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What is a healthy, balanced diet?

In March, Public Health England launched the Eatwell Guide – the new UK healthy eating model, which describes the different types of foods and drinks we should consume – and in what proportions – to have a healthy, balanced diet

In March, Public Health Englandlaunched the Eatwell Guide – the new UK healthy eating model, which describes the different types of foods and drinks we should consume – and in what proportions – to have a healthy, balanced diet.

The Eatwell Guide has been based on the UK’s food-based guidelines, including the recent recommendations on free sugars and dietary fibre, and replaces the eatwell plate that has been used for this purpose since 2007.

Is it suitable for children?

The Eatwell Guide doesn’t apply to children under two years of age because they have different nutritional needs. Between the ages of two and five children should gradually move to eating the same foods as the rest of the family, in the proportions shown on the Eatwell Guide. For children with special dietary requirements or medical needs, a registered dietitian can provide more specialist advice on how to adapt the Eatwell Guide to meet individual needs.

What are the main messages?

The Eatwell Guide recommendations are to:

·      Eat at least five portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day.

·      Base meals on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates; choosing wholegrain and higher fibre versions where possible.

·      Have some dairy or dairy alternatives (such as soya drinks); choosing lower fat and lower sugar options.

·      Eat some beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins (such as tofu and mycoprotein), including two portions of fish every week, one of which should be oily.

·      Choose unsaturated oils and spreads and eat in small amounts.

·      Drink six to eight cups/glasses of fluid a day; choosing lower sugar options.

So what’s changed?

One of the most significant changes is that foods that are high in fat, salt and sugars now sit outside the main image to reflect that such foods, while they may add some palatability, are not an essential part of a healthy diet. If these foods are eaten, they should be consumed occasionally and in small amounts. Another key change is the inclusion of a small section of unsaturated oils and spreads (plant/vegetables oils like rapeseed, olive and nut oils and lower fat spreads). Some fat is essential for health but, while unsaturated fats and oils are healthier choices, all fats are high in calories so they should be consumed in small amounts.

Although we often only think about food in terms of healthy eating, keeping well hydrated is important, and a hydration message has now been included. However, in view of the fact that sugars-sweetened beverages make a substantial contribution to children’s sugars intake, healthier choices of hydration are included in the guide, such as water, and low fat milks. Specific advice is provided around fruit juice and smoothies. They can contribute nutrients like vitamin C but – unlike fresh, frozen or dried fruit – are also included in the definition of free sugars. So fruit juice and smoothies can only count as one of the 5-a-day target and should be kept to a maximum of 150ml/day.

The new guide also considers the important issue of environmental sustainability, emphasising the need for the population to get a greater proportion of its protein from plant sources like beans, pulses and eggs, and to consume at least two portions of sustainably sourced fish.

Segment sizes for starchy carbohydrate intake and fruits and vegetables have been increased, and one of the additional messages around starchy carbohydrates is to choose wholegrains to reflect the advice on the importance of dietary fibre. Concerns raised in the past that high fibre diets in children under 5 years of age would lead to growth-faltering and mineral imbalance have not been well supported by research studies. Rather it has been suggested that, with the high rate of childhood obesity, increases in dietary fibre may help to reduce energy intake.The lack of an adverse effect in the highest fibre infant and child consumers has supported encouraging intake even in young children, but it’s important to note that these recommendations are only suitable for children that are able to achieve an adequate energy intake and are thriving.