Bupa is the well established provider of private health insurance. It's website has many useful sections including one dedicated to healthy eating and can be found under the tab "Health Information." The article delves into all the aspects of a balanced diet and how to eat healthily on a daily basis.
About healthy eating
It's important to understand the effect that food has on your body and to learn how to eat the right balance of healthy and not-so-healthy foods. It's also important that you're able to enjoy what you're eating, knowing that you're giving your body everything it needs.
Your food choices can have a long-term impact on your health. There is good evidence that eating a healthy diet can reduce your risk of illnesses such as diabetes, obesity, heart disease, stroke, osteoporosis and cancer (particularly bowel cancer).
Why healthy eating is important
The food you eat contains many types of nutrients and fibre. These are all required for many vital processes in your body. Examples of some of these, and what your body uses them for, are as follows:
- carbohydrates - your body's preferred source of energy. All your organs (including your heart, lungs, brain and digestive system) need a constant supply of energy to work properly. You also need energy to grow and repair your body's tissues, keep you warm and to power your muscles for movement
- protein - another source of energy and essential for the growth and repair of all tissues in your body
- fat - a highly concentrated source of energy that also helps transport essential vitamins around your body
- vitamins and minerals - there are many different vitamins and minerals which all have different and important functions in your body. For example, iron is needed to transport oxygen in your blood, calcium and vitamin D are essential for healthy bones, vitamin C is important for wound healing, and vitamin A helps to keep your eyes healthy
- fibre - helps keep your digestive system healthy and controls your cholesterol and blood sugar levels
A balanced diet
No single kind of food contains all the nutrients and fibre you need, so it's important to eat a range of foods. Eating the right balance from the main food groups will ensure that your body gets all it needs to stay healthy. There are five main food groups:
- starchy foods
- fruit and vegetables
- dairy foods
- meat, fish and other non-dairy sources of protein (such as beans)
- fats and sugar
Most of the carbohydrate in your diet should come from starchy foods (complex carbohydrates). These include bread, cereals, potatoes, pasta, rice or chapatis.
Starchy foods tend to be bulky, so they fill you up. Wholegrain varieties can be particularly rich in nutrients and fibre, and therefore they should be preferred to white choices.
Fruit and vegetables
Fruit and vegetables are good sources of many nutrients, in particular vitamins, minerals and fibre. You should aim to eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables each day. There is good evidence that fruit and vegetables cut the risk of disease, including some cancers and heart disease.
Milk and dairy products such as cheese and yogurt are important sources of calcium, protein and vitamins.
Choose lower-fat options such as semi-skimmed or skimmed milk, low-fat yogurts and cheeses (such as Edam). However, children under the age of two need the full-fat versions to help them grow.
Some dairy foods, such as butter and cream, should be eaten in much smaller amounts because of their high fat content (particularly saturated fats which have been linked to a higher risk of certain diseases). You should regard these foods as members of the 'fats and sugar' food group rather than the 'dairy foods' group.
Red meat, poultry, fish (fresh, frozen or tinned), beans and pulses, eggs and nuts are all important non-dairy sources of protein. When preparing meat and poultry, cut off any extra fat and skin and don't add butter or oil when cooking it (or only use small amounts); consider grilling, baking or poaching meat, fish and poultry rather than frying it. Also try to limit amounts of processed meat (such as sausages) as they often contain a lot of fat, and also salt.
It's recommended that you eat two portions of fish per week (one portion is about 140g), of which one should be oily. This is because of its high content of long chain omega 3 fatty acids. These fatty acids have a protective effect on your heart.
Fats and sugar
Butter, mayonnaise, crisps, cakes and puddings are examples of foods which are high in fat (particularly saturated fats) and should only be eaten in small amounts. Look out for low-fat options of these foods, which may be slightly healthier but should still be eaten in small amounts.
A certain amount of fat is essential for good health but if you eat too much of it, you're more likely to become overweight and may be at an increased risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
However, it's not only the total amount of fat in our diet that influences your health but also the quality of fat. Some types of fat have been shown to be very good for you, for example the long chain omega 3 fatty acids in oily fish, which help to protect against heart disease.
Foods high in refined sugar such as table sugar, sugary drinks and snacks provide "empty calories". This means that these foods give you energy but have low nutritional value. Frequently eating sugary foods also contributes to tooth decay and gum disease, so try to limit your refined sugar intake.
Alcohol, like sugar provides empty calories and this is one of the reasons why you should limit your alcohol intake to stay healthy.
Vitamins and minerals
Most people should get enough vitamins and minerals from a balanced diet but there are a few exceptions where vitamin and mineral supplements are recommended. This includes children aged between six months and five years and women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant. Always read the label if you buy supplements and if you have any questions, ask your pharmacist for advice. High doses of some vitamins may have damaging effects on your health. You should always ask your GP or pharmacist for advice before considering taking supplements.
How to eat healthily
The illustration below shows you the amounts of each type of food you should eat to have a balanced and healthy diet. It shows that you don't have to give up the less healthy foods you enjoy, just eat less of them in proportion to the amount of healthy foods in your diet.
The recommended balance of the five major food groups.
In general terms, if you want to improve your diet there are certain foods you should aim to eat more or less of. The following table gives some examples of these foods.