A good diet is central to overall health. One of the best ways to healthy living is to eat a balanced diet. Here we take a look at the major five food groups:

  1. Carbohydrates
  2. Fruit and Vegetables
  3. Proteins
  4. Milk – Dairy
  5. Fats and Sugars

1. Carbohydrates

Apart from potatoes, all the foods listed in this group began life as a grain, such as wheat, rye, corn, rice or barley. Potatoes and grains are very healthy and filling; however, you can be even healthier if you choose unrefined versions of these foods over refined versions.

Top tip If you decide to increase the amount of fibre you eat, try to drink more water too. Your body doesn’t digest fibre, so you need the extra water to help it flow through your digestive system with ease.

Refined carbohydrates refers to foods where machinery has been used to remove the high fibre bits (the bran and the germ) from the grain. White rice, white bread, sugary cereals, and pasta and noodles made from white flour are all examples of refined carbohydrates.

Unrefined carbohydrates still contain the whole grain, including the bran and the germ, so they’re higher in fibre and will keep you feeling fuller for longer – great if you’re trying to lose weight and hate feeling hungry. Examples include whole grain rice, wholemeal bread, porridge oats and whole wheat pasta.

2. Fruit and vegetables

Fruit and vegetables are brimming with fibre, plus a whole range of vitamins and minerals, and because they’re low in calories, they make an important and healthy addition to any diet.

Five a day scientific studies have shown that people who eat a lot of fruit and vegetables may have a lower risk of getting illnesses, such as heart disease and some cancers. For this reason, health authorities recommend that you eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables every day – and it doesn’t matter whether they’re fresh, tinned, frozen, cooked, juiced or dried.

How much is a portion?

  • One slice of large fruit, such as melon, mango or pineapple
  • One handful of grapes or two handfuls of cherries or berry fruits
  • An apple, peach, banana or orange
  • One tablespoon of dried fruit
  • A glass (roughly 100ml) of fruit juice
  • A small tin (roughly 200g) of fruit
  • A side salad
  • A serving (roughly 100g) of vegetables – e.g., frozen or mushy peas, boiled carrots or stir- fried broccoli
  • The vegetables served in a portion of vegetable curry, lasagne, stir-fry or casserole

3. Proteins

Protein plays an essential role in building and repairing your body. But whether it helps a fingernail to grow or heals a sore muscle it, depends on the make-up of the protein.

Proteins consist of smaller units called amino acids, which can link together in many combinations to form chains. Some amino acid chains are created by your body, but those called essential amino acids must come from your diet.

Although all animal and plant cells contain some protein, the amount and the quality of the protein varies a lot.

High biological value foods contain enough indispensable amino acids for an adult diet and are considered to be good quality protein. Meat, fish and eggs sit in this category.

Low biological value foods don’t contain enough indispensable amino acids. Plant foods, such as pulses, nuts and seeds, are in this group.

Health professionals recommend that protein makes up 10 to 15 per cent of your diet. They suggest men eat 55.5g protein a day and women eat 45g. In real terms, eating a moderate amount of protein – in one or two meals every day – should give you all the protein you need.

The need to eat protein every day is worth emphasising, because your body can’t store it – you can’t stock up on it by bingeing on protein once a week, for example.

4. Milk – Dairy

Calcium is a mineral that strengthens your bones and teeth, and ensures everything runs smoothly with your muscles and nerves. It’s especially important for growth.

Calcium can continue to add to the strength of your bones until you reach the age of 30 to 35, when peak bone mass is reached. After this point, as a natural part of the ageing process, your bones lose their density and grow weaker.

If you haven’t had enough calcium in your diet prior to this, there’s an increased risk that your bones won’t be strong enough to cope with any weakening, which can result in the brittle bone disease, osteoporosis.

Health professionals estimate that one in three women and one in 12 men over the age of 50 suffer from osteoporosis. There’s also concern that the diets of teenage girls and young women, in particular, aren’t high enough in calcium.

The Department of Health recommends that both men and women get 700mg of calcium every day to ensure good health. Realistically, this means one of the following:

  • A pint of milk
  • Two small tubs of plain or fruit yogurt
  • Roughly 80g of hard cheese

5. Fats and sugars

Fat transports fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K through your body.

  • It cushions your internal organs.
  • It makes food taste nicer.
  • It can contain essential fatty acids (EFAs), which are thought to have a positive effect on the health of your heart and immune system.
  • It’s a concentrated source of energy.

It’s this last point that has given fat such a bad reputation. Just 1g of fat provides 9 calories – more than double the calories in 1g of protein or carbohydrate. This means if you eat a lot of fatty foods, you’re likely to put on weight. However, understanding the difference between unsaturated and saturated fats can help.

In reality, many foods contain both saturated and unsaturated fats, but they’re described as one or the other depending on which makes up the majority. So, a healthier unsaturated fat such as olive oil contains saturated fats, too.

Like fat, sugar is a concentrated source of energy and also has a bad reputation. The psychological benefits of eating foods such as jam, sweets, cakes, chocolate, soft drinks, biscuits and ice cream are fairly obvious. They taste lovely and feel like a special treat. However, it’s important to keep them as just that – an occasional, special treat.

Why? Because… Sugary foods often go hand in hand with fatty foods. Think cakes, biscuits, chocolate and pies.

Sugar interacts with the plaque on your teeth and has been proven to cause tooth decay.

Government guidelines recommend that fats make up no more than 35 per cent of your diet. For the average woman, this means about 76g of fat per day; for men, roughly 100g. In reality, though, most of us have much higher fat intakes.

Page updated: 14 February, 2022