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What is a balanced diet? A nutritionist's guide

Jane Collins
Article written by Jane Collins

Date published 17 July 2019

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Most of us know a healthy diet involves eating lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, but how much should we be eating? With expert comment from nutritionist Rob Hobson.

A balanced diet can be achieved by eating a variety of foods from the five key food groups in the right amount for how active you are, explains nutritionist Rob Hobson.

Put simply, a balanced diet is one that includes a variety of the major food groups: starchy foods such as potatoes, rice and pasta; some protein rich foods such as meat, fish and lentils; some dairy foods; and not too much fat, salt and sugar.

It's important to make sure you eat these foods in the right proportions to provide you with the nutrients you need to stay as healthy as you can whilst maintaining a healthy weight.

Easier said than done, we appreciate, and not made any easier by the fact a perfectly balanced diet for one person - say, a 20-something female athlete - will be different from one that is right for a 50-something sedentary male.

But the key is to get as much variety in your diet as you can from the five major food groups - each of which has a different role to play in maintaining various bodily functions - and cut down on fatty, sugary, salty and processed foods which have been linked to an increased risk of illness and disease.

The food groups you need

The government's Eatwell Guide divides food into five main groups:

  1. Fruit and veg
  2. Carbohydrates like potatoes, pasta, rice, bread and other grains and cereals
  3. Pulses, beans, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins
  4. Dairy and dairy alternatives
  5. Oils and spreads

You don't need to have all these five groups at every meal, but try to include foods from them throughout the day. And eat regularly to keep your blood sugar levels balanced. As a very rough guide vegetables or fruit should make up around one third of your plate, your carbohydrate portion should be roughly the size of your clenched fist, protein roughly the size of your palm and you should be having around a tablespoon of oils or spread per meal.

Starchy foods

Starchy foods should contribute 1/3 of the food we eat, and be the basis of most meals. Starchy foods include bread, cereals, potatoes, rice, noodles, oats and pasta. Where possible, it's important to choose wholegrain or wholemeal varieties, which are higher in fibre (which promotes digestive health and protects against certain diseases) and micronutrients including B vitamins, iron and selenium.

Starchy foods supply us with carbohydrates, which the body converts to glucose for energy. Wholegrain varieties in particular promote a slow-release of energy, which can be useful to help control blood sugar levels.

Fruit and vegetables

Most people are familiar with the five-a-day message (1 portion = 80g), but the reality is that only 11 per cent of the UK population actually hits this target each day.

Fruits and vegetables are the main source of macro and micronutrients, vitamins and minerals, and eating a rainbow of colours will ensure you glean a wide range of nutrients (including antioxidants) to support bodily functions and protect your health.

Milk and dairy

Dairy products are our main source of calcium, which helps to support healthy bones and teeth. As these foods are often high in saturated fat (too much of which can lead to poor heart health), it is better to choose reduced fat alternatives. Ideally, we should be aiming for 2-3 portions each day to ensure we get enough calcium; one portion is a small pot of yoghurt, 1/3 pint of milk or matchbox sized piece of cheese.

Meat, fish and alternatives

These foods provide us with protein, which is needed for growth and repair of tissues. They also provide a source of vitamins and minerals including iron, zinc and B vitamins (main source of B12). Eggs, pulses and nuts are included in this group and not only provide the mainstay of vegetarian protein but make an interesting alternative to meat.

Lean and skinless varieties of meat should be chosen to decrease the amount of fat, processed meat limited and oily fish included weekly for a source of heart protective omega 3 fatty acids.

What about foods high in fat, salt and sugar?

Some may think we have saved the best till last as foods from this group are often the most difficult to resist which is reflected in food surveys showing we eat too much saturated fat and sugar in the UK.

Fat is especially energy dense at nine calories per gram and eating an excessive amount can lead to weight gain and obesity, which in turn can increase the risk of disease. Saturated fat found in foods such as cheese, pastry and chocolate is especially bad for us in large quantities as it can lead to increased cholesterol, so these foods should be kept to a minimum.

Sweet food and drinks cannot only lead to poor teeth but excess sugar is stored as fat and can lead to weight increases so these too should be limited in the diet.

How much should I eat?

Most of what you eat should come from groups one and two - with fruit and vegetables crucially helping to provide you with fibre and a whole array of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

Carbohydrates are necessary for giving you energy but ideally choose wholemeal or wholegrain varieties like brown rice, pasta or wholemeal bread to give you more sustained energy levels and more nutrients. Research is also showing excessive consumption of refined carbohydrates like sugary, processed foods is associated with greater risk of heart disease and other conditions like diabetes.

Eat lean meat, pulses or other protein sources including calcium-rich dairy like milk and unsweetened natural yoghurt - essential for the body to grow and repair itself - in moderate amounts and watch your intake of fats and spreads. Some fat is essential in your diet (especially 'heart-healthy' omega 3 which can be found in oily fish like salmon and mackerel, nuts, seeds and olive oil) but keep saturated fats like those found in processed cakes, biscuits and pies to a minimum (these can lead to obesity, raised cholesterol and other potential health problems).

Hitting your five a day

Only around a third of us are getting the recommended five fruit and vegetables a day according to research (and a study from Imperial College London says we should actually be aiming for 10 if we want to reduce our chance of developing conditions like diabetes, heart disease and strokes).

Fruit and vegetables are also mainly low in calories and high in fibre making them ideal for helping to keep your weight down. They also tend to have a high-water content helping to keep you better hydrated. If hitting the five a day target (and above) seems like hard work it needn't be: add banana and seasonal berries to porridge or cereal for breakfast; have snacks of apple slices with peanut butter or carrot, cucumber and pepper sticks with hummus or simply a piece of fruit like a pear; for lunch go for a homemade mixed vegetable soup or vegetable curry (and add dried fruit like sultanas and raisins).

For dinner add three or four types of veg to a pasta bake or roast a tray of mixed vegetables. For dessert have mixed fresh fruit with natural yoghurt. You can also use frozen, canned (in natural juices) or dried fruit and veg.

Want to lose weight?

A healthy balanced diet should also provide the right amount of energy (calories) from your food and drinks roughly equal to the calories you use. The British Nutrition Foundation say women should be getting roughly 2,000 calories a day and men 2,500. Consuming more than you need and not exercising much will, unsurprisingly, make you put on weight.

If you want to check your weight falls into the healthy category check out the NHS Choices BMI (Body Mass Index) calculator. If you do need to lose a few pounds choose a weight loss diet plan that includes a wide variety of food groups than a fad diet that cuts out whole food groups (say, carbohydrates) and is so restrictive it could leave you potentially deficient in some nutrients and certainly unlikely to stick with it.

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Jane Collins

About Jane Collins

Jane Collins is a journalist, author and editor specialising in women's health, psychological health and nutrition. She has more than 25 years' experience of writing for UK publications including Top Sante, Men's Health, Daily Telegraph and Evening Standard.