How to eat healthily

A balanced, healthy diet contains a variety of foods. Knowing about the different food types makes it easier to make choices about your diet. Your GP, specialist nurse or a dietitian can give you advice.

Fruit and vegetables are a key part of a healthy diet. Try to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day.

Starchy foods and fibre give us more energy so it’s good to eat brown rice, beans and wholegrain bread.

Protein from meat, fish and pulses helps our body cells grow and repair.

Most people in the UK eat too much fat and salt. Unsaturated fats in nuts and seeds are good for us, but saturated fats in fried food, chocolate and cheese is bad for us and makes you put on weight. 

Alcohol can increase the risk of developing certain cancers. Cutting down the amount of alcohol we drink can lead to a healthier lifestyle.

Fruits and vegetables

Fruit and vegetables are a good source of many vitamins and minerals, and a great source of fibre. They should make up about a third of the food we eat every day. But most of us don’t eat enough of them.

People who eat diets high in fruit and vegetables may have a lower risk of heart disease. These diets may also reduce the risk of developing some types of cancer (cancers of the mouth, gullet and bowel). Fruit and vegetables help food move quicker through the digestive system and prevent constipation.

Try to eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. A portion is 80g (3oz) of raw, cooked or tinned fruit and vegetables, and is roughly:

  • three heaped tablespoons of vegetables
  • a dessert bowl of salad
  • one average-sized fruit, like an apple, pear or banana
  • two smaller fruits, like apricots or plums
  • a slice of larger fruits, such as melon or mango
  • a handful of small fruits, like cherries or berries
  • a glass of fruit juice (150ml) – fruit juice only counts as one portion a day, however much you drink.

Different coloured fruits and vegetables contain different nutrients. Eating a variety of fruit and vegetables of different colours will help make sure you’re getting a wide range of valuable nutrients.

Chicken, sweetcorn and noodle soup

Starchy foods and fibre

Starchy foods such as bread, chapatti, cereals, rice, pasta, yams and potatoes are a very important part of a healthy diet. They are a good source of energy and a major source of fibre, iron and B vitamins. Starchy foods should make up about a third of the food we eat each day.

Most people don’t eat enough foods that are rich in fibre (roughage). Try to include a variety of fibre-rich foods in your diet. These include wholegrain bread, brown rice, oats, beans, peas, lentils, grains, seeds, fruit and vegetables. Potatoes with their skins on are also a good source of fibre.

High-fibre foods are more bulky. They help us feel full, so we’re less likely to eat too much. Fibre helps keep bowels healthy and prevent constipation. Eating a diet with plenty of high-fibre foods may help reduce the risk of bowel cancer. The fibre found in foods such as oats, beans and lentils may also help reduce the amount of cholesterol in the blood.


Protein

Your body needs protein to perform a wide range of functions, such as the repair and growth of body cells. Protein-rich foods can also be a good source of vitamins and minerals.

Meat

Several studies suggest that eating lots of red and processed meat can increase the risk of developing bowel cancer and prostate cancer. Red meat is beef, pork, lamb and veal. Processed meats include sausages, bacon, salami, tinned meats, and packet meats like sandwich ham.

The greatest risk seems to be for people who eat two or more portions of red or processed meat a day. People who eat less than two portions a week seem to have the lowest risk. No link has been found between eating poultry, such as turkey and chicken, and the risk of developing cancer.

A portion of meat should be about the size of a packet of playing cards. Try to avoid processed meats, and eat more fish, chicken, turkey, beans or lentils instead. Eating meat that‘s cooked at high temperatures – for example fried or barbecued – may also increase the risk of developing some cancers.

Other sources of protein

Other sources of protein include pulses (peas, beans, and lentils) and nuts. Pulses can form the base of lots of meals. Nuts can be used in both sweet and savoury dishes and are high in energy. They contain good amounts of both protein and some of the healthier unsaturated fats.

Some vegetarians include egg and dairy products, like cheese, as a source of protein in their diet. Although eggs are a good source of protein, hard dairy cheese can be high in unhealthy saturated fats and should be eaten in small amounts. Vegan cheese can be a healthier alternative to dairy cheese. It is usually made from soya or nuts.

Soya is also available as mince, burgers, sausages, milk, and tofu. Mycoprotein (Quorn™) can also replace mince, burgers and sausages as a source of protein.

There have been some concerns about soya and its effect on breast cancer. Recent recommendations say it is safe to take one to two servings daily of whole soya foods. One serving is equal to a large glass of soya milk, 50g of tofu, 100g of soya mince or 28 g of soya nuts/edamame beans. If you are worried about soya, talk to your doctor or cancer nurse specialist.


Fat

Having some fat in our diet helps us to absorb vitamins A, D, E and K, and provides us with essential fatty acids that we can’t make ourselves. But most people in the UK eat too much fat.

Foods that are high in fat are also high in energy (calories), so eating a lot of fat can make you more likely to put on weight.

There are different types of fat:

Saturated fat

Saturated fat can raise cholesterol levels in the blood and increase the risk of heart disease. Foods that are high in saturated fat include cheese, butter, ghee, burgers, sausages, samosas, biscuits, pastries, cakes and chocolate. Current advice is for men not to eat more than 30g, and women not to eat more than 20g of saturated fat a day. You can use the nutrition label on foods as a guide. High-fat foods contain more than 20g of fat per 100g. Low-fat foods contain less than 3g of fat per 100g.

Unsaturated fat

Unsaturated fat helps reduce cholesterol levels in the blood. Omega 3 fatty acids, a type of unsaturated fat, are found in oily fish like mackerel, salmon, trout and sardines. Several research studies have shown that eating 1–2 servings of oily fish a week reduces the risk of developing heart disease.

However, too much oily fish may not be good for you. The UK Food Standards Agency recommends that children, and women who are of childbearing age or pregnant, eat up to two portions a week. Women past childbearing age and men shouldn’t eat more than four portions a week. This is because chemicals, pesticide residues, and metals like mercury may be found in the water the fish were caught in and could be harmful to your health. These substances can end up in the water through industrial or farming processes. Mercury can occur naturally in the water.

Other good sources of unsaturated fat include nuts and seeds, as well as sunflower, olive and vegetable oil.

It’s important to try to eat less fat, and to choose foods that contain unsaturated fats instead of saturated.

What you can do to eat less fat:

  • Eat more skinless fish and chicken, rather than red meat.
  • Choose lean cuts of meat and trim off all the fat you can.
  • Eat less fried food – bake, grill, steam or poach food instead.
  • Choose lower-fat dairy products when you can.
  • When you’re shopping, check the labels for unsaturated and saturated fat, and choose lower-fat options.
  • Put more vegetables and beans and a bit less meat in stews and curries.
  • Try more vegetarian recipes.
  • Cut out or reduce the number of fatty takeaways, such as burgers, curries and kebabs, that you eat.
  • Avoid snacks that are high in fat, such as pastries, crisps and biscuits.


Salt

Diets that are high in salt can increase the risk of developing stomach cancer. Reducing your salt intake will help lower your blood pressure, and your risk of heart disease and strokes. Most people in the UK eat more salt than they need. The maximum recommended allowance of salt for adults is 6g per day, which is about a teaspoon.

When we think about how much salt we eat, we usually think of how much we add to our food or cooking. But about three-quarters (75%) of the salt we eat comes from processed foods such as bread, bacon, snacks and convenience foods.

You can find out how much salt is in processed foods by checking the labels. If there’s more than 1.5g salt per 100g (or 0.6g sodium), the food is high in salt. Low-salt foods contain 0.3g salt or less per 100g (or 0.1g sodium).

When you’re buying bread, cereal and ready meals, compare the amount of salt in different types and choose the lower ones. Frozen meals tend to have less salt than chilled ones. When you’re buying tinned vegetables and tuna, choose the type in spring water rather than salted water or brine.

What you can do to eat less salt:

  • Try not to add salt to your food.
  • Add herbs, spices or black pepper to pasta dishes, vegetables and meat instead of salt.
  • Marinate meat and fish before cooking to give them more flavour.


Alcohol

Alcohol has been linked with an increased risk of developing some types of cancer. An American study has shown that as little as one drink a day can increase the risk of mouth, gullet (oesophagus), breast, liver, and bowel cancers.

The more alcohol someone drinks the greater the overall health risk. Alcohol is also high in calories and can contribute to weight gain. Drinking a large amount of alcohol in one session (binge drinking) is thought to be worse for your health than drinking a small amount each day.

One drink isn’t the same as 1 unit of alcohol. In the UK, 1 unit is 10ml (8g) of pure alcohol. For example:

  • Half a pint of lower strength (3–4%) beer, lager or cider contains 1 unit.
  • Half a pint of higher strength (5%) beer, lager or cider contains 1.5 units.
  • A standard glass of wine (175ml), often called a small glass in pubs and bars, contains 2.1 units.
  • A large glass of wine (250ml) contains 3 units.
  • A single measure (25ml) of 40% spirits contains 1 unit.
  • A bottle (275ml) of an alcopop contains 1.5 units.

It’s best to limit alcohol intake and include one or two alcohol-free days each week. Current drinking guidelines recommended by the UK government and the NHS are:

  • Men should avoid drinking more than 3–4 units of alcohol a day.
  • Women should avoid drinking more than 2–3 units of alcohol a day.

Drinking one or two units of alcohol a day may give some protection from coronary heart disease, especially in men over 40 and women who have been through the menopause. However, it is a relatively small benefit.


Back to Healthy eating

Diet and cancer

Keeping to a healthy weight and maintaining a balanced diet can help reduce the risk of developing some cancers.

Staying healthy

A balanced diet will provide everything you need to keep your body healthy. It will contribute to your well-being.