The key to healthy and balanced diet

How to Have a Healthy & Balanced Diet – Essential Food Groups

Find out what are the essential food groups and how to combine them in a healthy diet

Picking products for your balanced and healthy diet

Let’s start by explaining what “essential” means. In short, all essential nutrients are the ones without which we would die (this also relates to things we cannot produce in our own bodies).

Red wine is very enjoyable, but despite what many people say, we would not die if we stop drinking it. If we stop eating protein, however, our condition will very quickly deteriorate. The essentials of a balanced & healthy diet can be simply stated as the combination of macro nutrients, micro nutrients and water.


Essential big (macro) nutrients

Macronutrients are split in 3 main groups (all of which would be very familiar)

Sources of protein in a healthy diet

PROTEIN

Energy value: 4 kcals / gram

fish, meat, eggs, plant proteins (e.g. soya, beans & pulses)

Sources of good fat in balanced diet

FAT

Energy value: 9 kcals / gram

vegetable oils such as olive oil & sunflower oil, butters & creams, avocados, nuts, etc.

Sources of carbs in a balanced diet

CARBOHYDRATES

Energy value: 4 kcals / gram

sugars & starches, bread, potatoes, corn, rice, dietary fibre

What do macronutrients do?

Macronutrients are dietary sources of energy and are the building blocks of our bones, muscles and organs.

Of the macronutrients protein and fat are essential. Below is an overview of the main macronutrients in more detail.

Protein

Protein is a key component for every cell in your body. Nails and hair are made almost entirely of protein and your body uses protein to build and repair tissues. You also use protein to make enzymes, hormones, and other body chemicals. Protein is also an important building block of bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, and blood. Protein contains the Essential Amino Acids (the building blocks of body tissues).

Fat

While much body fat can be made within our bodies (for example from eating too much sugar!), the human body cannot produce linolenic or linoleic fatty acids so they must be eaten. For a healthy diet, include good food sources of fat such as vegetable oils and fish and other marine oils. Linoleic and linolenic acids are required to regulate multiple processes in the body including hormone balance, immunity and the control of inflammation.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates like sugar, starches and fibre are not necessarily essential component of the diet. Most carbs in the diet are made up of many units of glucose, which is essential in our body to fuel cells, especially the brain. The human body is extremely adaptable, and if we don’t eat carbs, our livers can make carbohydrate (glucose) from protein or fat and keep the glucose flowing to the brain.

If carbohydrates are not “essential” (i.e. we won’t die if we don’t eat it), why do they make up a large part of most peoples diets? This is because carbs are tasty, traditional and affordable and importantly help to sustain ourselves during intense physical or mental activities.

Why and when do we need carbs in our healthy diet?

When we exercise we burn a lot of glucose fast, so eating carbs helps us perform better. Similarly when we use our brains a lot, we benefit from eating carbs and the readily available glucose that they provide. When looking to stay in shape, as with all foods, limiting the amount of carbohydrates we eat is crucial and we recommend consuming more complex carbs.

To read more you can visit the Protein, Carbs and Fat section of our guide.


Combine different food groups on your plate for healthy diet

  • Make sure your plate has a variety of food groups on it.
  • Remember you need at least 5 different fruits and vegetables per day. Try to squeeze at least 3 before lunch!
  • Try the “Hara Hachi Bu” method to prevent overeating macronutrients. This ancient Japanese (Okinawan) approach suggests stopping eating when you feel 80% full. It works well for them, as they are among the longest living people on earth.

Essential small (micro) nutrients

Micronutrients are all vitamins and minerals in the diet. Chemically the vitamins are different from minerals. The first are ‘organic’ (carbon based), whereas minerals (like zinc or iron) are inorganic.

Micronutrients play many roles in the body and must be obtained from the diet as we can’t make them within our bodies. They are called micronutrients because we require them in very small quantities (compared to the macronutrients), but they are just as important!

For a full overview please see Chapter 4.


Sources of the main minerals & vitamins

Main sources of vitamins in foodsMain sources of minerals in foods

Foods rich in vitaminsFoods rich in minerals

Getting the right balance of micro nutrients

Three simple rules for getting the right balance of micros:

  • Make sure and eat a wide variety of foods, from all major food groups. Microntrients are present in many foods, but in varying quantities. The best way to ensure getting enough is to eat a varied healthy diet.
  • Eat ‘a rainbow’ of colours amongst fruit and vegetables. Fruit and vegetables are a rich source of micronutrients. By choosing a range of colours you are also choosing a range of micronutrients!
  • Get fresh. The fresher the food, the higher the likely micronutrient content. This is also true for cooking, so lightly cooked (e.g. steamed) food will usually retain its vitamins and minerals better.

We are releasing 2 new chapters of our healthy eating guide every week. In the next two chapters we are going to dive deeper in the main macro nutrients and learn more about hydration.

Adam graduated from Queen Mary College London with a first class degree in physiology. Having completed an MSc in Nutrition at King’s College London he went on to research towards his PhD at the Royal London Hospital. He then established a career as a researcher and educator, teaching at major London Universities.
With expertise in anti-ageing, weight loss, clinical nutrition, sports nutrition and management of stress and fatigue, Adam has been featured on CNN, BBC TV & Radio and in UK national and local press.
Adam has published his research findings on multiple aspects of diet and health including diabetes, obesity, fatigue states, human performance and nutrition for healthy ageing.