The amount and type of food you eat has a major influence to your health. Eating a well-balanced diet can reduce the risk of various diseases as well as help you maintain a normal body weight.
There are certain circumstances when it is important to make sure you are following a healthy diet; for instance, if you want to lose excess weight or if you are concerned to what you eat because you are expecting. However, it is crucial to eat a healthy diet throughout your lifetime, no matter how old you are; and there is never been a bad time to establish some changes to improve your eating habits.
Why is healthy eating important?
There is good evidence that eating a healthy diet can reduce the risk of obesity and illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke, osteoporosis and some types of cancer.
The food you eat contains several different types of nutrients, which are all required for many vital processes in your body. Key nutrients in your diet include the following:
- Carbohydrate – provides you with energy.
- Protein – another source of energy and essential for the growth and repair of all tissues in your body.
- Fat – a very concentrated source of energy and also have other roles, including assisting the transpor of essential vitamins around your body.
- Vitamins and minerals – there are many different vitamins and minerals, which are all important to keep your body healthy and functioning.
Another important element of your diet is fibre. Fibre is not classified as a nutrient, but it is essential to keep your digestive system healthy and certain types of fibre can help to control your blood cholesterol levels.
A balanced diet
You need to eat a range variety of foods to get all the nutrients and fibre that your body needs. The five main food groups are:
- starchy foods including bread, pasta, rice and potatoes
- fruit and vegetables
- milk and other dairy products
- meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non-dairy sources of protein
- foods high in fat or sugar
Eating the right balance of foods from these groups will make sure your body gets all it needs to stay healthy.
Getting the balance right
Starchy foods contain energy in the form of carbohydrates, and release this energy slowly throughout the day. You should eat starchy foods as your main source of energy.
Starchy foods include bread, pasta, cereals, rice and potatoes. Choose wholegrain or wholemeal varieties whenever possible; and brown rice, as it is particularly high in fibre.
Fruit and vegetables
Fruit and vegetables are good sources of many nutrients, in particular vitamins, minerals and fibre. Aim to eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables each day. Your five portions don't necessarily all fresh fruit and vegetables – dried, frozen, tinned, and juiced fruit and vegetables count too.
Milk and other dairy foods
Milk and dairy products such as cheese and yoghurt are important sources of protein, calcium and vitamins.
Choose lower-fat options such as semi-skimmed or skimmed milk and low-fat yogurts.
Some dairy foods, such as butter and cream, have a high fat content so you should eat these in smaller amounts.
Meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non-dairy sources of protein
Meat, fish and alternatives, such as beans, eggs and nuts are important as non-dairy sources of protein.
Try to eat two portions of fish per week (one portion is about 140g). One of these portions should be oily fish, such as mackerel, salmon or pilchards. Oily fish is particularly rich in long chain omega 3 fatty acids, which can help prevent heart disease.
Some types of meat are high in fat, so always cut off any extra fat and skin. Grill, bake or poach meat and fish rather than fry it. Try to limit the amount of processed meat you eat (such as sausages and beef burgers) as these foods often contain a lot of saturated fats and may increase the risk of bowel cancer.
Foods high in fat and sugar
Fat is an important part of your diet but do not over-consume fat, especially saturated fats and trans fats. Try to eat less fat overall, but remember that the type of fat you eat is also important. Try to replace foods that are high in saturated fats such as butter, pastries and cheese with foods that are rich in unsaturated fats such as avocado and olive oil.
Sugary foods such as sweets and biscuits provide you with energy but not many nutrients. Eating sugary foods can cause tooth decay and gum disease, so try to limit the amount you eat.
Improving your diet
Aim to eat three balanced meals per day with healthy snacks in between if you need them. Breakfast is important so don’t skip it, especially if you’re trying to lose weight.
Generally, if you want to improve your diet there are certain foods you should aim to eat more of and o