Healthy eating

How to have a balanced diet – Live Well – NHS Choices

A balanced diet

Despite what you see in some diet books and TV programmes, healthy eating can be really straightforward.

A diet based on starchy foods such as potatoes, bread, rice and pasta; with plenty of fruit and vegetables; some protein-rich foods such as meat, fish and lentils; some milk and dairy foods; and not too much fat, salt or sugar, will give you all the nutrients you need.

When it comes to a healthy diet, balance is the key to getting it right. This means eating a wide variety of foods in the right proportions, and consuming the right amount of food and drink to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight.

Most adults in England are overweight or obese. That means many of us are eating more than we need, and should eat less. And it’s not just food: some drinks can also be high in calories. Most adults need to eat and drink fewer calories in order to lose weight, even if they already eat a balanced diet.

Food groups in our diet

The eatwell plate

  • To help you get the right balance of the five main food groups, take a look at our eatwell plate (PDF, 1.6Mb)
  • To maintain a healthy diet, the eatwell plate shows you how much of what you eat should come from each food group

The eatwell plate shows that to have a healthy, balanced diet, people should try to eat:

  • plenty of fruit and vegetables
  • plenty of starchy foods, such as bread, rice, potatoes and pasta
  • some meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non-dairy sources of protein
  • some milk and dairy foods
  • just a small amount of food and drinks that are high in fat and/or sugar

Try to choose a variety of different foods from the four main food groups.

Most people in the UK eat and drink too many calories, too much fat, sugar and salt, and not enough fruit, vegetables, oily fish and fibre. Read our page on understanding calories

It’s important to have some fat in your diet, but you don’t need to eat any foods from the "foods and drinks high in fat and/or sugar" group as part of a healthy diet.

Fruit and vegetables: are you getting your 5 a day?

Fruit and vegetables are a vital source of vitamins and minerals. It’s advised that we eat at least five portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables each day.

There’s evidence that people who eat at least five portions a day have a lower risk of heart disease, stroke and some cancers.

What’s more, eating five portions is not as hard as it sounds. Just one apple, banana, pear or similar-sized fruit is one portion. A slice of pineapple or melon is one portion. Three heaped tablespoons of vegetables is another portion.

Having a sliced banana with your morning cereal is a quick way to get one portion. Swap your mid-morning biscuit for a tangerine, and add a side salad to your lunch. Have a portion of vegetables with dinner, and snack on dried fruit in the evening to reach your five a day. 

Read our 5 A DAY page for more tips on how to get your five portions of fruit and veg.

Starchy foods in your diet

Starchy foods should make up around one third of everything we eat. This means we should base our meals on these foods.

Potatoes are an excellent choice and a great source of fibre. Leave the skins on where possible to keep in more of the fibre and vitamins. For example, when having boiled potatoes or a jacket potato, eat the skin too.

Try to choose wholegrain or wholemeal varieties of starchy foods, such as brown rice, wholewheat pasta and brown, wholemeal or higher fibre white bread. They contain more fibre (often referred to as "roughage"), and usually more vitamins and minerals than white varieties.

Learn more from our starchy foods page.

Meat, fish, eggs and beans: all good sources of protein

These foods are all good sources of protein, which is essential for the body to grow and repair itself. They are also good sources of a range of vitamins and minerals.

Meat is a good source of protein, vitamins and minerals, including iron, zinc and B vitamins. It is also one of the main sources of vitamin B12. Try to eat lean cuts of meat and skinless poultry whenever possible to cut down on fat. Always cook meat thoroughly. Learn more by reading our page on meat.

Fish is another important source of protein, and contains many vitamins and minerals. Oily fish is particularly rich in omega-3 fatty acids.

Aim for at least two portions of fish a week, including one portion of oily fish. You can choose from fresh, frozen or canned, but remember that canned and smoked fish can often be high in salt.

Eggs and pulses (including beans, nuts and seeds) are also great sources of protein. Nuts are high in fibre and a good alternative to snacks high in saturated fat, but they do still contain high levels of fat, so eat them in moderation. Learn more from our pages on eggs and pulses and beans.

Milk and dairy foods: avoid full fat varieties

Milk and dairy foods such as cheese and yoghurt are good sources of protein. They also contain calcium, which helps keep your bones healthy.

To enjoy the health benefits of dairy without eating too much fat, use semi-skimmed, 1% fat or skimmed milk, as well as lower-fat hard cheeses or cottage cheese, and lower-fat yoghurt.

Learn more by reading our page on milk and dairy foods.

Eat less fat and sugar

Most people in the UK eat too much fat and sugar.

Fats and sugar are both sources of energy for the body, but when we eat too much of them we consume more energy than we burn, and this can mean that we put on weight. This can lead to obesity, which increases our risk of type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, heart disease and stroke.

But did you know that there are different types of fat?

Saturated fat is found in foods such as cheese, sausages, butter, cakes, biscuits and pies. Most people in the UK eat too much saturated fat, which can raise our cholesterol, putting us at increased risk of heart disease.

Unsaturated fats, on the other hand, can help to lower cholesterol and provide us with the essential fatty acids needed to help us stay healthy. Oily fish, nuts and seeds, avocados, olive oils and vegetable oils are sources of unsaturated fat.

Try to cut down on foods that are high in saturated fat and have smaller amounts of foods that are rich in unsaturated fat instead. For a healthy choice, use just a small amount of vegetable oil or reduced fat spread instead of butter, lard or ghee. When having meat, choose lean cuts and cut off any visible fat. Read on to find out how to eat less saturated fat.

For more information on fat and how to reduce the amount we consume in our diets, read fat: the facts.

Sugar occurs naturally in foods such as fruit and milk, but we don’t need to cut down on these types of foods. Sugar is also added to lots of foods and drinks such as sugary fizzy drinks, cakes, biscuits, chocolate, pastries, ice cream and jam. It’s also contained in some ready-made savoury foods such as pasta sauces and baked beans.

Most of us need to cut down on foods high in added sugars. Instead of a fizzy drink, for example, try sparkling water. Have a currant bun as a snack instead of a pastry. Learn more from our page on sugars.

Find out more about healthy eating in our food and diet section.

Page last reviewed: 23/05/2014

Next review due: 23/05/2016


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The 30 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

Anthony Bath said on 07 August 2014

This really needs updating. It is terrible advice.

I cannot believe that the NHS is still advocating a diet high in starch.
People may as well be spooning sugar into their mouths.

Outdated and dangerous.

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Dave Horne said on 26 July 2014

I was disappointed to read the following … "plenty of starchy foods, such as bread, rice, potatoes and pasta".

Those foods covert quickly to sugar in the blood thus prompting an insulin response.

Burning your own fat requires a negative stimulus of an insulin deficiency. This foods above that I quoted cause the individual’s blood sugar to rise thus prompting an insulin response.

There are essential fatty acids, and there are essential amino acids (proteins), but there are no essential carbohydrates.|

I lost 30 pounds two years ago and have kept them off following a low carbohydrate approach to eating. Bacon and eggs for breakfast, but no bread, rolls. toast, jelly, or fruit juices. I’ve had my blood panel checked twice in two years and the results are stellar.

That was really bad advice that was given here.

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YoYoGirl said on 08 July 2014

Sorry my last comment seems to have appeared twice!

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YoYoGirl said on 08 July 2014

My weight has yo-yo drastically over the past 4 years, having tried every fad diet under the sun. Now I’m working with an NHS therapist to help me avoid the temptation of another diet to help me lose weight quickly, instead I’m looking back at the past 4 years to see what did and what did not work for me.

We have opted on 5 simple guidelines:
1) Drink at least 1.5 litres of water a day
2) Create a list of meals that I would look forward to eating, but contain at least two portions of vegetables (e.g. chicken fajitas, with home-made guacamole).
3) Do not drink sugary drinks (cordial included!)
4) Avoid white flour and white rice whenever possible, use whole-wheat tortillas, brown rice, quinoa, beans, etc.
5) Buy one bar (100g) of plain dark chocolate (70% cocoa or more) every Sunday, make this treat last a week.

The above is simple and specific to me, but should help me eat healthily and form new habits rather than adopting some short term rules which no-one could (or should) stick to long-term.

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Richard W said on 01 April 2014

Disappointed but not surprised at the very generic "healthy eating" advice.

If anyone really wants to know they should read the research.

Fats and sugars are absolutely nothing like each other. All the latest research shows that sugar is the killer and fats are neutral at worst. Saturated or not are pretty much the same. Hydrogenated is what you need to avoid.

Starchy foods are converted quickly to sugars in the body, therefore should be limited.

5 a day is now out of date but the research now says veg not fruit, fresh not tinned or dried.

So the balance of the diet should go towards fresh veg, unprocessed meat and eggs, light on potatoes and pasta, moderate amounts of fresh fruit. Avoid sugary food.

Basically it’s what our ancestors ate for many thousands of years.

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tony_lincs said on 01 March 2014

A good general summary of healthy-eating advice.

I have some more detailed questions about

Is anyone aware of a website or forum
where nutrionists are available to answer
such queries? Thanks in advance.

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ollivie ru said on 22 February 2013

Yes, it is necessary to eat right, and do not eat very much. Correctly here said _ollivie.ru_ that the diet should be balanced. Little bit of that, a little more.

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keveen said on 06 February 2012

Lightening strike me I have been reading Dr Atkins and other new nutritionists!

The only thing that really seems debatable is putting the emphasis on starchy food – precisely the foods that are supposed to be creating sugar and overweight problems. When I go shopping now I am trying to think protein first, then vegetables, then carbohydrates. So now its a lot more protein and vegetables and much smaller amounts of pasta. Psychologically, that is the change that seems to me to make sense and makes me feel better. I mean in our culture its easy to stuff your face with bad carbs in the shape of pizza and pies and burgers. So thinking the other way round would make for the cultural shift necessary for the UK. The Hairy Bikers and the rest remind us of how well lots of people used to eat. Meat and 2 veg was OK.

Most of us don’t eat a balanced diet so please doctors stop telling me I’ll get all I need from a healthy diet. Especially when we are at work all day. We don’t get 5 a day. Some days I’ll be lucky if I see green. So everybody who fits the typical UK pattern should be taking a good multivitamin and mineral supplement as an insurance policy.

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User363614 said on 04 November 2011

We’ve all heard the term “artery-clogging saturated fat” but there is no evidence to support the lipid hypothesis. Studies show repeatedly that people on low-fat diets do not live any longer than people on a ‘normal’ diet.

Whilst we may be able to tolerate some whole-grains, I think it makes more sense to consume types of food our ancestors predominantly ate during our species’ evolution?

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lili23 said on 25 June 2011

In response to ‘Camels toe on 08 May 2011’

The main article is in need of updating however you have quite a distorted view.. but perhaps that was your intention?

There is plenty of evidence behind saturated fats increasing risk of cardiovascular problems, the issue is whether products used as a replacement and other food intake choices are adequate.

Rapeseed oil and olive oil however do contain angiogenic inhibitors which reduce risk of at least 70 major diseases.

I’ll end with an abstract taken from a journal article relating to grain…

"The symposium “Putting the Whole Grain Puzzle Together: Health Benefits Associated with Whole Grains” sponsored by the ASN brought together researchers to review the evidence regarding the health benefits associated with whole grains. Current scientific evidence indicates that whole grains play an important role in lowering the risk of chronic diseases, such as coronary heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, and also contribute to body weight management and gastrointestinal health. The essential macro- and micronutrients, along with the phytonutrients present in whole grains, synergistically contribute to their beneficial effects. Current evidence lends credence to the recommendations to incorporate whole grain foods into a healthy diet and lifestyle program. The symposium also highlighted the need for further research to examine the role of whole grain foods in disease prevention and management to gain a better understanding of their mechanisms of action."

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WatsonK said on 23 February 2011

A really useful article – it is brilliant to be able to access all the information you need in one central place.

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User363614 said on 21 December 2010

The illogical view is the defense of the status quo.

A number of things affect the glycaemic effect of a food including the type of starch. Baked potatoes are digested into the blood stream as glucose far quicker than table sugar, whereas sweet potato, banana and pasta are not. Is it not common sense that these foods are therefore better for controlling blood sugar, insulin release, blood pressure, weight, and obesity related problems?

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User506302 said on 30 November 2010

So why the continued campaign against the humble potato ? Potatoes are a wonderful vegetable full of goodness and are delicious and versatile. If their starch content is so bad, why are bananas allowed ? Bananas have as much starch as potatoes ! Apparently also sweet potatoes count, but ordinary potatoes don’t, which is weird. And the idea that rice and pasta are somehow "healthy" but potatoes are not is completely illogical. Common sense please.

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User363614 said on 30 October 2010

The FSA says that people are eating healthier now; why does obesity continue to rise?

Could the healthy eating guidelines be improved by recommending lower glycaemic foods, increased omega-3 and B vitamins(from animal sources) as recent studies continue to confirm their benefit?

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alisha555 said on 16 October 2010

Everyone have to take a balance diet to keep healthy. All food and fruit that you eat turns in to the sugar in your body. Carbohydrates are found in starchy or sugary foods. The starchy foods are bread, rice, pasta, cereal, potatoes, peas, corn, fruit, fruit juice, milk, yogurt, cookies, candy, soda, and other sweets. If love non veg you include meat, fish, eggs and beans in your diet.

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Shawshank said on 14 September 2010

Unless you’re an athelete, starchy grains are completely unnecessary and pointless as part of a healthy diet. In fact, they should be removed from the ‘food pyramid’ altogether, as they don’t serve a purpose except to detract from getting carbohydrates from nutritious sources such as vegetables, fruit and tubers. They are also the main driving force behind weight loss/gain; why not publish articles about this rather than make saturated fat out to be the bad guy?

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sue1947 said on 14 August 2010

From the NHS Choices BMI calculator website I found that the person was seriously underweight. I was directed to a quiz to check on healthy eating. This quiz was not created to include people who do not eat enough. Why not? Try it yourself.

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Billythewizard said on 22 June 2010

A really good and interesting site. I don’t see a printer-friendly facility though – it would be most helpful if a trimmer version of the articles could be printed off without all the extraneous stuff not relevant to a particular article.

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Acupuncture said on 16 June 2010

It’s easy, balanced diet and 30 minutes of cardio exercise three times a week…. the problem is that people just want an easy ride all the time and are not prepared to pay the price

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Ginevra said on 28 April 2010

Before you change your eating habits, may I respectfully direct you to the the following article. You may then be able to make a more informed choice http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=carbs-against-cardio
It makes interesting reading.

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SportAid said on 30 March 2010

I have been on a strict diet for the last three months. I actually feel much better now that I am eating the right foods in the right amounts. I just hope some of my problems will subside as a result of my new eating habits. I have to use one of those apogee intermittent catheters. It’s a real pain (that’s a joke; well, kinda.

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annejaa said on 19 February 2010

Well said.Like your blog!I believe that healthy eating is not about strict nutrition philosophies and staying unrealistically thin, or depriving yourself of the foods you love. It’s about feeling great, having more energy, and keeping yourself as healthy as possible which can be achieved by learning some nutrition basics and incorporating them in a way that works for you.

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User426479 said on 30 January 2010

I am a Nutrition and Dietetics student at University of Cardiff Institute Wales.
The previous statement from BarryF completely dismisses government healthy eating messages which are based on evidence which shows that low carb diets are potentially VERY HARMFUL.
For healthy weight maintenance please see http://www.eatwell.gov.uk/healthydiet/healthyweight/howtobe/ or other well researched messages such as change4life

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BarryF said on 17 January 2010

People eat too much carbohydrate.

A high-protein, high-fat, carbohydrate-free diet reduces energy intake, fatty liver, and excess layers of fat on the body.

It isn’t easy, but try to cut out carbohydrates.

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difranks said on 24 November 2009

I’ve always been told to cut down on the starch foods, in fact to leave them out altogether! No wonder I can’t lose weight. I will try and follow the recomendations and see if it makes a difference. I hope it does.

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ndddddddddddddddddddddd said on 05 November 2009

I started exercising more about 18 months ago and recently started a low fat healthy diet I had to see my optician as my eyes were hurting and he advised me that my short sightedness had improved by 70% I would need new lighter lenses and I had probably been border line diabetic 18 months ago but the change in lifestyle had helped prevent this

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User73879 said on 13 December 2008

Useful but I think it would be better if there were a list of good foods (I think things like broccoli, porridge, turkey breast are good foods) and bad foods ( I think most sausages, pasties and many tinned soups are bad foods). Of course, most foods are OK in small quantities. A web site listing bad foods would be good. It could just state the facts, no need to say "bad". For example, one well know (top3) supermarket sells "balanced" diet healthy foods with a salt to protein ratio about 3 to 4 times the recommended quantities. They sell apparently "healthy" soups containing a days salt per portion. I have emailed; all they say is thanks for telling us. Advice is to read the labels. But a name and shame web site could save billions in NHS costs, as well as be good for as all.

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User65060 said on 17 November 2008

I came across this info about a year ago and took steps to change what I eat, simple things like mushing up a banana and mix it into porrage (and a bit of ground cinnamon) , Its tastes better and is better for you than adding sugar or salt, its also 1 of your 5 aday.

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Raj said on 01 August 2008

Really helpfull thank you so much, will try and use all the tips to get better lifestyle.

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Zara123 said on 23 June 2008

totally agree with you. im always trying fad diets but i think i might take more a holistic approach to eating instead of cutting one thing out or another

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