A good diet is important for good health. A healthy and varied diet can help to maintain a healthy body weight, enhance general wellbeing and reduce the risk of a number of diseases including heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes and osteoporosis.
What is a healthy diet?
A healthy diet is a diet based on breads, potatoes, and other cereals and is rich in fruits and vegetables. A healthy diet will include moderate amounts of milk and dairy products, meat, fish or meat/milk alternatives, and limited amounts of foods containing fat or sugar.
No single food can provide all the essential nutrients that the body needs. Therefore, it is important to consume a wide variety of foods to provide adequate intakes of vitamins, minerals and dietary fibre, which are important for health.
The Government’s eatwell plate, shown above, is a model of how to eat healthily and is based on the eight guidelines for a healthy diet. It lists the types and proportions of different foods that should be eaten over a period of time.
The eatwell plate applies to all healthy individuals over five years of age, and can be gradually applied for pre-school children, but does not apply to individuals with special dietary requirements. If you are under medical supervision you should check with your doctor to see whether you should use this guide.
You should choose a variety of foods from each of these four food groups every day:
Bread, rice, potatoes, pasta and other starchy foods
Fruit and vegetables
Milk and dairy foods
Meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non-dairy sources of protein
Foods in the fifth group, i.e. foods and drinks high in fat and/or sugar, can be eaten sparingly as part of a healthy balanced diet but should not be eaten instead of foods from the other food groups, or too often or in large amounts.
Having a variety of foods in the diet is important for health – it is not necessary to follow the model at every meal, but rather over a day or two.
The eatwell plate is consistent with the Government’s Eight tips for eating well, published in October 2005, which are:
1. Base your meals on starchy foods
2. Eat lots of fruit and veg
3. Eat more fish
4. Cut down on saturated fat and sugar
5. Try to eat less salt – no more than 6g a day
6. Get active and try to be a healthy weight
7. Drink plenty of water
8. Don’t skip breakfast
What about salt?
Salt is needed for the body to function properly. However, many of us consume much more than is needed. The Government recommends that the average intake of salt should be reduced by a third to 6g/day for adults; less for children.
Choose foods that are low in salt, and try to avoid adding salt to foods during cooking and at the table. Sodium is often labelled on foods rather than salt - to roughly convert sodium to salt simply multiply the sodium figure by 2.5.
What about supplements?
For most healthy people, a varied and balanced diet will provide all the vitamins and minerals the body needs. There are certain times in our lives when we may benefit from taking supplements but remember supplements cannot replace a healthy diet.
If you think that your diet is not meeting your nutrient requirements, a multivitamin and mineral supplement may be of benefit. Avoid supplements with high doses of single vitamins or minerals as these may well be unnecessary and should not be taken without seeking medical advice.
What about fluids?
The amount of fluid we need varies from person to person - age, climate, diet and physical activity all have an influence. Intakes of 1.5 to 2 litres of fluids a day are recommended in temperate climates and this includes water and other drinks like squash, fruit juices, tea and coffee. Some of our fluid requirement comes from the food we eat, rather than drinks - this counts too.
What about alcohol?
Drink sensibly! This means a maximum of 3-4 units per day for men and 2-3 units per day for women. A unit is 25ml of spirits (standard pub measure), 125ml (small glass) of wine or half a pint of standard strength lager, beer or cider.
Drinking more than recommended can have adverse effects on your health. Avoid binge drinking in particular.
Please also refer to our alcohol information section for further advice.
What about pregnancy?
Pregnant women should follow a healthy balanced diet at all times, however specific dietary advice exists with regards to a number of foods.
Useful advice and information on your pregnancy journey and health can be found within the Department of Health's Pregnancy Book.
What about phytochemicals?
Phytochemicals, also known as bioactive substances, are compounds commonly found in plant foods that are not considered to be nutrients but may have beneficial effects on health, helping to protect against a number of diseases such as heart disease and cancer.
Page last updated:04 February 2013