Guidelines for a Healthy Diet

Eat a wide variety of different foods

Variety is the key to a healthy diet! Eliminate boredom by rustling up exciting recipes from scratch, not only can this be a cheaper alternative to processed meals, it may be a healthier alternative as well.

By eating a mixture of starchy foods, meat and fish, dairy products, and fruit and vegetables you can safeguard against vitamin or mineral deficiencies and reduce your risk of age-related diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular disease.

The Eatwell plate provided by the UK Food Standards Agency or the USDA Food Pyramid show all of the components necessary for a healthy diet; foods that should form the basis of your diet take up a larger portion of the plate.

Food is not just about getting the right nutrition; cultural and social aspects surrounding the preparation and consumption of food hold great importance for us all around the world. The social aspects of food should be maintained, so enjoy the food you are eating and set aside time to share mealtimes with minimal distractions!


It is a myth that all fat is bad for you! Fat should provide 35% of all your daily energy; however no more than 10% of this intake should be saturated. Fat is also important for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins.

Saturated fats generally come from animal sources including butter, cheese and meat but cocoa butter is saturated too. These fats need to be kept under control in the diet.

Unsaturated fats (mono - and polyunsaturated) are contained in oily fish (e.g. salmon), nuts and seeds as well as foods like avocado, and plant oils (e.g. olive oil).

Healthy tips -

  1. Base your meals on starchy foods
  2. Eat lots of fruit and vegetables
  3. Eat more fish
  4. Cut down on saturated fat and sugar
  5. Try to eat less salt - no more than 6g a day
  6. Get active and try to be a healthy weight
  7. Drink plenty of water
  8. Don't skip breakfast

Oily Fish

Oily fish such as fresh tuna, salmon, mackerel and sardines contain high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which may help protect against cognitive decline as well as maintaining a healthy heart.

In order to reap the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids from fish, we should be consuming between two and four portions a week. Children and women of childbearing age should consume up to two portions a week; men and older women up to four – for more information about this, visit the Food Standards Agency website:

It is worth noting that the majority of oily fish will still contain omega 3 even when canned. The exception to this rule is tuna, which loses most of its fatty acids during the canning process.


People should be consuming 50 - 60% of their daily energy from carbohydrates. Not only are starchy foods such as bread, cereals, rice, pasta and potatoes particularly satisfying, but carbohydrates contain less than half the calories of fat per gram.

  • When choosing bread, opt for wholegrain instead of white. Wholegrain bread contains more fibre than its white counterpart, which helps promote a healthy digestive tract as well as protecting against cardiovascular disease.
  • Try to choose breakfast cereals which contain the wholegrain logo.
  • Try to swap white rice for brown rice or white pasta for whole wheat pasta.


Protein should contribute about 15% of your daily intake. Protein encourages the growth and repair of body tissues. Proteins are made up of amino acids; the body can only make 12 amino acids, and the remaining eight must be obtained from the diet.

All of these amino acids are present in meat and fish products, which is why they are called ‘complete proteins.’ Plant based sources of protein include tofu, soya, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds and grains. But, these are ‘incomplete protein,’ as one or more of the essential amino acids may be limited or absent.

If you are a vegan or vegetarian, eat lots of different plant protein sources as this will ensure you avoid being deficient in any of the amino acids.

Salt and sugar

The current recommendations suggest eating 6g of salt per day or less. The vast majority of us consume more than this, not because we are adding at the table but because it is ‘hidden’ in foods like bread and processed meals.

  • Try to avoid adding more salt at the table; taste your food first.
  • Use herbs and spices as an alternative to salt to infuse flavour when cooking.
  • Read the labels, these can tell you whether there is a lot of salt or sugar in processed snacks and meals.

The British Dietetic Association recommends foods with particularly high concentrations of salt should be limited to one serving per day.  Ready meals containing over 1.25g of salt (0.5g sodium) and individual items with more than 0.75g salt (0.3g sodium) are not recommended.

  • Try to reduce the amount of sugar in your diet; confectionery, biscuits, cakes and sugary soft drinks should be limited. Too much sugar can encourage tooth decay.

 For more information about salt visit ‘The Salt Debate’ sheet

Fruit and Vegetables

The Food Standards Agency recommends at least five portions of fruit and vegetables per day. The brighter the colours and the richer their flavour, the better!

Potatoes are classed as a starchy food and do not count towards your five-a-day.

  • If you eat very few fruits and vegetables, suddenly being asked to eat five-a-day can seem daunting. But, you might consider a glass of juice and a sliced banana with your cereal at breakfast; a salad at lunch; a pear as an afternoon snack; a portion of peas or other vegetables with your evening meal.
  • The fruits and vegetables do not have to be fresh; you can choose from fresh, frozen, tinned, dried or juiced.


For more information surrounding the positive benefits of fruit and vegetables, visit the IFR's ‘Healthy Heart’ spotlight page

Drink water

The recommended intake of water/ fluids in the UK is 1.2 litres; we also get some from our food. However, during exercise or when it is warmer, we need to consume more to prevent dehydration.


The recommended maximum intake of alcohol per day is 2 / 3 units for women and 3 / 4 units for men. A moderate consumption of alcohol has shown to have a preventative effect against cardiovascular disease, although excessive consumption may increase cancer risk as well as liver disease.

Unit guide

  • Wine
    • 125ml = 1.5 -1.75 units
    • 250ml 3 units
  • Spirits
    • ABV 40% 25 ml = 1 unit
    • ABV 40% 50 ml = 2 units
  • Beer
    • Half pint - ABV 4% = 1.1 unit
    • 330 ml bottle beer - ABV 5% = 1.7 units
    •  Pint - ABV 4% = 2.2 units
  • Alcopop
    • 275 ml bottle - ABV 5% = 1.4 units

Know your units -

Common UK deficiencies


Iron deficiency anaemia is a common worldwide deficiency; it has a particularly high prevalence in young women. We should all be eating 14.8mg of iron daily. This can be achieved by eating red meat and liver, of which iron is easily absorbed. However, liver should be avoided during pregnancy, as the high intake of vitamin A may prove harmful to the foetus. For vegetarians, alternative sources of iron include green leafy vegetables, dried fruit such as figs and fortified cereals.

  • Try to avoid tea or coffee with meals as some of the polyphenols prevent efficient iron absorption. Instead, drink fruit juices as these are generally rich in vitamin C, which promotes iron absorption. 

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is synthesised by the body in response to UVB light, specifically in the presence of UV light at 290-315nm. In the UK, this light only reaches us during the months of April through to September. The growing elderly population are at an elevated risk of deficiency as they are sometimes housebound and the conversion of UVB rays to Vitamin D in their skin is inefficient. People who remain covered with long garments or with dark skins may also be prone to deficiency.

Vitamin D is also found in some dietary sources, e.g. dairy products, meat, fish and fortified cereals. Vitamin D status affects calcium absorption.

  • Increase your dietary consumption of vitamin D by eating products such as fortified margarine, milk and cheese. If the consumption of dietary sources or skin exposure is not practical, it may be advisable to consume supplements.

Food Storage

Fresh food should ideally be bought and consumed quickly. Frozen foods are just as good as fresh if not better since as most producers freeze their vegetables almost immediately, locking in all vitamins and minerals. Canned foods also have excellent properties because the canning process unlocks certain nutrients.

  • Try not to overcook vegetables or boil them in too much water. Try steaming, pressure cooking or microwave cooking.

 A healthy diet, involves thinking about the foods you eat as compared with denying yourself. Enjoy a range of foods, including treats (just not everyday) and eat sensible portion sizes!! 

Based on information from the Food Standards Agency (2008) Eatwell- 8 tips for making healthier choices:

Additional Information

Larson. R (2006) American Dietetic Association- Complete Food and Nutrition Guide (Ed 3) Retrieved from the Google books database:

NHS Choices (2008) Alcohol Know your limits. Retrieved from:

British Nutrition Foundation (2008) Food labelling Retrieved from:

Revised and Compiled by:

Ellen Mitchell 

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