Healthy eating for adults

What we eat can impact our health, so it’s important to put some thought into what we eat and drink. A healthy diet doesn't have to be boring. It can be full of exciting tastes, while at the same time meeting healthy eating recommendations to reduce fat, sugar and salt.

Healthy eating

The Eatwell Guide is used to show the different types of foods commonly eaten and the proportions that are recommended to achieve a healthy, balanced diet. No single food provides all the nutrients we need, so it is important to include a wide variety of foods in the diet.

The Eatwell Guide is split into four main food groups:

  • fruit and vegetables
  • potatoes, bread, rice, pasta and other starchy foods
  • beans, pulses, fish, eggs and other proteins
  • dairy and alternatives

Eating five or more portions of fruit and vegetables a day can help prevent heart disease and some types of cancer. Fruit and vegetables are full of vitamins, minerals and fibre, and are low in fat.

There are many varieties to choose from including fresh, frozen, dried and tinned varieties, just choose fruit tinned in juice rather than syrup, and vegetables in water rather than brine.

A portion is about 80g, for example:

  • one medium-sized piece of fruit, such as an apple, orange, banana or pear
  • two small fruits, such as kiwi, satsumas or plums
  • one large slice of pineapple or melon
  • one tablespoon of dried fruit, such as raisins or three apricots
  • one cereal bowl of salad
  • three heaped tablespoons of fresh or frozen vegetables, such as frozen peas, mashed carrot, parsnips or turnip
  • one small glass (150ml) of fresh fruit juice or a smoothie

Dried fruit and fruit juices/smoothies can each be counted as only one portion a day, however much you have. It's recommended that dried fruit and juices are limited to meal times as the high sugar content means they can be damaging to teeth if taken between meals.

Potatoes are not included in the fruit and vegetable food group.

Potatoes, bread, rice, pasta and other starchy carbohydrates

Starchy carbohydrates such as bread, rice, potatoes and pasta are a good source of energy, fibre and B vitamins and should be used as the basis for meals. Choose higher-fibre, wholegrain varieties such as whole wheat pasta, brown rice, or simply leaving the skins on potatoes.

Breakfast cereals are a great way to start the day - they are a good source of energy, vitamins, minerals and fibre. Opt for wholegrain breakfast cereals and whole oats.

Wholegrain food contains more fibre than white or refined starchy food, and often more of other nutrients. We also digest wholegrain food more slowly and can help us feel full for longer. They also help prevent constipation, protect against some cancers and reduce the risk of heart disease so are a great choice.

Starchy foods are also low in fat, though the butter or creamy sauces that are often added to them can have a higher fat content.

Dairy and alternatives

Milk and dairy foods such as yoghurt and cheese are important sources of calcium, vitamins A and D, B12, protein and fat. Calcium is needed to help build strong bones and for nerve and muscle function. Vitamin D is needed to help absorb calcium and therefore plays an important part in strengthening bone.

Try to choose lower fat varieties such as semi-skimmed or skimmed milk, cottage cheese, Edam cheese and half fat cheddars. Milk in sauces and milk puddings are a great way to help you get enough calcium. Semi-skimmed and skimmed milks contain just as much calcium as whole milk.

When buying dairy alternatives, such as almond or soy, go for unsweetened, calcium-fortified varieties.

Beans, pulses, fish, eggs and other proteins

Beans, peas and lentils are good alternatives to meat because they’re naturally very low in fat, and they’re high in fibre, protein, vitamins and minerals. Other vegetable-based sources of protein and meat substitutes all of which are widely available in most major supermarkets.

Eggs are a convenient alternative to meat and are extremely versatile. They can be scrambled, boiled, poached or made into an omelette. 

Adults are recommended to eat two portions of fish a week, one of which should be oily. Tinned fish, such as salmon, mackerel and pilchards contain lots of omega 3 fatty acids and are good for heart health.

Meat is a good source of protein, vitamin B12 and iron. A diet rich in iron will help prevent iron-deficiency anaemia.

Processed meats and chicken products should be limited as they are high in fat and salt and lower in iron. If using processed meat products such as chicken nuggets or burgers, grill or bake on a rack rather than frying.

Foods high in fat, salt and sugars

In Northern Ireland, more than half the population is overweight. We all need a little fat in our diets. However, too much fat can lead to unwanted weight gain and increases the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and other major health problems.

Foods high in fat, salt and sugar are not needed in the diet and so should be limited. Try to have them less often and in smaller amounts. Food and drinks high in fat and sugar contain lots of energy, particularly when you have large servings.

Most of us need to cut down on the amount of fat we eat. This can be difficult as most of the fat we consume is hidden in foods such as processed meat products.

Other examples include:

  • pies, sausages and burgers
  • pastry
  • crisps
  • tray bakes, cakes and biscuits

Cutting down on fat

There are two main types of fat, saturated fats and unsaturated fats.

Saturated fats usually come from animal sources, such as lard, suet and butter. Coconut oil is also high in saturated fat. Saturated fats are used within the body to make cholesterol. Although we all need some cholesterol in our bodies, too much in the blood can increase the risk of heart disease.

Unsaturated fats are found mainly in plant sources such as nuts, seeds and plants. Oily fish such as trout, mackerel, salmon and sardines contain another source of polyunsaturated fat called omega 3.

These oils have been proven to reduce blood clot formation and therefore help prevent the onset of coronary heart disease and stroke.

Ways of cutting down on fat include:

  • instead of using pastry to top pies, why not top with mashed potato
  • to use less cheese, use a strongly flavoured cheddar cheese to flavour sauces and for toppings
  • measure oil onto a spoon when cooking so you know how much you have added
  • use natural yoghurt in dishes to create a creamy texture instead of using cream or crème fraiche - mix a teaspoon of cornflour into a small carton of yoghurt to stop it curdling when heated
  • instead of buying a frozen pizza, try making your own - buy the base and add your own vegetable toppings
  • make salad dressings with vinegar, lemon juice and herbs and spices rather than using creamy dressings like mayonnaise and salad cream
  • try using cooking methods such as dry frying and grilling that don’t need extra fat or drain off extra fat

Cutting down on sugar

Sugary foods can also contribute to weight gain. Sweets, cakes, biscuits and fizzy drinks contain lots of calories but few vitamins and minerals. We should make them an occasional food.

As they are damaging to teeth, it’s best to eat them at meal times when they cause less damage. Many packaged foods and drinks contain surprisingly high amounts of free sugars including some breakfast cereals, yoghurts and fruit juice drinks.

Adults should eat no more than 30g of sugar per day, roughly equal to seven sugar cubes.

Free sugars are any sugar added to food or drink products by the manufacturer, cook or consumer including those naturally found in honey, syrups and unsweetened fruit juice.

Ways of cutting down on sugar: 

  • gradually reduce the amount of sugar in hot drinks, this is better than using sugar substitutes and will help you lose your sweet tooth
  • when baking, you can reduce the amount of sugar by half, this works for everything except meringues and jam
  • try to choose fruit, vegetables and bread-based snacks between meals rather than a biscuit or a bun
  • use fresh fruit to sweeten plain yoghurt
  • instead of soft drinks, add chopped lemon and oranges to jugs of water and refrigerate for a cool, refreshing drink
  • choose high fibre, low sugar cereals and sweeten with dried fruit instead of sugar
  • alcohol also contains lots of sugar so cut down on the amount you drink

The difference between men and women’s diets

Women don't need to eat as much as a man because on average a woman's body does not use as much energy. This is partly because a man's body is made up of more muscle than a woman's body, which contains more fat. Muscle uses up a lot more energy than fat.

Women need more iron. This is because menstruation (periods) can lead to a shortage of iron, particularly if you have heavy periods or your diet is low in iron. The best source of iron is red meat. It can also be found in pulses (such as beans and lentils), bread, green vegetables and fortified breakfast cereals.

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