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Eating a healthy, balanced diet has huge benefits for your overall wellbeing as Michelle Higgs explains

Whether you’ve got into bad habits, want to fix a sluggish digestive system or need to lose weight, healthy eating can do you a power of good. The old saying ‘you are what you eat’ is fairly accurate, so if you eat less processed or junk food more of the time, you’ll feel better for it.

Imagine feeling fit, healthy, full of energy and ready for anything. That might sound like pie in the sky but it’s achievable if you adopt a healthier diet. Most of us have a good idea of what healthy eating is, but it’s important to remember that there’s no such thing as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods so nothing is banned. In fact, the key to a healthy diet lies in getting the balance right between the different food groups. There shouldn’t be any need to exclude foods unless you have a genuine food allergy or food intolerance.

A balanced diet

There are five main food groups: fruit and vegetables; starchy carbohydrates; proteins; dairy and dairy alternatives; and unsaturated oils and spreads. In order to eat healthily, try to have a wide variety of food from the five groups on a daily basis. 

The cornerstone of healthy eating is to have at least five portions of fruit and vegetables every day. This is easier than you might think! Although potatoes, yams, cassava and plantain don’t count, everything else does, whether they’re fresh, frozen or tinned. Each portion size should be around 80g (30g for dried fruit). 

Meals should also include plenty of starchy carbohydrates like potatoes, bread, rice and pasta; protein-rich foods such as meat, fish, eggs, beans, pulses and meat-free alternatives; dairy and dairy alternatives, including cheese, milk and yoghurt; and small amounts of unsaturated fats such as olive oil and vegetable oil. 

You may have noticed that foods which are high in fat, salt and sugar, such as chocolate, biscuits, cake and crisps, are not included in the five food groups. That’s because they should only be eaten occasionally in smaller amounts, and should not form part of a regular weekly diet. The same is true of ready meals and takeaways. They’re fine eaten in moderation but if you have them too often, you won’t get the energy or nutrients you need.

You can find out more about healthy meals, recipe ideas and tips on the NHS Eat Well website (https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/the-eatwell-guide) 

Keep a food diary

Before changing your diet, keep a food diary for a couple of weeks. This will highlight things you’re not even aware of eating and any bad habits you may have got into, for example, snacking at certain times of the day. Seeing what you’re eating in black and white is a powerful way to identify where you can make changes, get back on track and stay in control. 

Make gradual changes

Once you’ve decided you want to eat more healthily, it’s tempting to go around the supermarket filling your trolley with lots of fresh fruit and vegetables that all look delicious. But if you haven’t thought about how you’re going to eat them or which meals they will go into, you’re likely to see that wonderful produce go off before you have chance to use it. What a waste!

Instead, make gradual changes to your grocery shopping over a period of time, say, four weeks, so that you don’t feel overwhelmed by the task of overhauling your diet. For example, in the first week, try adding fruit to your breakfast. Then, in the second week, you can build on that and buy a couple of vegetables you’ve never tried before, and so on. 

Plan your meals

It may sound straightforward to base your meals around the five main food groups, but how easy is it in practice? If you never know what you’re having for your evening meal from one day to the next, it will be difficult. The key is to change your mindset, get organised and plan your meals in advance. 

There are lots of meal-planning apps and online tools to help you so that you’ll always know what you’re going to eat during the week. Use the healthy eating principles to guide your choices: make sure as many meals as possible have some fruit or veg, starchy carbohydrate and protein. 

Read food labels 

Make it your mission never to put anything in your shopping trolley without checking the food label first. This will tell you exactly what the ingredients are; as a general rule of thumb, the longer the list, the more processed the product. The label will also tell you how much salt, sugar and saturated fat is in the food. You may be surprised by what you discover, for instance, some foods described as ‘low fat’ have large quantities of sugar. 

Cook meals from scratch

By cooking your own meals most of the time, you’ll automatically avoid processed food – and you’ll save money! If you haven’t done much cooking before or you’re a bit rusty, look online for tips and advice. Start by mastering a few simple dishes such as omelettes and stir-fries. You can then move on to pasta bakes, chillies, curries, stews or other one-pot meals. Once you get the hang of it, it’s easy to cook larger batches of your favourites and freeze the portions you won’t be eating straight away – the ultimate healthy ready-meal! 

Help from your pharmacy 

Many pharmacies provide a weight management service to support people to lose weight, especially if they’re obese and at risk of developing serious health conditions. If you don’t meet the criteria, you can still pop into your local pharmacy for friendly advice.

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