The human body needs a balanced diet to deliver vital nutrients
What's your idea of a perfect meal? Sushi? A
large piece of cake followed by hot chocolate? Even if it satisfies your
appetite, it's unlikely to fulfil all your nutritional needs.
Cutting through the myriad of diet plans and faddish eating
regimes, the human body needs a balanced, healthy eating plan to keep
functioning properly. This helps ensure that our bodies have enough
Grow and build
Repair and heal
Repel illnesses and infections
Avoid weight-related health problems
Eating a variety of foods can also reduce the risk of getting conditions including heart disease, stroke, some cancers, diabetes and osteoporosis.
What foods do our bodies need to stay healthy?
The foods we need to eat can be divided into five separate groups.
Main nutritional benefits
How much should we have each day?
Fruit and vegetables
(Includes fresh, frozen, juiced, dried or tinned fruit and vegetables)
Vitamins, minerals and fibre
(Includes bread, rice, pasta and potatoes)
Energy, fibre, and vitamins and minerals
A third of everything we eat
Meat, fish, eggs and beans
(Includes fresh meat, fresh and tinned fish, eggs, nuts and pulses)
Protein and vitamins and minerals
Two to three portions (one portion is an egg or a serving of meat/fish the size of a deck of cards)
Milk and dairy foods
(Includes milk, cheese and yoghurt)
Protein and calcium
Two to three portions (one portion is a small pot of yoghurt or glass of milk)
Foods containing fat and sugar
(Includes cakes, biscuits and fizzy drinks)
One portion (two biscuits or a small chocolate bar)
Why do we need these nutrients?
The reason we need a diet drawn from all of the groups is that
they all deliver different, but vital, nutritional benefits to our
Fruit and vegetables are one of our main sources of vitamins
and minerals, which the body needs to perform a variety of functions
well. For instance, vitamin A helps to strengthen our immune system, B
vitamins help us process energy from food, vitamin D helps us maintain
healthy teeth and bones, and vitamin C helps to keep cells and tissues
healthy. The steamed carrots and broccoli, pictured above, will maintain
a higher proportion of vitamins than boiled or fried vegetables.
Fruit and vegetables (eaten with the skin on) also contain
high amounts of fibre which help to maintain a healthy gut and digestive
Starchy foods, also known as carbohydrates, are where we get
most of our energy from. Our bodies convert these foods into glucose
which is used as energy either immediately or stored for later use.
Carbohydrates also contain fibre (especially wholegrain), and
iron which we need to make red blood cells to carry oxygen around the
Meat fish, eggs and pulses provide us with significant
amounts of protein which is essentially a building block of the body.
Everything from our hair, muscles, nerves, skin and nails needs protein
to build and repair itself. The grilled mackerel, pictured, is an
Also high in protein are dairy products, and they are also
great providers of calcium. The most common mineral in the body, calcium
is needed for functions including helping blood to clot, and to build
bones and teeth.
Fortunately, the fatty and sugary group, the foods that we
find the most irresistible, also have a role to play, in moderation. Fat
transports the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K around the body. It
also cushions and protects the internal organs.
is another food that gives us energy, whether it's the naturally
occurring fructose sugars in fruit or sucrose in table sugar. But,
"other sources of carbohydrate, for example starchy foods, are a better
choice for the nutrients they provide", says Lydia Kelly.
So, how can we squeeze eating such a wide range of foods into
one day? Lydia Kelly, a specialist registered dietician who works for
the NHS, advises: "Try to base meals on starchy carbohydrates such as
bread, pasta or potatoes. Include a range of different fruit and
vegetables in your diet and try to have at least one to two portions
with every meal. Including a moderate serving of protein-containing food
is also important. Then choose adequate calcium sources, aiming for
three portions of low-fat dairy or dairy alternatives daily."
Whilst a small amount of sugary foods each day is acceptable,
she warns, "eating sugar too frequently may increase risk of tooth
decay. Weight gain may also occur if sugar in the diet provides more energy than we are using up".
And many dieticians agree there's no such thing as a
'superfood'. The overall balance of the diet is what really matters, and
guides such as the Eatwell Plate
can be helpful. No single food will provide all the nutrients we really
need. And neither can one meal - so the plate of food above might be
one healthy option, but a good diet should include a wide range of foods
from each of the different food groups.
Don't forget the fluids...
Fluids are also vital to help our bodies perform their
functions effectively, and the best fluid of all is water. Two-thirds of
a healthy human body is actually made up of water. It's necessary to
help our blood carry nutrients and waste around the body and to help the
chemical reactions that occur in our cells.