14/05/2014 09:53 BST | Updated 22/05/2015 06:12 BST

What Does A Balanced Diet Really Mean?

What does a balanced diet really mean?Alamy

We tend to be creatures of habit. Would you say that your weekly shop tends to comprise the same types of foods week in week out? The brand may change depending on what's on special offer, but many of us tend to stick to what we know and like.

The term 'balanced diet' is used a lot but what does it actually mean? In a nutshell, it is about ensuring our daily diet includes food from the main food groups – and more importantly variety within those food groups too.

Here's a more detailed look at the food groups:

Fruit and vegetables

• Five portions of fruit and vegetables a day is the minimum to aim for (an average portion is 80g, equivalent to an apple sized fruit, a bowl of salad or 2-3 tablespoons of veg).

• Deeper green and more richly coloured fruits and vegetables are especially good sources of the antioxidant nutrients (particularly vitamin C, E and the carotenoids) which help to mop up excess free radicals, which have been linked to diseases such as cancer and heart disease.

• Fruit and vegetables are also good sources of fibre which helps keep our digestive systems functioning healthily.

• Fresh, frozen, dried and canned fruit and vegetables (without sugar and salt) can each count as one portion towards your daily 5 a day goal, as can a glass of pure fruit juice.

Your goal – get '5-a-day'

Try a glass of juice at breakfast, a banana for a snack, an apple at lunch, and two portions of greens with your evening meal.

Starchy carbohydrates

• Along with fruit and veg, starchy carbohydrate foods should make up the biggest part of our diet.

• They are valuable and low fat sources of energy and also supply important B vitamins which are needed for the release of energy within every cell.

• Carbohydrate foods should ideally be eaten at every meal, and high-fibre (whole grain) varieties should be chosen wherever possible.

• The goal to aim for is 5-11 portions a day. As a guide, one portion equates to a slice of bread, 3 tablespoons of breakfast cereal, 1 tablespoon of cooked rice or pasta, or 2 smallish potatoes. (Some people may have an intolerance to wheat, in which case alternative grains should be substituted).

Meat, fish and alternatives

• Foods in this group provide protein for the daily repair and renewal of tissue, and for healthy muscles, skin and nails. They also provide B vitamins and the mineral iron, which prevents against anaemia.

• As well as the traditional meat, fish and poultry, it is healthy to include vegetarian alternatives like pulses, nuts and eggs as healthier alternatives.

• Try to eat two to three servings per day - one serving is around 3oz/75g of lean meat or skinless poultry, 5oz/140g white fish, 2 medium eggs, or 10oz/300g cooked beans or lentils.

• If you're not vegetarian, including one portion of oily fish - such as salmon or mackerel - every week is the easiest way to get your recommended intake of important omega-3 fats.
Milk and dairy foods

• Dairy products provide protein, vitamins and minerals, and are particularly rich in calcium for strong bones.

• Three portions of dairy products a day will provide enough calcium for most people's needs, although women who have been through the menopause may need a calcium supplement in addition.

• One serving of a dairy product is 200ml milk, one small pot of yoghurt or a matchbox size piece of cheese.

• Where possible, choose low fat versions, as traditional full fat dairy products are high in saturated fat.

• If you can't tolerate dairy products, don't worry - you can substitute milk with alternatives such as calcium-fortified Soya milk and also increase your calcium intakes from nuts, broccoli, canned fish with bones and figs.

Fatty and sugary foods

• This group of foods includes margarines, butter, spreads and oils; salad dressings; cream and ice cream; chocolates and sweets; crisps; biscuits, cakes and pastries.

• In a healthy diet, these foods can be included but should not feature too often, and when you do eat them they should only be in small amounts.

• Spreads can provide a lot of fat in an average diet, so spreading bread thinly or using a low fat spread can make a very big difference to the fat content of your diet.

• Use reduced fat versions of salad dressings, and wherever possible, grill or bake food rather than fry. And if you make a pie, just put pastry on the top.

• Fat is essential in the diet but choosing unsaturated fats such as vegetable oil, olive oil and oily fish is important. Monounsaturates found in olive and rapeseed oils may be particularly beneficial as they help improve cholesterol balance and lower total cholesterol.