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What constitutes a Healthy Diet?

A balance of nutrients! This is the key

The difference between a so-called healthy diet and a diet that would be described as less healthy can be minimal. There is no such thing as a bad food; problems only arise when the balance of nutrients making up the overall diet is not correct. Some foods only contain a limited amount of nutrients (as little as one or two). If these foods constitute a major part of the diet then certain individual nutrients will be missing. However if the diet consists of a wide range of foods the chances of nutrients being missing from the diet becomes less likely. Therefore a wide variety of foods is beneficial for our nutrient intake.

How much should we eat?

If we manage to get the balance of nutrients right then the next choice is to get the right quantity. This will vary from person to person. Just remember that if you want to lose weight the energy in must be less than energy used. So, what are the correct proportions of calories and nutrients in a proper diet? The Department of Health's report on Dietary Reference Values recommends you should get the following percentage of calories per day:

Less than 35% from fat
50% from carbohydrates
15% from protein
You should also eat 18 grams of fibre a day (on food labels, this may be listed as non-starch polysaccharides).

Lets try putting that into a visual representation:
The National Food Guide's Balance of Good Health plate model provides a visual guide to help us understand how to make healthy food choices. It suggests the proper proportions of each food group that make up a balanced diet. However, it should only be used as a guideline since people's dietary needs vary according to age, sex, activity, health, body size and genetics. The following list should help you visualise what constitutes a serving or portion of each food group.

1. Bread, other cereals and potatoes: Most meals should be based on this food group, which includes pasta, rice, breakfast cereals, bread, potatoes, maize and oats. They should make up one third of your diet, or 4 to 6 servings a day.

One serving of this food group is equivalent to around:

1 medium bowl (40g) All Bran
1 large (90g) pitta bread
1 medium plate (230g) wholemeal boiled spaghetti
1 large slice (55g) wholemeal bread
1 large (220g) baked potato
1 large bowl (290g) boiled rice

2. Fruit and vegetables: This includes fresh, frozen, canned, dried and juiced fruit and vegetables. Aim for at least 5 servings a day, which should make up one third of your diet. It is recommended that you double your intake of fruit and veg to 400g per day in order to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, strokes, high blood pressure and some cancers. Foods with added fruit, like certain yoghurts and cakes don't count as a portion.

One portion of both fruit and vegetables is equivalent to around 80g, not including pips, seeds, pulp and non-edible skin.

For fruits this means:
1 slice of very large fruit, e.g. pineapple, melon
1 large fruit, e.g. banana, orange, apple
2 medium fruits, e.g. kiwi, plum, apricot
5 small fruits, e.g. lychee, passion fruit
1 cup of very small fruit, e.g. grapes, raspberries
3 tablespoons canned or stewed fruit
1-1 tablespoons dried fruit, e.g. raisins
1 small (150ml) glass fruit juice

For vegetables this means:
2 tablespoons of any cooked vegetables, e.g. broccoli, carrots, parsnips
1 small bowl of salad
3 tablespoons of small cooked vegetables, e.g. sweetcorn, peas

3. Milk and dairy foods: This includes, milk, cheese, yoghurt, cottage cheese and fromage frais. This group should make up a sixth of the diet, or around 2-3 servings a day. Aim to choose reduced and low-fat versions when possible.

One average portion is equivalent to:
1/3 pint (200ml) milk
1 small (125g) pot yoghurt or fromage frais
1 small piece (40g) hard cheese, e.g. Edam
1 small (100g) pot cottage cheese

4. Meat, fish and alternatives: This includes meat, poultry, offal, fish and fish products, eggs, pulses (beans and lentils) and nuts. This group should make up a sixth of your diet, or around 2 servings per day. Aim to choose reduced and low-fat versions when possible.

One average portion is equivalent to:
90g cooked meat and poultry, e.g. 3 slices of roast pork, 1 small rib end pork chop, 1 quarterpounder beefburger, 1 chicken drumstick, 2 rashers middle bacon, 2 large sausages
100-150g cooked fish, e.g. 1 salmon steak, 1 medium plaice fillet, 1 medium cod fillet, 1 small can tuna
1 (60g) cooked egg
3 tablespoons cooked beans or lentils
2 tablespoons nuts

5. Foods containing fat and sugar: This includes butter, margarine, spreads, oils, fried foods, mayonnaise, dressings, crisps, cream, cakes, biscuits, puddings, chocolate, sweets, ice cream and carbonated drinks. This group should make up no more than a twelfth of your diet, and while there is no denying these foods make our diet more palatable they should be consumed in moderation.

Finally, although alcohol does not feature in the Balance of Good Health plate model, there are guidelines given by the Department of Health about its sensible use. Recommendations are that men should not exceed between 3-4 units of alcohol a day and women should not exceed between 2-3 units of alcohol per day. One unit of alcohol is equivalent to 8g, which translates as:

1 small (100ml) glass of wine or 2 glasses of low-alcohol wine
1 measure (50ml) fortified wine, e.g. sherry
1 single pub measure (25ml) spirits
pint of standard strength beer, lager, cider

By aiming to follow this guide, you have enough information to get started on a healthy eating plan which should help you to say goodbye to crash diets for good.