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Eating a healthy diet has so many benefits; it is not just your physical health that is reliant on what you eat but your mental health, too. This is why findings from the Food Foundation’s annual report called the Broken Plate 2022 raise many concerns.
The report states that:
- On current trends, more than 80% of children born in 2022 who survive to the age of 65 will be overweight or obese. At least one in 20 of them will already have died.
- Obesity in children has risen by 50% in the past year alone. Children with obesity are more likely to grow up to have diet-related diseases. Obesity adversely affects the ability to learn in school, self-esteem and physical and mental health.
- Poor nutrition is causing stunted growth. British five-year-olds are shorter than the five-year-old populations of our European neighbours with significant height variation between poor and wealthy areas within this country.
- Life-limiting amputations caused by the complications of diabetes linked to obesity have reached record levels, tragically impacting the quality of life of affected individuals and placing a huge burden on our healthcare system and the wider economy.
- Healthy, nutritious food is nearly three times more expensive than obesogenic, unhealthy products, with more healthy foods costing an average of £8.51 for 1,000 calories compared to just £3.25 for 1,000 calories of less healthy foods. Between 2021 and 2022 healthier foods became even more expensive, increasing in price by an average of 5.1% compared with 2.5% for the least healthy foods.
- Excess weight costs the UK approximately £74 billion every year in direct NHS costs, lost workforce productivity and reduced life expectancy. It is one of the main factors in the 20-year gap in healthy life expectancy between the richest and poorest members of society.
What is eating healthily?
Healthy eating means eating a variety of foods that give you the nutrients you need to maintain your health, feel good and have energy. Eating a healthy diet does not need to be restrictive or complex, and you don’t need to give up foods that you love. It is about balance. We all need a balanced and varied diet of protein, fat, carbohydrates, fibre, vitamins and minerals to sustain a healthy body and mind.
We also need to ensure portion balance; this means consuming foods in the right portions for our bodies’ needs. Overeating and not exercising can lead to unhealthy weight and body conditions. So too can undereating for the energy that we are using, which can lead to malnutrition and unhealthy weight and body conditions.
Healthy eating is about selecting the healthiest options from each food category and replacing processed food with natural foods whenever possible. For example, foods with refined grains, such as white flour or refined wheat, have high amounts of starch that the body just stores away and doesn’t use. Try to eat more whole grains such as wholewheat bread, brown rice and oats, etc. which provide energy over a longer period of time after you have eaten them.
If you want to eat healthily, it is important to try to make healthy choices in what you eat all the time – this includes meals and snacks.
Why is eating healthily important?
A healthy diet is important for good health and nutrition. It is essential to protect you against many chronic non-communicable diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. The nutrients in the foods that you eat support the activities of day-to-day living, protect your cells from environmental damage and repair any cellular damage that might occur.
Supporting your gut health with the right healthy diet and lifestyle is of paramount importance because the gut plays a key role in your digestion and metabolism. Its primary function is the digestion and absorption of nutrients, and the excretion of waste. However, 90% of the serotonin in your body also happens to be produced in the gut.
Serotonin is a chemical that carries messages between nerve cells in the brain and throughout your body. It plays a key role in such body functions as mood, sleep, digestion, nausea, wound healing, bone health, blood clotting and sexual desire. An unbalanced, unhealthy diet can impair your gut health and impact both your physical and mental wellbeing.
It is also important to educate children at an early age about eating healthy foods. Eating healthily helps a child to develop both physically and mentally, to maintain their concentration and energy levels, and this helps a child to effectively learn throughout the school day. Instilling healthy eating at a young age forms life-long healthy eating habits and preferences.
How to eat healthily
There is no one size fits all healthy diet, but the key points to remember are to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains and healthy sources of protein such as fish or pulses, while reducing processed food, sugar and alcohol that you drink. There are a number of easy changes that you can make to your diet to make it healthier.
- Eating breakfast – This gets the day off to a good start by fuelling your body.
- Limit your portions – Instead of eating a large lunch and dinner, try eating smaller portions spaced out more regularly throughout the day.
- Limit sugary foods and drinks – These can increase obesity, cause tooth decay, and can make your blood sugar rise and fall rapidly. Avoid sugary snacks such as cakes, chocolate and biscuits and opt for fruit instead. Replace sugary drinks with water or water-based drinks and try to drink between 6 and 8 glasses of fluid a day to keep hydrated.
- Eat less red meat – Whilst red meat is a good source of protein, too much red meat in your diet, such as beef, pork or lamb, can increase your risk of high cholesterol and heart disease. Try to limit or avoid processed meats such as sausages and burgers, which are high in saturated fat.
- Eat a portion of oily fish a week – Oily fish such as salmon and trout is full of omega-3 fatty acids, which are great for heart health, lowering your risk of heart disease.
- Eat your 5 a day – Fruits and vegetables are full of many of the nutrients we need to maintain good health and support immunity, such as vitamins and minerals.
- Eat plenty of legumes – Beans, lentils and peas are all high in protein and fibre whilst also being low in fat, so they are a great way to bulk out meals.
- Build meals around high-fibre foods – A diet rich in fibre can reduce your risk of high cholesterol, hypertension, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Choose wholegrain or wholemeal versions of pasta, rice and bread, which contain more fibre, vitamins and minerals than the white versions.
- Include dairy or dairy alternatives in your diet – Dairy products such as milk, yoghurt and cheese are rich in calcium, which helps keep your bones and teeth strong, and can protect you from osteoporosis as you get older. Fortified dairy alternatives such as oat milk or soy products can also provide this, along with various other vitamins and minerals.
- Try to avoid anything which lists trans fats or partially hydrogenated oils on the label – These raise bad cholesterol and also lower good cholesterol.
Benefits of eating healthily
There are many benefits of eating healthily.
Healthy eating can:
- Provide the energy and nutrients you need to keep active throughout the day while ensuring that you remain healthy far into the future.
- Lower your risk of chronic health conditions, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers.
- Support immune function.
- Help the digestive system function.
- Help to maintain a healthy weight.
- Keep your bones and teeth strong and healthy.
- Repair and strengthen muscles.
- Improve energy levels.
- Support brain function and brain health.
- Boost mood.
- Help with sleeping patterns.
- Support healthy growth and development in children.
- Support healthy pregnancies.
Some of the effects of poor nutrition can include:
- Obesity – A poor nutritional diet full of fat and sugar can cause obesity, which is a major risk factor for many health conditions.
- High cholesterol – High cholesterol levels can cause clogged blood vessels and lead to serious health problems.
- High blood pressure – Also known as hypertension, high blood pressure can be caused by poor diet and can lead to strokes, heart failure and kidney disease if left untreated.
- Diabetes – Being overweight and inactive, as well as a diet that is high in fat, carbohydrates, sugar and cholesterol, are all type 2 diabetes risk factors.
- Cancer – Research suggests a poor nutritional diet may be linked to an increased risk of developing certain cancers, such as bowel cancer.
- Osteoporosis – A poor diet without enough vitamin D and calcium can increase your risk of osteoporosis, a health condition that causes bones to become weaker and more fragile.
- Heart disease and stroke – Other health conditions caused by poor diet, such as hypertension and high cholesterol, can increase your risk of stroke and heart disease.
- Mood and mental wellbeing – If your blood sugar drops you might feel tired, irritable and depressed.
Fundamentals of healthy eating
- Eat a variety of foods to ensure an adequate intake of nutrients.
- Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. At least 400g of fruits and vegetables per day, which is about five portions.
- Consume whole grains, nuts and healthy fats rich in unsaturated fatty acids.
- Reduce the intake of saturated fats. To prevent unhealthy weight gain in the adult population, saturated fats should be reduced to less than 10% of total energy intake.
- Limit sugar intake. Free sugars intake should be reduced to less than 10% or to less than 5% of total energy for additional health benefits. This would be equivalent to 50g or 25g of free sugars per day, respectively.
- Cut back on salt. Less than 5g of salt per day, this is equivalent to one teaspoon.
- Drink water regularly. Good hydration is crucial for optimal health.
- Consumption of alcohol. There is no safe level of alcohol consumption; therefore, alcohol is not a part of a healthy diet.
Reference intakes (RI) are guidelines about the approximate amount of particular nutrients and energy required for a healthy diet. These are set by the government and are a guide to show how much of each nutrient an average healthy person should eat over the course of a day.
Although the most important thing is to consume a balanced and varied diet, RIs are a useful tool to help us understand food and make healthier choices on a day-to-day basis.
RIs are based on an average female who is moderately active, with no special dietary requirements, and at a healthy weight. The RI for calories should be used as a guide. The RIs for fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt are maximum recommendations. RIs can be found on food labels and show nutritional information based on a percentage of the RIs, per portion.
Daily RIs for the average adult aged 19 to 64 are:
- Energy: 8400kJ/2000kcal.
- Total fat: Less than 70g.
- Saturates: Less than 20g.
- Carbohydrate: At least 260g.
- Total sugars: 90g.
- Protein: 50g.
- Salt: Less than 6g.
Healthy eating for coeliac
Fibre is an important part of a healthy, balanced diet. A gluten free diet can be low in fibre and whole grains due to the removal of the cereals such as wheat, rye and barley.
Examples of gluten free whole grains include:
- Brown rice.
- Corn including popcorn.
- Gluten free oats.
A quarter of adults are estimated to be anaemic due to iron deficiency upon diagnosis with coeliac disease. Animal sources of iron are better absorbed than iron from plant sources.
Good sources of iron that are suitable for a gluten free diet include:
- Red meat.
- Liver, however, due to its high vitamin A content, women who are pregnant should avoid liver and liver products.
- Egg yolk.
- Leafy green vegetables.
- Pulses such as peas, beans and lentils.
- Dried fruit, such as raisins, apricots, figs.
- Nuts and seeds.
People with coeliac disease may have an increased need for calcium compared to the general adult population. Adults with coeliac disease should have at least 1,000 milligrams (mg) of calcium each day. The recommended amount for the general population is 700mg.
Good sources of calcium that are suitable for a gluten free diet include:
- Semi-skimmed milk.
- Calcium enriched soya milk.
- Tinned sardines with bones.
- Cheddar cheese.
- Baked beans.
- Kidney beans.
- Dried apricots.
Healthy eating for lactose intolerance
About 68% of the world’s population suffers from the symptoms associated with being unable to properly digest milk sugar, known as lactose. Lactose intolerance is often confused with milk allergy, but it is not an allergy.
Avoiding lactose often means steering clear of many, but not all, dairy products that can pose a problem. As dairy products are important sources of protein, calcium and vitamins A, B12 and D, it is important to ensure you are getting enough of the vitamins and minerals you would otherwise find in dairy products.
Some good non-dairy sources of calcium include:
- Fruit juices and non-dairy milks contain added calcium.
- Fortified tofu and wholegrain cereals can also help you meet your calcium needs.
- Hard cheeses such as parmesan and cheddar contain little to no lactose.
- Fish with small edible bones, such as sardines and anchovies, are high in calcium.
- Dark leafy greens such as kale, chard and collard greens all deliver calcium.
It is perfectly possible to go dairy-free and maintain healthy levels of calcium, just be sure to eat balanced meals and include calcium-rich food sources in your diet.
Healthy eating for vegans
A vegan diet is often accepted to be a healthy one and thought to help reduce the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes. Vegans avoid all animal-derived foods, so as well as excluding meat and fish from their diet, it also means no eggs, dairy or honey.
They also exclude animal by-products such as rennet used in cheese making, gelatine in desserts and certain E numbers including the red food dye cochineal (E120). Even certain vegetarian foods, such as some meat substitutes, are off the menu because they contain egg and sometimes dairy.
Vegan diets are rich in fibre, vitamin C and folate due to all the fruits and vegetables consumed; however, the diet may be lacking in a number of other vitamins and minerals, vitamin B12 for example.
We need vitamin B12 for healthy red blood cells and nerve function, but because it is typically found in animal foods like eggs, milk and cheese, vegans will need to include fortified breakfast cereals, soya products, and yeast extract to ensure enough vitamin B12 is included in their diet.
Plants are a good source of iron, and vegans can optimise their absorption of this energising mineral by combining plant sources with foods rich in vitamin C such as citrus fruits or peppers.
Basing main meals around ingredients such as lentils, chickpeas and tofu will ensure that a vegan diet is not low in protein.
Vegan diets are generally low in saturated fat, but may also be missing out on the potent forms of heart-friendly omega-3 fats usually obtained from fish and seafood. Sea vegetables such as kelp and certain micro-algae supplements can make a useful contribution as well as nuts, seeds and their oils. Healthy fats made from cold-pressed flaxseed, rapeseed, walnut or hemp oil can help to maintain healthy skin and hair.
When taking supplements such as additional vitamins, vegans will need to ensure that their composition is vegan friendly.
Healthy eating for vegetarians
A vegetarian is usually described as someone who does not eat meat, poultry, fish, shellfish or any by-products of slaughter. People may define themselves as vegetarians because they largely choose plant-based diets, but some may choose to include dairy products, including cheese and eggs. Dairy products are a good source of vitamins and minerals, including vitamin B12, vitamin D and calcium. Eggs provide a good balance of quality protein combined with fat, plus the yolks are a useful source of vitamin D, which is needed for strong bones and teeth.
Others described as pescatarians may include some fish, or they are what has been popularly described as flexitarian or semi-vegetarian – Someone who is mostly vegetarian but occasionally eats meat or poultry.
Vegetarian food options can be high in saturated fat, salt and sugar.
Suitable healthy food choices for vegetarians include:
- Potatoes, bread, rice, pasta and other starchy carbohydrates.
- Fruits and vegetables.
- Dairy including cheese and non-dairy alternatives.
- Beans, pulses, eggs and other proteins including Quorn (mycoprotein), tofu, soya products, textured vegetable protein (TVP), pulses such as lentils, kidney beans and peas.
- Oils and spreads.
- Nuts – Choose plain, unsalted varieties.
The main food groups are:
- Dietary fibre.
These are the building blocks of a healthy, balanced diet and they can be put together in different ways, based on our individual cultures, preferences and dietary requirements.
Everyone is different and the principles of healthy eating can be adapted to suit you. It is entirely possible to nourish your body healthily, whilst enjoying the foods that you love; after all, food is meant to be enjoyed.
- For information on the British Nutrition Foundation’s Healthy Eating Week on 12–16 June 2023, which is all about supporting and promoting healthier lifestyles, click here.
- For more information about coeliac disease see Coeliac UK 0333 332 2033.
- For more information about lactose intolerance see Allergy UK Helpline 01322 619898.
- For more information on vegetarian diets see the Vegetarian Society 0161 925 2000.
- For more information on vegan diets see the Vegan Society 0121 523 1730.