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Balanced diet

The essential principles that will ensure you're giving your body everything it needs

About this article

- What is a balanced diet?
- What are the essential nutrients?
- How can I check if my diet is balanced?
- Putting this into practice
- Is healthy eating relevant to children?
- What about alcohol?

What is a balanced diet?

A balanced diet is important to maintain health and a sensible body weight. No single food will provide all the essential nutrients that the body needs to be healthy and function efficiently. The nutritional value of a person’s diet depends on the overall mixture, or balance, of food that is eaten over a period of time, as well as on the needs of the individual. A diet that includes a variety of different foods is most likely to provide all the essential nutrients.

What are the essential nutrients?

We need energy for our bodies to function properly but the balance between carbohydrate, protein and fat must be right for us to remain healthy. Too much fat can lead to excess weight, obesity and serious health conditions such as heart disease and cancer. Too little protein can lead to problems with growth and repair in the body. Eating sugary foods or drinks too often without appropriate dental hygiene can result in poor dental health.

We need enough vitamins, minerals and dietary fibre for good health. A variety of different foods, and in particular plenty of fruits and vegetables, will help to ensure that we get the right mix. Research has shown that there are other naturally occurring substances in foods, especially plant foods such as fruits and vegetables, that are also beneficial to health.

How can I check if my diet is balanced?

All foods can be part of a healthy diet – you won’t have to give up your favourite food. What’s important is achieving the right balance and the right variety of foods. The Eatwell plate is a food guide produced by the Food Standards Agency to help people to understand and enjoy healthy eating. In addition, the government has issued eight tips for good health:

  • Base your meals on starchy foods
  • Eat lots of fruit and vegetables
  • Eat more fish
  • Cut down on saturated fat and sugar
  • Try to eat less salt – no more than 6g a day
  • Get active and try to be a healthy weight
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Don’t skip breakfast

The graphic below illustrates what makes a balanced diet:

the eatwell plate

© Crown copyright 2011.
Department of Health in association with the Welsh Assembly Government, the Scottish Government and the Food Standards Agency in Northern Ireland..

The Eatwell plate is divided into five food groups: bread, other cereals and potatoes; fruit and vegetables; milk and dairy foods; meat, fish and alternatives; and foods containing fat and sugar. It shows the proportion and types of foods needed to make up a healthy diet. Foods from the largest groups should be eaten most often and in the greatest amounts and foods from the smallest groups should be eaten least often and in the smallest amounts.

The key message from the Eatwell plate is the importance of a balance and variety of foods in the diet for good health. As can be seen, most of our meals should be based on fruits and vegetables and starchy foods, with smaller amounts of meat, fish and dairy products. Foods that are high in fat and sugar should be eaten infrequently and in small amounts.

Putting this into practice

  • Try to have at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. Remember that beans, pulses and fruit juice count towards your total but can only be counted once in any one day.
  • Base your meals on starchy foods such as breakfast cereals, oats, bread, potatoes, rice, noodles and pasta. Try to choose whole grain varieties whenever you can and avoid adding too much fat.
  • Choose moderate amounts of meat, fish and pulses, remove skin from chicken, cut excess fat from meat and avoiding frying.
  • Have three portions of dairy foods or calcium-fortified soya milk each day. Each portion is equivalent to one third of a pint of milk, a pot of yoghurt or 30g of cheese. Try to choose semi-skimmed or skimmed milks, low fat yogurts, fromage frais and reduced fat cheeses.

Is healthy eating relevant to children?

It is very important that young children eat enough food to provide them with the energy and nutrients they need to grow and develop. Because of their high energy needs, the Eatwell plate and the eight tips for good health do not apply to children aged under two years. For example, it is recommended that children under two have whole milk and full fat dairy products.

Between the ages of two and five, children can make a gradual transition to family foods, and the recommended proportions shown in the Eatwell plate should start to apply.

What about alcohol?

Alcohol does not feature in the Eatwell plate, but if you do drink men should have no more that three to four units per day and women no more than two to three. One unit equals 10ml of pure alcohol. This can be equivalent to a single measure of a spirit, a half a pint of ordinary strength beer or lager or a small (125ml) glass of wine. For good health, avoid binge drinking by spreading your units throughout the week.

Related Internet links:

- British Dietetic Association
- BBC On-line Health
- British Nutrition Foundation
- NHS choices
- Drink aware

Related information on

IGD's Healthy Eating programme has been co-created by industry and IGD and consists of three parts:

  1. Nutrition information on pack
  2. Healthy eating in the workplace
  3. Reformulation

If you'd like to receive occasional email updates about our Healthy Eating programme, please register your details here.

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