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A healthy and balanced diet

Healthy eating means consuming the right quantities and the right types of foods from all the food groups. The word ‘diet’ is often linked to a strict regime where you limit yourself from eating certain foods for weight-loss purposes, however diet simply means the food we consume. A good diet will need to include several or all of the food groups, as one group cannot provide everything we need to maintain good health.

A healthy diet is a balance of the following five food groups:

Fruit and vegetables

We’ve all heard about the five-a-day campaign but what is it all about? Fruit and vegetables are a vital source of vitamins, minerals and fiber and there is evidence that people who consume at least five portions a day have less risk of heart disease, stroke, and some cancers. This can include either fresh, frozen, canned or dried fruit and vegetables. The NHS has a page explaining all about 5 A DAY including budgets, portion sizes and recipes.

Starchy foods such as bread, potatoes, pasta, rice, noodles and breakfast cereals

These foods are an excellent source of fibre and energy, and are rich in minerals and vitamins from the B complex. Nutritionists suggest that a third of what we eat should come from this food group. Try to choose wholegrain, wholemeal or ‘brown’ varieties as they usually contain more fibre, vitamins and minerals than white varieties.

Protein - meat, fish, eggs and beans

This food group provides vital resources for the body to grow and repair itself, as well as being a good source of vitamins and minerals. Everything from our hair, muscles, nerves, skin and nails needs protein to build and repair itself and will benefit from a healthy intake. It is recommended that we eat two to three portions a day, which can include fresh meat (with the fat trimmed off), fresh and tinned fish, eggs, nuts and pulses.

Milk and dairy foods

Dairy products are a good source of calcium, which helps keep bones and teeth healthy. This food group includes milk, yoghurts and cheese and you should always aim for low-fat products (including semi-skimmed milk) so as not to consume too much fat. People who do not consume animal sourced foods are able to get their calcium intake from other products, such as broccoli, cabbage, soya milk and plant-based yoghurts with added calcium.
Although butter and cream are sometimes classed as dairy products, in nutrition they are more likely to be placed in the fat and sugar category.


Foods containing fats and sugars

This food group is problematic as it is the most irresistible but also the most dangerous, and here in the UK we consume too much unhealthy fat and added sugar in our day-to-day diet. In moderation, however, both are important for maintaining healthy bodies – fat transports vitamins around the body and protects internal organs, and sugar provides energy. Unfortunately, when we consume more fats and sugar than we burn we put on weight, sometimes becoming obese, and increase our risk of type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, heart disease and stroke.
It is also important to remember that there are two types of fat – saturated fat (found in cheese, cream, fried foods, sausages, butter, cakes, biscuits and pies), which can raise our cholesterol and which should be avoided, and unsaturated fats (found in oily fish, nuts and seeds, avocados, olive oils and vegetable oils), which can help to lower cholesterol and also provide us with the essential fatty acids needed to help us stay healthy.
To read more about good and bad sugars and how to manage them in a healthy diet, read our blog on The Truth About Sugar.

As well as getting the right balance of the above food groups, a healthy and balanced diet should always be accompanied by lots of water and plenty of exercise. Salt and added sugar intake should be limited and breakfast should not be avoided, as it really is the most important meal of the day.

We would love to hear your ideas on healthy eating and cooking – you can email us at wellbeing@imperial.nhs.uk or why not join in the conversation on Facebook or Twitter?