Know what you eat - header

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ust what is a balanced diet? What do the various nutrients in our food do, and how much of each of them do we need every day for a healthier body? We answer some of your questions and help you become a savvier shopper.

A guide to the guidelines

On many packaged foods you’ll see a chart like this, listing Guideline Daily Amounts (GDAs) – the number of calories and the amount of various nutrients recommended by the UK Government for a healthy, active adult. They’re not targets, but by comparing them with the amounts in the food we buy they can help us all make healthier choices.

Guideline daily amounts (GDAs)
Per Day Women Men Maximum or minimum?
Energy 2000kcal 2500kcal A guideline for a healthy amount
Carbohydrate 230g 300g Minimum amount
  of which Sugars 90g 120g Maximum amount
Protein 45g 55g Minimum amount
Fat 70g 95g Maximum amount
Saturated Fat 20g 30g Maximum amount
Fibre 24g 24g Minimum amount
Sodium (salt) 2.4g (6g) 2.4g (6g) Maximum amount
 
Shopping for health

What’s on the list and why is it there? Here’s a run down of the items on the chart above explaining what they do and why we should be eating more or less of them. For more information on healthy eating in general you can also download our fact sheets.

The dreaded carbs – fact and fiction

‘Carbs’ often get a bad press, but healthy eating isn’t just about lettuce and lemon juice; while it’s true we should be eating less sugar, sustaining ‘slow release’ complex carbs provide energy and, by making you feel fuller for longer, can be a great ally in keeping you trim. Healthy carbs should make up about a third of everything we eat. Just watch out for the fatty spreads and creamy sauces that tend to go with them!

Where to find them: Rice, pasta, bread, potatoes, cous cous and other grains such as barley and bulgur wheat.

Perfectly proportioned protein

Essential though it is in helping our body grow and repair itself, many of us eat more protein than we need to. Experts suggest two portions a day, a portion being either a piece of meat or fish about the size of a deck of cards, two eggs, or four tablespoons of cooked beans or lentils.

Where to find it: Meat, fish, milk, dairy products and eggs, and vegetable sources like beans, lentils and nuts.

Fats, good and bad

The fat we eat gives us energy and certain fatty acids we can’t make for ourselves, as well as helping us absorb certain other nutrients. The type of fat you eat – saturated or unsaturated – is every bit as important as the total amount.

Where to find them: Saturated fats are generally found in hard fat foods such as lard, butter, cheese and red meats, and have been linked to higher blood cholesterol levels and heart disease. So it’s a good idea to eat as little of these as possible. Unsaturated fats are found in vegetable oils and oily fish, and are a valuable part of a healthy diet.

Vitamins for vitality

Vitamins and minerals are the ‘micronutrients’ that help keep us running smoothly, If you’re in good health, a varied diet including your ‘5 a day’ should give you all you need without supplements.

Where to find them: Some we produce in our bodies, but most come from the foods we eat, especially fruit and vegetables.

Cleansing fibre

Strictly speaking, not a nutrient as most of the fibre we eat passes straight through our bodies, but fibre plays a vital role in keeping our digestive system moving. The soluble fibre in beans, lentils, fruit and vegetables can also help to lower cholesterol. Leaving the skins on fruit and veg when you can will ensure you get the maximum benefit.

Where to find it: Cereals (especially wholewheat, wholegrain and brown versions), beans, pulses, lentils, fruit and vegetables.

Sinful salt

Eating too much salt is linked to high blood pressure, so, like fat and sugar, it appears in the GDA charts as a maximum. Cut down bit by bit and you’ll soon get used to tasting your food rather than the salt.

How to avoid it: Always read the labels and cut down on high salt processed foods (sweet and savoury), certain cheeses, cured meats and fish. Try flavouring recipes with herbs and spices such as black pepper, ginger and garlic instead of salt.

The perfect meal

If calculating GDAs seems like too much hard work when planning everyday eating, another way is to think of food as a buffet made up of five different food groups; picking just the right amount from each one gives us a perfectly balanced plate of food – the ‘eat well’ plate.