You may have heard the phrase “you are what you eat” and in a sense, this is true: a healthy balanced diet helps provide your body with the energy and nutrients it needs to function.
For those of us interested in maintaining cholesterol at the recommended level, a balanced diet with a variety of different foods is very important. So what is a healthy, balanced diet?
The balanced diet chart
A healthy balanced diet is one with plenty of variety, covering all of the five main food groups in suitable proportions – this is reflected in the balanced diet chart below:
The chart above is not an exact guide, but it does make clear the basis behind the idea of “balancing” your diet – not all of the main food groups should be eaten in the same quantity. Your body only needs a little of some things (like visible fat) while other foods (such as fruit and vegetables) have a bigger part to play in a balanced diet.
A balanced diet includes:
- Plenty of fruit and vegetables. According to NHS guidelines, getting your five-a-day means eating at least five 80g portions of fruit and vegetables – which is easier than you might think. Fresh, canned, dried, and frozen vegetables all count towards this aspect of a healthy balanced diet, and it’s simple to up your intake by stirring vegetables into stews, curries, soups, and casseroles, or topping your breakfast, snack, or dessert with a portion of fruit.The main exception to the five-a-day rule is potatoes – they are considered starchy foods (see below).
- Starchy foods, including bread, pasta, rice, grains, and potatoes. In the balanced diet chart, starchy foods cover about a third of overall food consumption. Providing energy and essential nutrients, starchy foods can also be a good source of fibre, particularly the wholegrain or brown varieties and potatoes eaten with their skins. Studies on oats suggest that a daily intake of 3g beta-glucan (a kind of fibre found in oats) can lower cholesterol as part of a healthy diet and lifestyle*.
- Non-dairy protein, including fish, pulses, nuts, eggs, and meat. Protein contributes to the growth and maintenance of muscles. When it comes to maintaining a desirable cholesterol level, the type of fat contained in the protein we eat is important. Nuts and oily fish are good sources of unsaturated fat, which can help reduce cholesterol levels when used as a replacement for saturated fats as part of a healthy balanced diet.* Foods within this group can also be a great source of fibre: pulses (such as beans, lentils, and peas) and nuts are all good options for increasing the amount of fibre in your diet.
- Milk and other dairy foods. Milk and other dairy products like cheese, cream, and butter are also good sources of protein or minerals like calcium, but are often high in saturated fat – especially full fat variants. For a healthy balanced diet, opt for reduced fat or reduced saturated fat versions, such as skimmed milk or vegetable oil based soft spreads.
- Fat and sugar. As you can see from the healthy balanced diet pie chart above, visible fat (fat you can see, such as oils, butter, or the fat you can cut off meat) and sugar should account for a quite small portion of our overall diet.Fats supply us with energy and essential fatty acids the body needs, but cannot produce. However – as with the “invisible fat” found in other kinds of food – the visible types of fat we eat need to be as good as possible. Total fat and total saturated fat intake through our diet needs to be within the recommended limits. According to the NHS:
- The average man should eat under 30g of saturated fat a day, 95g of fat in total.
- The average woman should eat under 20g of saturated fat a day, 70g of fat in total.
You can find plenty of information and advice on replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fat in our article here. Our Simple Swaps guide here is also a useful tool.
Sugar is also a source of energy, but foods high in sugar often contain few other nutrients – it is important to keep sugar consumption within the recommended limits.
* High cholesterol is a risk factor in the development of coronary heart disease. There are many risk factors for coronary heart disease and it is important to take care of all of them to reduce overall risk of it.