Eating a balanced healthy diet not only makes you feel good, but it also has a wealth of additional benefits.
Your eyes sparkle, your skin glows, you can think more clearly and, most importantly, you reduce your risk of serious health conditions, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and cancer.
Add to this soaring energy levels and stable weight, and it sounds like the wonder drug we have all been waiting for. But what exactly is a balanced healthy diet?
Read on to discover the secrets to optimum nutrition.
Eat a balanced healthy diet food for weight loss
Want to boost your nutrition or lose weight? Here’s how…
You should eat a well-proportioned amount of all food groups to ensure you get all the levels of macronutrients and micronutrients your body needs to function at its best (see box).
You should eat a well-proportioned amount of all the food groups, get the nutrients your body needs
A balanced healthy diet may help to prevent certain illnesses, such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes. It may also help to reduce your risk of developing some cancers.
Your immune system thrives on healthy diet foods, so eating a balanced healthy diet may help you to recover faster from colds and flu.
Also, if you are overweight and would like to drop pounds, eating a balanced healthy diet can help you achieve that. Whatever your goal is, a balanced healthy diet is your best plan of attack in the long term.
Know the nutrients of your Healthy Diet
All foods contain macro and micronutrients in varying quantities.
For example, a slice of white bread and a slice of wholemeal bread contain similar amounts of carbohydrate, but wholemeal bread contains more vitamins, minerals and fibre than its white counterpart.
Your body gets more bang for its buck with wholemeal bread!
For this reason, it’s important to eat a varied healthy diet, with as much fresh and unprocessed food as possible.
- macronutrients- The nutrients needed in large quantities every day. Protein, carbohydrate and fat form the foundation of your healthy diet.
- micronutrients- These are found in smaller amounts in food and include vitamins and minerals. Fibre and water, although they don’t contain nutrients or provide the body with energy, are also classed as micronutrients, because each forms an essential part of your balanced healthy diet.
If you’re already eating a balanced healthy diet and want to lose weight, check you’re not over-eating.
The problem with modern fad diets is they do not address the amount we’re eating but advise you to cut certain food groups out of your healthy diet in order to achieve quick weight-loss results.
For example, the Atkins Diet and Dukan Diet both restrict carbohydrate intake.
But, to manage your weight in the long term and achieve optimum health, a diet containing all food groups – unrefined starchy foods such as potatoes, rice and pasta, plenty of fruit and vegetables, some protein-rich foods such as meat, fish and beans, some milk and dairy foods, not too much fat, salt or sugar – is the best way to give your body all the nutrients it needs.
If you restrict a food group, you’re less likely to consume a balance of all the necessary nutrients for health and wellbeing.
Plus, you’re also likely to develop cravings for the foods you’ve been avoiding. Simply cutting down – not cutting out – is the answer.
The Eatwell Plate
Follow these simple guidelines to ensure your balanced healthy diet contains all the nutrients your body needs. There’s an easy way to make sure you achieve a balanced healthy diet and the optimum proportions for each food group.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has developed the Eatwell Plate to explain the foods that make up a balanced healthy diet. It’s a useful tool for planning your meals and managing portion sizes.
The plate represents your own plate at mealtimes and helps you to understand what percentage of your total daily energy needs should come from each food group. It is split into five key food groups.
1. Fruit and vegetables
One-third of your daily food intake (or your plate at mealtimes) should consist of fruit and vegetables. Aim to eat at least five portions (three vegetables and two pieces of fruit) each day.
As well as fresh fruit and veg, frozen, canned, dried or juiced produce count, too. Aim for two portions of vegetables at every meal and have a piece of fruit as a snack to meet this recommended amount.
As potatoes are a starchy carbohydrate, they are not classified as a vegetable.
2. STARCHY CARBOHYDRATES
Bread, pasta, potatoes, rice and other starchy foods should make up a third of your plate.
These carbohydrates are a great source of energy, and they also contain essential micronutrients such as calcium, iron and B vitamins, plus fibre to keep your digestive system working smoothly.
By opting for wholegrain versions, you will further increase the vitamins and minerals in your healthy balanced diet.
3. DAIRY PRODUCTS
Eat two to three portions of milk or dairy products each day. One-fifth of the Eatwell Plate is dedicated to this group, as these foods are a great source of protein, calcium, vitamin A and B12.
They can be high in fat, so keep your macronutrients in balance by choosing low-fat versions. For example, cottage cheese is a great replacement for cheddar cheese.
4. FAT AND SUGAR
With a low-nutritional profile, fat and sugar should make up five per cent of your plate. Processed foods such as fizzy drinks or cakes, biscuits and salad dressings, should be consumed in moderation, or reserved as a treat.
5. MEAT, FISH, EGGS AND BEANS
Aim to consume two to three portions of low-fat protein each day. This includes lean meat, fish, beans and other non-dairy sources of protein, such as eggs.
Do you know your quantities? The following servings are equivalent to 1 portion. Use them as a balanced healthy diet mealtime guide.
✽ 1 slice of bread, 1/2 baked potato, 2 tablespoons cooked rice, 3 tablespoons cooked pasta, 3 tablespoons breakfast cereal.
✽ 75 g. lean meat, 75g oily fish, 150g white fish, 2 medium eggs, 4 tablespoons pulses, 2 tablespoons nuts.
✽ 200ml milk, 150g yoghurt, 30g hard cheese, 2 tablespoons cottage cheese.
✽ 2 slices pineapple 2 small kiwis large handful berries 150ml fresh juice or smoothie
✽ 3 tablespoons cooked vegetables
✽ 1 tablespoon olive oil
GLYCAEMIC INDEX & GLYCAEMIC LOAD
The glycaemic index (GI) is the classification of balanced healthy diet food based on how quickly it is broken down and absorbed into the bloodstream. It’s a good indicator of how quickly your food will convert to sugar after eating.
Foods are ranked against pure glucose, which is the most easily absorbed form of sugar, and rated 100. If food is rated less than 55 it deemed low GI and will be slowly absorbed. Oats, wholewheat bread and green vegetables are examples of low-GI foods.
The glycaemic index is a good indicator of how quickly your food will convert to sugar after eating
Those classed 56-69 are medium GI, and 70-100 are high, meaning they are likely to make your blood sugar spike. Cornflakes, white bread and boiled white potatoes are examples of high-GI foods. Eat a high-GI jam sandwich before you exercise, to give you energy on demand.
GI does not take into account the amount of carbohydrate in a food, however. So glycaemic load (GL) is a better indicator of how a serving of food will affect your blood sugar.
For example, watermelon has a high GI of 72, but this is based on the equivalent of five servings of watermelon, so actually, one serving is unlikely to have a big effect on your blood sugar levels. Hence watermelon has a low GL of 7.
Many foods, such as potatoes, carrots and pineapple, are high GI but low GL and should be consumed because they are loaded with nutrients.
The energy equation
Here’s how to discover your daily calorie needs and stay a healthy weight. Thanks to years of scaremongering and poor advice, calories are feared by many dieters.
News flash! Your body needs calories to survive and function at its best, so don’t be scared of them. A calorie is a unit of measurement for the amount of energy your body can get from food.
If you’re eating a balanced healthy diet for weight loss but your overall calorie intake exceeds the number of calories you burn off each day through activity, it’s hard to maintain your current weight or lose weight.
The number of calories needed each day for the body to function efficiently is different for each individual. Your weight, age and activity level are the main factors that determine your daily calorie requirement.
CALCULATE YOUR CALORIES
Your body requires a certain number of calories each day just to survive. This is called your basal metabolic rate (BMR).
In order to perform any other activity – exercise or an active job – your body requires more calories for fuel. This is referred to as your physical activity level (PAL).
To find your individual daily calorie requirement, simply multiply your BMR by your PAL rating.
EXAMPLE- A woman aged 34, weighing 70kg has a BMR of 1,427 calories. (8.3 x 70 + 846 = 1,427 calories) The woman has a sedentary office job but runs triathlons in her spare time.
Her PAL rating is 1.6, By multiplying her BMR by her PAL rating, we can see she needs 2,283 calories each day. (1,427 x 1.6 = 2,283 calories) .
This equation calculates the number of calories you would need to consume every day in order to maintain your current weight.
If your goal is to lose weight, you should aim to reduce your daily calorie intake by 500-700 calories, which would lead to a manageable weight loss of 1-2lbs (500-900g) each week.
If you cut any more calories than this, you will be restricting your diet too much and your energy, concentration and general wellbeing will suffer.
You can cut calories by reducing your food intake and/or by increasing your activity level in order to burn extra calories. A combination of the two is most effective.
For example, cut 250 calories from your food intake (eat one less snack or reduce your meal portions slightly) and fit in a power walk or 15-minute workout to burn another 250 calories.
So you can apply the principles of the Eatwell Plate in a balanced healthy diet at mealtimes, it’s important to know your recommended daily calorie intake.
Once you have calculated your daily calorie intake, you can then find out how much carbohydrate, protein and fat your healthy diet should include.
As a guideline, 50-55 per cent of your energy each day should come from carbohydrates, 30-35 per cent from fat and 10-15 per cent from protein.
In each gramme of protein and carbohydrate, there are four calories. In one gramme of fat, there are nine calories.
By doing this, you can make sure you’re eating the right balance of macronutrients, without exceeding your calorie intake.
EXAMPLE If your recommended daily calorie intake is 2,000 calories, this breaks down into:
- carbs- 1,000-1,100 cal. (250-278g)
- fats- 600-700 cal. (67-78g)
- protein 200-300 cal. (50-75g )
Know your enemy
Fat, sugar and salt have their place in a balanced healthy diet for weight loss but enjoy them in moderation Fat, sugar and salt are classified as the baddies in modern healthy diets.
Eaten in excess they can be detrimental to your health but kept to a minimum the trio still have a place in a healthy eating plan.
Most heavily processed foods contain unhealthy amounts of fat, sugar and salt – a ready meal is likely to contain more of these nutritional nasties compared to the same meal cooked from scratch in your kitchen.
Unfortunately, fat, sugar and salt send your taste buds into a frenzy, meaning when you have a little, you just want more!
But, there are two sides to every story so we’ve demystified these diet demons to help you make the best choices.
Fat plays an important role in the body – it gives you energy, keeps you insulated and protects and repairs cells. It is, however, the most calorie-dense macronutrient, with nine calories per gramme.
Too much in your diet can be as bad for your health as it is for your waistline. It is linked to a greater risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.
But fat comes in many forms – some healthy and others not – so check you’re eating the right sort.
THE GOOD- Unsaturated fats – monounsaturated and polyunsaturated – are the healthiest fats to include in your diet. Although they should be enjoyed in moderation, they’re considered beneficial for lowering levels of harmful cholesterol and they lessen the risk of heart disease.
Find them in oily fish, nuts and seeds, sunflower and olive oil and avocados. Omega-3 fatty acids, found in salmon and flaxseeds, are very good for heart health.
THE BAD- Fatty meat, cheese, butter, cream, biscuits and cakes all contain saturated fat which can increase levels of bad cholesterol in the blood and your risk of heart disease. Aim to eat no more than 20g of saturated fat each day.
THE UGLY- Trans fats are found in very low levels in natural foods, but in high quantities in processed foods.
Give products containing hydrogenated vegetable oils (polyunsaturated fats that have been processed) a wide berth as they are particularly bad for your health and the body struggles to eliminate them or put them to good use.
Margarine, spreads, crisps, baked goods and fast food are the usual culprits.
Most people eat too much sugar. It’s a stimulant and addictive, so cutting down can be tricky as your body demands its sweet fix.
Sugar plays havoc with your brain’s neurotransmitters – when you eat it, your brain’s reward signals begin to fire and your ability to exercise self-control is compromised.
But sugar is a great instant fuel source, particularly if you’re exercising regularly. Stick to naturally sweet foods, such as fruit, instead of gorging on heavily processed sugars.
THE GOOD- Sugar occurs naturally in many healthy foods. Fruit and milk contain natural sugars (fructose and lactose, respectively) and these shouldn’t be restricted in your diet.
The sugars found in fruit and natural yoghurt are less likely to play havoc with your blood sugar levels. A handful of berries, chopped apple or a pot of natural yoghurt with some mixed seeds makes the ideal snack.
THE BAD- Whether you’re a dessert person or a cupcake queen, you can still be a virtuous chef. Natural sweeteners such as stevia, agave nectar, xylitol, raw honey and coconut nectar can be used in place of cane sugar in recipes.
These sweet solutions usually contain fewer calories and are sweeter than regular sugar so you can use less. Mashed bananas, dates and other dried fruits are great sugar replacements, too.
THE UGLY- Artificial sweeteners and fructose found in processed foods are a big no-no. Avoid fizzy drinks, biscuits, cakes, sweets and many low-fat diet foods as these can contain high levels of refined fructose.
Excessive consumption can lead to insulin resistance (a symptom of type 2 diabetes), water retention, diarrhoea and poor vitamin and mineral absorption. It also puts you at risk of high cholesterol, high blood pressure and obesity.
Adults should consume no more than 6g of salt per day – equivalent to one teaspoon. Just as with fat and sugar, salt is often demonised. Studies link high dietary levels to high blood pressure, increased risk of heart disease and stroke.
But it’s an essential part of your healthy diet, too. Every cell in your body is dependent on sodium (salt in the body) it helps regulate blood sugar levels, is necessary for proper hydration and helps muscle recovery after exercise.
Get your salt balance right and good health will follow.
THE GOOD- White table salt isn’t your only option for salt – there are plenty of healthier options on the market, containing the full spectrum of minerals and nutrients to enhance your health.
Himalayan Crystal Salt, for example, is an unrefined salt containing 84 minerals (table salt has four) and is salt as nature intended.
THE BAD- You don’t have to add salt to your food to be getting too much in your diet. The more processed food you eat, the more you’ll be consuming.
Everyday foods such as bread, cereal and processed meats contain surprisingly high amounts of salt. Always check food labels – high levels of salt are 1.5g per 100g (0.6g sodium).
THE UGLY- Table salt, because it’s so heavily refined, contains fewer healthy minerals compared to raw salt, including the vital mineral, iodine. This is necessary to prevent degenerative illnesses, so most refined salts are fortified with iodine after processing.
Do not buy ‘sea salt’ thinking you’re buying a healthier alternative to table salt. All salt comes from the sea, so the phrase is meaningless. Maldon Salt, Celtic Sea Salt and Welsh Halen Môn contain the most minerals.
Be your own nutritionist
The good news is you can become your own healthy diet mentor – all you need is a piece of paper and a pen. Research shows you can double your weight-loss efforts by keeping a food diary, and you can clean up your eating habits, too.
Studies show that writing down everything you eat and drink at least six days a week could increase your weight-loss potential.
Most people underestimate the amount they eat by up to 50 per cent, so jotting down everything you eat will make you a more accountable dieter. It’s useful to analyse what, when and why you eat.
By keeping a food diary you’ll be less likely to eat mindlessly and should find sticking to your daily calorie goal a lot easier.
It will also show if you’re getting a balance of macronutrients- protein, fats and carbohydrates – as well as a variety of micronutrients – vitamins, minerals, water and fibre. Plus, it will flag up when you’re most likely to over-eat, skip meals and snack.
Decide how you would like to record your food diary. Pen and paperwork for most people, but you can also use online diaries and mobile phone apps such as My Fitness Pal or Pure Lifestyle, which will also provide some nutritional analysis for you.
On day one, write down your starting weight. Then make a commitment to record everything you eat, as soon as you eat it. If you rely on memory at the end of the day it’s likely you’ll underestimate portions or forget something!
WHAT TO RECORD
To reap the benefits of using a food diary, record as much information as possible but you must be honest!
Record all food including any sweeteners, condiments, added salt and sauces – as these all add calories. Refer to the Eatwell Plate to check your energy and nutrient balance.
For example, at breakfast check that you have included a good source of protein, as this will keep you feeling fuller for longer, stabilise your blood sugar levels and stop you snacking in the day.
Are you having two portions of fruit and at least three portions of vegetables every day?
One portion of fruit or vegetables is roughly 80g. Are you eating two portions of oily fish or flaxseeds per week to get sufficient omega-3 essential fatty acids into your diet?
If you’re not pregnant, breastfeeding or hoping to start a family in the future, you can have up to four portions a week, according to the NHS.
Keep an eye on portion sizes by weighing your food. Or if this is too time-consuming, you can record rough measurements, such as a tablespoon, a cup or a handful.
Check you are eating a range of vegetables, starchy carbohydrates and lean protein sources to benefit from a broader range of vitamins and minerals.
If you have milk in your coffee, or some wine on a Friday night, write this down. Alcohol contains seven calories per gramme. If you have a cocktail, note the calories from the alcohol and mixers.
Keeping a record of your fluid intake will help maintain good hydration, too. The Foods Standards Agency recommends six to eight glasses of water per day (1.5 to 2 litres).
If you’re exercising, drink an extra 1ml of water for every calorie you burn, so, if you burn 500 calories at the gym, drink an additional 500ml water.
Each tablespoon of olive oil adds 100 calories to your meal so try dry-frying or grilling your steak or salmon fillet. Remove excess fat or skin from meat and poultry and opt for low-fat dairy options.
Microwave or steam vegetables to retain more of their nutrients instead of using butter or oil.
If you’re hungry, you will find a diet hard to sustain. By rating your hunger between one and five, you can make wiser food choices to keep you fuller for longer.
You’re more likely to feel satiated when you’ve had a meal containing a source of protein and fibre,
for example, nutty muesli topped with natural live yoghurt.
Emotional eating is a big problem when it comes to managing weight, especially for women. If you’re bored, stressed, angry or even happy, bigger portions and the wrong food choices become more appealing.
Write down what you eat and how you felt at the time, to highlight problem areas.
Are you eating extra calories outside of mealtimes? When you skipped breakfast, did you have a calorific snack? Write down where you were when you ate, too, because we associate different situations with eating.
For example, when you go to the cinema, take a pot of fruit to munch on, instead of sweets or fattening popcorn.
To lose weight, you need to increase your current level of activity. Aim for 30-60 minute physical exercise five days a week.
On the days you exercise, you may need to eat a few more calories but fuel up on protein, not extra carbs, to reduce muscle soreness.
Your diary will highlight skipped meals and long periods left between meals. Check you’re eating no more than three meals and one or two snacks a day.
At the end of the week, weigh yourself again and make a note of your new weight. Depending on whether you have lost or gained weight, you can make a realistic assessment of your food diary.
If you have lost weight, ask yourself what you did that was good that week. Also, look out for patterns – when are you most hungry?
Do you eat when you’re stressed or bored?
Reward progress, with a non-food treat – a magazine, a beauty treatment or a new outfit are great ways to give yourself a pat on the back.
The perfect snack
When hunger strikes, give your body what it needs – not that piece of chocolate cake! Snack attacks can be your downfall when you’re watching your weight If you work in an office,
for example, you could be eating around 650 calories each day through snacking alone!
Whether it’s the habit of eating a biscuit with your cup of tea, or mindlessly eating when food is in your field of vision, boredom, stress, reward and your colleagues’ eating behaviours play a huge part in your snacking tendencies.
Ramp up the fibre and protein content of your snacks to make you feel fuller for longer
Recognise these factors and you can start to make conscious decisions about what you eat and when.
DON’T- skip meals and you’re more likely to binge later in the day. It’s yet another good reason to start the day with an energising breakfast followed by a healthy carb- and protein-filled lunch, such as a tuna bean salad.
You’ll then have enough control to stick to a healthy meal of 400 calories, with some leeway for a few guilt-free treats in the evening.
DON’T- cave into cravings One strategy to manage blood sugar dips is to eat foods low on the glycaemic index (GI). Snacks such as oatcakes topped with cottage cheese or an apple and a handful of nuts are low-GI.
When you do indulge, keep sweet treats to mealtimes, as they will affect your blood sugar levels less.
DO- eat breakfast A protein-rich breakfast with slow-releasing carbohydrates will fill you up and stop you reaching for elevenses. A poached egg on wholemeal toast or granola topped with yoghurt will ramp up your protein intake.
If you aren’t the hungry first thing, it’s fine to wait, but raiding the biscuit tin doesn’t count as breakfast!
DO- prepare snacks When packing your lunch for work, add two snacks of roughly 200 calories each.
They should be well-constructed mini-meals and contain fibre, protein, carbohydrate and healthy fat. Half an avocado, or two plums and half a dozen walnuts would be great choices.
DO- keep food out of sight Banish snacks to your desk drawer and clear your kitchen worktops of all snack foods. Instead, have a bottle of water in view at all times.
Each time you have a snack attack, take a sip of water. Plus, switch your caffeine fixes to herbal tea to boost your hydration.
Try these snack suggestions to beat cravings and avoid diet sabotage
✽ Half an avocado = 140 calories Full of fibre and essential fats.
✽ One apple and 20 g almond butter = 175 calories (Almond butter contains magnesium, vitamin E and calcium).
✽ One hard-boiled egg = 70 calories (Contains healthy fats and 6.5g protein).
✽ 90g edamame beans = 120 calories ( 36 per cent protein and high in fibre).
✽ 150g natural yoghurt with berries/seeds = 185 calories (A 25g serving of seeds contains 6g protein).
✽ Crudités & houmous = 160 calories (50g low-fat houmous contains 125 calories. Carrots contain 37 calories per 100g).