Consuming a healthy diet throughout the life-course helps to prevent malnutrition in all its forms as well as a range of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) and conditions. However, increased production of processed foods, rapid urbanization and changing lifestyles have led to a shift in dietary patterns. People are now consuming more foods high in energy, fats, free sugars and salt/sodium, and many people do not eat enough fruit, vegetables and other dietary fibre such as whole grains.
Health benefits of a balanced diet
Here are the health benefits of a balanced diet.
- Healthy eating increases energy, improves the way your body functions, strengthens your immune system and prevents weight gain.
- Meets your nutritional need. A varied, balanced diet provides the nutrients you need to avoid nutritional deficiencies.
- Prevent and treat certain diseases. Healthful eating can prevent the risk of developing certain diseases such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease. It is also helpful in treating diabetes and high blood pressure.
- Following a special diet can reduce symptoms and may help you better manage an illness or condition.
- Feel energetic and manage your weight. A healthy diet will assist you to feel higher, provide you with more energy, and help you fight stress.
- Food is the mainstay of many social and cultural events. Apart from nutrition properties, it helps facilitate connections between individuals.
General guidelines for healthy eating
Here are the general guidelines for healthy eating.
- The most important rule of healthy eating is not skipping any meal. Skipping meals lowers your metabolic rate. Normal eating includes 3 major meals and 2 snacks between meals. Also, never skip breakfast. It is the foremost vital meal of the day.
- Learn simple ways to prepare food. Healthy eating doesn’t have to mean complicated eating. Keep meal preparation easy, eat more raw foods such as salads, fruits and vegetable juices, and focus on the pleasure of eating healthy food rather than the calories.
- It is important to stop when you feel full. This will help you maintain your weight to an extent. This also will help you remain alert and feeling your best.
- Drink lots of water. Keep a bottle of water near you while working, watching TV, etc.
- Variety of foods should be used in the menu. No single food has all the nutrients.
- To improve the cereal and pulse protein quality, a minimum ratio of cereal protein to pulse protein should be 4:1. In terms of the grains, it will be eight parts of cereals and one part of pulses.
- Eat five portions of fruit and vegetables every day.
- Keep a supply of healthy snacks to hand. This will stop you from eating an unhealthy snack when hungry.
- Remove all visible fat from food before you cook it – take the skin off chicken and trim the white fat off any meat.
- Limit stimulants such as caffeine, alcohol and refined sugar.
- Limit the number of times you eat out to once a week. Take your own packed lunch to work.
- Only eat things you like the taste of – find what works for you and don’t force yourself to eat things just because they’re good for you.
Composition of a balanced diet
A balanced diet is a diet that contains differing kinds of foods in certain quantities and proportions so that the requirement for calories, proteins, minerals, vitamins and alternative nutrients is adequate and a small provision is reserved for additional nutrients to endure the short length of leanness. In addition, a balanced diet ought to offer bioactive phytochemicals like dietary fiber, antioxidants and nutraceuticals that have positive health advantages.
a. For adults
A healthy diet includes the following:
- Fruit, vegetables, legumes (e.g., lentils and beans), nuts and whole grains (e.g., unprocessed maize, millet, oats, wheat and brown rice).
- At least 400g (i.e., five portions) of fruit and vegetables per day, excluding potatoes, sweet potatoes, cassava and other starchy roots.
- Less than 10% of total energy intake from free sugars, which is equivalent to 50g (or about 12 level teaspoons) for a person of healthy body weight consuming about 2,000 calories per day, but ideally is less than 5% of total energy intake for additional health benefits. Free sugars are all sugars added to foods or drinks by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, as well as sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates.
- Less than 30% of total energy intake from fats. Unsaturated fats (found in fish, avocado and nuts, and in sunflower, soybean, canola and olive oils) are preferable to saturated fats (found in fatty meat, butter, palm and coconut oil, cream, cheese, ghee and lard) and trans-fats of all kinds, including both industrially-produced trans-fats (found in baked and fried foods, and pre-packaged snacks and foods, such as frozen pizza, pies, cookies, biscuits, wafers, and cooking oils and spreads) and ruminant trans-fats (found in meat and dairy foods from ruminant animals, such as cows, sheep, goats and camels). It is suggested that the intake of saturated fats be reduced to less than 10% of total energy intake and trans-fats to less than 1% of total energy intake. In particular, industrially produced trans-fats are not part of a healthy diet and should be avoided.
- Less than 5g of salt (equivalent to about one teaspoon) per day. Salt should be iodized.
b. For infants and young children
In the first 2 years of a child’s life, optimal nutrition fosters healthy growth and improves cognitive development. It also reduces the risk of becoming overweight or obese and developing NCDs later in life. Advice on a healthy diet for infants and children is similar to that for adults, but the following elements are also important:
- Infants should be breastfed exclusively during the first 6 months of life.
- Infants should be breastfed continuously until 2 years of age and beyond.
- From 6 months of age, breast milk should be complemented with a variety of adequate, safe and nutrient-dense foods. Salt and sugars should not be added to complementary foods.
Healthy cooking tips
With today’s fast life, cooking a meal in the traditional style is extinct. People mostly opt for eating less healthy fast foods, ready to eat meal packets, etc. To make a healthy meal, the most important thing is to cook it at your home, rather than opting for outside cooked food. Explore healthy ways to add variety to your meals as repetition can cause boredom. Infuse your diet with the excitement and good taste you crave for. Having to choose healthy food does not mean you need to give up on your favorites. Think of how you can turn your favorites into a healthy option. Here are a few suggestions for cooking healthily.
- Decrease the meat and add more vegetables to your dishes.
- Use whole wheat flour instead of refined flour when you bake.
- Blot your fried foods to take off the extra oil.
- Use low-fat yogurt instead of mayonnaise.
- Add cut fruits to your curd, rather than having flavored yogurt.
- Try to skim milk instead of a normal one.
- Use non-stick cookware to reduce the need for oil to cook.
- Microwave or steam your vegetables rather than boiling to avoid loss of nutrients.
- Fats in your foods should be maintained a minimum.
- Choose lean meats and skim dairy products. Fats are good in the form of nuts, seeds, fish, olives when they are accompanied by other nutrients. Some amount of fats while cooking is good as to help the body to absorb fat-soluble vitamins.
- If you wish to use oil, try cooking sprays or apply oil with a pastry brush. Cook in liquids (such as vegetable stock, lemon juice, fruit juice, vinegar or water) instead of oil. Use low-fat yogurt, low-fat soymilk evaporated skim milk or cornstarch as a thickener instead of cream.
- Choose to scrub the vegetables than peel as there are many nutrients in the skin. When you have to boil the vegetables, retain the vitamin-rich water and use it as a stock in another preparation.
- Switch to a reduced salt wholemeal or wholegrain bread.
- For sandwiches, limit your use of spreads high in saturated fat like butter and cream cheese; replace with scrapings of spread or alternative nut spreads or low-fat cheese spreads or avocado. Choose reduced-fat ingredients like low-fat cheese or salad dressing.
- Add a lot of vegetables to your sandwich to make it healthier.
How to maintain a healthy and balanced diet
A healthy balanced diet helps to protect against malnutrition in all its forms, as well as noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), including diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer. Here are some tips on maintaining a healthy diet.
a. Fruit and vegetables
Eating at least 400g, or five portions, of fruit and vegetables per day reduces the risk of NCDs and helps to ensure an adequate daily intake of dietary fiber. Fruit and vegetable intake can be improved by:
- Always including vegetables in meals.
- Eating fresh fruit and raw vegetables as snacks.
- Eating fresh fruit and vegetables that are in season.
- Eating a variety of fruit and vegetables.
Reducing the amount of total fat intake to less than 30% of total energy intake helps to prevent unhealthy weight gain in the adult population. Also, the risk of developing NCDs is lowered by:
- Reducing saturated fats to less than 10% of total energy intake.
- Reducing trans-fats to less than 1% of total energy intake.
- Replacing both saturated fats and trans-fats with unsaturated fats – in particular, with polyunsaturated fats.
Fat intake, especially saturated fat and industrially produced trans-fat intake, can be reduced by:
- Steaming or boiling instead of frying when cooking.
- Replacing butter, lard and ghee with oils rich in polyunsaturated fats, such as soybean, canola (rapeseed), corn, safflower and sunflower oils.
- Eating reduced-fat dairy foods and lean meats or trimming visible fat from meat.
- Limiting the consumption of baked and fried foods, and pre-packaged snacks and foods (e.g., doughnuts, cakes, pies, cookies, biscuits and wafers) that contain industrially produced trans-fats.
c. Salt, sodium and potassium
Most people consume too much sodium through salt (corresponding to consuming an average of 9-12g of salt per day) and not enough potassium (less than 3.5g). High sodium intake and insufficient potassium intake contribute to high blood pressure, which in turn increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. Reducing salt intake to the recommended level of less than 5g per day could prevent millions of deaths each year.
People are often unaware of the amount of salt they consume. In many countries, most salt comes from processed foods (e.g., ready meals; processed meats such as bacon, ham and salami; cheese; and salty snacks) or from foods consumed frequently in large amounts (e.g., bread). Salt is also added to foods during cooking (e.g., bouillon, stock cubes, soy sauce and fish sauce) or at the point of consumption (e.g., table salt).
Salt intake can be reduced by:
- Limiting the amount of salt and high-sodium condiments (e.g., soy sauce, fish sauce and bouillon) when cooking and preparing foods.
- Not having salt or high-sodium sauces on the table.
- Limiting the consumption of salty snacks.
- Choosing products with lower sodium content.
Some food manufacturers are reformulating recipes to reduce the sodium content of their products, and people should be encouraged to check nutrition labels to see how much sodium is in a product before purchasing or consuming it. Potassium can mitigate the negative effects of elevated sodium consumption on blood pressure. Intake of potassium can be increased by consuming fresh fruit and vegetables.
In both adults and children, the intake of free sugars should be reduced to less than 10% of total energy intake. A reduction to less than 5% of total energy intake would provide additional health benefits. Consuming free sugars increases the risk of dental caries (tooth decay). Excess calories from foods and drinks high in free sugars also contribute to unhealthy weight gain, which can lead to overweight and obesity. Recent evidence also shows that free sugars influence blood pressure and serum lipids and suggests that a reduction in free sugars intake reduces risk factors for cardiovascular diseases.
Sugars intake can be reduced by:
- Limiting the consumption of foods and drinks containing high amounts of sugars, such as sugary snacks, candies and sugar-sweetened beverages (i.e., all types of beverages containing free sugars – these include carbonated or non‐carbonated soft drinks, fruit or vegetable juices and drinks, liquid and powder concentrates, flavored water, energy and sports drinks, ready‐to‐drink tea, ready‐to‐drink coffee and flavored milk drinks).
- Eating fresh fruit and raw vegetables as snacks instead of sugary snacks.
Diet evolves over time, being influenced by many social and economic factors that interact in a complex manner to shape individual dietary patterns. These factors include income, food prices (which will affect the availability and affordability of healthy foods), individual preferences and beliefs, cultural traditions, and geographical and environmental aspects (including climate change).
The exact make-up of a diversified, balanced and healthy diet will vary depending on individual characteristics (e.g., age, gender, lifestyle and degree of physical activity), cultural context, locally available foods and dietary customs. However, the basic principles of what constitutes a healthy diet remain the same.