The amount and type of food you eat has a major influence on your health. Your body needs a range of nutrients to work properly and stay healthy. A balanced diet containing all of these nutrients can help you stay healthy, lean and active.
About healthy eating
Healthy eating is all about balance. It is important to learn what effect food has on your body and to learn how to consume the right balance of healthy and not-so-healthy-foods. It is just as important however to enjoy what you’re eating in the knowledge that you are consuming everything your body needs to stay healthy and active.
The well-known saying “you are what you eat” has never been more true than it is today. Our food choices can have a long-term effect on our health and eating a balanced diet can reduce the risk of serious illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis and cancer.
Why a balanced diet is important
The food we eat contains many different types of nutrients and fibre that help maintain the vital processes in our bodies, which is why a balanced diet is so important. All types of nutrients are essential for our bodies to function properly. These can be broken down into five main categories:
Carbohydrates provide our bodies with the energy they need to function properly (organs such as the heart, lungs, brain and digestive system need energy need a constant supply to work effectively). Energy is also important for growth and repair of our bodies tissues, keep us warm and power our muscles.
Protein is another source of energy that our bodies need and provides the building blocks for growth and repair of muscles and tissues.
Fat is a highly concentrated source of energy that helps to transport essential vitamins and minerals around our bodies.
4. Vitamins & Minerals
These all have important functions within our bodies. Iron, for example, is required to transport oxygen in the blood system, calcium and vitamin D are required to maintain strong and healthy bones, vitamin C is important for healing wounds and vitamin A helps keep our eyes healthy.
Fibre is used by our bodies to keep the digestive system healthy and control cholesterol and blood sugar levels.
How to maintain a balanced diet
There isn’t a single type of food that will contain all the nutrients and fibre that you need, so eating a range of foods is important. Creating and maintaining the right balance will ensure your body is fed with everything it needs to stay healthy. As above, there are five main food groups that you should be consuming daily.
1. Starchy foods (carbohydrates). These include bread, cereals, potatoes, pasta and rice. Wholegrain choices are often richer in nutrients and fibre and therefore a better choice than white varieties.
2. Fruit & vegetables (vitamins, minerals & fibre). You should aim to consume at least five portions of fruit and vegetables as part of your daily balanced diet. Evidence suggests that fruit and vegetables cut the risk of disease including some cancers and heart disease.
3. Dairy Foods (calcium, protein and vitamins). Milk and dairy such as cheese and yogurt are important sources of calcium protein and vitamins. You should aim to consume lower-fat options such as semi or skimmed milk, low-fat yogurts and cheeses. Children below the age of two however, need the full-fat varieties to help them grow. Some dairy such as butter and cream should be eaten in smaller amounts because of their high fat content. These foods should be regarded as part of the fats and sugars group.
4. Non Dairy Protein (meat fish, beans, eggs and nuts). Important sources of protein come from red meat, poultry, fish, pulses, beans, eggs and nuts. Try to consume leaner portions of meat (cut of excess fat and skin) and limit the amount of processed meat you consume such as sausages, as they often contain a lot of fat and salt. You should aim to consume two portions of oily fish a week as part of your balanced diet. Oily fish has a high content of Omega 3 fatty acids which have a protective effect on the heart.
5. Fats & Sugar (Butter, cakes, crisps, puddings). These foods are high in saturated fats and should be eaten in small amounts. Try consuming lower fat varieties of these foods which are slightly healthier (but should still be eaten in moderation). A certain amount of fat in our diets is essential to stay healthy but too much can have a negative impact including fat gain and an increased risk of heart disease or stroke. It is not just the total amount of fat that influences health but also the quality. Some types of fat are very good for you (such as omega 3 fatty acids). Foods high in sugar such as sugary drinks, table sugar and snacks provide what are known as ’empty calories’ which give you energy but have low nutritional value. Consuming lots of these foods frequently can lead to tooth decay and gum disease. Alcohol also provides ’empty calories and so your alcohol intake should be limited.
How to eat healthily
Roughly speaking, a third of your food intake should be starchy foods, another third should be fruit and vegetables, and the other third should consist of meat, fish and beans, and dairy, and fat and sugar (fat and sugar being the smallest measure). This demonstrates that you don’t need to give up the less healthy foods you enjoy, just eat less of them in proportion to the healthier foods in your diet. Remember that a balanced diet rather than a strict diet of a particular type (single food, low carb etc) is better than any other to help keep you healthy, lean and active.