What is a Healthy Balanced Diet?
By Dietitian, Juliette Kellow BSc RD
A healthy diet doesn't mean surviving solely on bird seed, rabbit food and carrot juice! The new approach to eating healthily means we’re positively encouraged to eat a wide range of foods, including some of our favourites – it’s just a question of making sure we get the balance right.
As no single food provides all the calories and nutrients we need to stay healthy, it’s important to eat a variety of foods to make a balanced diet. Meanwhile, most nutrition experts also agree that mealtimes should be a pleasure rather than a penance. This means it’s fine to eat small amounts of our favourite foods from time to time.
A balanced diet means eating plenty of different foods from four main groups of foods and limiting the amount we eat from a smaller fifth group. Ultimately, it’s as simple as eating more fruit, veg, starchy, fibre-rich foods and fresh products, and fewer fatty, sugary, salty and processed foods.
The following guidelines for a healthy, balanced diet are all based on guidelines recommended by the Food Standards Agency.
Bread, Other Cereals and Potatoes
Eat these foods at each meal. They also make good snacks.
Foods in this group include bread, breakfast cereals, potatoes, rice, pasta, noodles, yams, oats and grains. Go for high-fibre varieties where available, such as wholegrain cereals, wholemeal bread and brown rice. These foods provide carbs, fibre, B vitamins and small amounts of calcium and iron. They should fill roughly a third of your plate at mealtimes.
Typical serving sizes:
- 2 slices bread in a sandwich or with a meal
- a tennis ball sized serving of pasta, potato, rice, noodles or couscous
- a bowl of porridge
- a handful of breakfast cereal
Top tips for slimmers: Carb-rich foods might have received a bad press in recent years, but they’re not as ‘fattening’ as many of us think they are. It’s what we add to carbs that pushes up their calorie content, for example, adding butter to bread, frying potatoes to make chips or serving pasta with a creamy sauce. For example, 1 slice of wholemeal bread contains around 75 calories and 0.7g fat. Add 10g of butter to that slice of bread and it provides 145 calories and 8.2g fat.
Fruit and Vegetables
Eat five different servings every day.
Foods in this group include all fruits and vegetables, including fresh, frozen, canned and dried products, and unsweetened fruit juice. Choose canned fruit in juice rather than syrup and go for veg canned in water without added salt or sugar. These foods provide fibre and a range of vitamins and minerals. They should fill roughly a third of your plate at mealtimes.
Typical serving sizes:
- a piece of fruit eg apple, banana, pear
- 2 small fruits eg satsumas, plums, apricots
- a bowl of fruit salad, canned or stewed fruit
- a small glass of unsweetened fruit juice
- a cereal bowl of salad
- 3tbsp vegetables
Top tips for slimmers: Fruit and veg are low in calories and fat but high in fibre. This makes them particularly good foods for helping to fill you up. Adding plenty of veg or salad to meals can also help it to look like you still have a full plate of food and aren’t depriving yourself.
Milk and Dairy Foods
Eat two or three servings a day.
Foods in this group include milk, cheese, yogurt and fromage frais. Choose low-fat varieties where available such as semi-skimmed milk, reduced-fat cheese and fat-free yoghurt. These foods contain protein, calcium and a range of vitamins and minerals. They should fill no more than a sixth of your plate at mealtimes.
Typical serving sizes:
- 200ml milk
- a small pot of yoghurt or fromage frais
- a small matchbox-sized piece of cheese
Top tips for slimmers: These foods are packed with calcium, a mineral that helps to keep bones and teeth strong and healthy. However, research also shows that the calcium found in low-fat dairy products helps the body to burn fat, especially from around our midriff.
Meat, Fish and Alternatives
Eat two servings a day.
Foods in this group include meat, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, nuts and seeds. Choose low-fat varieties where available such as extra-lean minced beef and skinless chicken and don’t add extra fat or salt. These foods provide protein and a range of vitamins and minerals, especially iron. They should fill no more than a sixth of your plate at mealtimes.
Typical serving sizes:
- a piece of meat, chicken or fish the size of a deck of cards
- 1-2 eggs
- 3 heaped tablespoons of beans
- a small handful of nuts or seeds
Top tips for slimmers: Avoid adding extra fat to these foods when you cook or serve them. For meat, fish and chicken, try grilling, baking or dry roasting rather than frying and boil, scramble or poach eggs.
Fatty and Sugary Foods
Eat only small amounts of these foods.
Foods in this group include oils, spreading fats, cream, mayonnaise, oily salad dressings, cakes, biscuits, puddings, crisps, savoury snacks, sugar, preserves, confectionery and sugary soft drinks. These foods contain fat, sugar and salt and should only be eaten occasionally.
Typical serving sizes:
- a small packet of sweets or a small bar of chocolate
- a small slice of cake
- a couple of small biscuits
- 1 level tbsp mayo, salad dressing or olive oil
- a small packet of crisps
Top tips for slimmers: These foods tend to be packed with calories so your waistline will benefit from eating less. You don’t need to avoid these foods completely – just limit the amount you eat.
How to Make Your Plate a Slimming Plate
It’s really easy. Stick to the same proportions of the different foods on your plate but choose lower-calorie foods from each section. If you want to be really strict, you could also replace any fatty and sugary foods on your plate for extra fruit and veggies.
Are there any other tips to help me eat healthily?
As well as aiming to fill your plate with foods from the four main food groups – and not eating too many foods from the smaller fifth group – health experts recommend we all do the following:
Eat more fish
The Food Standards Agency recommends we all eat two portions of fish each week, one of which should be oil-rich such as salmon, trout, mackerel, sardines, pilchards or fresh tuna. All fish is a good source of protein and many different vitamins and minerals. Plus, oil-rich fish are also a good source of omega-3 fats, which help to keep our heart healthy. In particular, omega-3 fats make the blood less sticky and so can help to prevent blood clots. They also keep the heart beating rhythmically and lower levels of triglycerides, a type of fat that’s found in the blood, high level of which are linked to heart disease and diabetes.
Eat fewer saturated fats and trans fats
As well as cutting down on the total amount of fat that we eat, it’s also important to make sure we’re eating the right sorts of fats. Foods that are rich in saturates or trans fat increase the amount of cholesterol in blood, which in turn, increases our risk of heart disease. In contrast, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats help lower blood cholesterol levels and so reduce the risk of heart disease. Foods that are rich in saturates include fatty meat and meat products, butter, lard, cream, pastry, biscuits and full-fat dairy products.
Many processed and fried foods such as pies, takeaways and cakes also contain trans fats. These fats tend to be found in products that use hydrogenated vegetable fats or oils as an ingredient. In contrast, unsaturated fats are found in foods like pure vegetable oils such as sunflower, rapeseed and olive oil, oily fish, avocados, nuts and seeds.
Many manufacturers are now using a ‘traffic light’ colour coding on their food packaging to help customers identify whether a product is high in both the total amount of fat and the amount of saturates. Red indicates the product is high in fat or saturates, amber indicates the product contains moderate amounts and green means it has a low content. If this system isn’t used, the Food Standards Agency says products with 20g fat or more per 100g and 5g saturates or more per 100g contain a lot of fat or saturates. Products with 3g fat or less per 100g and 1g saturates or less per 100g contain a little fat or saturates.
Watch out for hidden sugars
Many sugary products such as sweets, cakes, biscuits and soft or fizzy drinks contain few nutrients but are high in calories. As a result they are sometimes described as providing ‘empty’ calories. If you’re not sure whether a product contains a lot of sugar, check the label.
Start by looking at the ingredients list. The higher up sugar appears in the ingredients, the more the product contains. Look out for ingredients like sucrose, glucose, fructose, maltose, invert sugar, corn syrup and honey, too – they’re all types of sugar. Looking at the values for sugars in the nutrition information panel on food packaging can be a little misleading as the figure includes both added sugars and naturally occurring sugars. This means fresh fruit may be labelled as having a medium or high sugar content.
However, this is due to naturally occurring fruit sugars. That’s why it’s also important to look at the ingredients list. As a guideline, the Food Standards Agency says that 10g sugars or more per 100g is a lot of sugar while 2g sugars or less per 100g is a little sugar.
Have no more than 6g of salt a day
Too much salt increases the risk of high blood pressure, which in turn is a risk factor for heart disease and stroke. While most of us no longer add salt to cooking or meals, around three quarters of the salt in our diet comes from processed foods such as some breakfast cereals, soups, sauces, bread, savoury snacks, pies, pizza, takeaways and ready meals.
As a result, it’s important to eat fewer of these foods and to opt for those that contain the least salt. Identifying the salt content of foods can be difficult as many food labels only state the sodium content. To calculate the salt content, multiply the sodium value by 2.5. As a simple guideline, the Food Standards Agency suggests that foods with 1.25g of salt or 0.5g of sodium per 100g or more are to be high in salt. Those containing 0.25g salt or 0.1g sodium per 100g or less are low in salt. Meanwhile, products claiming to be ‘reduced-salt’ may still contain quite a lot of the white stuff – reduced-salt means the product only needs to contain 25 percent less salt than the standard product.
Drink plenty of water
Drink around 6 to 8 glasses (1.2 litres) of water, or other fluids, every day to prevent dehydration. As well as helping the body to get rid of waste products and toxins in the urine, water transports nutrients and oxygen around the body in the blood, it acts as a lubricant for our joints and eyes, it helps us swallow, it cushions and protects our nerves and it helps control our body temperature.
Research also shows that drinking plenty of water and staying hydrated can do everything from helping with weight control and beating tiredness to boosting concentration and fighting wrinkles. Water is also one of the best choices for keeping teeth healthy and free from decay.
Stick to sensible limits for alcohol
Health experts recommend women drink no more than 2-3 units of alcohol a day and men no more than 3-4 units daily, where one unit equals half a pint of standard strength beer, lager or cider, or a single measure of spirits. A glass of wine is about 2 units and a bottle of alcopop about 1.5-2 units. As well as damaging your liver, alcohol is high in calories, so regularly drinking large amounts of booze can contribute to unwanted weight gain. In contrast, drinking less alcohol can often help people lose weight.
Don’t skip meals, especially breakfast
Skipping meals may seem like a good way to cut calories when we want to lose weight. However, research shows that when we miss a meal, most of us overcompensate by eating more later in the day and so end up having even more calories. When we skip meals, our blood sugar levels drop dramatically and this usually leaves us feeling low in energy, tired, hungry, irritable and suffering with carb cravings. As a result, we usually end up grabbing food that’s packed with fat, sugar and/or salt but low in nutrients. For example, if we skip breakfast, where we usually eat a bowl of cereal and fruit juice, we might save 250 calories. However, by the middle of the morning we feel so hungry we end up grabbing a bar of chocolate and can of fizzy drink to pick us up – and that provides around 400 calories, loads of fat and sugar, but few nutrients.
Skipping meals also means we end up skipping vital vitamins and minerals, which we tend not to replace during the day. This makes us harder to meet our daily needs for these nutrients, particularly calcium and iron, with the result that we may end up deficient in them. This in turn means we are more likely to suffer with health problems such as anaemia due to a lack of iron or osteoporosis in later life due to poor calcium intakes when we are younger.
If one of the reasons you are missing meals out is because you are too busy to cook, why not try ready meals? Make sure you check the labels of your ready meal choices though and hunt out the healthier versions.
You can follow a healthy balanced diet using the tools and databases in WLR. There's an online food diary to track the balance of your diet and keep calories under control, best of all you can try it free for 24 hours.