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The Ideal Balanced Diet: What Should You Really Eat?

The Ideal Balanced Diet: What Should You Really Eat?

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

A diet based on starchy foods such as chapatis, rice, bajra and jowar to name a few; with plenty of fruit and vegetables; some protein-rich foods such as lentils, fish and eggs; some milk and dairy foods; and not too much fat, salt or sugar, will give you all the nutrients 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, and consuming the right amount of food and drink to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight.

That means many of us are eating more than we need, and should eat less. And it's not just food: some drinks can also be high in calories. Most adults need to eat and drink fewer calories in order to lose weight, even if they already eat a balanced diet.

Food groups in our diet

To have a healthy, balanced diet, people should try to eat:

  • plenty of fruit and vegetables
  • plenty of starchy foods, such as bread, rice, potatoes and pasta
  • some meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non-dairy sources of protein
  • some milk and dairy foods
  • just a small amount of food and drinks that are high in fat and/or sugar

Try to choose a variety of different foods from the four main food groups.

It's important to have some fat in your diet, but you don't need to eat any foods from the "foods and drinks high in fat and/or sugar" group as part of a healthy diet.

Fruit and vegetables: are you getting your 5 a day?

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

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

What's more, eating five portions is not as hard as it sounds. 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 an orange, and add a side salad to your lunch. Have a portion of vegetables with dinner, and snack on dried fruit in the evening to reach your five a day. 

Starchy foods in your diet

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

Potatoes are a great source of fiber. Leave the skins on where possible to keep in more of the fiber and vitamins. For example, when having boiled potatoes or a jacket potato, eat the skin too.

Try to choose wholegrain or whole meal varieties of starchy foods, such as brown rice, whole wheat pasta and brown, whole meal or higher fiber white bread. They contain more fiber (often referred to as "roughage"), and usually more vitamins and minerals than white varieties.

Meat, fish, eggs and beans: all good sources of protein

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

Meat is a good source of protein, vitamins and minerals, including 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. Learn more by reading our page on meat.

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 remember that canned and smoked fish can often be high in salt.

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. Learn more from our pages on eggs and pulses and beans.

Milk and dairy foods: avoid full fat varieties

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

To enjoy the health benefits of dairy without eating too much fat, use semi-skimmed, 1% fat or skimmed milk, as well as lower-fat hard cheeses or cottage cheese, and lower-fat yoghurt.

Eat less fat and sugar

Fats and sugar are both 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, certain cancers, heart disease and stroke.

Saturated fat is found in foods such as cheese, sausages, butter, cakes, biscuits and pies. Too much saturated fat, can raise our cholesterol, putting us at increased risk of heart disease.

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.

Try to cut down on foods that are high in saturated fat and have smaller amounts of foods that are rich in unsaturated fat instead. For a healthy choice, use just a small amount of vegetable oil or reduced fat spread instead of butter or ghee. When having meat, choose lean cuts and cut off any visible fat.

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