Eating healthily doesn’t have to be complicated or boring! In fact, it’s about making sure you have plenty of variety, so you get all the nutrients you need and maintain a healthy weight.
It’s about not eating too much of some things – like saturated fat, sugar and salt – while getting enough of others – like fibre, protein, vitamins and minerals.
Fruit and vegetables
Research shows that people who eat plenty of fruit and vegetables are less likely to develop heart disease and certain cancers.
They can be fresh, frozen, dried, canned or juiced and should make up about a third of our diet. Many of us don’t eat enough fruit and veg, and it can be hard to know how much a ‘portion’ actually is. Here are a few simple suggestions, which count as one portion each:
Breakfast – a glass of juice or a heaped tablespoon of dried fruit or a banana with your cereal.
Snacks – an apple or a pear.
Lunch – a side salad or three heaped tablespoons of baked beans.
Dinner – three heaped tablespoons of vegetables like peas or carrots or sweetcorn.
You should try to eat at least 5 portions of different coloured fruit and vegetables a day and each one must be different. A glass of fruit juice or a smoothie only counts as one portion.
Meat, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, lentils and nuts
These foods all contain protein, which helps to build and repair your body.
You don’t need to eat meat or fish every day – try cheese, well-cooked eggs, beans, lentils or tofu instead.
Try to eat fish twice a week – one portion (140g) of white fish such as haddock or cod, and one portion of oily fish such as salmon or sardines. Oily fish are rich in vitamin D and a type of fat that helps to prevent heart disease. Avoid frying meat or fish.
Breads, other cereals and potatoes
You should base your meals around starchy carbohydrates (bread, breakfast cereal, potatoes, yams, rice or pasta). These foods give you energy.
Wholegrain foods such as brown rice or wholegrain bread or pasta contain B vitamins, minerals and fibre that are good for you and help prevent constipation.
Why not try:
Breakfast – wholegrain cereal or porridge or wholemeal toast with cut up banana or dried fruit.
Lunch – a sandwich or brown rice or pasta salad
Dinner – stews, casseroles or curries with potatoes or couscous or pasta or rice
Milk and dairy foods
These are calcium-rich foods, which help to keep bones and teeth strong. Try to choose lower-fat versions, such as semi-skimmed milk, half-fat cheese and low-fat paneer where you can.
Did you know: A 200ml glass of whole milk contains 8g fat whereas a glass of semi-skimmed has 3.5g?
The truth about fat, sugar and salt
Diets that are high in fat, sugar and salt are associated with a higher incidence of many of today’s common health conditions such as heart disease, some types of cancer, high blood pressure, stroke, obesity and tooth decay.
Many processed foods, ready meals and savoury snacks can be relatively high in fat and salt, so try to get in the habit of reading pack labels and comparing brands before you buy.
Foods that are high in fat, sugar or salt should be eaten in moderation as part of a balanced diet and in many cases it may be best to consider them as treats.
Try to keep an eye on the overall amount of fat you eat and what type of fat this is. There are three main types of fat:
- Saturated fat
- Unsaturated fat
- Trans fats
Saturated fat is found in foods like cakes, biscuits, sausages, pies, butter, cream, cheese, pastries, chocolate and coconut oil, and is known to raise the ‘bad’ type of cholesterol in the blood, which increases the risk of heart disease.
How much is too much and how much is ok?
- A food with a high level of saturated fat has more than 5g saturates per 100g.
- A food with a low level of saturated fat has 1.5g saturates or less per 100g.
Check for saturates on food labels, or use the ‘traffic light’ symbols to see how much fat is in packaged food before you buy.
Unsaturated fat is found in foods like vegetable oils, oily fish (sardines, mackerel, salmon, trout), avocados and nuts and seeds.
Unsaturated fats can be monounsaturated or polyunsaturated.
Monounsaturated fats are found in certain plant oils, such as olive oil.
Polyunsaturated fats are found in other plant oils, such as sunflower oil or spreads made from them.
Omega 3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated and may help to protect against heart disease. They are found in some plant oils, but oily fish is the best source.
Having unsaturated fat can help raise the level of ‘good’ cholesterol in the blood and gives us the essential fatty acids that we need.
Trans fats are found mainly in foods containing hydrogenated vegetable fat, and is typically used in baked goods, such as biscuits and cakes.
Like saturated fats, trans fats tend to raise the 'bad' type of cholesterol in the blood that increases the risk of coronary heart disease. Intake of trans fats is not high in this country, and many food manufacturers are reducing the amount of trans fat in their products.
How to reduce the amount of fat in our diets
- Replace snacks of biscuits and cakes with fruit
- Buy reduced or lower fat options where possible (for example, with milk, butter, and spreads)
- Grill, steam or bake food instead of frying it
- Choose poultry or fish, and leaner cuts of red meat, where you trim off any fat from the meat
- Compare labels at the supermarket and choose options with less fat
Sugar is found in foods like fizzy drinks, sweets, cakes and biscuits and too much sugar can make you prone to becoming overweight, as sugary foods tend to be relatively high in calories, particularly if they are fatty as well. Having frequent sugary snacks and drinks can lead to tooth decay.
How much is too much and how much is ok?
- A product with a high amount of sugar has more than 15g sugars per 100g
- A product with a low amount of sugar has 5g sugars or less per 100g
Some of the sugars on the label could represent sugars in fruit or milk, so a food containing milk or fruit will be a healthier choice than one with same amount of sugars, but no milk or fruit ingredients.
How to reduce the amount of sugar in our diets
- Use artificial sweeteners or a sugar substitute in hot drinks
- Cut down on sugary snacks and have a piece of fruit instead
- Choose reduced sugar products
- Choose tinned fruit in natural juice instead of syrup
Relatively high levels of salt can be found in:
- salted nuts and snacks
- savoury biscuits
- preserved meats like bacon, ham and salami
- canned soups
- ready/pre-cooked meals, sauces, and stock cubes.
Bread and breakfast cereals do not taste salty, but can make a significant contribution to our salt intake because many of us eat a lot of them on a regular basis.
Too much salt is linked to high blood pressure - people with high blood pressure are 3 times more likely to develop heart disease or have a stroke than people with normal blood pressure.
Although salt is essential in our diet, it’s only needed in small amounts. Adults should aim for no more than 6g salt each day, but you may be surprised to know that around 75% of the salt we eat is found in the foods we buy, or ‘processed’ foods, with the remaining 25% added during cooking or at the table.
How much salt is too much and how much is ok?
A high salt food has more than 1.5g salt per 100g (or 0.6g sodium)
A low salt food has 0.3g salt or less per 100g (or 0.1g sodium)
How to reduce the amount of salt in our diets
Don’t snack on salty food (for example, salted crisps or peanuts)
Read and compare food labels at the supermarket
Don’t add salt while cooking or to food
Look out for low salt options
Did you know? Every day 26 million adults in the UK eat too much salt.
Maintaining a healthy weight
Keeping to a healthy weight is important, however, we all know how easy it is for weight to creep up or drop off without us noticing, so check regularly that your weight is within a healthy range.
One way of doing this is by finding out your Body Mass Index (BMI). Use the BMI calculator on NHS Choices to calculate yours.
Worried about a poor appetite or unwanted weight loss?
If you’re finding it difficult to eat enough, this can result in you lacking essential vitamins and minerals, feeling tired, depressed and low on energy. It may also result in you losing weight.
If you only feel like eating a little, it’s important that the food you do eat is nourishing.
- Eat two to three small meals and a few snacks every day. Snack on yoghurt, cheese and crackers, toast with a savoury topping, a milky drink, a fruit smoothie, or breakfast cereal with milk, rather than biscuits and sweets.
- Keeping active will help improve your appetite. Try going for a short walk every day or find another activity you enjoy that keeps you on the move. If you find movement difficult, ask your GP for advice about activities suitable for your level of mobility and fitness.
- Keep a store of food for when you want a quick meal or snack, such as cans of soup or frozen meals.
- Even if your appetite is poor, make sure you drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated.
If you have problems chewing and wear dentures or have a bridge, ask your dentist to check that they fit properly. While any dental problems are being corrected, try easy-to-eat foods such as minced meat, casseroles, mashed potato, canned fruit and cooked vegetables.
If you’re finding it difficult to shop or cook for yourself, consider getting help. Talk to your local adult social services department and explain any problems you’re having with day-to-day tasks.
Shopping online can be convenient if there aren’t any shops within walking distance or it’s difficult for you to get there - bulk-buying heavier items is a good idea, so that someone else does the lifting for you.
Visit your favourite supermarket’s website to see whether they offer home delivery.
Trying to lose weight?
Losing weight isn’t easy, but being very overweight puts us at risk of serious diseases including heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some cancers, including bowel cancer and breast cancer after the menopause.
The media often talks about obesity in the younger population, but it’s a problem among older people too.
If you’ve gradually gained weight over the years, try to lose it slowly but steadily, for example by losing 1kg (1–2lb) a week rather than crash dieting.
Try keeping a food diary for a week. Write down everything you eat each day then check through to see where you might cut down or change your habits, for example by switching to healthier snacks.
Staple food items
Keep a store of basic foods in case you can’t get to the shops because of bad weather or illness.
Use your freezer to store a small supply of foods you enjoy. This could include bread, frozen meat and chicken pieces, frozen vegetables, a selection of ready meals, frozen seasonal fruit and ice cream.
Cooking large batches of meals, such as stew or homemade soup, and freezing individual portions is a good idea. You can then defrost the meal for eating when you feel like it.
Try keeping some of these foods in your cupboards:
- Milk – long-life, dried, or evaporated milk; canned milky puddings.
- Meat and fish – canned corned beef, ham, sardines, salmon, pilchards, mackerel and tuna.
- Fruit, vegetables and fruit juice – a variety of canned goods (including baked beans), instant mashed potato, dried fruits, long-life fruit juice.
- Lentils and beans such as dried or canned red kidney beans or chickpeas.
- Cereals – breakfast cereals, wholegrain crackers, oatcakes, plain biscuits as well as pasta and rice.
- Drinks – tea, coffee, cocoa, malted milk.
- Other – canned and dried soups, yeast extract (for example, Bovril, Marmite or Vegemite).
Store-cupboard foods don’t keep for ever, so make sure you don’t let things go out of date.
Eating well on a budget
Some people don’t think it’s possible to eat healthily on a small budget, but if you plan you can usually save a few pennies as well as giving your body all the nutrients it needs.
Plan your meals a few days ahead and stick to a shopping list so you buy only the items you need.
Cheaper supermarket own brands are a good bet, and remember that frozen and tinned fruit and vegetables count towards your 5 a day, and are often less expensive than fresh varieties.
For fresh fruit and vegetables, it’s often better value to shop at a local market rather than at a supermarket, especially if you buy fruit and vegetables that are in season.
- Look for money-off coupons in magazines or online.
- Check for offers on storable foods such as pasta, cereal, and tinned food.
- The reduced items shelf for goods that are reaching their use-by date often has some good bargains.
- If you’re tempted by an offer on perishable foods, check the use-by date and think about whether you will definitely use it before it expires.
If you’re newly bereaved or separated, it can be difficult to adjust to cooking for one and keeping within a different budget.
Try not to rely on ready meals: making your own usually works out cheaper and ready-meals can be higher in salt, sugar and fat than dishes you prepare for yourself. Try making extra portions of meals and freezing them to have later in the week.
Drinking and alcohol
Water and non-alcoholic drinks
Keeping properly hydrated is vital for our bodies to work properly. Not drinking enough can cause constipation, headaches, tiredness and irritability.
Drink about six to eight cups of liquid a day. This doesn’t have to be water. Vary what you drink – tea, coffee, fruit juice or squash – but avoid sugary fizzy drinks as they contain unnecessary calories, which can lead to weight gain.
Don’t rely on feeling thirsty to tell you when to drink, as when we get older our sense of thirst gets weaker.
Many of us enjoy a drink now and then, but drinking more than the recommended limits can damage our health, and government guidance says we should drink in moderation:
- men should not regularly drink more than three to four units a day
- women should not regularly drink more than two to three units a day.
‘Regularly’ means every day or most days. A pint of beer (4% alcohol) and a 175ml standard glass of wine (13% alcohol) both contain 2.3 units.
Having wine or beer most evenings, with your meal or while watching TV, for example, can be as harmful to your health as binge drinking.
It can result in damage to your liver, brain, blood vessels and other organs, and can cause sleep problems and increase the risk of falls.
Keep at least two days per week alcohol-free so that your liver, in particular, can recover from the toxic effects of alcohol.
Visit the Drinkaware website for more guidance on alcohol and health.
It’s particularly important to drink plenty water in hot weather and stick to a normal diet to replace salt loss from sweating. See our leaflet Staying cool in a heatwave for more tips on coping in the heat.
Know what's in your food
The symbols found on many food labels can help you make healthy choices. Most pre-packed foods have a nutrition label on the packaging.
The label usually includes the number of calories and the amount of fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt in 100g of the food and per pack, or per portion. Be aware that a manufacturer’s idea of a portion may be different to yours.
Some labels include information on how the product fits into your daily diet. Guideline Daily Amounts (GDA) are guidelines about the amount of particular nutrients needed for a healthy diet.
For example, a label might show that the food provides you with 1.3g of salt, which represents 22% of your GDA. In other words, it contains nearly a quarter of an adult’s GDA of salt.
Everyone needs different amounts of energy and nutrients, so use them as a rough indication, not a precise guide or target.
Traffic light colour-coding
All the major supermarkets have agreed a standard label that you’ll increasingly find on the front of food packaging.
Traffic-light colours red, amber and green quickly show you levels of sugar, fat and salt in food, so if you’re trying to choose between two similar products, this can help you quickly find the healthier choice.
Red means high, amber means medium and green means low so you can see at a glance whether the food has high, medium or low amounts of fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt.
Red lights indicate the foods you should try to eat less often and in small amounts.
Amber lights indicate the food contains neither high nor low amounts of sugar, salt and fat, so you can eat foods with all or mostly amber lights most of the time. The more green lights, the healthier the choice.
'Use by' and 'best before' dates - what's the difference?
When buying food, check the ‘use by’ date. You will see this on food that goes off quickly, particularly fresh or chilled food including meat, poultry, fish, paté and soft cheese. Even if it seems fine, using it after the ‘use by’ date could make you ill. Don’t take the chance – throw it out.
The ‘best before’ date is more about the quality of the food than its safety. It’s frequently found on foods packaged in cans or jars, or on dried food. Food past its ‘best before’ date won’t make you ill, but it might have lost some of its flavour and texture.
Storing and preparing food safely
Many of us assume that food poisoning comes from cafés and restaurants, but we’re just as likely to get ill from food prepared at home.
Food poisoning can be more than just unpleasant – it can make us seriously ill.
There are a number of bacteria that can cause food poisoning, but those of us over 60 are particularly vulnerable to the severe form of food poisoning caused by a type of bacteria called listeria . It’s rare, but severe cases can be life-threatening.
Listeria can live and grow in food and is most likely to be found in chilled ready-to-eat foods, such as paté, soft cheeses such as Brie and Camembert, cooked sliced meat and poultry, smoked salmon and pre-packed sandwiches made with these fillings.
A few simple precautions can prevent food poisoning:
- Set your fridge temperature to 5°C or below. This helps stop food-poisoning bacteria from growing. Bring chilled foods home from the shops as quickly as possible and transfer them straight to the fridge.
- Wash your hands thoroughly before handling any food and after handling raw food (such as meat, poultry, eggs, fish) and its packaging.
- Wash worktops with hot soapy water or an antibacterial cleaning spray before and after preparing food.
- Use a separate chopping board for raw meat. It can contain harmful bacteria that transfers easily to anything it touches.
- Don’t wash raw meat such as chicken before cooking it – it isn’t necessary and can splash germs onto sinks and work surfaces. Thorough cooking will kill any bacteria present.
- Cover raw meat, poultry and fish, and keep it on the bottom shelf of the fridge, where it can’t touch other foods or drip on to them.
- Cook food thoroughly until it’s piping hot. Chicken, pork, burgers, sausages and kebabs should be cooked all the way through with no pink meat inside.
- Don’t refreeze raw food that has already thawed. Prepare and eat it, or throw it away.
- If you cook extra portions of food to eat later, cool them at room temperature for about an hour then put them in the fridge. Reheat food thoroughly until piping hot, and never reheat more than once.
- Avoid dishes containing raw eggs, such as homemade mousse or mayonnaise. Always cook eggs well until the yolk is solid. Raw or lightly cooked eggs can contain salmonella, a harmful bacteria. Older people are more likely than others to become severely ill if they eat contaminated eggs.