Maintaining a healthy, balanced diet is a crucial part of overall good health and can go a long way to helping you feel your absolute best. To achieve a healthy diet, you need to eat a good balance of a variety of different food groups to maintain a healthy body weight.
A balanced, healthy diet should include a range of foots that are nutrient-rich, including lean protein, whole grains, and a whole host of different fruits and vegetables.
Why Should You Eat Healthy?
Medical research throughout the years has continued to find a connection between some diseases and a poor diet. As an example, eating healthy can help to reduce the chances of developing heart disease, which is one of the world’s leading killers.
Eating foods that are rich in antioxidants can lower an individual’s chances of developing cancer. Foods that are high in antioxidants include:
- Blueberries, raspberries, and certain other berries
- Dark leafy greens
- Nuts and seeds
Beyond physical health, eating healthy can also help boost brain function and physical performance. For those who participate in physical exercise or competitive sport, there is no doubt that eating healthy can improve performance.
The Importance of Calories and Energy
The amount of energy in food or drink is measured in calories. We consume calories in food and burn calories by exercising. If you eat more calories than you use, the excess will be stored as fat. Over time, this can lead to weight gain. If you consume fewer calories than you burn, you lose weight.
Calorie counting isn’t always necessary to eat healthy, but calorie intake is a crucial component of weight control and overall health. If you want to lose weight, you must create a calorie deficit; by eating fewer calories than you burn. By contrast, if you need to gain weight, you need to eat more calories than the body burns.
What are the Food Groups?
To eat healthy, you need to consume the right proportions of certain groups of food. The food groups are:
- Fruit and vegetables
- Starchy food like potatoes, pasta, rice, and bread
- Dairy or dairy alternatives
- Proteins, such as beans, fish, eggs, meats, and alternatives
- Unsaturated oils and spreads
To achieve a healthy diet, you should eat at least five portions of a variety of fruits and vegetables each day, base meals around high fibre starchy foods, consume some dairy, some protein, and only have unsaturated oils or spreads in small amounts.
You should only consume foods that are high in fat, salt, and sugar infrequently and in small amounts.
The Three Macronutrients: Carbohydrates, Fats and Protein
Carbs, fat, and protein are the three macronutrients that the body needs in relatively large quantities. These macronutrients provide calories and support various bodily functions.
The exact amount of these macronutrients that you should eat will depend on your lifestyle, goals, activity levels and a range of other factors, however, according to the NHS’ Eat Well guide, the daily reference intakes for adults are:
- Less than 70g total fats
- Less than 20g saturated fats
- At least 260g carbohydrates
- 50g protein
Common carbohydrates are starchy foods like potatoes and pasta, along with some fruits, legumes, juices, and dairy products. Carbohydrates usually contain 4 calories per gram.
The primary source of protein for many people is meat and fish. However, eggs, dairy, legumes, and vegetarian alternatives like tofu also provide a good source of protein. Protein also contains around 4 calories per gram.
Fats have a higher calorific value, at around 9 calories per gram. Examples of foods for this category include nuts and seeds, butter, cheese, oily fish, and fatty meats.
What are Micronutrients?
Micronutrients are all the important vitamins and minerals that you need, albeit in smaller doses. Every vitamin and mineral are essential, and they must be consumed to maintain optimum health. The most common micronutrients are:
- Magnesium plays a key role in a range of cellular processes, including the production of energy, functions of the nervous system, and muscle contractions
- Potassium helps to regulate blood pressure, fluid balance, and the function of both muscles and nerves
- Iron is best known for carrying oxygen in the blood, but also has benefits for the immune system and brain function
- Calcium supports the structure of bones and teeth, whilst also benefiting the heart and muscles
What are Whole Foods?
To achieve a healthy diet, you should aim for whole foods to make up eighty to ninety percent of the time. Whole foods are those that are natural, unprocessed, and made from just the one ingredient.
Whole foods are rich with nutrients but lower in calories than processed foods are. By contrast, processed foods tend to have a lower nutritional value but higher calorific content, and so they contain “empty” calories.
This high nutritional content makes whole foods an ideal option when trying to improve overall health, eat a balanced diet, or lose weight.
The Benefits of Eating Five Portions of Fruit and Vegetables a Day
Fruit and vegetables should make up just over a third of the food that you consume each day. The recommendation is that you eat at least five portions of a variety of different fruits and vegetables each day.
These portions could be fresh, dried, canned, frozen, or juiced. Evidence shows that people who do eat at least five portions a day have a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, and some cancers too.
It might sound difficult to achieve, but it isn’t as hard as it sounds. A single portion could be 80g of fresh, frozen, or canned fruit and vegetables, 30g of dried fruit, or 150ml of either a fruit juice or a smoothie. The sugar content in fruit juice however means that you shouldn’t have more than 150ml each day, and you should only eat dried fruit at mealtimes.
If you’re struggling to add an extra portion of fruit or vegetables to your regular diet, you could try adding dried fruit to your cereal in the morning, swapping a snack (such as a biscuit) for a banana, or adding a side salad to your lunch.
An easy way to make sure that you and your family get their five portions of fresh fruit and veg a day is to opt for a fruit delivery service, such as the one provided by Green Vita.
Starchy foods should make up another third of the food that you eat. Basing meals around these foods is a great way to achieve this. Starchy foods are those such as pasta, rice, bread, and potatoes.
Opting for wholegrain varieties of these foods, such as brown rice, wholewheat pasta, and brown (or fortified) bread can be a healthier choice as they contain more fibre, vitamins, and minerals than the white varieties.
If your meal is based around potato, eating the skins too is a great way to get an extra boost of fibre and vitamins.
Dairy and Dairy Alternatives
Dairy products, such as cheese, yoghurt, and milk, are good sources of protein and calcium. They can, however, be high in fat and sugar. Opting for low fat and low sugar versions is an ideal way to get the benefits of dairy without the calories.
This food group also includes dairy alternatives, such as soya-based produce. If you do prefer dairy alternatives, you should choose the unsweetened, fortified versions where possible.
The body needs a good source of protein to be able to grow and repair cells. Foods that are high in protein tend to also be a good source of a wide range of different vitamins and minerals.
Meat products offer a good source of protein, and vitamins and minerals such as iron, zinc, and B vitamins. In fact, meat is one of the best sources of vitamin B12. However, meat can be quite fatty, so to cut down on this excess fat, you should choose lean or skinless cuts where you can, and you should always cook meat thoroughly.
To make healthier choices when buying meat, try to:
- Ask for lean cuts
- Check nutrition labels on pre-packed meat to check fat levels
- Opt for turkey and chicken without the skin, or remove the skin before you cook it
- Limit processed meat products including sausage, salami, or burgers as these are generally high in fat and salt
- Limit meat products in pastry as they tend to be high in fat and salt, such as pies, pasties, and sausage rolls
Beyond meat, you can also get a good amount of protein from eggs. Eggs are full of protein and nutrients, making them a good addition to a balanced diet. Eggs can be cooked without adding any salt of fat, by either boiling, poaching, or scrambling them. Some people may enjoy eggs fried; however, it is worth considering that frying eggs can increase their fat content by as much as fifty percent.
You should also aim to eat two portions of fish a week, including a portion of an oily fish. Fish and shellfish, whether it is fresh, frozen, or canned, are all great sources of protein, vitamins, and minerals. If you opt for either canned or smoked fish, be aware that it can have quite a high salt content.
Oily fish are high in omega-3 fatty acids and a good source of vitamin D. Examples of oily fish include:
Beans and Pulses
Pulses, such as beans, peas, or lentils, are great sources of protein that are naturally low in fats. These are an affordable food source that count towards your five a day as well as being a source of protein.
This category includes foods like baked beans, lentils, chickpeas, garden peas, runner beans, kidney beans and more. These are a particularly important addition to a healthy diet for those who don’t get protein from meat, fish, and dairy product
Pulses can also be a healthy, delicious addition in a range of meals that contain meat too, such as soups or casseroles.
Oils and Spreads
A small amount of fat in a diet is essential, but on average, people eat too much saturated fat. Rather than eating saturated fat, you should try to swap to unsaturated oils and spreads instead. Opting for unsaturated fats can help to lower cholesterol.
Regardless, all types of fat have a high calorific content, and so you should only eat them in small amounts.
Foods that are high in saturated fats include:
- Fatty meats
- Meat products such as sausages or pies
- Butter or lard
- Cream, soured cream or ice cream
- Savoury snacks including cheese crackers
- Biscuits, cakes, and pastries
- Palm oil
If you want to swap to unsaturated fat, good options are:
- Olive or rapeseed oil
- Nuts including almonds, brazils, or peanuts
Foods to Avoid
If you stick to a healthy diet, the amount of unhealthy foods you eat will naturally reduce over time. However, no foods should be eliminated from your diet, but there are some that should be eaten in moderation or saved for special occasions.
These foods include:
- Sugary foods, including sugary drinks and confectionary. There is a link between sugary foods and both obesity and type 2 diabetes
- Trans fats have been linked to heart disease and other severe diseases
- Refined carbs, such as those in white bread, are connected to overeating, obesity, and metabolic diseases
- Processed low-fat products might be marketed as healthy alternatives, but they tend to contain more sugar to improve the taste
Importance of Portion Control
Controlling calorie count is an important part of weight control and eating healthy. It is easier to manage portions with whole foods as they are more filling, however it is possible to still overeat.
To manage portion sizes, you can use smaller plates, and dish up a smaller than average portion to start, then wait twenty minutes before you return for another serving.
Measuring portion sizes with your hand is another easy way to manage the individual elements of a meal. A balanced meal should contain a fist-sized portion of carbohydrates, one to two palms of protein, and one to two thumb-sized servings of healthy fats.
Making Eating Healthy Sustainable
When considering making changes to your diet and lifestyle, you need to consider whether you can see yourself sticking to the diet for the next few years. Extreme diets are difficult to maintain, which makes it difficult to develop long-term habits. In fact, it is common that people can regain the weight they lost after attempting an extreme weight loss diet.
Instead of trying a crash diet, you should focus on basing 90% of your diet on whole foods and eating smaller portions. This will allow you to enjoy treats every now and again, yet still achieve excellent health.
Should I Take Supplements?
By eating a balanced diet, you should be able to meet your daily requirements of nutrients, However, supplements can be helpful in some cases for some people.
The body naturally obtains vitamin D from sunlight and foods such as oily fish. This is a vitamin that many people have low levels of or are deficient. Supplements like omega 3, magnesium and zinc can help if you do not get enough of them in your regular diet.
When it comes to maintaining a healthy diet and habits, moderation is the key to success. Eating a mix of different foods from the food groups and allowing yourself a treat every now and again will improve your chances of sticking to the changes that you make.
Regardless of whether you eat meat or dairy products, it is possible to eat the optimum balance of calories, protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Alongside eating healthy, maintaining a good exercise regime, and drinking enough water will help your overall health.