This piece was written by one of our contributors; dietician (and resident dietitian for The Food Medic) – Maeve Hanan.
The concept of “eating well” can often feel overwhelming and confusing. However, this becomes much more achievable when we filter out the nutritional nonsense and understand the core principles of a balanced diet. So this article will explain how to realistically achieve a nutritious diet, while ditching the nutritional nonsense!
Note: this advice is based on public health recommendations, and isn’t designed to replace individual advice from a healthcare professional.
Back to Basics
Simplifying nutrition advice by bringing it back to research-backed healthy eating guidelines can be a great place to start.
The UK Eatwell Guide is a summary of evidence-based healthy eating recommendations for the general population over the age of 5 (athletes and those with certain medical conditions generally need more specific dietary advice).
The Eatwell Guide encourages (1, 2):
- At least 5 portions of fruit and vegetables every day – this provides a variety of vitamins, minerals, polyphenols and fibre.
- Starchy carbohydrates at each meal to provide energy – choosing wholegrain and high fibre versions where possible.
- 2-3 portions of dairy or dairy alternatives per day (such as fortified soya drinks or yogurts) as these are good sources of protein, calcium and certain B vitamins.
- 2-3 portions of high protein foods per day, such as: beans, pulses, eggs, meat, poultry and fish – including at least 2 portions of fish per week, one of which should be oily (in order to consume enough omega-3 fatty acids (for more information on omega-3, check out this article). These foods also tend to provide iron.
- Small amounts of high fat foods – choosing healthier unsaturated versions such as: olive, vegetable and rapeseed and sunflower oil.
- Eating foods high in saturated fat, salt and sugar less often and in small amounts.
- Drinking 6 – 8 cups or glasses of fluid per day.
Advice on portion sizes related to The Eatwell Guide can be found here.
The UK government also recommends that all children, teens and adults should consider taking a 10 microgram vitamin D supplement during the winter (3). This is because most people living in the UK can’t produce enough vitamin D from the action of sunlight on their skin from October to March, and it is difficult to consume enough vitamin D in our diet alone. Furthermore, certain groups of people may benefit from taking vitamin D supplements all year round, such as people with darker skin or people who have limited sun exposure – for example those who usually cover their skin or use SPF in the sun, as well as those who are housebound or living in a residential home.
A positive focus for many people is to increase their intake of fruit, vegetables and whole-grains – as most people don’t reach the recommended amounts. Consuming 5-10 portions of fruit and vegetables per day is associated with a lower risk of heart disease, cancer and early death (4, 5). Similarly, consuming at least 25 – 30g of fibre per day is associated with a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, colorectal cancer and early death from all causes (6).
Another healthful habit is having a big variety of food in your diet, as this provides a wide range of nutrients for the body. There is also some evidence that consuming a wide variety of plant-based foods (at least 30 different types per week) may boost gut health (7).
Creating a Balanced Meal
A balanced meal can be created by combining:
- Plenty of fruit and vegetables.
- High protein foods, such as: meat, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, pulses or tofu.
- Starchy carbohydrates like potato, cereals, grains or bread (ideally wholegrain versions).
- Foods which contain fats, ideally unsaturated options such as: nuts, seeds, avocado or plant-based oils.
Remember that this is a general guide for creating a balanced meal, and it is absolutely fine to add some extras for taste and enjoyment – such as adding honey, sugar or a square of chocolate to a bowl or porridge, or having a dessert after a meal. Although many people would benefit from eating less sugar, salt and saturated fat overall, having a little bit of what you fancy still fits into a balanced diet and makes it more realistic to eat well most of the time (rather than being in an ‘all or nothing’ mindset).
Examples of a balanced meal include:
- Wholegrain cereal or oats with milk (or fortified soya m*lk), fruit and a tablespoon of mixed nuts or seeds.
- An omelette made with eggs, grated cheese, spinach and mushrooms served with wholegrain toast or fried potato.
- A sandwich with 2 slice wholegrain bread, chicken, mixed salad, 1 tbsp of mayonnaise, yogurt and berries.
- 2 slices of wholegrain toast, beans, grilled mushrooms and tomatoes and a sprinkle of cheese and mixed seeds on top.
- A fillet of fish or chicken, potato or sweet potato and 2-3 handfuls of vegetables or salad (rapeseed oil used in cooking, or olive oil drizzled over salad).
- A stir-fry made with a variety of vegetables, chicken or tofu, 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil, 1 tablespoon soy sauce, served with rice or wholegrain noodles.
- A curry made with chicken and/or chickpeas, mixed vegetables, a tin of tomatoes, curry powder, a dollop of natural yogurt, served with rice, couscous or quinoa.
Ditching Nutritional Nonsense
Learning to spot nutritional nonsense is a liberating skill. This helps in separating fact from fiction, and cuts out a lot of confusion when the latest fad diet inevitably crops up.
A good place to start is to think about whether the person who is promoting the nutritional message is qualified to understand nutritional science – which is a complicated and nuanced area. If they have a university level degree in Dietetics or Nutrition they are more likely to be a reliable source of nutritional information, but of course this depends as not all Registered Dietitians or Nutritionists can be experts in all areas of nutrition.
The next step is to consider whether what they are promoting seems unscientific, unhealthy or too good to be true. Examples of this include: dramatic weight loss claims, advice about ‘detoxing’ or ‘cleansing’ using diet or supplements, very restrictive diets, high doses or supplements or encouraging consumption of non-foods like cotton wool or clay!
Lastly, does the claim appear to be backed by solid evidence? This is the most important consideration, but also the most difficult to assess as nutritional studies can be complicated to understand. For more information about spotting nutritional nonsense, including some tips for assessing nutritional studies, check out this Nutritional Nonsense Detection Kit. Another useful resource is Behind the Headlines from the NHS Website – which breaks down the science related to specific news stories.
A Healthy Mindset
Having a healthy mindset and a positive relationship with food is a really important part of eating well.
Flexibility is a key part of this, as if we approach healthy eating with an all or nothing mindset this usually leads to cycles of yo-yo dieting or an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating; which can potentially develop into an eating disorder. This can also cause a lot of guilt when things don’t go to plan, and can trigger disordered behaviour such as over-restriction of food intake or feeling the need to compensate for food eaten with exercise.
A much healthier approach is to recognise that there is no such thing as one ‘perfect diet’, and that no specific foods are simply ‘good or bad’. This is because the bigger picture of what we eat most of the time over years is what impacts our health. So having an occasional chocolate bar or bag of crisps doesn’t automatically unbalance the rest of your diet – “everything in moderation” as the motto goes. Having this flexible approach also makes healthy eating more realistic, as rather than striving for unachievable perfection, we can focus on eating well balanced meals most of the time (as outlined above).
It is also healthy to recognise that food serves a bigger purpose than only providing nutrients – it features heavily in the way we socialise, celebrate and mark special occasions. Furthermore, enjoying tasty food is one of life’s pleasures!
In order to improve the quality of our diet while maintaining a healthy mindset, it is often best to focus on positive food additions (such as: eating more fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, oily fish, nuts and seeds), rather than focusing on cutting back and restrictions (such as: eating less fat, sugar or calories).
Focusing on how we eat can be another helpful approach. This can involve trying to eat more slowly and mindfully in order to really appreciate our food. Mindful eating can also help us to tap into our hunger and fullness cues.
Eating well does not need to be complicated or tedious. This becomes much more achievable when we remove nutritional nonsense from our lives, and approach eating well with a healthy mindset – which includes a flexible approach and focusing on healthy additions, rather than restriction. If in doubt, bring it back to the basics and base most of your meals on: fruit or vegetables, carbohydrates (wholegrain versions where possible), high protein foods and sources of unsaturated fat.
(1) BNF (2018) “Find your balance – get portion wise!” [accessed January 2020 via: https://www.nutrition.org.uk/healthyliving/find-your-balance/portionwise.html]
(2) Public Health England (2018) “The Eatwell Guide” [accessed January 2020 via: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/742750/Eatwell_Guide_booklet_2018v4.pdf]
(3) Public Health England (2016) ”PHE publishes new advice on vitamin D” [accessed January 2020 via: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/phe-publishes-new-advice-on-vitamin-d]
(4) Wang et al. (2014) “Fruit and vegetable consumption and mortality from all causes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer: systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies” [accessed January 2020 via: https://www.bmj.com/content/349/bmj.g4490.short]
(5) Aune et al. (2017) :Fruit and vegetable intake and the risk of cardiovascular disease, total cancer and all-cause mortality—a systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies” [accessed January 2020 via: https://academic.oup.com/ije/article/46/3/1029/3039477#.WK8GCT_AOQE]
(6) Mayor (2019) “High intake of dietary fiber and whole grains associated with reduced risk of non-communicable diseases.” [accessed January 2020 via: https://www.bmj.com/content/364/bmj.l159.full]
(7) MacDonald D et al (2018) “American Gut: an open platform for citizen-science microbe research”