From super foods to low-carb diets and juice cleanses, every week seems to bring a new health trend.
We're inundated with advice on what we should (or shouldn't) be eating in the newspapers and on TV, while a quick browse online reveals that more than 50 books on healthy eating have already been published in 2016.
As a consumer, it can be difficult to navigate this vast and ever-changing sea of information. What we read might be supported by a single academic study, or a quote from a doctor or nutritionist, but it can be difficult to know whether the evidence cited is really robust, or whether the expertise presented to us can really be trusted.
What we do know is that eating a healthy, balanced diet is important to help maintain a healthy weight and help to reduce the prevalence of heart disease, diabetes and some cancers.
Eating the right foods also helps us to get all the different nutrients we need, such as calcium for bone strength and a wide range of vitamins and minerals.
Public Health England produces evidence-based information on what constitutes a healthy diet. The Eatwell Guide, launched this month, is designed to be easy to understand and straightforward to put into practice (see picture above).
The Eatwell Guide shows the proportions and types of foods that provide a healthy balanced diet and they are consistent with UK government recommendations, which are based on evidence from the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition.
The Guide is there to help people make sure that their diet is giving them the nutrients they need for good health, and that they are eating the right foods to help maintain a healthy weight.
What to eat as part of a healthy diet
The Eatwell Guide recommends the following for a healthy diet:
- Eat at least 5 portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day
- Base meals on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, choosing wholegrain versions where possible
- Have some dairy or dairy alternatives (such as soya drinks or yoghurts), choosing lower fat and lower sugar options
- Eat some beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins (including 2 portions of fish every week, one of which should be oily)
- Choose unsaturated oils and spreads and eat in small amounts
- Drink 6-8 cups /glasses of fluid a day
- If consuming foods and drinks high in fat, salt or sugar, have these less often and in small amounts.
The Guide applies to adults and children over 2 years old, regardless of weight or dietary restrictions (if you have a specific medical condition, make sure you talk to your doctor).
It can be a useful tool to help you decide what to eat yourself and what to feed your family or to use when out shopping for groceries, planning meals or cooking at home. It can also provide some guidance when you're eating out in a restaurant or café.
Taking a closer look
There is also lots of information on healthy eating available on NHS Choices, and you can speak to your GP or practice nurse if you have questions on your diet. It's normal to feel confused, especially when some 'healthy' foods and drinks can have surprisingly high levels of sugar, and some types of fat are better for you than others.
For example, juice diets and smoothies are a big trend at the moment, but in fact, evidence-based guidance recommends limiting your intake of these drinks to no more than a combined total of 150ml per day, as they contain a lot of free sugar.
This is because juicing or blending fruit releases the sugar from fruit into the drink, and we end up consuming far more fruit in blended form than we would normally eat whole in one sitting.
Keeping hydrated is important though, and water, lower fat milks and lower sugar or sugar-free drinks including tea and coffee all count towards the recommended 6-8 glasses per day.
The difference between 'good' fats and 'bad' fats can be confusing. Your body needs small amounts of fat to help it work normally. However, some types of fat are healthier than others. There are two main types of fats in food: saturated fat and unsaturated fat. Eating too much saturated fat can cause high cholesterol levels, increasing your risk of heart disease.
The guidance suggests swapping foods high in saturated fat, such as butter, cream, biscuits and sweets, with foods containing unsaturated fat, such as oils and low fat spreads.
A lifestyle, not a quick fix
Eating well and having a healthy lifestyle is important to help protect against both physical and mental ill health. But it's important to remember that there is no quick fix to improving diet or fitness levels - healthy eating and exercise should be part of everyday life and the Eatwell Guide is designed to help maintain a healthy weight.
However, in England, most adults are either overweight or obese, meaning they have a higher risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, liver disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers. Many of us are eating more than we need, and should eat and drink fewer calories to lose weight.
There is plenty of helpful information on how to lose weight safely on the NHS Choices website, including a BMI calculator, weight loss plans and information to help dispel those weight loss myths. There are also lots of healthier recipes, sugar swaps and fitness tips available through the Change 4 Life campaign.
The best way to lose weight safely, and keep it off long-term, is by developing healthy habits that last.
Follow Professor Kevin Fenton on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ProfKevinFenton