Being told to eat a healthy, balanced diet is common advice, but what exactly does this mean, why is it important and how do you make sure your diet is healthy?
A balanced diet essentially means that you’re getting all the daily nutrients you need for your body to function without consuming too many calories. Humans need a certain amount of nutrients and calories to maintain their health, so getting the balance wrong can have an adverse effect.
Maintaining a healthy and balanced diet helps protect you against diseases, such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease. It also ensures that you have enough energy on a day-to-day basis, can maintain a healthy immune system to fight off illnesses, such as colds, and helps you maintain a healthy weight.
A healthy, balanced diet means eating the right amount of foods from different food groups to maintain good health and a healthy weight for your height.
This generally looks similar for most people but can vary if you have special dietary needs or a medical condition that changes what you can eat. In these instances, it is a good idea to talk to your GP or a nutritionist about how you can maintain a healthy diet.
In general, to eat a balanced diet you should:
A healthy, balanced diet also means cutting down on foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt. While you can still enjoy a treat, it’s best to eat these in moderation and less often.
You should aim to include a variety of foods from the five main food groups (fruits and vegetables, starchy carbohydrates, proteins, dairy, unsaturated oils and spreads) so you get a good mix of nutrients each day.
It’s also important to make sure you are getting enough calories and not consuming too many for your height and weight. The average recommendation for daily calories is 2,000 for women and 2,500 for men – but this may vary according to your activity levels and health conditions. Eating too many calories leads to weight gain while eating too few can cause low blood pressure, a slow heart rate and a lack of energy.
Maintaining a healthy, balanced diet doesn’t have to be difficult. While there are foods you should avoid, there are a lot of foods you can enjoy and plenty of ways to make healthy foods interesting and varied.
Fruit may be high in sugar but it also provides nutrients and fibre, which means it’s less likely to cause your blood sugar to spike as quickly as processed sugary snacks. You’ll also get plenty of vitamins, antioxidants and minerals.
Alongside fruit, you should be eating plenty of vegetables every day. Try to include different colours and types of vegetables in your diet, and ensure you get plenty of dark, leafy greens (such as broccoli, spinach, green beans and kale) as these are rich in nutrients.
Try to steer clear of refined grains, such as white flour, as they don’t have a lot of nutritional value. Switching to whole grain means you get extra fibre, minerals and vitamins, while also enjoying added flavour and texture.
There are a lot of protein choices available whether you eat meat or follow a vegetarian or vegan diet. Protein is important for muscle maintenance and development, as well as for helping your body heal.
Steer clear of processed meat, as this can include a lot of added salt and preservatives. Instead, opt for fresh, unprocessed meat (such as beef and chicken), fish, and beans and pulses (such as lentils, peas and nuts) for healthy sources of protein. It’s important to remember that too much red meat can also be unhealthy, so enjoy this in moderation.
Dairy products provide essential nutrients, including vitamin D, protein and calcium. However, they also contain fat, so you may want to opt for low-fat dairy options — just be careful that processed sugar has not been added to improve flavour.
If you are lactose intolerant or vegan, dairy-free options, such as soy, oats and flaxseed, are good alternatives and are often fortified with calcium, vitamins and nutrients.
Fats and oils
Too much fat is bad for your health but our bodies also need fat for healthy cells and energy. Reducing saturated fats but not cutting them out completely will help you maintain your health without consuming too many calories. It is best to cook with vegetable oils while cutting down on cream, butter and cheese. You can also try taking fish oil supplements.
To maintain a healthy diet, foods and drinks that should be avoided altogether or only had in small amounts and very occasionally include:
While the odd treat is fine, eating too many of these foods or drinking too much alcohol can cause weight gain and put you at risk of diseases such as heart disease and cancer. A poor diet can also affect your energy levels, contribute to stress and other health issues, such as tooth decay from eating too much sugar.
If you're concerned about symptoms you're experiencing or require further information on the subject, talk to a GP or see an expert consultant at your local Spire hospital.
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Lux Fatimathas, Editor and Project Manager
Lux has a BSc(Hons) in Neuroscience from UCL, a PhD in Cellular and Molecular Biology from the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology and experience as a postdoctoral researcher in developmental biology. She has a clear and extensive understanding of the biological and medical sciences. Having worked in scientific publishing for BioMed Central and as a writer for the UK’s Medical Research Council and the National University of Singapore, she is able to clearly communicate complex concepts.
Catriona Shaw, Lead Editor
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Alfie Jones, Director — Cahoot Care Marketing
Alfie has a creative writing degree from UCF and initially worked as a carer before supporting his family’s care training business with copywriting and general marketing. He has worked in content marketing and the care sector for over 10 years and overseen a diverse range of care content projects, building a strong team of specialist writers and marketing creatives after founding Cahoot in 2016.