Updated: Mar 7, 2022
5-a-day, 2 portions of fish a week, limit your sugar and salt… The advice is all out there in easy to swallow language, but what does it really mean to eat healthily, and why does everyone go on about it?
In its simplest definition, healthy eating means eating a variety of foods that together give you the energy and nutrients your body needs to stay physically and mentally healthy.
It’s a balancing act, and eating too much or too little of any of the major food groups can adversely affect your health.
What does a healthy diet look like?
Fruit & vegetables This food group should make up around 40% of all the food you consume over the course of a day or a week.
5 a day is an easy way to track this, and if you miss a couple of portions one day, aim for 7 the next day to get you back to target.
Fruit and veg are rich in vitamins, minerals & fibre – essential ingredients to make your body function properly.
Starchy carbohydrates Another 38% of your diet should be made up of starchy carbs such as rice, potatoes, pasta and bread.
Carbs are our body’s main source of energy, and wholegrain and higher fibre versions of these offer the best benefits.
Starchy carbs are also a source of fibre, calcium, iron and B vitamins. Carbs sometimes have a bad rep for being fattening but eaten sensibly without added fats such as oils and spreads, they are not particularly high in calories.
Protein Protein is found in eggs, pulses, fish and meat. It is necessary for the growth and repair of cells in the body.
Protein is made up of amino acids, and animal products contain the full range of essential amino acids that we need. We can also combine a variety of plant proteins (such as cereals, pulses, tofu, nuts and seeds) to get all the essential amino acids, and this is especially important for vegans.
Pulses, such as beans and lentils, as well as being good sources of protein, have less fat and more fibre than meat.
Dairy & dairy alternatives Dairy products are a good source of calcium which is needed to keep our bones strong.
They should make up around 8% of your diet and include milk, cheese, yoghurt, and alternatives such as plant-based milk drinks, and soya alternatives to cheese and yoghurt. Low fat and low sugar varieties are the healthiest option.
Fats Although a little fat in your diet is essential for helping your body absorb certain vitamins, too much can cause weight gain and increase your cholesterol.
The two main types of fat found in food are saturated and unsaturated fats. Too much saturated fat can increase your risk of heart disease and stroke.
To stay healthy, cut down your total fat intake, and try replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fat which is found in avocados, olive oil, rapeseed oil and their spreads, some nuts including almonds and peanuts, and oily fish such as mackerel, salmon and kippers. Look at your diet over a day or a week to see if it is balanced. Ideally, it should be made up of 40% Fruit & Veg, 38% Carbohydrates, 12% Protein, 8% Dairy, and 1% Fats Take a look at the NHS Eatwell Plate to see what that looks like.
Top tips for healthy eating:
Increase starchy carbs - Aim to have at least 1 starchy carbohydrate with each main meal – choose wholegrain where possible.
Eat more fruit & veg – Juice/smoothies only ever count as 1 portion each day. Grab an apple when you feel peckish, or pop an extra tin of veg in your bolognaise to easily boost your intake to reach your 5 a day. Frozen, tinned & dried also count.
2 portions of fish a week – And at least one should be oily fish such as salmon or mackerel. Fish such as cod, haddock & tuna are not oily fish but are still good to eat as part of your 2 portions a week.
Reduce sugar & saturated fat – Check nutrition and traffic light labels on food. Switch sugary foods and drink for low/no sugar options, and replace saturated fats with unsaturated fats.
Eat less salt – Adults should have no more than 6g salt a day. Avoid adding it to your food and check the salt content of ready meals which are usually very high.
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