Maintaining our general wellbeing, may help to reduce our risk of illnesses ranging from diabetes and heart disease to depression and anxiety. So what foods should we be eating more or less of?
Eating healthily means including a variety of healthy foods in the right amounts in our diet so our body gets the nutrients it needs to maintain good health and function properly.
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.