Eating a Balanced Diet
There are dozens of diets all with various claims as to why theirs will be the most effective at helping you to reach your health goals. Many of these diets have questionable scientific evidence behind them and could actually be detrimental to your health. This article by the British Heart Foundation explores some of today’s more popular diets. From the study I have done to qualify as a nutrition advisor, the training and research I have been involved with as a diabetes midwife and the additional reading I have done and seminars I have attended out of personal interest, I have come to the following conclusion. The type of diet that appears to have the most robust evidence to support its long term health benefits for the majority of the population is a balanced diet similar to a Mediterranean diet in combination with regular physical activity.
To eat a balanced diet you need to eat healthy portions of the main food groups:
- Fruit and vegetables
- Dairy products
It is also recommended that you eat minimal amounts of the following food groups:
- Refined sugar
- Processed food
Fruit and Vegetables
Minimum of 5 servings a day (ideally 7). 1 handful = 1 serving
With lunch and dinner eat two handfuls of non-starchy vegetables for example broccoli, carrots, peas, green beans, cauliflower, cabbage, spinach leaves, courgette, capsicum, cucumber, tomatoes, green beans, mange tout, asparagus, lettuce, kale, leek, bok choy. Try to eat a variety of vegetables; different coloured vegetables will provide you with different vitamins and minerals. Aim to have at least 2 types of vegetables with each meal.
Have one handful of fruit with breakfast for example half a grapefruit, 1 apple, 2 mandarins, 2 plums, 1 handful of grapes, 1 small or half a large banana, 1 large kiwi fruit, 1 orange, 1 handful of fresh or frozen berries, 1 orange, 1 handful of melon pieces/roughly 2 thick slices, half a mango. Also have a handful of fruit for one or two snacks throughout the day.
Drink at least 8-10 glasses of fluid a day.
Click here to discover the best and worst drinks for your health.
4 servings a day
Have one portion of carbohydrates equal to the size of your closed fist with each of your three main meals and half portions with 2 of your snacks. Carbohydrates are grain foods and starchy vegetables for example rice, pasta, bread, pumpkin, kumara (sweet potato), noodles, potato, yams, squash, quinoa, freekeh, couscous, sweetcorn, green banana, plantain, taro, cereal, pita bread, rice cakes, porridge.
If you want to have 2 types of carbohydrates with one meal, reduce the size of each type by half so the total amount of carbohydrates for one meal does not exceed one portion.
MAKE WISE CARBOHYDRATE CHOICES! All around the world, in many different cultures we often find that the main component of diet is carbohydrates. For many people the first step to living a healthier lifestyle and improving diet will be to reduce carbohydrate intake and improve the type of carbohydrate being eaten. Some ideas for improving your carbohydrate choices can be found below.
Ideas to improve your carbohydrate choices:
- Instead of white long grain rice, choose brown basmati rice
- Instead of white or wholemeal bread, choose whole grain or mixed grain bread
- Instead of white pasta, choose wholewheat pasta
- Instead of instant porridge, choose porridge made with whole grain rolled oats
- Instead of refined cereals, choose cereals high in fibre e.g. weetabix or home made breakfast cereals
At least 2 servings a day
There are many different sources of protein and your source of protein will determine the recommended portion size:
- For white fish one portion is equivalent to the size of your whole hand (100g).
- For oily fish e.g. salmon one portion is equivalent to the palm of your hand (100g).
- For meat e.g. chicken, beef, lamb, pork, one portion is the size of the palm of your hand (and the thickness of your hand) (100g of poultry, 70g of red meat).
- For legumes e.g. chickpeas, lentils or beans, one portion is the size of your closed fist (3/4 cup).
- One portion of nuts and/or seeds (choose unsalted and raw or dry roasted) is what you can hold in the palm of your hand (30g).
- 2 eggs.
- One portion of tofu is equal to the palm of your hand.
- See separate information about milk and dairy products (another source of protein).
Try to have at least 2 portions of protein a day, aiming to eat meat no more than once a day. Do not eat more than 500g red meat a week athough less than that would be ideal. Aim for at least 2 portions of fish a week, one of which is oily. It is also a good idea to try to have at least one vegetarian day a week. You will find some ideas here for vegetarian meals.
Milk and Dairy Products
1-2 servings a day
Milk and dairy products are a good source of protein and some carbohydrates and they also provide you with essential minerals such as calcium and vitamin B12. If you chose not to eat dairy products make sure you choose alternatives (e.g. soy and almond milk) that are fortified with calcium and vitamin B12. Try to have at least one serving a day of dairy products or fortified alternatives:
- 125ml milk
- 40g cheese
- 125-150g unsweetened yogurt
You can include a small amount of healthy fats in your diet for example avocado, nut butters, olive oil. Try to minimise your intake of butter, coconut oil, ghee, mayonnaise.
Food high in sugar and fat
This is the only food group that provides no nutritional benefit and only has the potential to cause harm so keep your intake of food in this group to an absolute minimum, eaten occasionally as a treat. Examples include:
- Jam and marmalade
- Soft drinks
- Hard boiled or chewy sweets
- Ice cream
Processed food is food that has been altered in any way during its preparation. Sometimes it can be as simple as freezing or baking. Not all processed food is bad but a lot of processed food can be detrimental to your health if consumed on a regular basis. It is the added salt, sugar, preservatives, fat and other flavour enhancers in these foods that are harmful to our health. Some examples of processed food that you should limit the intake of are:
- Processed meats e.g. bacon, ham, many sausages, salami, chicken nuggets
- Tinned food (if you are buying tinned food try to get brands that are labelled as “BPA free”)
- Premade pasta sauces and curry sauces etc
- Premixed seasoning sachets
- Microwave meals
- “instant” food e.g. porridge and noodles
- Savoury snacks such as crisps, sausage rolls, pies
- Cereals and muesli bars
- Condiments e.g. tomato ketchup, mayonaise
- Fast food
Learn how to read food labels so you can make an informed choice about what processed food to choose, how much would be a sensible portion size and what to avoid.
Here is a video by the British Heart Foundation explaining the benefits of the Mediterranean diet: