Eating a balanced diet

Despite what you see in some diet books and TV programmes, healthy eating can be really straightforward.

A diet based on starchy foods such as potatoes, bread, rice and pasta; with plenty of fruit and vegetables; some protein-rich foods such as meat, fish and lentils; some milk and dairy foods; and not too much fat, salt or sugar, will give you all the nutrients you need.

When it comes to a healthy diet, balance is the key to getting it right. This means eating a wide variety of foods in the right proportions, and consuming the right amount of food and drink to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight.

Most adults in England are overweight or obese. That means many of us are eating more than we need, and should eat less. And it's not just food: some drinks can also be high in calories. Most adults need to eat and drink fewer calories in order to lose weight, even if they already eat a balanced diet.

Food groups in our diet

The eatwell plate

  • To help you get the right balance of the five main food groups, take a look at our eatwell plate (PDF, 1.6Mb)
  • To maintain a healthy diet, the eatwell plate shows you how much of what you eat should come from each food group

The eatwell plate shows that to have a healthy, balanced diet, people should try to eat:

  • plenty of fruit and vegetables
  • plenty of starchy foods, such as bread, rice, potatoes and pasta
  • some meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non-dairy sources of protein
  • some milk and dairy foods
  • just a small amount of food and drinks that are high in fat and/or sugar

Try to choose a variety of different foods from the four main food groups.

Most people in the UK eat and drink too many calories, too much fat, sugar and salt, and not enough fruit, vegetables, oily fish and fibre. Read our page on understanding calories

It's important to have some fat in your diet, but you don't need to eat any foods from the "foods and drinks high in fat and/or sugar" group as part of a healthy diet.

Fruit and vegetables: are you getting your 5 a day?

Fruit and vegetables are a vital source of vitamins and minerals. It's advised that we eat at least five portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables each day.

There's evidence that people who eat at least five portions a day have a lower risk of heart disease, stroke and some cancers.

What's more, eating five portions is not as hard as it sounds. Just one apple, banana, pear or similar-sized fruit is one portion. A slice of pineapple or melon is one portion. Three heaped tablespoons of vegetables is another portion.

Having a sliced banana with your morning cereal is a quick way to get one portion. Swap your mid-morning biscuit for a tangerine, and add a side salad to your lunch. Have a portion of vegetables with dinner, and snack on dried fruit in the evening to reach your five a day. 

Read our 5 A DAY page for more tips on how to get your five portions of fruit and veg.

Starchy foods in your diet

Starchy foods should make up around one third of everything we eat. This means we should base our meals on these foods.

Potatoes are a great source of fibre. Leave the skins on where possible to keep in more of the fibre and vitamins. For example, when having boiled potatoes or a jacket potato, eat the skin too.

Try to choose wholegrain or wholemeal varieties of starchy foods, such as brown rice, wholewheat pasta and brown, wholemeal or higher fibre white bread. They contain more fibre (often referred to as "roughage"), and usually more vitamins and minerals than white varieties.

Learn more from our starchy foods page.

Meat, fish, eggs and beans: all good sources of protein

These foods are all good sources of protein, which is essential for the body to grow and repair itself. They are also good sources of a range of vitamins and minerals.

Meat is a good source of protein, vitamins and minerals, including iron, zinc and B vitamins. It is also one of the main sources of vitamin B12. Try to eat lean cuts of meat and skinless poultry whenever possible to cut down on fat. Always cook meat thoroughly. Learn more by reading our page on meat.

Fish is another important source of protein, and contains many vitamins and minerals. Oily fish is particularly rich in omega-3 fatty acids.

Aim for at least two portions of fish a week, including one portion of oily fish. You can choose from fresh, frozen or canned, but remember that canned and smoked fish can often be high in salt.

Eggs and pulses (including beans, nuts and seeds) are also great sources of protein. Nuts are high in fibre and a good alternative to snacks high in saturated fat, but they do still contain high levels of fat, so eat them in moderation. Learn more from our pages on eggs and pulses and beans.

Milk and dairy foods: avoid full fat varieties

Milk and dairy foods such as cheese and yoghurt are good sources of protein. They also contain calcium, which helps keep your bones healthy.

To enjoy the health benefits of dairy without eating too much fat, use semi-skimmed, 1% fat or skimmed milk, as well as lower-fat hard cheeses or cottage cheese, and lower-fat yoghurt.

Learn more by reading our page on milk and dairy foods.

Eat less fat and sugar

Most people in the UK eat too much fat and sugar.

Fats and sugar are both sources of energy for the body, but when we eat too much of them we consume more energy than we burn, and this can mean that we put on weight. This can lead to obesity, which increases our risk of type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, heart disease and stroke.

But did you know that there are different types of fat?

Saturated fat is found in foods such as cheese, sausages, butter, cakes, biscuits and pies. Most people in the UK eat too much saturated fat, which can raise our cholesterol, putting us at increased risk of heart disease.

Unsaturated fats, on the other hand, can help to lower cholesterol and provide us with the essential fatty acids needed to help us stay healthy. Oily fish, nuts and seeds, avocados, olive oils and vegetable oils are sources of unsaturated fat.

Try to cut down on foods that are high in saturated fat and have smaller amounts of foods that are rich in unsaturated fat instead. For a healthy choice, use just a small amount of vegetable oil or reduced fat spread instead of butter, lard or ghee. When having meat, choose lean cuts and cut off any visible fat. Read on to find out how to eat less saturated fat.

For more information on fat and how to reduce the amount we consume in our diets, read fat: the facts.

Sugar occurs naturally in foods such as fruit and milk, but we don't need to cut down on these types of foods. Sugar is also added to lots of foods and drinks such as sugary fizzy drinks, cakes, biscuits, chocolate, pastries, ice cream and jam. It's also contained in some ready-made savoury foods such as pasta sauces and baked beans.

Most of us need to cut down on foods high in added sugars. Instead of a fizzy drink, for example, try sparkling water. Have a currant bun as a snack instead of a pastry. Learn more from our page on sugars.

Need to lose weight?

Use the panel below to download the NHS weight loss guide, our popular free 12-week diet and exercise plan.

The plan, which has been downloaded more than 2 million times, is designed to help you lose weight safely – and keep it off.

Page last reviewed: 23/05/2014

Next review due: 23/05/2016

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