Finding your way through the endless cycle of diet trends can be challenging. With every diet promising the ultimate route to health, how can you tell which to follow and which to ignore? There’s a word to keep in mind, and that word is balance.
Research from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation found that a poor diet can be more harmful to our health than smoking. That’s why it’s important to know what a healthy and balanced diet looks like, and if you need to make changes to your own diet.
Read on to find out if your diet is as balanced as it could be.
What does a healthy and balanced diet include?
A balanced diet should consist of starchy carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables, good sources of protein, some oily fish and a limited amount of saturated fat, sugar and salt.
But what exactly does this look like when you’re putting a meal together?
- Carbohydrates like pasta, rice or potatoes should make up just over a third of what’s on your plate.
- Vegetables or salad items should also make up just over a third of what’s on your plate. Try to eat different vegetables with every meal.
- The rest of your meal should consist of protein such as poultry, eggs, fish, cheese, nuts or pulses.
- Finally, add small amounts of fats and oils to your plate.
- Instead of frying food, use healthier cooking methods like grilling, baking, steaming or boiling.
If you enjoy ending your meals with a dessert or eating sweet treats throughout the day, it’s time to review how healthy your choices are.
Do you opt for cakes, biscuits, chocolate and other sources of refined sugar? If so, you can make your diet more balanced by swapping these for naturally-sweet foods like fruit. Eating at least 5 portions of fruit and vegetables can reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and certain cancers.
Are carbohydrates bad for you?
Carbohydrates or ‘carbs’ have developed a bad reputation. Many fad diets now promote restricting your carbohydrate intake as the secret to easy or rapid weight loss. But is this good for overall health?
The answer is no.
Carbohydrates are our main source of fuel and nutrients, and the fibre they contain can help prevent cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and bowel cancer. Carbohydrates should make up around a third of your meals.
However, minimise highly-refined and processed carbohydrates like white pasta and sugar. These types of carbohydrates cause rapid spikes in blood sugar levels and don’t make you feel full for very long.
When you create a meal, choose carbohydrates that are high in fibre. Such foods include fruit and vegetables, pulses, and wholegrain and wholewheat varieties of starchy foods that keep you fuller for longer.
Good fats versus bad fats
It can be difficult to know what types of fats are healthy, if any. Some fat is an essential part of our diet.
There are 2 types of fat: saturated and unsaturated fat. Saturated fat is often called ‘bad fat’ because it raises cholesterol, which can lead to heart disease. Aim to replace saturated fat with unsaturated fat (‘good fat’). For example, swap butter for olive oil.
An effective way to include more healthy fats in your diet is to eat 1 portion of oily fish, such as salmon, tuna or herring, a week.
Oily fish is an excellent source of omega-3s, which give your body energy and play an important role in hormone regulation and in the health of your heart, blood vessels, lungs and immune system. If you don’t eat fish, try nuts, seeds and plant oils as an alternative source of omega-3.
But bear in mind that all types of fat are high in energy (calories) and should still be eaten in small quantities.
How much sugar and salt are you really eating?
Most of us know we should cut down the amount of sugar or salt we eat. Even if you don’t add sugar or salt to your food or drink, you may still be eating more than the recommended daily allowance.
The recommended daily allowance of sugar is around 3g, which is 7.5 cubes or teaspoons of sugar. However, a study by Public Health England found that people in the UK consume 3 times this amount.
The same study found that children were consuming the equivalent of 3 cubes of sugar before the school day had even started.
What do you eat for breakfast? If you usually enjoy a bowl of cereal and a glass of juice, you may be having more sugar than you realise.
Pre-packaged and processed foods are another source of sugar and salt that can be overlooked. Canned soups can contain more salt than a bag of crisps, with some containing more than the recommended limit of 6g a day. If you buy pre-packaged food, make sure you check the nutritional label to see how much sugar and salt is in it.
Hopefully, you now feel more confident about what a healthy and balanced diet looks like. But a healthy diet is not just about food - what you drink also matters. Aim to drink 6 to 8 glasses of water a day, and don’t forget to limit your alcohol consumption.