What makes up a healthy, balanced diet?

A healthy, balanced 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 is 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 vitamins, minerals and fibre. They are also usually low in fat. Most of us do not eat enough fruit and vegetables. You need to aim to eat at least five portions a day. Different types and colours of fruits and vegetables contain different nutrients. Try to have a wide variety of fruits and vegetables from each of the colour groups: green, yellow, red, purple, orange and white.

People who have a diet high in fruit and vegetables may have a lower 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.

Fruit and vegetables should make up about a third of the food we eat every day.

The following each count as one portion:

  • one apple or one banana
  • a slice of melon
  • two small fruits, such as kiwi fruits or plums
  • a handful of berries (strawberries, blackberries or blueberries)
  • a small can of tinned pineapple or a few slices of fresh pineapple
  • a glass of orange or apple juice (this only counts once a day)
  • one whole vegetable, for example a courgette or a small pepper
  • three heaped tablespoons of diced carrots or shredded cabbage
  • a cereal bowl of mixed salad
  • seven cherry tomatoes
  • two broccoli florets
  • three heaped tablespoons of peas or lentils.

Tips for eating more fruit and vegetables:

  • Have a mixed salad as a starter or as a side dish with your main meal.
  • Reduce meat portions and replace with larger servings of vegetables and salad.
  • If you need a snack between meals, choose fresh fruit.
  • Frozen vegetables and tinned fruit in juice (not syrup) are just as healthy as fresh ones and can be cheaper.
  • Eat fruit and vegetables cooked in dishes such as soups, stews and pasta.
  • Try to avoid adding butter, rich sauces or dressings to your vegetables and salads. This will increase the calories you eat and drink. But you can include them if you are trying to gain weight.

Watch our diet and cancer - ask an expert playlist

In these videos, Jane Clarke talks about a variety of food groups and answers your questions about diet and cancer.

Watch our diet and cancer - ask an expert playlist

In these videos, Jane Clarke talks about a variety of food groups and answers your questions about diet and cancer.


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 foods are broken down in the body to become glucose (a type of sugar needed for energy), which gives us energy. Energy is measured in calories. We all need a certain number of calories each day for energy, even if we are not being very active. For example, we need energy to breathe when just sitting in a chair.

The amount of energy a person needs each day varies. It depends on how quickly their body uses the energy, and on their level of activity. An adult man needs about 2,500 calories a day and an adult woman needs about 2,000 calories. If we have too many calories, we put on weight. If we do not have enough, we use up our body’s energy stores and lose weight.

Foods such as bread, breakfast cereal, rice and pasta are starchy foods. Wholegrain or wholemeal starchy foods are better if you are trying to lose weight, as they make you feel fuller for longer. When eating starchy foods, try to choose wholegrain or wholemeal bread, rice and pasta.

Potatoes are also a type of carbohydrate. Boiled or baked potatoes are healthier than deep-fried chips. If you want to eat chips, use the low-fat, oven varieties.

Starchy food should make up about one third of what you eat in a day.


Fibre (roughage)

The main role of fibre is to keep the digestive system and bowels healthy and prevent constipation. Fibre is the part of cereals, fruits 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 fuller more quickly, so you are less likely to eat too much.

Try to eat more:

  • 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.

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


Sugar

Sugar is a good source of energy and is found naturally in some food and drinks, such as fruit and milk. The body also gets glucose by breaking down carbohydrates.

Processed sugar is usually not recommended. This is found in sweets, biscuits, cakes, pastries and puddings. It can also be added to tea or coffee.

Fizzy drinks and alcohol often contain a lot of sugar too. Try to avoid food and drinks with added sugar.

It is better to get energy from natural sugar found in foods such as nuts, whole fruits (not just fruit juice) and wholemeal breads. When these sugars are broken down, they are released more slowly. This helps to keep your energy levels more even.

If you find it hard to reduce your sugar intake, a sugar substitute might help in the short term. But this will not reduce your craving for sugar, so it is not a long-term solution.

Tips for eating less sugar:

  • Drink water, lower-fat milks or sugar-free, diet and no-added-sugar drinks, instead of sugary fizzy drinks or squash.
  • If you prefer fizzy drinks, try diluting fruit juice with sparkling water.
  • If you add sugar to hot drinks or breakfast cereal, gradually reduce the amount until you can cut it out altogether.
  • Try a lower-fat spread, sliced banana or lower-fat cream cheese instead of jam or marmalade on toast.
  • Try halving the sugar you use in your recipes. This works for most things except jam, meringues and ice-cream.
  • Choose tins of fruit in juice rather than syrup.
  • Choose wholemeal breakfast cereal rather than those 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). This means eating a lot of fat can make you more likely to put on weight and develop other health problems.

There are two types of fat:

  • Saturated fats are found mainly in fatty cuts of meat, sausages, pies, butter, ghee, cheese, cakes and biscuits.
  • Unsaturated fats are found mainly in vegetable-based cooking oils and spreads, nuts, seeds and oily fish, such as sardines and mackerel. Unsaturated fats are still high-energy (high-calorie) foods.

Generally, it is important to try to eat less fat, and to choose foods that contain unsaturated fats instead of saturated. Even foods labelled as ‘low-fat’ can still be high in calories. However, if you are trying to gain weight, you may need to have more fat in your diet.

Saturated fats

Saturated fat can raise cholesterol levels in the blood and increase the risk of heart disease. Foods high in saturated fat include cheese, butter, ghee, burgers, sausages, samosas, biscuits, pastries, cakes and chocolate.

The current advice is for men to eat no more than 30g and women no more than 20g of saturated fat a day. You can use the nutrition labels 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 fats

Unsaturated fat helps reduce cholesterol levels in the blood. There are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.

Monounsaturated fats can help protect our hearts. They are found in:

  • olive oil and spreads, and rapeseed oil and spreads
  • avocados
  • some nuts, such as almonds, brazil nuts and peanuts.

Polyunsaturated fats can help lower cholesterol. They include omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in oily fish like mackerel, salmon, trout and sardines.

Several research studies have shown that eating one to two 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 may become pregnant, eat up to two portions a week. They recommend that women past childbearing age and men do not eat more than four portions a week.

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

Tips for eating 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 are 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 you eat, such as burgers, curries and kebabs.
  • Avoid snacks that are high in fat, such as pastries, crisps and biscuits.


Salt

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

Try to have no more than 6g of salt (a teaspoonful) a day. It is not just the salt you add to your food that counts. Many cured or processed meats (such as sausages, cured ham or bacon), tinned foods and ready meals contain high levels of salt, so always check the label.

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

Tips for eating less salt:

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


Protein

Your body needs protein to perform a wide range of functions, such as building and repairing muscles and other body tissues. We need extra protein (as well as extra energy) when we are ill, injured or stressed, to repair any damage.

Protein-rich foods can also be a good source of vitamins and minerals. Protein is found in red meat, poultry (such as chicken and turkey), fish, milk, dairy foods, eggs and pulses (such as peas, beans and lentils). It can also be found in soya, tofu and mycoprotein (Quorn), which can replace mince, burgers and sausages as a source of protein.

Meat

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

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.

Tips for eating less red and processed meat:

  • Cut down on meat generally – especially red and processed meat such as sausages, burgers, pies and sausage rolls, which are high in saturated fat.
  • Try to reduce your meat portions and have more vegetables instead.
  • A portion of meat should be about the size of a packet of playing cards.
  • Choose leaner cuts of meat that have less fat, such as those labelled ‘lean’ or ‘extra lean’. You can also look at the labels to see which cuts have the least fat. 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. Aim to have at least two portions of fish a week. Grilling, steaming, poaching or baking fish is healthier than frying it. Tinned fish such as tuna, sardines and pilchards are also low in saturated fat. Frozen fish can be cheaper than fresh fish, but avoid high-fat, processed meals with fish in them, or fish in batter.

Milk and dairy foods

Milk and dairy products are good sources of protein, vitamins and calcium, but they can also be high in fat. High-fat milk and dairy products can be good to include as part of a building-up diet for weight loss. But to maintain a healthy weight or lose weight, try semi-skimmed or skimmed milk and low-fat yoghurt, and have only small amounts of cheese.

Other sources of protein

Other sources of protein include pulses (peas, beans and lentils) and nuts. Pulses can be 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 protein and some of the healthier unsaturated fats. Nuts are a good source of protein for vegetarians and vegans.

Some vegetarians include eggs and dairy products, like cheese, as sources of protein in their diet. Eggs are a good source of protein, but hard cheese can be high in unhealthy saturated fats, and should be eaten in small amounts. Vegan cheese made from soya can be a healthier alternative to dairy cheese. Soya is also available as soya mince, soya burgers and sausages, soya 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. There is currently no evidence to suggest that a moderate amount of soya has any harmful effect on breast cancer. Recommendations say it is safe to have one to two servings a day of whole soya foods. Whole soya foods are unprocessed soya foods, for example miso, tempeh, tofu, soya beans (edamame), soya nuts and soya milk. One serving is equal to a large glass of soya milk, 50g of tofu, 100g of soya mince or 28g of soya nuts or edamame beans. If you are worried about soya, talk to your doctor, dietitian or cancer nurse specialist.


Vitamins and minerals

The body needs minerals for various functions, such as maintaining healthy nerves, bones and teeth. Vitamins are essential to help our bodies work normally, but we only need tiny amounts of them. If you are eating even a small amount of the main food types that contain vitamins, you are probably getting enough vitamins. But if you are not able to eat well for a long period of time, you may need multivitamins and mineral supplements. Your doctor, dietitian or pharmacist can give you more advice about these.


Fluids

Our bodies need a certain amount of fluid each day to work properly. It may be difficult to drink enough liquid when you don’t feel well. Women should try to drink roughly 8 glasses (about 1.6 litres) of fluid a day, and men should try to drink about 10 glasses (about 2 litres) a day.

Water is the best for hydration, but it contains no extra nutrients such as energy or vitamins. Milk, smoothies and not-from-concentrate or freshly-squeezed fruit juices contain a lot of energy and nutrients, so they may be good choices if you are struggling to eat well. Soft and fizzy drinks that contain a lot of sugar are high in energy, but they do not contain any other nutrients. The sugar and acidity may also harm your teeth.

Drinks that contain caffeine include coffee, tea and some fizzy drinks. These can make you need to wee more often. You can include them as part of your normal fluid intake. But make sure that you drink other fluids that do not contain caffeine as well.


Alcohol

Alcohol high in calories and can lead to weight gain. It’s also linked with an increased risk of some cancers. Sticking to sensible drinking guidelines is good for your health and your weight.

Government guidelines now recommend that it is best if both men and women do not drink any more than 14 units of alcohol per week. If you do drink as much as 14 units, it is best to spread this evenly over three days or more. If you want to cut down on the amount you are drinking, a good way is to have several drink-free days.

Number of calories and units of alcohol per drink


DrinkCaloriesUnits of alcohol
Pint of lager170 to 2502
Standard glass of white wine
(175ml)
130 to 1602
Single vodka
(25ml with a mixer)
1151

To help you cut down on calories when drinking alcohol, you could

  • have a shandy using a low-calorie lemonade
  • add low-calorie or calorie-free mixers to spirits or white wine in a tall glass
  • alternate alcoholic drinks with low-calorie, non-alcoholic ones
  • have a glass of water alongside an alcoholic drink.


Food labels

Most packaged foods have labels giving information to help you make healthier choices at the supermarket. They give information about the levels of fat, salt, added sugar, calories, and sometimes sodium and fibre.

Many food manufacturers and supermarkets use a food traffic light system on their labels. The label tells you the amount of fats, saturated fats, sugars and salt per 100g (3½oz) of the product.

The colours show if the amounts are high, medium or low:

  • Red – content level is high.
  • Amber – content level is medium.
  • Green – content level is low.

You should eat more foods with amber and green labels and fewer with red. You can use the table below to check products that don’t have traffic light labelling, by comparing it with their ingredients list.