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.

With so much information currently available on eating healthily, it's easy to feel overwhelmed or confused. But it doesn't have to be hard. Here are our top tips to put you on the road to healthier eating:

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, the average man needs around 2,500 calories a day to maintain their weight, whereas the average woman needs 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.

Fruit and veg

The Department of Health currently recommends eating at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day (a portion is roughly as much as you can fit into one hand). That way, not only will you be adding lots of vitamins and minerals to your diet, but you'll be getting lots of fibre too - plus most fruit and veg are naturally low in calories, which is good news for your waistline.

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.

Starchy foods

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. 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.

You can have up to eight portions of starchy foods a day (examples of one portion include a medium slice of bread, two egg-sized potatoes and three tablespoons of breakfast cereal).

Protein

Protein foods, such as meat, fish, eggs, beans and certain other non-dairy foods, are also an important part of a healthy balanced diet. But limit the amount of red and processed meat you eat, as eating too much has been linked to an increased risk of bowel cancer. 

Where fish is concerned, aim for at least two portions a 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.

Have two to three portions of protein foods a day, such as three slices of lean meat, two eggs or four tablespoons of cooked beans or lentils. 

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 going for low-fat versions, such as skimmed or semi-skimmed milk, 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.

Go for two to three portions of milk and dairy foods every day (a portion is the equivalent of 200ml of milk, 150 of yoghurt/fromage frais and a matchbox-sized piece of cheese).

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.

Try drinking watered-down fruit juice instead of sugary squashes or canned drinks. And if you do need to have something sweet as a dessert, try swapping high-sugar puddings and cakes for fresh fruit with low-fat yoghurt or fromage frais.

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

Fats: saturated

Experts believe that saturated fats - found in butter, ghee, margarine, fatty and processed meats, dairy fats and other processed foods such as pies, pastries and cakes - can be bad for your health because they may increase your cholesterol levels. So cut down on the amount of saturated fats you eat by having fewer of these foods in your diet and by choosing leaner cuts of meat (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).

Fats: unsaturated

Unsaturated fats such as fats found in oily fish, nuts, seeds, vegetable oils and some fruit and vegetables are thought to help lower your cholesterol. So you could also try swapping saturated for unsaturated by eating vegetable, seed and nut oils instead of lard, butter or margarine, and choosing low-fat 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. So 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. And that means your risk of heart disease and stroke will be higher too. So try to make sure you eat no more than 6g of salt a day (3g for children).

Stop using salt at the table and try not to use much in cooking - if possible, don't use any at all. And always check food labels to see how much salt there is in any processed foods you eat, since around 80 percent of the salt we eat is found in foods such as bread, breakfast cereals, ready meals, takeaways and biscuits.

But take care, as 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 tea and coffee, though water, milk and fruit juices are considered the healthiest things to drink.

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.

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.

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