When it comes to your overall health, your diet is one of the biggest factors over which you have control.
Eating well can cut your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and six types of cancer. But with conflicting advice about which foods help and which foods harm, it’s not always easy to know you’re making the right choices.
What is a balanced diet?
Eating a balanced diet means consuming each of the recommended food groups in the right proportion – and it’s easier than you might think.
In order to maintain your weight, you need to eat and drink about 2,000 calories a day if you’re a woman, and 2,500 if you’re a man 1. This should come from the following foods:
Roughly a third of your calorie intake should come from starchy foods like potatoes, bread, rice and pasta. Where possible, choose whole grain options, such as wholemeal bread, as these are higher in fibre.
Fruit and vegetables
Another third of your calories should come from fruit and veg. You need at least five portions a day – a portion amounts to around 80g (30g for dried fruit). You should try to eat a wide range of fruits and vegetables.
Protein is also essential for a healthy diet. This can come from beans, pulses, nuts, eggs and fish (at least two servings of fish each week are advised). Meat is also a common source, but bear in mind that red meat and processed meat, such as ham and bacon, have been found to increase your risk of certain cancers.
Round off your balanced diet with small portions of dairy foods (or dairy alternatives). If you can, choose options that are marked as lower in fat and lower in sugar.
Which foods are bad for your health?
Most foods, even those we think of as unhealthy, can be enjoyed in small amounts if your diet generally follows the guidelines above.
But you should take care not to eat too much of the following:
Too much salt can cause high blood pressure and increase your risk of heart disease 2. In total you should eat less than 6g a day (about a teaspoon) 3. Find out more about maintaining a healthy heart.
Sugar is very high in calories, so can easily push you over your recommended calorie intake. Doing this regularly puts you at risk of obesity, which in turn can dramatically increase your risk of high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. You should eat less than 90g of sugar a day 3.
It’s essential to eat some fats as part of a balanced diet. But, again, they have a lot of calories, so should be limited to 70g a day. Choose mostly unsaturated fats (including vegetable or sunflower oil, avocados and nuts). Saturated fats (including butter and ghee) can cause heart disease, so limit these further to 20g a day (30g for men) 3.
Is diet linked to mental health?
There’s a lot of evidence to suggest healthy eating can have a positive effect on our mental health. Eating the balanced diet above could help to take care of your physical and mental health.
In particular, you should avoid too much sugar, which gives a burst of energy that wears off, leaving you feeling tired and down. If you have a craving for something sweet, fruit offers a healthier alternative as the fibre helps to slow down the speed at which your body absorbs the sugar.
Instead, eat more whole grain cereals, nuts, beans, lentils, fruit and veg, as these contain vitamin B1, which has been linked with mood control. They’re also a rich source of folate and zinc, which could improve your mood if you suffer from depression 4.
What are healthy snacks to eat?
You can feel good about getting a range of health benefits from the following snacks:
Fruit and vegetables
Every time you eat a portion of fruit or veg you’re getting a dose of vitamins, which offer positive effects ranging from reducing your risk of cancer to protecting your eyesight. Try some carrot sticks or a handful of berries.
High-fibre foods help defend against stomach cancer, heart disease and diabetes 5. Have a slice of wholemeal bread or some nuts and seeds.
It’s good for your vision, keeps your heart healthy and can also help you look after your joints. Salmon or tuna are both great sources of omega-3.
While there’s frequently new information in the media about superfoods or foods that cause cancer, it’s not always reliable and often causes confusion. The guidelines above give you a stress-free way to manage your diet.
If you’re interested in other ways to live a healthier lifestyle, find out why exercise is good for you. And look into how health insurance can get you treatment quickly if you develop a health condition. Take a proactive approach to your health and feel the benefits.