Different foods provide different kinds of nutrients: proteins, such as lean meat, eggs, beans and nuts, help build muscle and a strong immune system; carbohydrates, such as starches, sugar and wholegrains, provide energy; fats provide essential fatty acids and extra energy; and vitamins and minerals, found in fruit, vegetables, wholegrains and other foods, regulate body processes, enhance cell function and growth, and help build a strong immune system.
"The two keys to a healthy diet are eating the right amount of food for how active you are and eating a range of foods to make sure you're getting a balanced diet," says the Food Standards Agency (FSA), which adds that the main healthy eating messages are the same for everyone - namely:
- Eat at least five portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day.
- Base meals on starchy foods, including pasta, rice, cereals and pulses such as beans, peas and lentils. These should make up about one-third of your diet.
- Eat some protein foods, such as dairy products, eggs and pulses, and have a variety of these foods.
- Grill, bake, poach, boil, steam, dry-fry or microwave food, instead of frying or roasting in oil.
- Cut down on sugar.
- Watch how much salt you're eating.
- Drink six to eight glasses of fluid a day - or more if you exercise.
The FSA also recommends that you cut down on saturated fat, don't skip breakfast, and eat at least two portions a week of fish, including one portion of oily fish, which is rich in heart-healthy omega 3 fatty acids.
Food and heart health
"What we eat can make a big difference to the health of our hearts," says the FSA, noting that cardiovascular disease causes nearly 238,000 deaths every year in the UK. According to estimates by statisticians at the University of Portsmouth, nearly one in 10 adults in England and Wales is at risk of heart disease in the next 10 years.
Researchers at Oxford University recently reported that heart and circulation problems cost the European Union 169 billion euros in 2003 - around 230 euros for every man, woman and child in the EU. The team found that the UK spent the highest proportion of its healthcare budget on cardiovascular disease out of any EU country.
As well as helping to improve general health, eating well brings important extra benefits for people with coronary heart disease, says the British Heart Foundation. Eating healthily can help people maintain or reach a healthy weight, and so reduce the strain on the heart, adds the Foundation. In addition, it can help lower blood cholesterol level; keep blood pressure down; prevent atheroma (fatty material) from building up in the inside walls of your arteries; prevent blood clots from forming; increase the chances of surviving a heart attack; and lower risk of a stroke.
Raised levels of a blood protein called C-reactive protein or CRP have recently been linked to an increased risk of heart disease. A US study of 524 healthy adults, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, showed that participants with the highest intake of fibre had lower levels of CRP. The researchers from the University of Massachusetts Medical School recommend that adults eat at least 20-35g of fibre daily in the form of fruit, vegetables, beans and wholegrains to help cut their risk of heart disease.
Food and mental health
According to a recent article in the British Medical Journal by government adviser Lord Layard, around 15 per cent of the British population suffers from illnesses related to depression and anxiety, and mental illnesses cost the UK economy £17 billion annually.
"Food can have an immediate and lasting effect on your mental health and well-being," says the Mental Health Foundation. It adds that changes to our diet in the past 50 years are thought to be an important factor behind recent trends in mental illness. For example, it says, anxiety has been linked to a lack of folic acid, and depression to a lack of vitamins B3, B6 and C, folic acid, magnesium, omega 3 fatty acids, selenium, tryptophan and zinc. Insomnia has been linked to a lack of magnesium, lethargy to a lack of zinc and stress to a lack of vitamin B6.
Together with Sustain (the alliance for better food and farming), the Mental Health Foundation has launched a campaign to increase awareness and understanding of the links between food and mental health.
Recent scientific research suggests that diet might play an important role in preserving memory and reducing risk of dementia in later life. For example, one US study of 2,258 people found that sticking closely to a Mediterranean diet may help reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease. The research, by a team from Columbia University Medical Center and published in the journal Annals of Neurology, showed that participants who adhered most closely to this type of diet - including lots of fruit, vegetables and cereals, some fish and alcohol, and little dairy and meat - had a 30-40 per cent lower risk of developing Alzheimer's as they aged than those who adhered least to the diet.
Healthy eating tips
Although the main healthy eating messages outlined by the FSA apply to us all, some aspects of diet may need adapting according to age, stage of life (eg pregnancy) or when living with a particular medical condition, such as diabetes. Nutritionist Dr Sarah Schenker offers the following healthy eating tips tailored to different age groups, as well as during pregnancy:
Mother and baby
- Long chain omega 3 fatty acids are crucial to the healthy development of your baby, affecting both physical and mental health. Ensure you get an adequate intake of these important fatty acids by having at least one, but no more than two, portions of oily fish in your diet per week. If you don't like fish, try the omega-3 enriched eggs instead.
- Eating well is important throughout pregnancy, but remember, you are not eating for two - it's just you and a tiny growing foetus. During the first six months of pregnancy, you only need an additional 100 kcal per day; this increases to 200 kcal during the last three months. Choose healthy snacks such as low-fat yoghurt, wholegrain toast and plenty of fruit.
- Boost your folate intake during pregnancy by including plenty of rich sources such as breakfast cereals, wholegrains, leafy green vegetables, fruit and fruit juices. Take a folic acid supplement daily.
Children and teenagers
- Good eating habits are established in early childhood, so ensure your child eats breakfast every day. Eating breakfast sets them up for the day ahead, and scientific research shows that people who eat breakfast have generally healthier diets.
- Help your child grow strong, healthy bones and teeth by making sure they get plenty of calcium in their diet. Milk, cheese and yoghurt are the best sources, so include one of these at each meal.
- Limit the amount of sweets and sugary drinks your child consumes. They should be eaten as part of a meal to reduce the harmful effects on teeth.
- As you get older the amount of vitamin D your skin can make through exposure to sunlight declines. Boost your vitamin D intake by including foods like fortified margarines, oily fish, liver and eggs.
- Dentures can make it difficult to eat enough fruit and vegetables and reach your 5-A-Day target. But remember, fruit and vegetables don't have to be raw; canned and dried versions, juices, vegetable soups and stews all count, too.
- Limit your intake of saturated fat by reducing the amount of cakes, biscuits and pastries you eat. Replace saturated fat with healthier fats by having foods such as unsalted nuts, avocados, oily fish and olive oil.
Food safety tips
With the approach of summer and more outside eating, food safety is another important aspect of healthy eating that shouldn't be neglected. National Food Safety Week, organised by the Food and Drink Federation, takes place on June 12-18, and the focus of this year's campaign will be on raising awareness of the "4 Cs" for Food Safety: Cleanliness, Cooking, Chilling and Cross-contamination. Details of events being held during the week are available on the Foodlink website.
Food safety tips from Foodlink when having a barbecue include:
- Keep meats, salads and other perishable food in a cool bag with ice packs or in the fridge until just before you are ready to cook or eat them. Serve salads at the last minute.
- Cook poultry, burgers, sausages and pork throughout - no pink bits in the middle. If possible, fully pre-cook all poultry and sausages in the microwave or oven, then take them straight to the barbecue to add the final barbecue flavour.
- Keep raw and cooked foods apart at all times. Don't handle cooked foods with utensils that have touched raw meats or put cooked or ready-to-eat food on plates that have held raw meats.
When having a picnic, Foodlink advises:
- Keep foods cool in a cool bag or box until they are ready to be eaten. Cool bags can only keep food cool for a limited period, so eat sooner rather than later.
- Use enough ice packs to keep cool bags really cool.
- Keep foods covered to protect them from dust and insects.
View our factsheet
Food Standards Agency
Mental Health Foundation - Feeding Minds
British Nutrition Foundation
British Heart Foundation
British Medical Journal
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
Annals of Neurology
back to top