As well as balancing the calories we eat with the calories we use up, we need to make sure we eat a “balanced diet”. This is because the body needs 5 important nutrients to be able to work properly: vitamins, minerals, protein, carbohydrate and fat.
The eatwell guide shows us which food groups we need to eat and in what amounts in order to achieve a healthy, balanced diet.
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Remember to watch your portion sizes when planning meals as we usually eat more than we need. Portion sizes are linked to the size of your hand so kids’ portions will be smaller than adults, and women’s portions smaller than men’s.
Fruit and Vegetables
- We need at least 5 portions a day – of 5 different types and colours of fruit and vegetables.
- 1 portion = a handful
- They give us vitamins and minerals.
- They are a source of natural sugars which give us energy which is released slowly.
- Tinned and frozen fruit and veg also count towards your daily portions. When choosing tinned fruits however watch out for those in syrup as these will be very high in sugar.
- 150ml juice or smoothie counts as 1 portion maximum – drinking more than this then counts as a high sugar food.
- You can increase the number of portions you eat by adding extra vegetables to stews, stir–fries, curries, shepherds pie, bologneseand chilli.
- Avoid mayonnaise, salad cream or creamy dressings on salads, and avoid adding butter, margarine or creamy or cheesy sauces to vegetables.
Potatoes, Bread, Rice, Pasta & Other Starchy Carbohydrates
- These should make up one third of our diets – base meals on starchy foods
- Try to include at least one starchy food with each main meal.
- Bread, rice, potatoes and pasta contain carbohydrate which gives us energy.
- Gram for gram, carbohydrates contain less than half the calories of fat.
- Try to choose wholegrain options. These are high in fibre which helps lower cholesterol and keeps you fuller for longer.
Beans, Pulses, Fish, Eggs, Meat and Other Proteins
- Eat some food from this group each day
- 1 portion = a playing card size
- They provide protein to build and repair muscles.
- Beans and pulses are a good, healthy alternatives to meat and are low in fat
- Other non-meat alternatives include tofu, bean curd and mycoprotein (e.g. Quorn)
- Fish are also a good source of protein. We should have at least two 140g portions of sustainable fish each week, one of which should be oily fish. Oily fish include salmon, fresh tuna (not tinned tuna), sardines, mackerel and trout. These are good sources of omega 3 and 6 which help to protect our heart and protect arteries from damage.
- Eggs are a tasty alternative to meat or fish. They are a good source of protein and vitamins A and D. We need vitamin D to help absorb calcium.
- Red meat is an excellent source of iron, which is essential as it is needed in our blood to help carry oxygen, but other sources of iron include chickpeas, lentils, kidney beans and leafy green vegetables e.g. spinach, kale and broccoli.
- Cut the visible fat off before cooking or choose leaner cuts of meat. This includes removing the skin from chicken as it is high in fat.
- Limit red meat and processed meat to 70g per day which is the equivalent to around 2 bacon rashers or 5 tbsp cooked mince.
Dairy & Alternatives
- Adults need 3 portions per day
- Children need 4 portions per day
- 1 portion = the size of a matchbox/250ml glass of milk
- Dairy foods and alternatives are sources of calcium, vitamins & minerals.
- They include milk, yoghurt, cheese and dairy alternatives such as soya milk, almond milk etc. When choosing dairy alternatives, look for ones that are unsweetened and fortified with calcium.
- Choose lower fat options of cheese and butter, but be careful when choosing low fat varieties of yoghurt as they can sometimes be high in sugar.
- Choose semi–skimmed milk as this has the optimum levels of calcium but still has enough fat and fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K).
Food and drink high in fat, salt and sugars
- These include chocolate, cake, biscuits, soft drinks, butter and ice cream
- These are not needed in the diet, so eat less often and in smaller amounts
- 1 portion = the size of a yo–yo
- Watch for hidden fat, salt & sugar – check the food label!
- Much of the fat we eat is hidden in foods such as processed foods like sausage rolls, sausages, pastry, pies, crisps, biscuits and cake.
- Many of these foods also contain high amounts of hidden sugar, as do tinned soups and ready made sauces, bread, fizzy drinks and low–fat foods.
- Ready meals tend to be high in salt, fat and sugar so make sure you check the label before buying.
- Eating too much of these foods can lead to weight gain as they contain lots of energy
We need a small amount of fat in our diet. Fats are essential to our diet because they keep the body warm and provide energy, vitamins A, D, E, K and essential fatty acids. However, we usually eat more fat than we require, but you need to know your fat facts.
- Choose unsaturated fats from plant sources, such as olive oil, rapeseed oil or sunflower oil
- Lower fat spreads, as opposed to butter, can help reduce saturated fat intake
- All fats are high in calories, regardless of whether they are saturated or unsaturated, so should be limited in the diet
There are three types of fat:
- Monounsaturated – olive oil, rapeseed oil, almonds, unsalted cashews and avocado
- Polyunsaturated – sunflower oil and vegetable oil, walnuts and sunflower seeds
- Unsaturated fats are a healthier choice. Omega–3 fats are a particular type of polyunsaturated fat, usually found in oily fish that can help protect heart health.
- The eatwell plate recommends 2 portions of oily fish (fresh tuna, fresh or tinned salmon, sardines, pilchards and mackerel) each week.
Saturated fat comes from foods such as:
- butter, lard and ghee (oil made from butter),
- fatty meats and meat products, such as sausages and pies
- full fat milk
- cream, soured cream, crème fraîche and ice cream
- cheese, particularly hard cheese
- some savoury snacks, such as crisps
- coconut oil, coconut cream and palm oil
- biscuits, cakes and pastries
Too much saturated fat can increase the amount of cholesterol in the blood, which can increase the risk of developing coronary heart disease so you should limit the amount of foods that you eat which contain saturated fat.
- Trans fats are chemically altered vegetable oils
- They are produced artificially in a process called hydrogenation, which turns liquid oil into solid fat.
- They can be found in thousands of processed foods, from sweets and biscuits to ready meals. They are used because they are cheap, add bulk, have a neutral flavour and give products a longer shelf life.
- These can raise the level of cholesterol in the blood and your risk of a heart attack or stroke, but have no nutritional value at all
Our bodies need a small amount of salt to work properly. It helps maintain blood pressure and the regulation of the body’s fluid content. The kidneys use salt to help the retention of fluid, which is used to create sweat during physical activity to maintain a normal body temperature.
However, too much salt will cause the kidneys to retain excess fluid, which exerts pressure on the blood vessels. The blood vessel walls react by thickening and narrowing, which creates high blood pressure and increases the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Most of us eat more salt than we need. Adults should eat no more than 6g of salt per day. This is about a level teaspoon. For children and babies the total amount is even less depending on their age.
Most of the salt we eat is already in our food, especially ready meals/convenience food. Salt is also found in foods we wouldn’t necessarily expect such as white bread, some cereals and soups. Up to 75% of the salt we eat is in packaged foods such as bread, beans, biscuits, ready made sauces, cheese and bacon.
Here are some tips to reduce the amount of salt you eat:
- Most foods already contain salt so avoid adding more
- Get out of the habit of adding salt during cooking or at the table
- Use herbs, spices or pepper to season food
- Try not to use salt alternatives. They often contain potassium which can also cause harm, especially if you have kidney disease or are taking certain blood pressure medications. Please check with your GP
- Read food labels to check salt content and choose the lowest.
Your body is 80% water and it is important to keep your cells hydrated so that they can function properly. We need water to:
- Dissolve nutrients so they can be moved around the body
- Help metabolise (burn) fat
- Regulate body temperature.
Regular dehydration makes the body retain sodium (salt) which can lead to high blood pressure. The body may also start to shut down some blood vessels which will also increase blood pressure.
In order to ensure we stay hydrated we should:
- Drink 6-8 glasses of fluid each day (this includes water, low fat milk, teas and coffee)
- Limit consumption of fruit juice and smoothies to no more than a combined total of 150ml per day as they are high in free sugars (any more will count towards the food and drinks that are high in sugar)
Eating Out and Takeaways
Eating out or having a take away doesn’t have to mean abandoning healthy eating. A few careful choices will mean that your treat doesn’t turn into a healthy eating disaster.
- Choose boiled rice instead of fried or Pilau rice
- Choose tandoori dishes, madras dishes, other tomato based curries or lentil based dishes rather than creamy curries like korma or massala
- Battered dishes like sweet and sour chicken are higher in fat so opt for a stir fry dish like chow mein with extra vegetables.
- When ordering pizza ask for less cheese or choose a low fat cheese and add more vegetable toppings like pineapple, sweet corn or peppers.
- Don’t supersize your meal
- If unlimited refills are offered opt for water instead and stick to one glass of fizzy drink.
- Try to limit takeaways to no more than once per week.
Ready Meals and Food Labelling
Not all of us have the time to cook, or are able to cook. Cooking food yourself is the best option as it means you have complete control over what goes into it, but the reality is that sometimes you will buy ready meals or cooking sauces.
Ready meals and cooking sauces can contain a lot of hidden sugars, salt and fats, especially saturated fats, so it is really important to read the labels and know what you are eating.
If you are unsure of how much nutrients are in each food, have a look at the labels which are found on all food packets.
Some food labels use the red, amber and green traffic light system. This makes it very easy to choose a food lower in saturated fat, total fat, salt and sugar.
- Red means high – try and stay away from these as much as possible.
- Amber means they contain a medium level and can be eaten now and again.
- Green means low – try and choose more of these.
Some foods don’t use the traffic light system, so it is important to understand what is high, medium and low total fat, saturated fat and sugar.
For “Total Fat“:
- High = more than 17.5g of fat per 100g
- Low = 3g or less per 100g
For “Saturated Fat“:
- High = more than 5g of saturated fat per 100g
- Low = 1.5g of saturated fat or less per 100g
- High = more than 22.5g of total sugars per 100g
- Low = 5g of total sugars or less per 100g
- High = more than 1.5g salt per 100g (or 0.6g sodium)
- Low = 0.3g salt or less per 100g (or 0.1g sodium)
- How much energy (calories) we need depends on gender, age and how active you are
- The average woman (age 11 or over) needs 2,000 calories per day
- The average man (age 11 or over) needs 2,500 calories per day
- Girls (aged 5-10) need between 1,400-1,900 calories per day
- Boys (aged 5-10) need between 1,500-2,000 calories per day
- When we eat more than we need, our bodies store the excess as fat
- We need to balance calories consumed with calories burned to maintain a healthy weight