A balanced diet is not a crash diet, it is a way of eating all of the right nutrients that your body needs in order to be healthy. Everyone’s bodies are different and often individuals require a different amount and type of nutrients. This can depend on age, gender, illness and the rate at which your body works.
The following information is for general reference, underlining the basics of a balanced diet. This factsheet will cover how a nutritionist can help you create a personalised diet plan, how they can support and advise you to achieve a healthy lifestyle.
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To maintain good health, your body needs healthy foods and regular exercise. If you are interested in adopting a more balanced diet or creating a tailored diet plan, understanding and mastering the basics below will help you get started. Below are eight tips that cover the basics of maintaining a balanced diet and choosing the healthier option:
- Eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. If you can, try to include more. It is said that only a small number of the population reach the full five.
- Cut down your sugar and saturated fat intake.
- Drink plenty of water, six to eight glasses are the recommended amount. Add a fresh squeeze of lemon if you want a bit of flavour.
- Aim for at least two portions of fish every week, with such a variety available you will find it hard to get bored.
- Reduce your salt intake. It is advised to eat no more than 6g a day. Avoid adding it to your meals, you’ll be surprised at how much is already there.
- Always eat breakfast, it gives you energy for the day. Try to fit in one of that 5 a day!
- Use starchy foods as the base of your meals. These act as your fuel for the day.
- Get active. Adults aged 19 - 64 are required to conduct 150 minutes moderate exercise a week. Try a brisk walk for 30 minutes daily.
Basic portion sizes
Carbohydrates, such as rice, pasta, cereal and potato should generally be the size of your fist. Butter and spreads are often high in fat and sugar, the ideal portion should only be the tip of your thumb. It is suggested that a portion of protein, like meat and fish, is best matching the palm of your hand. Professionals advise the fruit and vegetable portion is the largest. This is a great way to include a range of vegetables to reach that 5 a day. Portion size for products such as cereal, rice and pasta is often printed on the packaging.
To get support and help creating a diet plan tailored to you, contact a nutritionist.
The reference intakes you see listed on the back of food and drink packaging are based on the average adult (for example, an average UK woman doing the average amount of physical activity). These guidelines are a good starting point when understanding our recommended allowance and what we should be aiming for each day. If you would like further information on maintaining a balanced diet, this is where a nutritionist can help.
5 a day
How do you know if you're getting your 5 a day? You'll find that it's actually very easy to slip in five portions of fruit and vegetables if you share them between meals. Here is a simple example of how it can be done:
- Breakfast - Have a medium glass of orange juice with your breakfast choice (one portion).
- Mid-morning snack - Eat one medium-sized banana, or three whole dried apricots (one portion).
- Lunch - Toss a handful or two of fresh lettuce into your sandwich or as a side (one portion).
- Dinner - Serve your dinner with a handful of broccoli florets (one portion).
- Pudding - Six strawberries (one portion).
Going over the 5 a day is absolutely fine - the more the better! The only thing to be careful about is fruit, which can contain a lot of sugar. Although natural sugar is good for us in moderation, it can be bad for our teeth and fattening if eaten in large quantities.
Fruit and vegetables are usually low in fat and calories, especially if eaten fresh. If roasting or frying vegetables, try to avoid adding lots of fatty oils. While whole fruit and vegetables are said to be the most beneficial, canned, dried, frozen or blended still offer the benefits the whole foods provide. If you struggle to reach the daily recommendations, try drinking one smoothie a day or adding lots of vegetables to a soup. For more information, please look at our 5 a day page.
What nutrients are found in fruit and vegetables?
There are a huge variety of fruit and vegetables available, all ranging in colour, size, shape and nutritional value. Below are a few examples of the nutrients found in certain fruits and vegetables, and how they can affect our bodies.
The processes in our bodies, such as the digestive system, the circulatory system and the immune system, all require certain minerals to function. Essential minerals include:
Copper is thought to help with the formation of red blood cells and the supplying of oxygen to the body. Fruits and vegetables that contain copper include:
- sweet potato.
Iron helps to transport oxygen from the lungs to other parts of the body. A deficiency can often lead to anaemia. Foods containing iron include:
- brussels sprouts
Potassium is thought to keep the level of body fluids balanced. Low potassium can lead to cramps, irregular heartbeat, and lung and kidney failure. Foods containing potassium include:
Zinc is thought to aid growth, healing and vision. A zinc deficiency can contribute to stunted growth. Foods containing zinc include:
- sweet corn
Vitamins are essential for growth and energy. Our body cannot generate most vitamins, which is why we get them from vitamin-rich food. Important vitamins include:
Vitamin A is thought to stimulate immunity and help form hormones. Low levels of this can cause dry skin, blindness and poor bone growth. Foods containing vitamin A include:
Vitamin B6 is thought to help the production of antibodies in the immune system, form red blood cells and maintain nerve function. A deficiency can cause confusion, dizziness, irritability and convulsions. Foods containing vitamin B6 include:
- green pepper
Vitamin C protects the body tissue from oxidation damage. It is essentially an antioxidant and helps boost the body's metabolism. Foods containing vitamin C include:
- green pepper
Fats - The good and the bad
In foods, there are two types of fat: saturated and unsaturated. Unsaturated fat is thought to be ‘good fat’, this can help lower cholesterol and provide a source of omega-3, a fatty acid that is said to be essential. Fat also helps the body absorb some vital vitamins, such as vitamin A, D and E. While fat is a source of energy, too much of it can cause health problems.
Nutritional experts generally recommend that unsaturated fats make up a maximum of 35% of a person’s daily energy intake. The ‘bad’ saturated fats should reach no more than 11% of your daily allowance. Below are some examples of where you can find the good and the bad fats:
Unsaturated fat can be found in:
- oily fish (mackerel, fresh tuna and salmon)
- seeds and nuts
- olive oil and sunflower seed oil.
Saturated fat can be found in:
- lard and butter
- pastries, biscuits and cakes
- savoury nibbles like cheese twists and crisps
- cream, sour cream, ice cream
- hard cheese
- meat pasties, pies and sausages.
The benefits of eating fat:
- improve the taste of certain food
- transports vitamins around the body
- helps build cell membrane
- cushions and protects our vital organs
- stores long-term energy.
The disadvantages of eating fat:
- raises cholesterol levels
- increases risk of heart attack
- puts pressure on our internal organs
- harder to exercise
- can lead to depression, low self-esteem and stress.
Sugars - What can I eat?
There are two types of sugar, one is beneficial to our body and the other is thought to be bad. The bad sugars are unnaturally added to many products we see in supermarkets, for example, confectionery, desserts and soft drinks. Natural sugars are said to be good for the body, often found in fruit and honey. In terms of your 5 a day, try not to focus on fruit, this can potentially increase your sugar intake to an unhealthy level.
Benefits of eating sugar:
- makes food taste sweet and appealing
- it provides a quick burst of energy.
Disadvantages of eating sugar:
- sugar contains four calories per gram, without exercise, your body will convert it into fat
- consuming sugar can cause unbalanced insulin levels, resulting in hunger and cravings
- can cause tooth decay.
Many ‘crash diets’ suggest cutting out starchy foods as a way to lose weight quickly. In reality, starchy foods are a vital part of maintaining a balanced diet. They contain less than half the amount of calories found in fat and provide the necessary energy we need.
What else do they include?
- B vitamins.
If you have a favourite starchy food, try choosing the whole grain option. Whole grain contains more fibre, keeping the bowels healthy and helps feeling fuller for longer. Generally, whole grain foods can help you eat smaller portions and avoid snacking as they make you feel more full. Some examples of starchy foods include:
- rice and grains
Like fat and sugar, there are two types of fibre. However, both are beneficial - insoluble fibre is a form that the body cannot digest. It simply passes through the gut, providing a smoother passage for other digesting foods. This is found in whole grains, (a hint to why fibre is recommended for constipation). The second form is soluble fibre, this can be partly digested and can help lower cholesterol. This form of fibre can be found in pulses and oats.
Fat burning foods
It is said that there are some foods that can promote weight loss. Most are reported to burn more calories than they take in, increase muscle build-up or have potential to jump-start your metabolism. Try including some of the below in your diet plan:
- peanut butter
- fatty fish
- green tea
- chilli peppers
Calcium is needed to keep our bones and teeth strong. Dairy is a good source of calcium as it can be absorbed easily. Milk and dairy products, like cheese, yoghurt and milk, are good sources of calcium and protein, but also include fat. For a healthier option, choose skimmed milk, they still contain all the nutritional benefits but have lower fat content.
The benefits of calcium include:
- helps build strong bones and teeth
- regulates muscle contraction - including heart beat
- ensures blood clots normally.
Good sources of calcium include:
There are thought to be some specific foods that have higher amounts of calcium than others. These include:
- calcium-enriched soya milks, cheese and yoghurt
- sesame seeds or almonds (add to your diet plan as a cereal topping)
- bony fish - like anchovies and sardines
- dark green leafy vegetables - like broccoli, watercress and spinach.
The general recommended allowance for dairy per day is around three portions. For example:
- 200ml of milk - regardless of full-fat, semi-skimmed or skimmed.
- 30g hard cheese including cheddar, brie or stilton.
- 150g of low-fat plain or fruit yoghurt.
Meat, fish, beans and eggs all provide our bodies with a good source of protein. Protein is essential for the body to develop and repair itself. While pulses (beans, nuts and seeds) are a good source of protein, they do contain high levels in fat. Nuts are high in fibre and are a good alternative to saturated fats, but do eat in moderation as too much fat can be damaging.
The best sources of protein are those that are low in fat. Good sources of protein include:
- chicken breast
- macro-protein (Quorn products)
- oily fish
- pulses, nuts and seeds.
Proteins are considered to be one of the most complex of all organic compounds. They form the major building blocks from which all living things are constructed.
Salt - How much is too much?
Salt is in more food than we think. Ready meals and pre-cooked products often have salt added in production. Too much salt can cause high blood pressure, this can result in a higher chance of developing heart disease. Many of these processed foods add salt to enhance flavour. These include:
- breakfast cereals
- crumpets, bagels and ciabatta.
There are many food products that we believe are beneficial to our healthy diet plans. There are readily available in most supermarkets and eating in excess can also be damaging. The foods containing a particularly high amount of salt include:
- salted nuts
- smoked meat and fish
- soy sauce
- stock cubes
It can be difficult to reduce your salt intake when many of these foods taste good and make you want more. Try to consider them as ‘treats’ and avoid adding salt. If you enjoy these ‘bad foods’, why not try making some of your own as a healthier alternative?
Finding a nutritionist
A nutrition professional can help provide you with a personalised diet plan. A nutritionist can provide help and support, with discussion, you can work together to find out where you may be going wrong, what food groups you are lacking or eating too much of. Many of the advice, recommended allowances and web pages are general, underlining the basics to understanding what a balanced diet is, and how to maintain a healthy diet plan.
Finding a nutritionist tailored to you, will let you know what your body needs and how to adopt a suitable diet plan. A balanced diet can reduce the risk of disease and illness, eating well and regular exercise will help maintain a healthy lifestyle. If you are concerned that you may be lacking in the motivation and diet knowledge, are suffering a deficiency or may have an intolerance to a food, a nutritionist can help you. For more information, tips and advice, please do look at our healthy eating page.
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