What is a healthy diet?
A good diet is important for our health and can help us feel our best – but what is a good diet? Apart from breast milk as a food for babies, no single food contains all the essential nutrients the body needs to stay healthy and work properly. For this reason, our diets should contain a variety of different foods, to help us get the wide range of nutrients that our bodies need.
How much food do I need to have a healthy diet?
A healthy diet should provide us with the right amount of energy (calories or kilojoules), from food and drink to maintain energy balance. Energy balance is where the calories taken in from the diet are equal to the calories used by the body.
We need these calories to carry out everyday tasks such as walking and moving about, but also for all the functions of the body we may not even think about. Processes like breathing, pumping blood around the body and thinking also require calories.
So, foods and drinks provide the calories we need to go about our daily lives, but consuming more calories than we need over a period is not your best option.
So, maintaining a healthy lifestyle is really important for you.
How much energy you need from foods and drinks depends on many different things, such as how active you are. But, on average:
Eating only as many calories as you need is the way to go. However, the foods and drinks you choose need to be the right ones, and in the right proportions to stay healthy. Having this balance in your diet can be achieved if you follow these simple rules.
Practical tips for a healthy and sustainable diet
1. More fruits and veggies
Fruit and vegetables are good for our health, and most come with a low environmental impact. There are exceptions, as some require a lot of resources to transport and keep fresh, so eating these less frequently can increase the sustainability of our diets. Examples include:
- fruits and vegetables that are fragile, or require refrigeration (salads and berries)
- vegetables that are grown in protected conditions (such as hot-house tomatoes or cucumbers).
- foods that use a lot of resources during transport (green beans, mange-touts, or berries imported from the southern hemisphere).
2. Eat locally, when in season
Locally-grown foods can be a sustainable choice, but only if we choose those that are in season where we live. The energy cost of producing or storing local foods beyond their natural growing seasons could be higher than shipping foods that are in season somewhere else.
3. Not more than needed, especially treats
Consuming only what we need reduces demands on our food supply by decreasing excess production. Limiting energy-dense low-nutrient foods, snacking less outside meals, and paying attention to portion sizes are all useful ways to avoid unnecessary overconsumption.
4. Less animal-based, more plant-based
In general, more resources are needed to produce animal-based proteins (especially beef), compared to plant-based proteins (such as beans, pulses and some grains). Eating a more plant-based diet also brings health benefits: plant-based food provides more fiber, and has a lower saturated fat content, both of which can contribute to a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease.
- For meat-eaters, limiting meat consumption to 1-2 times a week, having meat-free days and choosing more sustainable meats like chicken over beef can help us reduce our ecological footprint.
- For those choosing a vegan/vegetarian diet, combining different sources of plant-based protein will ensure our protein needs are met.
5. Choose whole grain
Non-refined cereals are generally less resource intensive to produce than refined ones as they require fewer processing steps.
- Wholemeal bread, whole grain pasta, unrefined barley, buckwheat and quinoa, are great choices.
- Brown rice is a good substitute for white rice, but it should be enjoyed in moderation, as a lot of water is used during its production.
6. Opt for sustainably sourced fish
Fish is a good source of healthy omega-3 fatty acids contributing to normal vision, brain function and heart health. However, overfishing is causing wild fish stocks to become depleted. In order to benefit from the necessary nutrients and reduce pressure on wild fish stocks:
- consume fish and seafood 1-2 times weekly to provide the necessary nutrients and reduce pressure on wild fish stocks.
- choose fish and seafood marked with a sustainability label from certified organisations
7. Dairy in moderation
While milk and dairy production has an important environmental impact, dairy products are an important source of protein, calcium and essential amino acids, and have been linked to reduced risk of several chronic diseases, including metabolic syndrome, high blood pressure, stroke, bowel cancer and type 2 diabetes.
- Enjoy low-fat unsweetened dairy products daily, but in moderation.
- Limit consumption of high-fat cheeses to occasional.
- For those of us who choose to eliminate dairy completely, opt for plant-based drinks that are enriched with vitamins and minerals, like calcium.