What does a balanced diet mean?
Foods and drinks contain different types and amounts of nutrients. Nutrients are things like vitamins, fat and protein. They help your body do all the jobs it needs to do. So it is important to have the right amount of them in your diet. Not too little and not too much – a balance.
A healthy, balanced diet is a way of thinking about everything you eat and drink. The overall picture of your diet is more important than any one small detail. The aim is to generally eat and drink healthily most of the time. You can adapt it to suit you, for example if you are vegetarian.
A Mediterranean diet is a popular example of a healthy, balanced diet. It has a focus on foods that come from plants and is low in meat and dairy products. For example using olive and other plant oils instead of butter. It also includes plenty of vegetables, fruits, nuts and fish.
The scientific evidence shows that for most people a well-balanced diet is the best way to stay healthy and manage your weight. It is recommended by doctors, scientists, the government and health charities.
What to eat and drink
Eat at least 5 portions of a variety of vegetables and fruits every day. Include at least one portion in every meal.
Tinned and frozen count as well as fresh and can make it cheaper and easier to get your 5 a day. Just watch out for added salt and sugar. Potatoes, cassava, yams and plantain do not count as part of your 5 a day because they are starchy foods, like bread or rice. You can still enjoy them as the starchy part of a healthy, balanced diet.
One portion of fruit or veg weighs 80g. As a rough guide that’s about a handful.
- 4 heaped tablespoons of greens such as spinach, kale or cabbage
- 3 heaped tablespoons of cooked vegetables such as carrots or sweetcorn
- 3 heaped tablespoons of baked beans, peas, or other beans or lentils - these can only count once towards your 5 a day as they don't have as good a mix of nutrients as other vegetables
- 1 medium tomato or 7 cherry tomatoes
- 2 or 3 small fruits such as plums, apricots or satsumas
- 1 medium sized piece of fruit such as an apple, orange or pear
- 150ml of fruit juice or smoothie - these can only count once towards your 5 a day as they are high in sugar
- 30g of dried fruit or about 1 heaped tablespoon of sultanas or raisins
Starchy carbohydrates such as potatoes, bread, rice, or pasta should make up no more than a third of the food you eat. Choose wholegrain versions.
Starchy foods are an important source of energy. Wholegrain versions of bread, pasta and rice are higher in fibre than white versions. Fibre helps you feel fuller for longer and is good for healthy bowels.
Eat some beans, pulses, eggs, fish, meat or other proteins such as tofu.
Include 2 portions of fish every week, if you eat fish. One of the portions should be oily such as mackerel or sardines.
Generally the least healthy way to have protein is from red and processed meats such as beef, pork, lamb, sausages, ham and bacon. This is because they are high in saturated fat. You can still enjoy these foods, but if you eat a lot it is a good idea to cut down and instead have more of the other foods in this section like beans or fish.
Have some dairy or vegan alternatives such as soya or nut drinks. Choose lower fat and lower sugar options.
Did you know there is as much calcium in skimmed and semi-skimmed milk as in full-cream milk? Flavoured and fruit yoghurts can have lots of added sugar, check the label or try natural or Greek styles.
Choose unsaturated oils and spreads and eat them only in small amounts.
Pick spreads made from vegetable oils, like sunflower and olive, rather than butter or lard. And liquid oils are lower in saturated fats than solid oils such as coconut or palm.
Remember that even healthy oils are high in calories. Use a spoon to help you measure out the right amount. And try cooking methods with little or no added fat. Give grilling, baking, boiling, steaming and casseroling a go instead of frying or roasting.
Drink 6 to 8 cups or glasses of fluid a day.
Water, lower fat milk, and sugar-free drinks are all healthier choices.
Tea and coffee can both count, but beware of high street versions with full fat milk and added sugary syrups and flavours. Did you know that coffee could even help protect your liver? Drinking around 2 to 3 cups a day could reduce the risk of liver cancer, cirrhosis and fibrosis, and slow down the progression of liver disease.
If you have alcohol-related liver disease or have been told to avoid alcohol by your liver specialist then you should not drink alcohol at all.
Alcohol damages your liver in several ways. If you drink alcohol it is very important to stay within the NHS guidelines. Men and women should not drink more than 14 units of alcohol a week. Spread the 14 units out across the week. And enjoy 2 or 3 alcohol-free days every week. Ideally these should be next to each other.
Alcoholic drinks are often high in calories too. So cutting down on alcohol is also a good way to help manage your weight.
Cut down on foods and drinks that are high in fat, salt or sugar. Watch out for products with red traffic lights on the label.
Have these products less often and in small amounts. And pick healthier versions such as crisps that have been baked not fried, or plain nuts or popcorn.
It’s hard to keep track of how much you’re eating from bigger, sharing bags of crisps, sweets or popcorn. Serve yourself a portion instead.
Getting started with eating more healthily
Make small changes that stick
Rather than trying to change lots of things about your eating habits, pick 1 or 2 small changes. Thinking about your eating habits generally can be a good place to start.
- Plan your meals in advance so you stay on track and have the food and drinks you need to hand.
- Start your day with a healthy breakfast such as porridge, reduced sugar cereal or scrambled eggs on wholegrain toast. It will give you energy and keep you going until lunchtime.
- If you tend to get hungry between meals, swap snacks like chocolate and crisps for healthier options such as a piece of fruit, a handful of nuts, or natural or Greek yoghurt.
- Eat at about the same times each day.
- Don’t eat on the go. Take your time and focus on your meal.
- Think about your drinks too.
Most importantly, enjoy your food. Make sure you include dishes you like. Share meals with family and friends. And remember you can have a treat every now and then.
Where can I get more information, ideas for meals, and recipes?
For more advice on where to start, download our advice sheet: Eating more healthily
If you are finding it difficult to make changes to your diet, speak to your doctor. They might be able to refer you to a dietitian who can give you advice tailored to you, including meal plans and recipes to try.
The NHS Eat Well web pages have lots of information including the facts about different foods such as sugars and fats. Plus advice on food guidelines and reading food labels.
The British Dietetic Association (BDA) have recipes and food facts to help you eat healthily.
Eating disorders are complicated mental health problems. If you are or have been affected, BEAT have support, information and advice.