How do I maintain a ‘balanced’ diet?

You may have seen in the news recently a controversial study suggesting a call for the ‘5 a day’ fruit and veg recommendation to change to ‘7 a day’. Of course it is important to eat as much fruit and vegetables as we can, but the general recommendations remains to eat at least 5 portions of fruit and vegetables per day. That being said, there is more to ensuring a balanced diet than hitting that 5 a day target. There is a range of other food groups that are just as important for your health.

In a ‘balanced diet’ fruit and vegetables should comprise one third of your daily diet. One third should consist of cereals and starchy foods, whilst the remaining third of your daily diet should contain milk/dairy products, meat, fish and alternatives and of course any fatty or sugary foods that you may decide to eat. These recommendations can be seen in the NHS Eatwell Plate which suggests that it isn’t necessary for each meal to be made up like this, but over the course of a day this overall balance should be met.

Another common tool that is available for everybody to use is the ‘Traffic Light’ labelling system. This is a rough guide to help consumers make an informed decision about the type of foods that they buy and eat and can be seen on the packaging of an ever growing number of food products. The ‘traffic light’ system is based Recommended Daily Allowances for particular nutrients and indicate whether that particular product can be eaten freely without compromising dietary guidelines or whether it should be consumed with care.

In addition to using these external tools to help you create a balanced and healthy lifestyle, it can be just as important to recognise your own personal eating behaviours and attitudes. It is quite common for people to experience problems with food, in varying degrees, at times of stress. An example might be comfort eating or maybe not feeling hungry when you are stressed. Sometimes we exhibit this type of behaviour without realising it. One way to identify any negative behaviour is to keep a food and mood diary for a few days, just to see if any patterns can be seen in what you eat, when you eat it and how you were feeling/what was happening at the time.

Looking at your access to food can also contribute to creating a balanced diet. If you find yourself frequently in a rush at lunch time and only able to grab a quick bite to eat on the go, the likelihood is that it won’t be the most nutritionally sound of lunches. Identifying when this happens can help you to also identify what you can do to avoid it. For example, making extra dinner the night before to take the leftovers for lunch is one way in which you could be prepared without having to look for extra time to do it.

A certain level of self-awareness can be crucial in identifying what is going on right now that’s good and what might need to change. This may include recognising the extent to which external factors influence your choice of food. For example, how much does advertising contribute to your shopping basket and how much is based on real need?

Overall the recommendations given by organisations such as the NHS and the Food Standards Agency are designed to be very general so that they can be used by everybody within the UK. However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t personalise them to fit in with what will work best for you. In order to do that you might have to have a closer look at what you are currently doing and how you might be able to do it better.