Whoever said 'you are what you eat' may not have realised how right they were. These days, experts are only too aware of the importance of eating a healthy, balanced diet. Not only does eating healthily make you feel and look better, it can also help reduce your risk of a range of medical problems and improve your productivity.

But with so much advice and information out there about what it means to eat healthily, it can be difficult to put good intentions into practice.

Our advice? Keep it simple. Behind the plethora of advice and information out there, there are a few basic facts. Basing your meal plans on these facts will ensure you're eating a healthy, balanced diet that will keep you feeling good inside and out.

Turn these facts into healthy habits. Visit our physical wellbeing website for practical tips, ideas and resources to help you eat well, move more and get the rest you need.

Calories/energy

However healthy your diet, by eating too much (or indeed, too little) - you could be compromising your health. The trick is to know how many calories your body needs, and then to keep a track of how many you're eating.

According to the NHS, most men need around 2,500 calories a day to maintain their weight, whereas most women need 2,000. However, if you're not particularly active, you may need fewer (or more, if you do a lot of exercise or have a physically strenuous job).

If you want to lose weight, you need to eat fewer calories than your body needs. Experts reckon reducing your daily calories to 1,900 if you're a man and 1,400 if you're a woman will result in a safe, sustainable 1-2lb weight loss per week.

So now we know how many calories we should be eating, what should we be eating?

Fruit and veg

A third of the food you eat each day should be fruit or vegetables. Aiming for five portions of fruit or veg each day should help you achieve this, and ensure you're adding plenty of vitamins and minerals to your diet. That could include fresh, dried, tinned or frozen fruit and veg.

What does a portion of fruit or veg look like?

  • 80g fresh fruit or veg
  • 30g dried fruit or veg
  • 150ml fruit or vegetable juice

A smoothie

The production of fruit juice and smoothies removes most of the healthy fibre found in whole fruit. This means that the fructose (sugar) in the fruit is absorbed into your blood stream much more quickly. Experts recommend sticking to just one portion of fruit juice or smoothie each day, perhaps just before a period of physical activity when your body will benefit from an energy boost.

Try to make sure you eat a variety of different coloured fruit and veg every day - the darker or brighter the colour, the better. So go for veg such as brightly coloured peppers, tomatoes, beetroot, carrots and sweet potato, as well as fruit such as blueberries, blackberries, strawberries and mango.

While both are healthy, fruit is naturally higher in sugar so try to eat more veg than you do fruit.

3 days of 5 a day

Day 1

2 plums, 7 cherry tomatoes, 2 broccoli spears, 3 heaped tbsp. of peas, 2 slices of mango

Day 2

7 strawberries, 1 medium tomato, 5cm piece of cucumber, 4 heaped tbsp. of green beans, 1 apple

Day 3

2 figs, 1 banana, 3 heaped tbsp. of sweetcorn, 8 cauliflower florets, 1 pear

Remember: Potatoes don't count towards your 5 a day!

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates or starchy foods are the body's main source of fuel so they are an essential part of any healthy, balanced diet. According to Public Health England's Eatwell plate, a third of everything you eat should be made up of starchy foods such as bread, oats, rice, potatoes, barley, couscous and pasta.

What does a portion of carbohydrates look like?

  • 1 medium slice of bread
  • 2 egg-sized potatoes
  • 3 tablespoons of breakfast cereal
  • 2 heaped tbsp rice

Try to choose wholegrain versions wherever possible, as they contain more nutrients and fibre than the white varieties, and eat potatoes with their skins on to make your diet even healthier.

Why wholegrain?

Any fibre that cannot be digested helps us to feel full and keeps our digestive systems running smoothly. Wholegrain foods tend to contain higher levels of this kind of fibre.

There are two types of carbohydrates:

Simple

Simple carbohydrates release sugar quickly and provide an immediate source of energy. This makes them an ideal snack just before or after the gym to provide you with a boost or replenish your energy levels. Examples of simple carbohydrates include: pasta, rice, biscuits, white and wholemeal bread and fruits without a skin such as bananas and berries.

Complex

Complex carbohydrates release energy in the form of sugar at a much lower rate. This makes them ideal for anyone with a more sedentary routine. Examples of complex carbohydrates include: seeded or granary bread, oats, nuts, seeds, beans, peas and lentils, sweet potato, sweetcorn and fruit with a skin such as apples and pears.

Skin on or off?

Fruits that have a skin such as apples and pears contain more fibre, which slows down the release of sugar. You can slow down the release of sugar by combining a fruit snack with nuts and seeds.

Understanding the difference between simple and complex carbohydrates allows you to use food more efficiently to control your energy levels throughout the day. It's not just about what you're eating but when you're eating it - do you need that quick release of sugar or are you going to be sat at your desk for the next few hours?

Protein

Protein is essential for building muscle, immunity, tissue repair and hormone transport. It also releases sugar slowly helping you feel fuller for longer and improving your energy levels, mood and concentration.

Try to eat two to three portions of protein per day. Ideally, it should be the key ingredient of every meal.

Why is protein so important?

Protein is made up of amino acids. There are 22 different kinds of amino acids, all of which are essential for the body. However there are nine amino acids that your body can only find in food.

Meat is a good source of protein but where possible choose lean cuts of meat and try to avoid red or processed meat such as bacon and sausages, which have been associated with certain types of cancer. Pulses such as beans, peas and lentils are good options because they're lower in fat and higher in fibre and protein than meat sources.

Pulses are a particularly important source of protein for vegans. Lentils, grains, nuts, seeds, peas and beans all contain amino acids, which your body needs for things like cell, tissue and muscle building or repair. However, some contain only small amounts of one amino acid and high amounts of others. So, it's important to combine at least two of these food types to ensure your body gets all the protein it needs to perform essential functions.

Your protein intake should also include two portions of fish per week, one of which should be oily fish such as herring, pilchards, sardines, mackerel, salmon, fresh (not tinned) tuna and trout. Oily fish are rich in a type of polyunsaturated fat called omega-3 fatty acids. This type of fat is thought to be particularly beneficial for your heart because it can improve your cholesterol levels.

What does a portion of protein look like?

  • 3 slices of lean meat
  • 2 eggs
  • 4 tbsp cooked beans or lentils
  • 120g tuna
  • 1 tbsp peanut butter

Milk and dairy foods

Foods such as milk, yoghurt, cheese and fromage frais are good sources of protein and calcium - the nutrients your body needs to stay strong and healthy. Experts advise choosing fat free versions as they contain just as much protein and calcium with less heart-damaging fat and fewer calories. Use butter and cream sparingly, as both are high in fat and calories.

If you're allergic to or don't like milk or dairy foods, you can get the calcium your body needs by eating alternative foods such as dark green leafy vegetables, sesame seeds, sardines, figs and fortified soya milk products.

Aim for two to three portions of milk and dairy foods every day.

What does a portion of dairy food look like?

  • 200 ml milk
  • 1 tbsp cream cheese
  • 1 matchbox-sized piece of cheese
  • 3 tbsp cottage cheese
  • 3 tbsp natural yoghurt

Sugar

If you eat too much sugar - either by adding sugar to what you eat and drink or by eating processed foods and drinks that contain sugar, such as biscuits, cakes, sweets, chocolate and fizzy colas - cutting down can have a dramatic effect on your calorie intake. It can also help you to stabilise your blood sugar levels, which may reduce your risk of diabetes and heart disease.

Healthy versus unhealthy sugar

There are natural sources of sugar, which, while still needed only in moderation are a healthy alternative to refined and processed sugars. Examples include honey, coconut, agave and fruit.

Ideally, try not to eat more than one portion of sugary foods a day. Portion examples include two plain biscuits or a small bar of chocolate.

Fats

Our bodies need fat for essential cell protection and signalling. But isn't fat bad for you?

Saturated fats

These fats tend to be found in animal products, butter, ghee, margarine, dairy fats and other processed foods such as pies, pastries and cakes. They are thought to be bad for your health because they may increase your cholesterol levels. Experts recommend that you aim for no more than 30g of saturated fat a day if you're a man and no more than 20g if you're a woman.

Unsaturated fats

These fats are found in oily fish, nuts, seeds, olive oil and some fruit and vegetables such as avocadoes and are thought to help lower your cholesterol.

You could try swapping saturated for unsaturated fats by using vegetable, seed and nut oils instead of lard, butter or margarine, and choosing fat free dairy foods instead of full-fat ones.

Whatever the type of fat, eating too much of it can lead to weight gain, since foods high in fat are also high in calories.

As a general rule, always check the nutrition labels on your foods and stick to those that contain less than 3g total fat per 100g (and less than 1g saturated fat per 100g). If a food has more than 20g total fat and 5g saturated fat per 100g, avoid it or eat it sparingly.

Grilling instead of frying can also help you use less fat in cooking.

Salt

The more salt you eat, the higher your blood pressure will be. That's because excess salt causes your body to retain more fluid. And that means your risk of heart disease and stroke will be higher too. Try to make sure you eat no more than 6gor 1 tsp of salt a day (3g for children).

Check your food labels

Some food labels state the amount of sodium in food, rather than salt (2.4g of sodium is the equivalent of 6g salt). If a label says a food has 0.3g or less of salt per 100g (or 0.1g sodium), it means it's low in salt and you can eat plenty of it. But try to avoid anything that contains 1.5g or more salt (0.6g sodium) per 100g.

Fluids

Around two-thirds of the human body is composed of water, so you should make sure you drink enough to make sure your body is working efficiently and you're not becoming dehydrated.

According to the European Food Safety Authority, men should drink two litres of fluids a day and women 1.6 litres (or more when you're exercising or in hot weather).

All drinks count when it comes to your daily fluid intake, not just water. You could include de-caffeinated tea and coffee, though water, milk and low sugar fruit juices are considered the healthiest things to drink.

Are you dehydrated?

The colour of your urine is your personal guide to how much fluid you should be drinking daily. Ideally, it should be a pale yellow champagne colour. If it's much darker than this, you need to drink more water.

Alcohol

Drinking too much alcohol can affect your health in several ways. It can damage your liver, cause high blood pressure and abnormal heart rhythms. And if you drink more than the recommended amount, you could gain weight too, as alcohol is high in calories. For example, one pint of cider contains around 230 calories.

Drinking in moderation means sticking to current guidelines for alcohol, which are two to three units a day for women and three to four for men, with at least a couple of alcohol-free days a week (a unit equals one small glass of wine, half a pint of normal strength lager, cider or beer, or a single pub measure of spirits). And if you do have too much to drink, avoid any more alcohol for at least 48 hours to give your body time to recover.

Find out more about how alcohol affects you and how you can keep track of your units by visiting the Drinkaware website.

How CABA can help

The secret to a sustainable, healthy lifestyle is keeping things simple and being realistic. Rather than trying to make drastic changes all at once, focus on building simple healthy habits, one step at a time. That's where we can help. Visit our physical wellbeing website to access our free toolkits for better physical health.

Get the toolkit

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