How to eat healthily
Reviewed by our clinical team
A healthy and balanced diet is important for maintaining your health. However, trying to eat well can sometimes feel overwhelming, especially when life gets busy. At Online Doctor, to support you on your healthy eating journey, we’ve created this healthy eating guide. As well as information on the main food groups and the portion sizes you need, you’ll also find some inspiration for mealtimes and links to many helpful resources.
The guidelines in this article will be suitable for most adults, however, if you have a medical condition or special dietary needs, talk to your GP before making a change to your diet.
What is healthy eating?
Healthy eating means eating foods across the different food groups in the right proportions. In doing so, you will ensure that your body is getting the nutrients and energy it needs. The five core food groups include:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Carbohydrates such as potatoes, rice and pasta
- Proteins such as eggs, meat, beans and fish
- Dairy and dairy alternatives
- Oils and spreads
We recommend eating a variety of foods across each of the groups. The guidelines below provide a breakdown of the recommendations per food group.
Fruits and vegetables
Fruit and vegetables are a great contributor towards a healthy diet. They provide vitamins and minerals, as well as fibre. As well as tasting great, they help to reduce the risk of some cancers, heart disease and stroke.
You should try to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day - a typical portion is 80g. Examples of a portion of fruit include one apple, pear, orange or banana.
A portion of vegetables should be around three tablespoons - for example, of sweetcorn, carrots or peas.
Potatoes do not count as one of your five a day, and the same goes for other starchy foods such as yams and plantain, however, this does not mean that they cannot be enjoyed as part of a healthy diet.
Most adults need around 225–325g of carbohydrates a day. Carbohydrates are an excellent source of glucose, which is used by the body as the energy it needs for movement as well as bodily functions.
225–325g of carbohydrates can be hard to estimate when preparing meals, so we recommend using a resource like this one published by the British Dietetic Association. It lists how many grams of carbohydrates are in typical foods.
- One medium slice of bread: 34–36g
- Three tablespoons of porridge: 40g
- Two to three tablespoons of boiled rice: 175g
Once you get a feel for the carbohydrate levels in different foods, it will become much easier to plan and prepare meals containing healthy levels of carbohydrates. We recommend choosing wholegrain carbohydrates where possible – this is because they are high in fibre. Choosing high fibre foods helps you keep feel full and satisfied for longer and reduces the likelihood of overeating. Wholegrain foods can also help to reduce heart disease and diabetes.
Adults need around 45–55g of protein a day. As well as being a source of energy, protein is needed for the body’s growth, maintenance and repair.
The general rule is 0.75g of protein is needed per kilo of body weight. For example, a person weighing 75kg will need 56.25g of protein. The British Nutrition Foundation has created a useful resource detailing the level of protein in different foods, with information on measuring the portion size.
- Half a 400g can of baked beans has roughly 10g of protein
- Two eggs contain about 11.3g of protein
- Four tablespoons of prawns contain about 12.3g of protein
- One tablespoon of peanut butter contains about 4.6g of protein
Typically, protein is divided into plant and animal proteins. Vegans and vegetarians should be able to meet their protein goals with a varied diet, for example, by including foods like lentils, nuts and tofu.
Dairy and dairy alternatives
Dairy and dairy alternatives can be an excellent source of:
- Protein – for cell growth and repair
- Calcium – for healthy bones
- Iodine – for healthy brain and nerve function, and healthy skin
- Vitamin B2 (also known as riboflavin) – helps release energy from food
- Vitamin B12 – for healthy blood cells and nerve function
Dairy foods include cheese, milk and yoghurt. Dairy alternatives (often in the form of milks or cheeses) are usually made from soya, coconut, almond, oat or rice. They can be healthy options but it’s worth checking that they are fortified with iodine, B2 and B12.
Generally, three portions of dairy and/or dairy alternatives a day is recommended. Portions might look like:
- A small (200ml) glass of skimmed or semi-skimmed milk
- Three tablespoons of natural yoghurt
- A slice of cheese the length of your index finger
- A small (200ml) glass of a dairy alternative milk – such as soya or almond
Oils and spreads
Oils and spreads should be consumed in small amounts. They are high in fat, are calorie dense, and can lead to weight gain. However, some fat in the diet is needed for the essential acids the body is not capable of making itself, as well as for fat-soluble vitamin absorption.
We recommend swapping oils and spreads high in saturated fats for unsaturated options. Oils and fats high in saturated fats include:
- Palm oil
- Goose fat
- Coconut oil
Reducing saturated fat in your diet may reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Oils and fats high in unsaturated fats include:
- Olive oil
- Sunflower oil
- Vegetable oil
- Rapeseed oil
When choosing an oil or spread as part of a meal, try and use one from the unsaturated list above.
How many calories should you eat as part of a healthy diet?
To eat well, as well as an awareness of food groups, you’ll need to be mindful of the calories you’re consuming. Men need around 2,500 calories a day and women need around 2,000 calories a day, although this will vary depending on activity levels. If you’re unsure of how many calories you should be eating, the daily recommended intake is a great start, but we recommend talking to your GP.
Good hydration is a vital when maintaining a healthy diet. If fluid levels drop by only a small amount, the effects may be felt as dizziness, headaches, dry mouth and more. Adults need around 1-2.5 litres of fluid a day – this works out at around 8-10 200ml drinks. Water is an excellent choice, but other drinks also count towards fluid intake, such as juices, tea and coffee. Some drinks can be high in sugar and calories, such as fizzy drinks, fruit juices and milkshakes, and should be consumed in moderation.
Sugar in the diet
We should also mention the importance of monitoring your sugar intake. Adults should consume no more than 30g (equivalent to seven sugar cubes) a day of free sugars. Cakes, sweets, biscuits, fizzy drinks and chocolate are examples of foods containing free sugars.
Examples of balanced meals
The information above provides a useful indicator of what a healthy diet looks like, but it’s important to remember that many meals can be balanced if using the food groups in the right proportions – for the most part, foods should not be ‘banned’ or eliminated completely.
The options for healthy mealtimes are endless, but we’ve listed some examples:
- Poached eggs on wholegrain toast with spinach and mushrooms - a great source of protein and some of your five a day
- Fruit and nut breakfast bowl with natural yoghurt (or a dairy alternative) - a great source of protein, dairy, and some of your five a day
- Porridge made with skimmed milk and topped with fruit – carbohydrate, dairy and some of your five a day
- Cereals with no added sugar or salt – carbohydrate and dairy
- Peanut butter and banana on toast – a source of protein, carbohydrates, and one of your five a day
- Hummus and vegetable wraps – a meal consisting of carbohydrate, protein and one or two of your five a day depending on what you put in them
- Grilled chicken breast with rice and vegetables – protein, carbohydrates and some of your five a day
- Prawn or salmon salad – a source of protein and some of your five a day
- Soups packed with vegetables – a source of protein and some of your five a day
- Meat stews made with vegetables - a source of protein and some of your five a day
- Curries made with meat/fish/paneer and vegetables and rice - a source of protein/dairy and some of your five a day and carbohydrates
- Chicken skewers with salad and rice/potatoes - a source of protein and some of your five a day
- A roast dinner with meat or a nut roast – a source of protein and some of your five a day
Get support on your healthy eating journey
If you’re making a significant change to your diet, or need some advice on eating healthily, a good starting point is a conversation with your GP. You could also book an appointment with LloydsPharmacy Online Doctor’s VideoGP service to discuss your health and wellbeing, or visit our online weight loss clinic.
- NHS Eatwell Guide
- NHS - Tips for healthy eating
- The Association of UK Dieticians - Food facts
- British Nutrition Foundation - Healthy sustainable diets