A healthy, balanced diet
Originally published by the British Nutrition Foundation
In this article, you will find information for the general public who are interested in knowing about a healthy, balanced diet.
We will cover:
- What is a healthy diet?
- The Eatwell Guide – what, who, how and when?
- Are we following a healthy diet?
- Will using the Eatwell Guide give me all the nutrients I need?
The short video below summarises and covers the key messages from the Eatwell Guide:
What is a healthy diet?
A good diet is important for our health and can help us feel our best – but what is a good diet? Apart from breastmilk as food for babies, no single food contains all the essential nutrients the body needs to stay healthy and work properly. For this reason, our diets should contain a variety of different foods, to help us get the wide range of nutrients that our bodies need. This is illustrated by the UK’s healthy eating model – the Eatwell Guide.
How much food do I need to have a healthy diet?
A healthy diet should provide us with the right amount of energy (calories or kilojoules), from foods and drinks to maintain energy balance. Energy balance is where the calories taken in from the diet are equal to the calories used by the body. We need these calories to carry out everyday tasks such as walking and moving about, but also for all the functions of the body we may not even think about. Processes like breathing, pumping blood around the body and thinking also require calories.
So, foods and drinks provide the calories we need to go about our daily lives, but consuming more calories than we need over a period of time will cause weight gain. This is because, any extra calories we consume but we don’t use, will just be stored as fat.
Over 50% of adults in the UK are overweight or obese. There is also a huge concern about childhood obesity, where 1 in 3 children aged 4-5, and 1 in 5 children aged 10-11, are overweight or obese. Being overweight as a child increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some cancers in adulthood. So, maintaining a healthy weight is really important for health.
How much energy you need from foods and drinks depends on many different things, such as how active you are. But, on average:
Eating only as many calories as you need will help to maintain a healthy weight. However, the foods and drinks you choose need to be the right ones, and in the right proportions to stay healthy. Having this balance in your diet can be achieved by following the Eatwell Guide.
What is the Eatwell Guide?
Public Health England’s Eatwell Guide is the UK’s healthy eating model. It is a simple, practical tool to help us make healthy choices and to show the proportions in which different food groups are needed to make up a healthy, balanced diet.
Who does the Eatwell Guide apply to?
The Governments’ Eatwell Guide is suitable for most people in the UK, regardless of weight, dietary preferences, ethnic origin, religious or cultural beliefs.
How to follow the Eatwell Guide
The Eatwell Guide has taken the foods and drinks we consume, and split them into five main food groups, each in different proportions. You don’t have to eat all the groups in these proportions at every mealtime, but rather over the space of a day or even a week.
Each group provides different essential nutrients, so we should be trying to choose a variety of different foods from each of the food groups to make sure our diet provides the range of essential nutrients our body needs to function properly and stay healthy.
None of these food groups need to or should be excluded. Cutting out a whole food group, for instance, avoiding starchy carbohydrates could reduce intake of key nutrients like dietary fibre and B vitamins.
The size of each group in the Eatwell Guide shows what proportion these foods should make up in our diet.
- Most of what we eat should come from ingredients shown in the two biggest food groups – starchy carbohydrates and fruit and vegetables.
- The beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins group, and the dairy and alternatives group are smaller, showing that we should eat foods from these groups in moderate amounts.
- The oils and spreads group illustrates that although some fat is essential in a healthy, balanced diet; we are generally eating too much saturated fat. Most of the fat in our diet should come from unsaturated oils and spreads, but all these foods are high in calories and so should only be eaten in small amounts.
The Eatwell Guide also displays foods high in saturated fat, salt and sugars outside of the main image, meaning they are not needed as part of a healthy, balanced diet. Eating too much of these foods may be bad for our health, so if they are consumed, it should only be done infrequently and in small amounts!
When can I use the Eatwell Guide?
The Eatwell guide can be used to help you make healthier choices on lots of occasions, including:
- When at home cooking
- When out shopping for groceries
- When deciding what to eat for a meal or snack
- When eating out in a restaurant, café or canteen
- When choosing food on the go
What about mixed dishes?
Lots of the dishes we eat contain many ingredients that are combinations of the food groups in the Eatwell Guide. These are called composite foods and include things like:
For these kinds of meals, all you need to do is identify the main ingredients and think about how these fit into the food groups. This will help you achieve a healthy, balanced diet.
Here is an example for a lasagne:
Here is another example of a vegetable curry:
Are most of us eating a healthy diet?
As well as the Eatwell Guide, we have recommendations for specific foods and nutrients. We know from national surveys that we are generally not meeting these recommendations.
- Do we eat 5 A DAY fruit and vegetables? NO
- Do we eat 2 portions of fish a week? NO
- Do we eat enough fibre? NO
- Do we eat less than 6g salt a day? NO
- Do we meet the saturated fat recommendations? NO
- Do we meet the free sugars recommendations? NO
What are these recommendations and do we meet them?
If you would like to see the below infographic a little larger and clearer, you can download the PDF version here.
So, from this it is clear that in the UK we need to increase our fibre, fish, fruit and vegetable intakes and reduce intakes of saturated fat, salt and free sugars.
Will using the Eatwell Guide give me all the nutrients I need?
For most people, eating a healthy, balanced diet based around the Eatwell Guide should provide all of the nutrients needed to stay healthy. However, at some stages in our lives, we may need to take supplements to make sure we get enough of a particular vitamin or mineral.
*Babies should be exclusively breastfed until around 6 months of age.
|All babies under 1 year should have a daily 8.5 to 10 microgram vitamin D supplement to ensure they get enough. Children who have more than 500ml of infant formula a day do not need any additional vitamin D as formula is already fortified.|
|Young children||Children aged 1 to 4 years should have a daily 10 microgram vitamin D supplement.|
|Everyone age 5 years and over||During the autumn and winter months, we cannot make enough vitamin D from sunlight and it may be difficult to get the 10 micrograms we need from food alone, so taking a 10 microgram vitamin D supplement in these months should be considered.|
|People with very little or no sunshine exposure (e.g. those who are seldom outdoors such as frail or housebound individuals and those who are confined indoor, such as in institutions like care homes)
People who habitually wear clothes that cover most of their skin while outdoors.
|These groups should take a daily supplement containing 10 micrograms vitamin D throughout the year.|
|Folic acid||Women who may become pregnant & pregnant women||Folic acid is important for pregnancy, as it can help to prevent birth defects known as neural tube defects, including spina bifida. 400 micrograms should be taken daily for women trying to conceive, and for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy (or higher amounts for women at increased risk).|
|Vitamin B12||Vegans||Vitamin B12 is typically only found naturally in foods from animal sources, although there are some fortified vegan sources like B12 fortified breakfast cereals, soya drinks and yeast extract. Sources for vegans are therefore limited and a vitamin B12 supplement may be needed.|
What about sustainability?
The global population is increasing, which puts pressure on valuable resources, including food and water. In turn, food production, along with other aspects of modern living such as cars, results in greenhouse gas emissions that influence climate change. So, to ensure that there is enough food for future generations, it is important to consider the ‘sustainability’ of the diets we eat as well as whether or not the overall diet is healthy.
By ‘sustainable’ we mean that the impact the production of the food has on the environment is limited.
The type of diet illustrated by the Eatwell Guide, which includes lots of plant-based foods, has been suggested to be relatively sustainable, especially if the fruits and vegetables consumed are those that are in season.