Have your parents or grandparents ever told you that you have to eat your vegetables? Well, they weren’t wrong! Though, it’s not just vegetables we should be eating in order to achieve a well-balanced diet. As the name suggests, it’s all about adding the right balance of different foods to your diet. Why is this so important? Easy! If you stick to a balanced diet, this can help you reduce the risk of a number of medical problems like coronary heart disease, it stops you from gaining too much weight, and it reduces your risk of diabetes and high blood pressure.
But what actually is a balanced diet?
Whether you’re eating meat, are vegetarian or even vegan, you should always make sure that your diet doesn’t get too one-sided. In simple terms, this means nothing more than eating a variety of different foods in the right ratio – don’t worry, we’ll explain this in more detail – and also to eat the right number of calories for your individual activity level. Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet also means saying no to diets that cut out certain food groups completely. Even though they might help you drop those pounds super quickly, they’ll actually starve your body of necessary nutrients and will lead to the unwanted yo-yo effect in due course.
If you would like some further reading on how to eat healthier, you can download the Eat Better booklet from the British Heart Foundation.
Let’s look at the different food groups in a little more detail
Fruit & vegetables
Most of us will have heard, read, or seen it at some point in their lives: Eat your 5-A-Day! But what does this even mean? It simply means that you should eat at least 5 portions of fruit and veg per day which should be about a third of your daily food intake. This might sound a bit much, but it’s actually very achievable! First of all, you don’t have to eat fresh fruit and veg the whole time; frozen, tinned, and even juiced options also count. However, be aware that every one type of fruit or veg you eat will only count once per day. So, 5 glasses of fruit juice don’t equal your 5-A-Day!
So, to get your 5-A-Day, why not try adding a tablespoon of dried fruit to your morning cereal, swap your mid-morning biscuit for a banana, and add a side of salad to your lunch.
But what actually makes fruit and veg such an important part of a healthy diet? Well, they contain important vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants which are a necessary support for the biochemical processes of your body. They’re also super high in dietary fibre and super low in calories; so, they make a perfect option for when you’re feeling snackish! If you want to find out more about your 5-A-Day, follow this link.
Fats: Oils and spreads
No matter how many diets will suggest otherwise, it’s important that you don’t cut all the fat from your diet as your body needs some of it to function properly. However, you should make an extra effort to choose the right types of fats in order to protect your health. Try swapping any saturated fats with small amounts of unsaturated fats and definitely cut down on those nasty trans fats. Too much saturated fat in your diet comes with too much cholesterol in your blood and, in turn, puts you at a higher risk of developing coronary heart disease. So, to keep your cholesterol down, why not try to change to monounsaturated fats like olive oil, rapeseed oil, and almonds or polyunsaturated fats like sunflower oil, vegetable oil, and oily fish?
However, no matter which type of fat you’re deciding on, never forget that they’re all super high in calories and should only be used in very small amounts. You can read more about the different types of fats here and if you want to learn more about how to eat less saturated fat, follow this link.
Carbohydrates or starchy foods
Starchy foods are your body’s main source of energy and, therefore, one of the most important parts of your diet. Bread, pasta, and rice should make up just more than a third of your daily food intake. If you can, always choose wholegrain or wholemeal options such as brown rice, wholewheat pasta, and brown, wholemeal bread. They contain more dietary fibre, vitamins, and minerals than their white counterparts. Despite many diets telling you to restrict your carbs, you shouldn’t as this would basically mean you’re starving your body of energy and dietary fibre which is necessary to keep your gut working properly. If you want to read more about carbohydrates in your diet, read here.
Milk, diary & dairy alternatives
Did you know that milk, cheese & co are your body’s main source of calcium? Calcium is super important for the growth, development, and maintenance of healthy bones & teeth. However, also never forget that these foods can be quite high in saturated fats and shouldn’t be eaten in huge quantities. To reduce the amount of saturated fat, opt for semi-skimmed or skimmed milk, a lower fat cheese, and a low or zero fat and sugar yoghurt.
This food group also includes non-dairy products like soya drinks and almond milk. When buying these, always opt for the unsweetened, calcium-fortified options. If you want to read more about milk and dairy products, follow this link, and if you’re interested in a plant based diet, read here.
Proteins: Beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat & other proteins
Protein is the main building block for your body and helps with any growth and repair. Meat, fish, pulses, beans, and eggs are all great sources of proteins, minerals, and vitamins. If we look at meat, for example, we can see that it’s an amazing source for minerals like zinc, iron, and B vitamins. As a matter of fact, it’s actually our main source of vitamin B12! However, to keep it healthy, make sure you go for lean cuts and skinless poultry and remove any unnecessary fat from your meat. Also make sure that any meat you’re eating is cooked thoroughly and aim to reduce the amount of red and processed meat, like bacon, ham & sausages. If you want to find out more about meat in your diet, follow this link.
Eggs and fish are also great sources of protein and contain many crucial vitamins and minerals. Oily fish, like salmon, for example, is super rich in omega-3 fatty acids which are very important to keep your heart healthy. Always aim to eat two portions of fish per week, including one oily and one non-oily. Don’t worry if you can’t get your hands on freshly caught fish – frozen, canned, or smoked also counts. Just remember that any fish that’s canned or smoked is usually quite high in salt and should only be eaten in small quantities. If you would like to know about how you can use eggs in your diet, read here.
Pulses, like beans, peas, and lentils are naturally low in fat and high in dietary fibre, protein, vitamins, and minerals. Unsalted nuts also make a great addition to your diet, however, they still contain a lot of fat so eat them in moderation. If you’re interested in reading more about how pulses and beans can enhance your diet, follow this link.
Similar to starchy foods, sugar is a type of carbohydrate that gives the body energy. It’s different to starchy foods in the sense that it breaks down into glucose only and it doesn’t contain any fibre. There’s something called free sugars which can be found in many foods including syrups, honey, and unsweetened fruit juices. If you’re a sucker for sweet drinks, you’ll likely consume quite a lot of free sugars. For example, a regular can of Coca-Cola contains 35 grams, or 7 teaspoons, of sugar. Official guidance suggests that we shouldn’t consume more than 30 grams or 6 teaspoons of free sugar per day. This means that with one single can of Coca-Cola you’re already over your recommended daily limit!
But why should you make sure to limit your daily intake of free sugars? Easy! Because they’ve been linked to decreasing tooth health, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. Natural sugars, on the other hand, like the ones that can be found in milk, whole fruits, and vegetables don’t come with the same implications for your health and you won’t have to restrict them in the same way.
How much food should I eat so it’s still healthy?
You should always aim to eat exactly as much food as your body requires to function properly for the whole day. This is also called your individual energy balance and simply means that you eat exactly as many calories as you will burn throughout the course of the day. Why? Well, if you regularly eat more calories than your body can burn in day, it will store these calories as fat, and you run into danger of gaining weight and becoming obese.
But how do you know how many calories you need? This can be a bit tricky to work out because so many individual factors play into this. First of all, your body uses calories to do everyday tasks that you don’t have to think about like breathing, for example. It also needs calories for other things like sports or housework. So, as you can see, how many calories you should be eating a day is vastly influenced by how your body works and your activity level. However, the general guidance states that women should be eating around 2,000 calories per day and men should be eating around 2,500 calories per day. If you want to know more about calories and energy, follow this link.
The Eatwell Guide: Your guide to a well-balanced diet
The Eatwell Guide uses the food groups we’ve already introduced you to and gives you an indication how much you should be eating and how much of what you eat should come from each food group. You don’t have to achieve this exact balance with every meal but always try to aim to achieve it over the course of the day or week. As you can see from the image below, any foods that contain a high amount of fat, salt & sugar are placed outside the main circle as don’t necessarily have to be part of a healthy, well-balanced diet.
Does the Eatwell Guide apply to everyone?
Yes, the Eatwell Guide applies to most of us – no matter whether we’re overweight, underweight, a healthy weight, whether you eat meat, are vegetarian or vegan. If you have any special dietary requirements, try having a chat with a dietitian or your GP to see how you can adapt the Eatwell Guide to your individual requirements. The Eatwell Guide also doesn’t apply to children under the age of 2 as they have very different nutritional needs. If you want to learn more about babies’, toddlers’, and children’s nutritional needs, read here.
Will the Eatwell Guide provide me with everything I need?
Generally, the Eatwell Guide will provide you with all the nutrients that you need to stay healthy. However, in some stages of your live your circumstances might change, and you might need to take supplements in order to make sure that you get enough of a certain vitamin or mineral. If you feel like you’re not getting enough nutrients, make sure to have a conversation with your GP or a dietitian about this as they will be able to help.
If you’re interested in some further reading, here are some great resources for you!
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