What is a balanced diet? How to follow one – and stick to it 

The importance of a balanced diet in helping us to age well is key, as two dietitians explain.

As much as we’d like to believe a balanced diet is a piece of cake in one hand and a glass of wine in the other, sadly that’s not the case. When it comes to healthy eating, it can feel like a minefield and difficult to know what is the “right” thing to do. There’s so much noise out there, not to mention a host of different recommendations. Exactly what is a balanced diet?  

Simply put, it’s eating the appropriate portions of a wide variety of foods, and consuming a suitable amount of food and drink to achieve and maintain healthy bodily functions and a healthy weight. Doing so means you can reap the many benefits of healthy eating, from promoting good gut health and boosting your brain health to encouraging healthy ageing. 

The importance of a balanced diet in relation to our overall well-being cannot be overstated, especially as we get older. “Nutrition has an important role [to play] in supporting us to age well,” says community dietitian Vittoria Romano, who specialises in care of older adults.

A couple sat at a kitchen table eating a mealCredit: Shutterstock / Monkey Business Images

“As a society we are living longer, and it is important that as well as living longer we are able to live well in those extra years.

“Eating and drinking well can help reduce the risk of many different diseases, including sarcopenia (age-related loss of muscle mass and strength), diabetes, some cancers and dementia. Or for those living with disease, it can help manage it and keep it stable.” 

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Guidelines for a balanced diet

According to the Eatwell Guide, a balanced diet consists of the five main food groups: fruits and vegetables, starchy carbohydrates, protein, dairy, and oils and spreads. Staying hydrated is also an important part of a balanced diet.

Here’s what we should be aiming for: 

Fruits and vegetables

At least five 80g (just under 3oz) portions of a variety of fruit and veg, every day. 

Carbohydrates

A portion “about the size of your fist” is an appropriate amount of carbs to have with each meal, according to Sophie Medlin, a consultant dietitian and chair of the British Dietetic Association for London. However, the amount you need does depend on how active you are. We should also opt for higher-fibre and wholegrain varieties

Protein

A portion of protein is roughly the size of the palm of your hand, and adults need 0.75g per kg of body weight per day. This is equivalent to about two portions.

There is some evidence that those over 65 might need slightly more, at 1-1.2g of protein per kg of body weight, but this is not an official recommendation.

The Eatwell Guide does recommend limiting red and processed meat as well as aiming for at least two portions of fish per week, one of which should be oily. 

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Dairy and alternatives

You should eat around two to three portions (portion sizes vary depending on the product) across the day and opt for lower-fat or lower-sugar products when you can.  

Oils and spreads

Opt for unsaturated forms, and include only small amounts in your diet.

Fluids

Aim for six to eight glasses (roughly 1.2 litres or 2.1 pints, which equates to six 200ml (7 fl oz) glasses or eight 150ml (5 fl oz) glasses) per day.  

What about sugar, fats and salt?

The Eatwell Guide notes we should eat foods containing fats and sugars “less often and in small amounts”. We should also opt for foods lower in fats and sugars and avoid too much salt where possible. Many processed and ultra-processed foods contain these, so we should eat them in moderation. 

What does a well-balanced plate look like?

Following a balanced diet is all very well, but how much of each of these foods should we be having at each mealtime?

Medlin says: “Make sure that a third of your plate is filled with vegetables and about a quarter made up of wholegrain starchy carbohydrates. Then add some [around a third of the plate of] lean protein alongside this. 

She adds: “If there are no healthy fats present with your lean protein source, then add a bit with your meal.”

You can either estimate the quantities or, if you struggle to visualise them, there are plates you can buy that detail the rough split of food types to help you achieve a balance. 

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In addition to your meal, Medlin recommends “eating fruits and vegetables whenever you can, and snack on nuts at least once a day”. 

Foods to eat as part of a balanced diet

Following a healthy balanced diet doesn’t necessarily mean restricting food. Romano says: “In older age, being a little heavier and maintaining your weight is likely to be better for us than being thin or losing weight.” You can still eat a wide range of foods to satisfy your hunger and get the nutrients you need. 

Salmon

Salmon is a good source of protein and counts as an oily fish, so it’s a win-win. Mackerel, sardines and trout are other examples of oily fish that you might want to include.  

“Eating a diet slightly higher in protein can be beneficial as we get older. Among other things, it gives us the building blocks to help keep our muscles strong,” says Romano. This means it can help to combat sarcopenia.  

Other animal sources of protein include meat, eggs, milk, yogurt and cheese. Beans, lentils, pulses, tofu, nuts and seeds are good plant-based sources of protein.

Eggs

How do you like yours? Eaten regularly as part of a balanced diet is best to provide you with enough vitamin B12. Romano recommends having a slightly higher intake of vitamin B12 as we age. This is because it helps to protect against cognitive decline and older adults are at higher risk of vitamin B12 deficiency. 

Vitamin B12 is mainly found in animal-based foods such as meat and fish and dairy products as well as yeast extract (such as Marmite), and fortified foods, such as breakfast cereals. Vegan? Then taking a B12 supplement is probably a good idea to make sure you’re getting enough. 

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Mushrooms

 A type of fungus classed as a vegetable, mushrooms enriched with vitamin D, or shop-bought mushrooms that have been left on a sunny windowsill for a day to raise their vitamin D levels, can help you to top up on this essential nutrient. 

Direct sunlight is the main source of vitamin D. However, you can get small amounts from food such as salmon, sardines and tuna. Some breakfast cereals, plant milks and fat spreads are fortified with the vitamin. However, Romano, along with current UK guidelines, recommends taking a daily vitamin D supplement during autumn and winter. 

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Spinach

This is a good source not only of calcium but also of folate. Folate, otherwise known as folic acid or vitamin B9, is an important part of a balanced diet because a deficiency in it is linked to poorer health, especially among older people. Vitamin D, B12 and folate all prevent fatigue and support your gut health and energy. 

The nutrient is mainly found in leafy green vegetables such as cabbage, kale, broccoli and Brussels sprouts. Other good sources are peas, chickpeas and kidney beans, and breakfast cereals fortified with folic acid. 

Yogurt

Yogurt is a very versatile food. You can dollop it on the side of a curry dish, have it as a dessert or have it with berries for a snack or breakfast. That way you’re also working towards your five-a-day.  

It is an excellent source of calcium – an essential mineral that helps to keep your bones strong. This is especially important as we age because our bone density decreases. Evidence shows calcium can even reduce the risk of fractures and osteoporosis. 

Romano says calcium is found abundantly within dairy products, such as milk and cheese. Tofu is a good plant-based alternative and dairy-free milk options are available. 

Oats

This starchy carb offers a great way to start the day and increase your fibre intake, says Medlin. Again, topping it with berries or banana can make it tastier and means you’re ahead of the game by already hitting one of your five-a-day. Choose multi-grain oats to make sure you’re getting a variety of grains. 

Nuts

Eating nuts has become increasingly popular over the years and for good reason. They make for a handy snack, can be a tasty addition to dishes and are a healthier way to get fat into your diet, if you keep portion sizes in mind and avoid nuts with added salt or sugar. We need fat to provide us with energy to help us function and stay healthy.  

Many nuts, avocados, olive oil and rapeseed oil, as well as spreads made from them, are sources of unsaturated (in particular monounsaturated) fat and when eaten in place of high-saturated-fat foods, they can help maintain healthy cholesterol levels. Bear in mind that Brazil nuts, cashews and macadamia nuts are higher in saturated fat and so should only be eaten occasionally. Chestnuts, however, are lower in all types of fats and higher in starchy carbohydrate than other nuts. 

It’s still important to stick to a 30g (1oz) portion (a small handful) because nuts are high in calories. It’s also best to try to avoid dry-roasted, salted, flavoured or honey-roasted nuts, which include extra salt and sometimes sugar. Instead, opt for the healthier choice of plain. You can try dry frying, toasting nuts or coating them in spices such as Chinese five-spice, paprika or cinnamon to make them tastier. 

Milk

Romano notes that getting enough fluid is as important as eating healthy foods. And not only water counts – any drink that isn’t alcoholic will help to hydrate you. Research suggests that milk could be a better hydration fluid than water. However, experts say these studies have limitations, such as small numbers of participants and unreliable ways of measuring hydration.  

But if it’s topping up your calcium levels and you enjoy it, then it’s a good option. If you’re trying to control your weight, just bear in mind that milk does contain calories. 

How to eat a balanced diet

It can be challenging to consistently follow a healthy diet, so here are some practical ways of making that happen. 

Plan your meals

Sitting down once a week and planning what you’re going to eat can help you to include a variety of foods from the different food groups and stay on track with ease. It can also be fun and encourage you to look forward to your meals. 

Prep your meals

Just as you might block out time in your calendar to catch up with a friend, schedule time to cook some (or even all) of your meals for the week. This can help to make healthy eating easier and can be especially useful if you have a busy week.  

Swap salt for herbs and spices

Who said eating healthily is boring? If you’re watching your salt intake but still want a flavoursome meal, then herbs and spices such as basil, oregano, garlic and ginger can work wonders. 

Get creative in the kitchen

This makes eating healthily enjoyable and can help you to “eat the rainbow”. Medlin says: “The more different-coloured plant foods we can squeeze into our diet, the better.”

She suggests blending fruits and vegetables, such as mango, carrots, celery, courgettes and peppers, to make soups and into pasta and curry sauces as a great way to include more variety in your diet. Why not try this with our healthy and tasty fish curry recipe? 

You can find more nutritious recipes to help you achieve a balanced diet and measure your intake of each food group by using the British Heart Foundation’s recipe finder. 

Expert bios

Sophie Medlin
Consultant colorectal dietitian and director of CityDietitians   

Medlin has worked with people with digestive problems for more than 10 years, in the NHS in research, in the media, and in her private practice. She is passionate about making good gut health accessible to everyone. 

Vittoria Romano
Community dietitian and chairperson for the British Dietetic Association’s Older People Specialist Group  

Within Romano’s roles, she is passionate about and responsible for managing malnutrition and hydration in people. She has a particular interest in nutritional care for older adults.

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Gemma Harris

Written by Gemma Harris she/her

Published:

Gemma Harris has been a journalist for over seven years and is a self-confessed health and wellbeing enthusiast, which led her to specialise in health journalism. During her career, she has worked with top editors in the industry and taken on multiple high-discipline fitness challenges for certain outlets. She is particularly passionate about nutrition; after being diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome in 2016, she discovered her fascination for gut health and founded thegutchoice.com – a dedicated space for providing a hopeful outcome for people with gut issues. Gemma’s core aim is to help others through her writing.

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