A healthy, balanced diet should contain a variety of foods to ensure that we get the wide range of nutrients our bodies need, which in turn, helps to maintain healthy weight, blood pressure and cholesterol.
What is a healthy balanced diet?
According to the ‘Eatwell Guide’ you should aim to eat the following every day:
- Plenty of fruit and vegetables (aiming for five portions each day)
- Plenty of starchy and carbohydrate foods such as bread, potatoes, pasta and rice. Try to choose wholegrain foods like brown pasta.
- Two to three portions of milk and dairy products
- Two to three portions of some type of protein, such as fish meat, eggs, beans and other non-dairy sources of protein
- A small amount of fatty or sugary food.
Reading food labels will help you choose options that are low in sugar, salt and fat, while watching portion sizes will ensure you only eat what you need. Portion sizes are linked to the size of your hand, so a child’s portion will be smaller than an adult’s and women’s portions smaller than men’s.
Good nutrition is essential for children to grow properly, do their best in school and be healthy and happy in the future. Children's healthy habits begin at home and at school and shape their habits as they grow up so it’s important to start them off on the right footing.
Fruit and vegetables should make up just over a third of the food we eat each day, so we should aim to eat at least five portions daily. These can be fresh, frozen, canned, dried or juiced.
A portion is 80g or one handful, for example:
- One apple, banana, pear, orange or other similar-size fruit
- Three heaped tablespoons of vegetables
- A dessert bowl of salad
- 30g of dried fruit (which should be kept to mealtimes)
- 150ml glass of fruit juice or smoothie (counts as a maximum of one portion a day).
Carbohydrates are a really important part of a healthy diet and should make up just over a third of the food we eat. Aim to eat three to four portions each day.
One portion equals:
- Two handfuls of dried pasta shapes or rice (75g)
- A bunch of spaghetti the size of a £1 coin, measured using your finger and thumb (75g)
- The amount of cooked pasta or rice that would fit in two hands cupped together (180g)
- A baked potato about the size of your fist (220g)
- About three handfuls of breakfast cereal (40g)
Base your meals around starchy carbohydrate food. For example, start the day with a porridge or a wholegrain breakfast cereal (choose one lower in salt and sugars), have a wholegrain sandwich for lunch and round off the day with potatoes, whole-wheat pasta or brown rice as a base for your evening meal.
Some people think starchy food is fattening, but gram for gram it contains less than half the calories of fat. You just need to watch the fats you add when you’re cooking and serving this sort of food, because that’s what increases the calorie content.
Choose healthy wholegrain food that contains more fibre than white or refined starchy food, and often more of other nutrients. Our bodies digest wholegrain food more slowly, so it can help us feel full for longer and naturally reduces cholesterol.
These foods are sources of protein, vitamins and minerals. It is important to choose two to three portions of these foods a day. Examples of one portion includes:
- ½ standard can of beans (200g)
- Small handful of unsalted nuts and seeds (20g)
- Two boiled eggs (120g)
- Fish ½ the size of your hand (120g)
- Chicken ½ the size of your hand (120g).
Beans, lentils, chickpeas and other pulses are good choices as they contain fibre, are low in fat and provide vitamins and minerals.
Aim for at least two portions (2 x 140g) of sustainable fish a week, including a portion of oily fish.
Some types of meat are high in fat, particularly saturated fat. So, when you’re buying meat, remember that the type of cut or meat product you choose, and how you cook it, can make a big difference.
Tips to cut down on fat:
- Choose lean cuts of meat and go for leaner mince.
- Cut the fat off meat and the skin off chicken.
- Try to grill meat and fish instead of frying and have a boiled or poached egg instead of fried.
Dairy and dairy alternatives are good sources of protein and vitamins, and they’re also an important source of calcium, which helps to keep our bones strong. However, some dairy food can be high in fat and saturated fat, so we need to be careful with portion sizes.
Try to have two to three portions of dairy and/or alternatives each day choosing from lower fat options. If you choose plant based dairy alternatives try to choose options that are lower in sugar and fortified with calcium. Examples of one portion size include:
- Two thumbs of cheese (30g)
- Three teaspoons of soft cheese (30g)
- One standard pot or four tablespoons of yoghurt (120g)
- ½ glass of milk or milk alternative (125ml)
Aim to drink six to eight glasses of fluid every day.
Water, lower fat milk and sugar-free drinks including tea and coffee all count. Fruit juice and smoothies also count towards your fluid consumption, although they are a source of free sugars and so you should limit consumption to no more than a combined total of 150ml per day. Swap sugary soft drinks for diet, sugar-free or no added sugar varieties to reduce your sugar intake in a simple step.
These include chocolate, cakes, biscuits, soft drinks, butter and ice cream. These foods are not needed in the diet, so eat less often and in smaller amounts.
One portion of these foods = the size of a yoyo. Eating too much of these foods can lead to weight gain as they contain lots of energy.
Watch out for hidden fat, salt and sugar – always check food labels before buying! Many processed and convenience foods or ready meals contain high amounts of hidden fat, salt and sugar. The worst culprits are often things like sausage rolls, sausages, pastry, pies, crisps, fizzy drinks, biscuits and cake. Many foods we may consider healthy can also contain high amounts of hidden sugar, such as tinned soups and readymade sauces, bread and low–fat foods.
For a healthy heart, choose the following if possible:
- Swap saturated fats for small amounts of unsaturated fats.
- Cut down on foods containing trans fats.
- Eat less fatty food to manage your weight. All fats and oils are high in calories.
Eating too much salt can raise your blood pressure, which increases your risk of developing heart disease or stroke.
Adults should eat no more than 6g of salt a day (about a teaspoonful) and children should have even less. But remember, we’re not just talking about the salt you add to your food - most of the salt we eat is already hidden in everyday foods such as bread, breakfast cereal, pasta sauce and soup.
Checking the label and choosing foods that are lower in salt is one of the best ways to cut down. You can also try replacing salt with pepper, herbs and spices to add flavour to your favourite dishes.
For more information, visit the NHS website.
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 often eat more fat than we require.
Some fats in our food are better for us than others, for example, unsaturated fats are better for us than saturated fats. But 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:
Unsaturated fats are a healthier choice. There are two types on unsaturated fat:
- Monounsaturated – found in olive oil, rapeseed oil, almonds, unsalted cashews and avocado.
- Polyunsaturated – found in sunflower oil, vegetable oil, walnuts and sunflower seeds.
- Omega–3 fats are a polyunsaturated fat, usually found in oily fish that can help protect heart health. The Eatwell Plate recommends we eat two portions of oily fish (fresh tuna, fresh or tinned salmon, sardines, pilchards and mackerel) each week.
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. Look for foods with ‘traffic light’ labelling that tells you how much of the fat in the product is from saturates.
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
- 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.
- Trans Fats 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.
Regularly consuming foods and drinks high in sugar increases your risk of obesity and tooth decay. Ideally, no more than 5% of the energy we consume should come from free sugars*. Currently, children and adults across the UK are consuming two to three times that amount.
By age, the recommended maximum amount of free sugar we should consume is as follows:
- 4-6 years: No more than 19g per day (five cubes)
- 7-10 years: No more than 24g per day (six cubes)
- 11 years upwards, including adults: No more than 30g per day (seven cubes)
This allowance includes all the sugar that is already in our food before it reaches out plates, as well as any sugar we add. Many packaged foods and drinks contain surprisingly high amounts of free sugars - some culprits include breakfast cereals, yoghurts and fruit juice drinks. Check the food labels to help you choose foods lower in sugar.
*Free sugar is sugar that is added to any food or drink, for example, sugars in biscuits, chocolate, breakfast cereals and fizzy drinks. Free sugars also occur naturally in some foods and are described as ‘free’ because they are not bound to any other type of cell. For example, when you eat an apple, the natural sugar in the apple is attached to the fibre in the fruit. But when an apple is turned into juice, the fibre is removed, and the sugars become ‘free’. Naturally-occurring free sugars are found in honey, fruit juice, smoothies, and maple syrup.
Sugar found naturally in milk, whole fruit and vegetables does not count as free sugars.
For more information, visit the NHS Website.
Eating out or having a takeaway doesn’t have to mean abandoning healthy eating. Making a few careful choices can mean that you can enjoy a treat as part of a healthy, balanced diet.
Top tips for a healthier takeaway:
- 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.
Not all of us have the time to cook or are able to cook. Cooking your food from scratch is the best way to ensure you have complete control over the amount of fat, salt and sugar in your food, but the reality is that sometimes this isn't practical, especially when we're short on time.
Most of us will probably purchase ready meals or pre-packed sauces sometimes. But many of these products contain hidden sugar, salt and fat, and especially saturated fats, to give them flavour, so it's really important to read the food labels and know what you are eating.
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 high, medium and low total fat, saturated fat and sugar is.
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 our gender, age and how active we are.
- Women: The average woman (age 11 or over) needs 2,000 calories per day.
- Men: 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.
Find out more about how to maintain a healthy weight.
Download our Healthy Eating Factsheet:
Our Well Checks include a lifestyle assessment and give you the opportunity to speak to one of our qualified health promotion officers about any concerns you have around your diet, and receive personalised tips and advice.