diet. See 8 tips for eating well on the Eatwell website.

Last reviewed: 19/02/2010

Next review due: 19/02/2012

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User363614 said on 21 December 2010

The illogical view is the defense of the status quo.

A number of things affect the glycaemic effect of a food including the type of starch. Baked potatoes are digested into the blood stream as glucose far quicker than table sugar, whereas sweet potato, banana and pasta are not. Is it not common sense that these foods are therefore better for controlling blood sugar, insulin release, blood pressure, weight, and obesity related problems?

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User506302 said on 30 November 2010

So why the continued campaign against the humble potato ? Potatoes are a wonderful vegetable full of goodness and are delicious and versatile. If their starch content is so bad, why are bananas allowed ? Bananas have as much starch as potatoes ! Apparently also sweet potatoes count, but ordinary potatoes don't, which is weird. And the idea that rice and pasta are somehow "healthy" but potatoes are not is completely illogical. Common sense please.

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User363614 said on 30 October 2010

The FSA says that people are eating healthier now; why does obesity continue to rise?

Could the healthy eating guidelines be improved by recommending lower glycaemic foods, increased omega-3 and B vitamins(from animal sources) as recent studies continue to confirm their benefit?

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alisha555 said on 16 October 2010

Everyone have to take a balance diet to keep healthy. All food and fruit that you eat turns in to the sugar in your body. Carbohydrates are found in starchy or sugary foods. The starchy foods are bread, rice, pasta, cereal, potatoes, peas, corn, fruit, fruit juice, milk, yogurt, cookies, candy, soda, and other sweets. If love non veg you include meat, fish, eggs and beans in your diet.
http://www.healthandsoul.com/

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Shawshank said on 14 September 2010

Unless you're an athelete, starchy grains are completely unnecessary and pointless as part of a healthy diet. In fact, they should be removed from the 'food pyramid' altogether, as they don't serve a purpose except to detract from getting carbohydrates from nutritious sources such as vegetables, fruit and tubers. They are also the main driving force behind weight loss/gain; why not publish articles about this rather than make saturated fat out to be the bad guy?

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sue1947 said on 14 August 2010

From the NHS Choices BMI calculator website I found that the person was seriously underweight. I was directed to a quiz to check on healthy eating. This quiz was not created to include people who do not eat enough. Why not? Try it yourself.

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Billythewizard said on 22 June 2010

A really good and interesting site. I don't see a printer-friendly facility though - it would be most helpful if a trimmer version of the articles could be printed off without all the extraneous stuff not relevant to a particular article.

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Acupuncture said on 16 June 2010

It's easy, balanced diet and 30 minutes of cardio exercise three times a week.... the problem is that people just want an easy ride all the time and are not prepared to pay the price

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Ginevra said on 28 April 2010

Before you change your eating habits, may I respectfully direct you to the the following article. You may then be able to make a more informed choice http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=carbs-against-cardio
It makes interesting reading.

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SportAid said on 30 March 2010

I have been on a strict diet for the last three months. I actually feel much better now that I am eating the right foods in the right amounts. I just hope some of my problems will subside as a result of my new eating habits. I have to use one of those apogee intermittent catheters. It's a real pain (that's a joke; well, kinda.

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annejaa said on 19 February 2010

Well said.Like your blog!I believe that healthy eating is not about strict nutrition philosophies and staying unrealistically thin, or depriving yourself of the foods you love. It’s about feeling great, having more energy, and keeping yourself as healthy as possible which can be achieved by learning some nutrition basics and incorporating them in a way that works for you.

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User426479 said on 30 January 2010

I am a Nutrition and Dietetics student at University of Cardiff Institute Wales.
The previous statement from BarryF completely dismisses government healthy eating messages which are based on evidence which shows that low carb diets are potentially VERY HARMFUL.
For healthy weight maintenance please see http://www.eatwell.gov.uk/healthydiet/healthyweight/howtobe/ or other well researched messages such as change4life

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BarryF said on 17 January 2010

People eat too much carbohydrate.

A high-protein, high-fat, carbohydrate-free diet reduces energy intake, fatty liver, and excess layers of fat on the body.

It isn't easy, but try to cut out carbohydrates.

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difranks said on 24 November 2009

I've always been told to cut down on the starch foods, in fact to leave them out altogether! No wonder I can't lose weight. I will try and follow the recomendations and see if it makes a difference. I hope it does.

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ndddddddddddddddddddddd said on 05 November 2009

I started exercising more about 18 months ago and recently started a low fat healthy diet I had to see my optician as my eyes were hurting and he advised me that my short sightedness had improved by 70% I would need new lighter lenses and I had probably been border line diabetic 18 months ago but the change in lifestyle had helped prevent this

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User73879 said on 13 December 2008

Useful but I think it would be better if there were a list of good foods (I think things like broccoli, porridge, turkey breast are good foods) and bad foods ( I think most sausages, pasties and many tinned soups are bad foods). Of course, most foods are OK in small quantities. A web site listing bad foods would be good. It could just state the facts, no need to say "bad". For example, one well know (top3) supermarket sells "balanced" diet healthy foods with a salt to protein ratio about 3 to 4 times the recommended quantities. They sell apparently "healthy" soups containing a days salt per portion. I have emailed; all they say is thanks for telling us. Advice is to read the labels. But a name and shame web site could save billions in NHS costs, as well as be good for as all.

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User65060 said on 17 November 2008

I came across this info about a year ago and took steps to change what I eat, simple things like mushing up a banana and mix it into porrage (and a bit of ground cinnamon) , Its tastes better and is better for you than adding sugar or salt, its also 1 of your 5 aday.

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Raj said on 01 August 2008

Really helpfull thank you so much, will try and use all the tips to get better lifestyle.

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Zara123 said on 23 June 2008

totally agree with you. im always trying fad diets but i think i might take more a holistic approach to eating instead of cutting one thing out or another

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kas-75 said on 13 May 2008

An easy to understand break down of what we should and shouldn't be eating. Makes it sound so much easier to follow than all the fad diets out there.

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