Know your food types

Knowing about the different types of food can help you make healthier choices. It can also help you manage your weight.

About food types

Knowing about the different types of food can help you make healthier choices. It can also help you manage your weight. We also have more information about what makes up a healthy, balanced diet.

Fruit and vegetables

Fruit and vegetables are a good source of vitamins, minerals and fibre. They are also usually low in fat and calories. Fruit and vegetables should make up about a third of the food we eat every day. You should aim to eat at least 5 portions a day.

These are all examples of 1 portion:

  • 1 apple or banana, or 1 slice of melon
  • 2 small fruits – such as kiwi fruits or plums
  • a handful of berries – for example, strawberries, blackberries or blueberries
  • a small can of tinned pineapple in juice, or a few slices of fresh pineapple
  • 1 small vegetable – such as a courgette or a pepper
  • 3 heaped tablespoons of vegetables – such as diced carrots, shredded cabbage or peas
  • a cereal-sized bowl of mixed salad
  • 7 cherry tomatoes
  • 2 broccoli florets
  • 1 small glass (150ml) of unsweetened fruit or vegetable juice (this only counts once a day)
  • 3 heaped tablespoons of beans or lentils (this only counts once a day).

Different types and colours of fruit and vegetables contain different nutrients. Try to have a wide variety.

Potatoes are not part of the fruit and vegetables group. They do not count towards your 5 a day.

Eating the recommended amount of fruit and vegetables may lower the risk of heart disease. It may also reduce the risk of developing some types of cancer, such as cancers of the mouth, throat and lung.

Tips for eating more fruit and vegetables

  • Have a mixed salad as a starter or as a side dish with your main meal.
  • Eat smaller portions of starchy foods (carbohydrates) and replace with larger servings of vegetables and salad.
  • If you need a snack between meals, choose fresh fruit or vegetables.
  • Frozen vegetables and tinned fruit in juice (not syrup) are just as healthy as fresh ones and can be cheaper.
  • Use vegetables in dishes such as soups, stews and pasta.

Starchy foods (carbohydrates)

Starchy foods (carbohydrates) are an important part of a healthy diet. They are a good source of energy and contain nutrients including fibre, calcium, iron and B vitamins.

Starchy food should make up about one-third of what you eat each day. Starchy foods include:

  • bread
  • breakfast cereals
  • potatoes and yams
  • rice
  • pasta.

Tips for eating starchy foods

  • Choose wholegrain or wholemeal starchy foods if you are trying to lose weight. They usually contain more fibre and make you feel fuller for longer.
  • Leave potato skins on where possible. They contain fibre and vitamins.
  • Boiled or baked potatoes are healthier than deep-fried chips.
  • If you want to eat chips, have low-fat, oven types or choose thick cut chips rather than skinny fries.

Fibre

The main role of fibre (roughage) is to keep the digestive system and bowels healthy, and prevent constipation. Fibre is the part of cereals, fruit and vegetables that is not digested and passes down into the gut.

Many studies show that foods high in fibre may reduce the risk of bowel cancer. Most people do not eat enough foods that are high in fibre.

Starchy food can be a good source of fibre. Increasing the amount of fibre in your diet can help you feel full more quickly and for longer. This means you are less likely to eat too much.

Tips for eating fibre

Try to eat:

  • wholemeal, seeded or granary breads, and wholemeal chapatis and pittas
  • wholegrain (high-fibre) cereals and pasta
  • brown rice
  • yams and potatoes with their skins on
  • peas, beans, lentils, grains, oats and seeds
  • fruit and vegetables with the skins on.

The fibre in foods such as oats, beans and lentils may help reduce the amount of cholesterol in the blood.

Sugar

Sugar gives us energy. It is found naturally in some food and drinks, such as fruit and milk. But these foods and drinks have other nutrients too. So it is important not to cut these out of your diet to reduce the amount of sugar you eat. The body also gets sugar for energy by breaking down carbohydrates.

Processed sugars are sugars that are added to many types of food and drink. It is best to avoid processed sugars if you want to maintain a healthy weight.

Tips for eating less sugar

  • When you are shopping, check food labels for the sugar content. Choose foods that are low in sugar.
  • Try a low-fat spread, sliced banana or low-fat cream cheese on toast instead of jam or marmalade.
  • Try using less sugar in your recipes, or use a sweetener.
  • Drink water, milk or reduced-sugar drinks instead of sugary, fizzy drinks.
  • Dilute fruit juice with sparkling water to make a fizzy drink.
  • If you add sugar to food or drinks, reduce the amount you add every day. This helps you get used to the change until you can stop having it altogether.
  • Choose wholemeal breakfast cereals instead of ones that are sugar-coated or high in sugar.

Fats

Having some fat in our diet helps us to absorb vitamins A, D, E and K. Foods that are high in fat are also high in energy (calories). Eating a lot of fat, or the wrong type of fat, can make you gain weight or develop other health problems.

There are two types of fat:

  • Saturated fats
    Saturated fats are found mainly in meat, pies, sausages, butter, cheese, ghee, coconut oil, cakes and biscuits.
  • Unsaturated fats
    Unsaturated fats are found mainly in vegetable-based cooking oils and spreads, nuts, avocado, seeds and oily fish such as salmon, sardines and mackerel.

It is important to try to eat less fat, and to choose foods that contain unsaturated fats instead of saturated fats. Unsaturated fats are still high-energy (high-calorie) foods.

Even foods labelled as ‘reduced fat’ or ‘low fat’ can still be high in calories. It is a good idea to choose reduced-fat options, but only have small amounts.

Tips for eating less fat

  • When you are shopping, check the labels for unsaturated and saturated fat. Choose lower-fat options.
  • Eat skinless fish and chicken rather than red meat. If you do eat red meat choose lean cuts and trim off the fat.
  • Eat less fried food. Bake, grill, steam or poach food instead.
  • Choose lower-fat dairy products when you can.
  • Add vegetables and beans to stews and curries, and use less meat. Or try more vegetarian recipes.
  • Avoid fatty takeaway food, or reduce the number you eat. This includes burgers, curries and kebabs.
  • Avoid snacks that are high in fat, such as pastries, crisps and biscuits.

Protein

Your body needs protein to do things like building and repairing muscles and other body tissues. When we are ill, injured or stressed, we need extra protein (as well as extra energy) to repair any damage to our body. Protein-rich foods can also be a good source of vitamins and minerals.

There is protein in:

  • red meat
  • poultry, such as chicken and turkey
  • fish
  • dairy products, such as milk and eggs
  • pulses, such as peas, beans and lentils
  • some plant-based meat alternatives, such as soya, tofu and mycoprotein (Quorn).

Meat

Red meat is high in protein, but it can also be high in fat. Red meat is beef, pork, lamb and veal.

Processed meats are high in saturated fat and salt. They include sausages, bacon, salami, tinned meats, burgers, pies and packet meats (for example, sandwich ham).

Eating lots of red or processed meat can increase the risk of developing bowel cancer. Eating meat that is cooked at high temperatures, such as fried or barbecued meat, may also increase the risk of developing some cancers.

Tips for eating less red or processed meat:

  • 1 portion of meat should be about the size of a packet of playing cards.
  • Choose leaner cuts of meat that have less fat. Look at the labels or ask a butcher or grocer if you are not sure.
  • Try to eat more fish, chicken, turkey, beans and lentils instead.
  • Skinned turkey or chicken is a lower-fat alternative to red meat such as lamb, beef or pork.
  • Grill or roast your meat instead of frying it to reduce the number of calories.

Fish

Fish is a good source of protein, vitamins and minerals. It is often low in saturated fat. If you eat fish, aim to have at least 2 portions a week.

Try to have:

  • 1 portion of white fish, such as haddock, cod or plaice
  • 1 portion of oily fish, such as sardines, salmon or mackerel.

Shellfish, such as prawns and mussels, are also a good source of protein. They are low in fat and a source of minerals, such as selenium and zinc.

Tips for eating fish

  • Try to grill, steam, poach or bake fish. This is healthier than frying it.
  • Tinned fish such as tuna, sardines and pilchards are also low in saturated fat. Avoid tinned fish in oil or brine.
  • Frozen fish can be cheaper than fresh fish.
  • Avoid high-fat, processed meals with fish in them, or fish in batter.

Milk and other dairy products

Milk and other dairy products are good sources of protein, vitamins and calcium. But some dairy products can be high in fat.

If you are trying to reduce the fat in your diet, try semi-skimmed, 1% or skimmed milk. Try to cut down on other high-fat dairy products, such as cream and cheese. Always try to eat low-fat versions, such as fat-free yoghurt or cottage cheese.

Pulses and nuts

 

Pulses, such as beans, lentils and nuts are a good source of protein. Pulses can be used in a lot of meals, such as stews or soups.

Nuts can be used in both sweet and savoury dishes and are high in energy. They contain good amounts of protein. If you are trying to lose weight, you should limit your portion sizes of nuts. This is because they are high in fat and contain a lot of calories.

Other sources of protein

  • Eggs are a good source of protein.
  • Vegan cheese is made from soya and can be a healthier alternative to dairy cheese.
  • Other soya alternatives include soya mince, soya burgers and sausages, soya milk or tofu.
  • Mycoprotein (Quorn) can also replace mince, burgers and sausages as a source of protein.

Salt

Too much salt in your diet can lead to high blood pressure. This can cause heart disease and strokes. A diet that is high in salt can also increase the risk of developing stomach cancer.

Try not to have more than 6g of salt (1 teaspoonful) a day. It is not just the salt you add to your food that counts. Some foods already contain high levels of salt. These include:

  • many cured or processed foods – such as sausages, cured ham or bacon, and cheese
  • tinned foods
  • ready meals.

Low-salt alternatives are not recommended as they can be high in potassium. Try to gradually reduce your salt intake instead.

It is important to check the label for the salt content when choosing food.

Tips for eating less salt

  • Choose bread, cereal or ready meals with lower amounts of salt. Frozen ready meals usually have less salt than chilled ones.
  • Choose tinned vegetables and tuna that are in spring water rather than salted water or brine.
  • 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.
  • Swap high-salt snacks, like crisps, for fruit or a yoghurt.

Fluids

Your body needs fluid to work properly. You should aim to drink at least 2 litres (31/2 pints) of fluids each day. You will need to drink more if:

  • you are more active than normal
  • it is warm
  • you are losing fluid through sweat.

Sometimes when you think you are hungry, you are actually thirsty. Try having a drink and waiting for 10 minutes before having a snack. This can help you eat less.

Types of fluids

  • Water

    Water is the best fluid to drink to keep your body hydrated. It contains no calories and no sugars. You could add a slice of lemon or lime. Some flavoured water drinks contain a lot of sugar and calories, so check the label before you buy.

  • Milk

    Milk is a good source of calcium, which is good for bone health. It also contains other vitamins and minerals. To reduce the fat in your diet, it is better to drink semi-skimmed, 1% or skimmed milk.

  • Fruit and vegetable juices and smoothies

    These types of drinks contain a variety of nutrients. But they also contain sugar and calories. Aim to have no more than 1 small glass a day.

  • Juice drinks, squashes, fizzy drinks and energy drinks

    These types of drinks can be high in sugar and calories but contain very few nutrients. You should try to limit the amount you drink each day.

  • Tea and coffee

    You can include tea and coffee when you are adding up how much you drink each day. But try to have other drinks that do not contain caffeine as well.

Alcohol

Alcohol is high in calories and can cause weight gain. It is also linked with an increased risk of some cancers. Following the recommended drinking guidelines is good for your health and weight.

NHS guidelines suggest that both men and women should:

  • not regularly drink more than 14 units of alcohol in a week
  • spread the alcohol units they drink in a week over 3 or more days
  • try to have several alcohol-free days every week.

Drinkaware has more information about alcohol and drinking guidelines – visit drinkaware.co.uk

Number of calories and units of alcohol in a drink

 

 Drink  Calories  Units of alcohol
 Pint of lager, ordinary strength beer or cider  170 to 250  2
 Standard glass of white wine (175ml)  130 to 160  2
 Single vodka (25ml with a mixer)  115  1

Tips for having less calories when drinking alcohol

  • Have a shandy instead of a beer – this is beer mixed with low-calorie (diet) lemonade.
  • Add low-calorie or calorie-free mixers to spirits or white wine.
  • Have a low-calorie, non-alcoholic drink between each alcoholic drink.
  • Have a glass of water with each alcoholic drink.
  • Try alcohol-free beer, wine or cider. These can often be low in calories too.

About our information

  • References

    Below is a sample of the sources used in our healthy eating information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at cancerinformationteam@macmillan.org.uk

    Fang X et al. Quantitative association between body mass index and the risk of cancer: A global Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. International Journal of Cancer. 2018 Oct 1;143(7):1595-1603.

    British Nutrition Foundation website www.nutrition.org.uk (accessed December 2019).

    Bhaskaran K et al. Body-mass index and risk of 22 specific cancers: a population-based cohort study of 5·24 million UK adults. The Lancet, August 2014..

    The Eatwell Guide: Helping you eat a healthy, balanced diet, Food Standard Scotland, October 2019.



  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Chief Medical Editor, Professor Tim Iveson, Consultant Medical Oncologist.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.