The UK’s Eatwell Guide recommends that a healthy, balanced diet includes plenty of fruit and vegetables, basing meals on higher fibre versions of starchy carbohydrates (such as potatoes in their skins), some lower fat dairy foods or fortified dairy alternatives, some good quality protein foods (such as beans, pulses, eggs, fish and lean meat), and a small amount of unsaturated fats or oils.
Healthy eating involves eating the right amounts from each food group, maintaining a healthy weight, and of course enjoying your food.
Potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates
Base meals on starchy foods choosing wholegrain or higher fibre versions such as potatoes with their skins, brown rice, wholewheat bread and chapattis, wholewheat pasta and noodles, starchy root vegetables like yams, and wholegrain breakfast cereals like porridge.
Starchy foods should make up just over a third of the food you eat. Starchy foods can also make great snacks for example plain oatcakes or plain popcorn. Eat with some fruit and veg to help you to your 5 A DAY.
Potatoes are a healthy choice when boiled, baked, mashed or roasted with only a small amount of unsaturated oils or fats and no added salt. Keep the skin on for more fibre
Fruit and vegetables
Try to have a variety of at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day.
Choose from fresh, frozen, dried, or canned (in juice not syrup for fruit, and no added sugars or salt for veg). A glass of 100% fruit/vegetable juice or smoothie (limited to 150ml a day), and a serving of beans (about 3tbsp), including baked beans, each can count as a maximum of one portion a day.
Add fruit and vegetables to each meal such as chopped banana to breakfast cereal, dried fruit in a curry, salad with a thin crust pizza adding extra veggie toppings, chopped raw vegetables like carrots and cucumber in a lunch box, plenty of veg to stews, casseroles, soups, sauces or stir fries, and remember a piece of fruit makes a simple but healthy snack.
Beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins
These foods are sources of protein, vitamins and minerals, so it is important to include some foods from this group in your diet.
Beans, peas and lentils (types of pulses) are good alternatives to meat because they’re naturally low in fat, high in fibre and protein, and contain vitamins and minerals. They can be added to meat dishes instead of some of the meat to increase the fibre content, for example adding lentils in a Shepherd’s pie.
Aim for at least two portions (2 x 140g) of sustainably sourced fish a week, including a portion of oily fish such as salmon or mackerel. Oily fish contains the essential long chain omega 3 fatty acids which are associated with heart health.
Some types of meat can be high in fat, particularly saturated fat. So choose lean, trimmed meat or chicken without the skin and only use a small amount of unsaturated oil in cooking, or don’t use any at all.
Some people may need a snack in-between meals to maintain their energy levels, especially if they lead an active lifestyle. Snacking is not a bad thing, it just depends on the type of snack – in fact, it features in the NHS’s list of weight loss myths which you can read here.
However, it’s important to choose a healthy snack such as fruit or vegetables, a small handful of unsalted nuts, plain oatcakes, non-creamy vegetable soup or a small bowl of unsweetened wholegrain cereal, rather than choosing pastries, cakes, biscuits or chocolate or other snacks high in sugars, fat and/or salt.
‘Energy density’ is the amount of energy (or calories) per gram of food. Lower energy density foods provide fewer calories per gram of food – this means that you can have bigger portions of these foods with a relatively low-calorie content. Some evidence suggests that diets with a low energy density can help people maintain healthy body weight.
Lower energy density foods tend to have a higher water content, for example, soups and stews, foods like pasta and rice that absorb water during cooking, and foods that are naturally high in water, such as fruit and vegetables. Fibre in foods like wholegrains and potatoes with skin can also help to reduce energy density. High energy density foods tend to include foods that are high in fat and have low water content, for example biscuits and confectionery, crisps, butter and cheese.
For example, 100g of chocolate contains around eight times more calories than 100g of new potatoes:
• 100g of milk chocolate = 519 kcals
• 100g of boiled new potatoes = 64 kcals
Source: McCance and Widdowson (2014)
A lower-energy dense diet generally reflects dietary patterns that are recommended for good health and includes foods like fruit and vegetables, wholegrain cereals, and beans and pulses, and limited amounts of higher energy-dense foods, like foods high in fat, salt and sugars.
Oils and spreads
Although some fat in the diet is essential, on average we are eating too much saturated fat and need to reduce our intakes. High intakes of saturated fat can increase cholesterol levels in the blood, which is a risk factor for heart disease and stroke.
The Eatwell Guide recommends that swapping saturated fat in our diets with unsaturated fats can help lower cholesterol levels in the blood.
Unsaturated fats are healthier fats and are usually oils from plant sources, for example rapeseed oil and olive oil.
Some ways to reduce the amount of fat when cooking are to measure oil when cooking to avoid using too much, use a spray oil, or try cooking without fat, for example using a non-stick pan, dry roasting, grilling rather than frying.
Remember that all types of fat are high in energy (calories) and should be used sparingly.
Foods high in fat, salt and sugars
These foods include products such as chocolate, cakes, biscuits, sugars-sweetened soft drinks, cream and ice-cream. These foods are not needed as part of a healthy, balanced diet and so, if consumed, should only be done infrequently and in small amounts. Food and drinks high in fat and sugars, particularly when you have large servings contain lots of energy (calories).
Government advice for everyone over 2 years old is to have no more than 5% of total energy intakes from free sugars, which equates to about 19 g a day (about 7 sugar cubes) for children over 11 years old and adults.
Free sugars are the type of sugars we should be limiting for health reasons.
Free sugars include all added sugars in foods and drinks in whatever form including table sugar, honey, syrups, and nectars, as well as the sugars naturally present in fruit, vegetable and pulses (e.g. soy, chickpeas) that have been juiced, pureed or made into pastes.
Because sugary drinks are one of the main contributors to excess sugar consumption the Eatwell Guide recommends swapping sugary soft drinks for water, milk or no added sugar drinks.
Why not use food labels to help you choose foods which are lower in saturated fat, salt and sugars? Choose more greens and ambers than reds!
Portion sizes and taking it slow
The key to healthy eating is variety but we also need to watch the amount that we eat, particularly of certain foods that contain a lot of saturated fat and free sugars.
We also need to make sure we eat some foods more often than others. So have a large portion of vegetables and a small portion of lean meat and eat at least five portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day but leave chocolate and sweets for an occasional treat.
It takes a while for your stomach to signal to the brain when you’re full so eating slowly can help you to feel full before you’ve eaten too much.
Weigh it up
Many recipes printed in magazines or books are for four to six people. You can either make that amount and freeze the rest for later in the week or reduce the quantities accordingly.
If the family have left home, adjust quantities and enjoy the smaller grocery bill rather than wasting lots or over-eating.
Weigh a suggested ‘portion’ so you know what it physically looks like. For example look on the side on the packet of cereal and see what a portion size is (usually 35g or 40g). Measure it into a bowl in spoonfuls and make a note of how much room it takes up in the bowl. This will mean you will know how much is recommended to serve and will save you from weighing it out every day.
Made to measure
A ‘portion’ of potatoes would be:
2-4 egg sized new potatoes
1-2 medium potatoes
1 medium baked potato (about the size of a light bulb)
10 oven chips
2-4 tablespoons mashed potato.
Using the right sized plates, bowls and glasses also helps with portion size otherwise, the temptation is to fill big ones. A small one will look full with less on it. Don’t eat from the bag or box. Place foods in a bowl or on a plate so you can see how much you’re eating.
If you want to lose weight or avoid putting on weight, you need to keep a check on your portion sizes at home, when eating out, buying takeaways and buying readymade products from the supermarket.
How do I know what a portion size should look like?
If you’re not sure what a portion is, look to see if there is guidance on food packaging. For example, packs of pasta will usually suggest how many grams should be cooked per person. This may mean you need to weigh out the food or you can estimate the weight based on how much is in the pack. The pack may also tell you how many people it’s supposed to serve and that can guide you on the portion size – for example, a frozen pizza may say ‘serves 2’, so the suggested portion is half a pizza (remember to add extra vegetable toppings to frozen pizzas and serve with a salad and/or a corn on the cob for extra vegetables).
Cooking and eating together as a couple or a family is a pleasure but plan quantities according to appetite and your level of activity.
Men, women and children need different amounts so don’t expect everyone to clear their plates. It’s better to have a small helping and go back for seconds than load up everyone’s plate. This will also encourage healthy habits too.