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Healthy eating guide

Eating well means you’re more likely to feel healthier, stay active for longer and protect yourself against illness. It’s never too late to start eating healthily, and a healthy diet doesn’t have to be boring or expensive.

It also doesn’t mean going without your favourite treats, although it may mean eating them less often or in smaller portions. 

What foods make up a healthy diet?

Eating well means enjoying your food and having plenty of variety in your diet so you get all the nutrients you need and maintain a healthy weight.

The Eatwell guide shows how much of what you eat overall should come from each food group

Fruit and vegetables

Fruit and vegetables contain a range of vitamins, minerals and fibre. Research shows that people who eat plenty of fruit and vegetables are less likely to develop heart disease and certain cancers.

Aim for at least five portions of different-coloured fruit and vegetables each day. These can be fresh, frozen or canned.

A portion is roughly the amount you can fit in the palm of your hand, for example:

  • two satsumas
  • three apricots
  • an apple
  • a banana.

To help you reach your five portions, why not try:

  • Breakfast – a glass of juice or a heaped tablespoon of dried fruit or a banana with your cereal
  • Lunch – a side salad or three heaped tablespoons of baked beans
  • Dinner – three heaped tablespoons of vegetables like peas or carrots or sweetcorn
  • Snacks – an apple or a pear.

Beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins

These foods all contain protein; minerals and vitamins which help maintain and repair your body after an injury or surgery.

You don’t need to eat meat every day – try well-cooked eggs, beans, lentils or meat substitutes such as Quorn or tofu instead.

Oily fish are rich in vitamin D and a type of fat that helps to reduce your risk of heart disease. Try to eat fish twice a week, with one portion being oily fish such as salmon or sardines.

Potatoes, bread, rice, pasta and other starchy carbohydrates

These foods give you energy and a range of nutrients. Try to eat wholegrain versions such as brown rice, wholegrain bread or pasta. These are good sources of B vitamins, minerals and fibre which helps 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

Dairy and alternatives

These foods contain protein and vitamins and are a good source of calcium, which helps to keep bones strong. Try to choose lower-fat versions, such as semi-skimmed milk, half-fat cheese and low-fat paneer.

Why not try:

  • Breakfast – a glass of low-fat milk or a tub of low-fat yoghurt
  • Lunch – low-fat cheese on toast or a yoghurt-based dressing for a salad
  • Dinner – add grated cheese to soups, salad or pasta
  • Snacks– rice pudding

Oils and spreads

We do need some fat in our diets, but only a small portion.

Try to keep an eye out for the type of fat that’s in the oil or spread you use. Eating too much food high is saturated fat can increase the risk of heart disease, whilst food containing unsaturated fat can help reduce your risk. Other fats, such as omega 3s can protect against heart disease.

Read more about looking after your heart on NHS Choices

Browse our selection of healthy recipes

What foods should I eat less often?

Diets that are high in fat, sugar and salt have been linked to 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 quite high in fat, sugar and salt. These foods should be eaten in moderation as part of a balanced diet and in many cases it may be best to consider them as treats.

What do the labels on my food mean?

Looking at the food labels found on most pre-packaged foods can help you make healthy choices. Try to get in the habit of reading pack labels and comparing brands before you buy.

Traffic light colour-coding

All food manufacturers must use a standard label on the front of food packaging. The traffic-light colours (red, amber and green) quickly show you levels of sugar, fat and salt in food. For example:

  • Red: high levels - You should try to eat these less often and in small amounts
  • Amber: medium (neither high nor low amounts) - You can eat these foods most of the time
  • Green: low - This is the healthier choice

Several red lights on the food label indicate you should eat the food less often or in small amounts.

‘Use by’ dates

‘Use by’ dates can be found on foods that go off quickly, particularly fresh or chilled foods 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.

‘Best before’ dates

‘Best before’ dates tell you about the quality of the food, rather than its safety. They are often 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.

How much fluid should I be drinking every day?

Often forgotten about, fluids are just as important as the other food groups. Water is vital for our bodies to work properly so it’s important to drink plenty. Not drinking enough can cause constipation, dehydration, and increase your risk of a fall.

Aim for 6-8 glasses of fluid every day. This doesn’t have to be water – milk, soups, tea and coffee all count. Alcohol is best avoided.

Certain medical problems can affect the amount of water you drink. If you have heart failure, you may need to restrict the amount of fluid each day. If you have urinary incontinence, you may be drinking less to avoid going to the toilet often but it’s important to drink enough. If you have a long-term condition, talk to your GP about how much fluid you should drink every day.

How can I save money on healthy foods?

It can be difficult to eat healthy food on a small budget, or when you’re cooking for one. But if you plan ahead, you can eat healthily and save money.

Try these tips to eat well on a budget:

  • Plan your meals and stick to a shopping list so you buy only the items you need.
  • Try not to rely on ready meals as they are more expensive than making meals yourself, and can be higher in fat, sugar and salt. Try making extra portions of meals and freezing them so you can have them later in the week
  • Choose cheaper own brands in supermarkets
  • 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
  • Frozen or tinned fruit or vegetables still count towards your ‘5 a day’.

How do I keep a healthy weight?

Keeping to a healthy weight is important. There are health risks with being overweight or underweight. It’s easy for weight to creep up or drop off without us noticing. Next time you’re at your GP surgery ask them to check that your weight is within a healthy range.

Poor appetite and weight loss

If you’re finding it difficult to eat enough, you might find yourself feeling tired, depressed and low on energy. This is because you’re lacking essential vitamins and minerals. It can also lead to unwanted weight loss.

Signs to watch out for include your clothes feeling looser and jewellery, such as a ring seeming too big.

If you only feel like eating a little, it’s important that the food you do eat is nourishing. Keeping a food diary listing what you eat over a few days may be helpful. Here are some tips you might try:

  • Eat six small meals and snacks every day, rather than 3 main meals. 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. 
  • 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.
  • Keep a store of food for when you want a quick meal or snack, such as cans of soup or frozen meals.
  • 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. There may also be a local meal delivery service in your area like Meals on Wheels.
  • 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 this difficult, ask your GP for advice about activities suitable for your level of mobility and fitness.

Find out more on the Malnutrition Task Force website

Trying to lose weight

Being very overweight puts us at risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some cancers, including bowel cancer and breast cancer.

Losing weight isn’t easy. 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.

Staying active

Being physically active can help you maintain a healthy weight or lose excess weight.

Visit our section on physical activity for ideas about staying active

What should I do next?

Download our Healthy eating guide and complete the food diary for one week by writing down what you eat and drink each day

Read the Eatwell guide

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Last updated: Jan 16 2024

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