In the short-term, eating well can:
And in the long-term, a healthy, balanced diet can reduce our risk of:
In simple terms, to eat a balanced diet you need to combine several different types of foods - from each of the main food groups - in the right amounts so your body gets all the nutrients it needs while maintaining a healthy weight. You require foods from each of the food groups in different amounts e.g. we need lots more fruits and vegetable than protein foods in our diets.
Remember to pick options that are lower in fat, salt and sugar when you can.
Compared to any other time in history, more people on the island of Ireland are now overweight or obese. This is partly because we are less active than we used to be, and partly because we eat too much.
Portion sizes have increased over the years, especially when it comes to ready-meals, snack foods and drinks. Even the sandwiches we buy at lunch-time and the meals we serve at home are often larger than they should be. After a while, we adapt to eating bigger portions and we don't feel so full.
The good news is that small and simple changes to your portion sizes can make all the difference to your weight. Start by focusing on the right balance of foods from each of the food groups. This will naturally guide you towards healthier choices. You don't have to completely give up your favourite meal or treat foods; just try to choose smaller serving sizes.
Remember that even healthy food can cause weight gain if you eat too much of it. Get to know what a proper serving of a food is. Take time to weigh or measure out proper portion sizes. Once you have an idea of what they look like, it will be easier for you to keep an eye on how much food you are eating.
Starchy foods are an important food group. They should make up about a third of the food you eat each day. Foods from this group include breads, cereals, rice, pasta, couscous and potatoes. Some people think starchy foods are fattening, but this is a myth - these foods are actually quite low in calories. People add fats to them, by putting butter on bread or cheese on pasta, which will make them higher in calories. Remember to base all your meals on starchy foods.
Starchy foods give us the energy we need to keep us moving. They also give us important nutrients like calcium, iron and B-vitamins. They are low in fat, which makes them great for getting you to your healthy weight. And many starchy foods are great sources of fibre, which your body needs for digestion.
The healthiest kinds of starchy foods are foods that are high in fibre. Remember that for most starchy foods, there is a higher-fibre version you can get instead of the ‘white' versions. For example, choose brown rice, wholemeal pasta or wholegrain bread instead of white rice, pasta and bread. Other starchy foods that are high in fibre are oats and baked potatoes with their skins on. Wholegrain breakfast cereals and porridge are also great source of fibre.
There are loads of health benefits to eating fruit and vegetables, especially when you eat a wide variety of them. Experts say eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables every day. This might sound like a lot, but it's an easy habit to get into when you include fruit and vegetables at every meal.
All fruit and vegetables are filled with vitamins and minerals that our bodies need. Different fruit and vegetables have different benefits to offer, so eating a variety is ideal. Fruit and vegetables are good sources of fibre, which is great for your digestive system and for your heart. Research also shows that people who eat lots of fruit and vegetables are less likely to get heart disease and some cancers. And because fruit and vegetables are low in fat, filling up on them is a great idea when trying to get to your healthy weight.
All types of fruit and vegetables are good for you. They can be fresh, frozen, tinned, dried or juiced.
Milk and dairy products (like cheese, yoghurt or fromage frais) are great sources of protein and vitamins A and B12. They're also a great source of calcium; this is really important for keeping your bones and teeth strong (and helps to prevent osteoporosis).
The healthiest dairy products are the lower-fat versions. Full-fat dairy products contain saturated fat. So keep your heart healthy by only eating a few of these. Lower-fat milk, cheese and yoghurt are just as nutritious as the full-fat versions, and have all of their goodness – all that is missing is some fat. But remember, if you have young children in the house low-fat (semi-skimmed) milk is not suitable for children under two years, and very low-fat (skimmed) milk should not be given to children under five years.
Foods in this group include meat, fish, eggs, beans and pulses.
These foods are not only a great source of protein but also provide us with important vitamins and minerals.
Those protein sources that haven't had fat or salt added to them are the best option. Processed meats like sausages and chicken products e.g. coated chicken should not be eaten too often (max once a week) as they tend to be high in fat and salt and are lower in iron. Also trim off any excess visible fat from meat.
There are two main types of fat in the diet – saturated and unsaturated fat.
Saturated fat is normally found in animal foods. If you have too much saturated fat in your diet, your cholesterol in your blood increases. This can put you at risk of heart disease.
Unsaturated fat is mainly found in plant foods. It is actually good for your heart. So is the better type of fat to include in your diet.
Most of us would benefit from cutting down on sugary foods and drinks (like fizzy drinks, cakes, biscuits and sweets) and limiting the number of times we take them throughout the day.
Sugar contains quite a few calories but little goodness. So eating too much of it can cause you to put on weight. It can also cause tooth decay, particularly when you eat sugary foods on their own. It is always better to eat sugary foods (including fruit juice) with a meal or just afterwards.
Milk products and fruit contain sugars too, but there is no need to cut down on these foods as they are otherwise nutritious.