Understanding Food Groups
You might think that there's lot of conflicting advice on what constitutes a healthy diet, but most health experts agree on the essentials.
And the good news is that eating healthily really doesn't have to be difficult. Here's a more detailed look at the food groups we need to include in our diet...
Fruit & Vegetables
Five portions of fruit and vegetables a day is the minimum to aim for (an average portion is 80g, equivalent to an apple sized fruit a bowl of salad or 2-3 tablespoons of veg). Deeper green and more richly coloured fruits and vegetables are especially good sources of the antioxidant nutrients (particularly vitamin C, E and the carotenoids). These help to mop excess free radicals, which have been linked to diseases such as cancer and heart disease. Fruit and vegetables are also good sources of fibre which helps keep the bowels functioning healthily.
Fresh, frozen and canned fruit and vegetables (without sugar and salt) can each count as one portion towards your daily 5 a day goal, as can a glass of pure fruit juice. So it should be a fairly easy goal to achieve - try a glass of juice at breakfast, a banana for "elevenses", an apple at lunch, and two portions of greens with your evening meal.
Along with fruit and veg, starchy carbohydrate foods should make up the biggest part of our diet. They are valuable and low fat sources of energy and also supply important B vitamins which are needed for the release of energy within every cell.
Carbohydrate foods should ideally be eaten at every meal, and high-fibre (whole grain) varieties should be chosen wherever possible. The goal to aim for is 5-11 portions a day. As a guide, one portion equates to a slice of bread, 3 tablespoons of breakfast cereal, 1 tablespoon of cooked rice or pasta, or 2 smallish potatoes. Some people may have an intolerance to wheat, in which case alternative grains should be substituted.
Meat, Fish & Alternatives
Foods in this group provide protein for the daily repair and renewal of tissue, and for healthy muscles, skin and nails. They also provide B vitamins and the mineral iron, which prevents against anaemia. As well as the traditional meat, fish and poultry, it is healthy to include vegetarian alternatives like pulses, nuts and eggs.
Try to eat two to three servings per day - one serving is around 3oz/75g of lean meat or skinless poultry, 5oz/140g white fish, 2 medium eggs, or 10oz/300g cooked beans or lentils. If you're not vegetarian, including one portion of oily fish - such as salmon or mackerel - every week is the easiest way to get your recommended intake of important omega-3 fats.
Milk & Dairy Foods
Dairy products provide protein, vitamins and minerals, and are particularly rich in calcium for strong bones. Two to three portions of dairy products a day will provide enough calcium for most people's needs, although women who have been through the menopause may need a calcium supplement in addition.
One serving of a dairy product is 200ml milk, one small pot of yoghurt or a matchbox size piece of cheese. Where possible, choose low fat versions, as traditional full fat dairy products are high in saturates.
If you can't tolerate dairy products, don't worry - you can substitute milk with alternatives such as calcium-fortified Soya milk and also increase your calcium intakes from nuts, broccoli, canned fish with bones and figs.
Fatty & Sugary Foods
This group of foods includes margarines, butter, spreads and oils; salad dressings; cream and ice cream; chocolates and sweets; crisps; biscuits, cakes and pastries. In a healthy diet, these foods should not feature too often, and when you do eat them they should only be in small amounts.
Spreads can provide a lot of fat in an average diet, so spreading bread thinly or using a low fat spread can make a very big difference to the fat content of your diet. Use reduced fat versions of salad dressings, and wherever possible, grill or bake food rather than fry. And if you make a pie, just put pastry on the top.
Vegetable oils are important in the diet in small quantities. They provide essential fatty acids needed for healthy cell structure and to help in producing important hormones. Monounsaturates found in olive and rapeseed oils may be particularly beneficial as they help improve cholesterol balance and lower total cholesterol.