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The bare minimum you need to do to have a healthy diet

healthy eating guidelines
Unhealthy diets cause one in seven deaths in Britain every year

According to a study published last week by the University of Washington, unhealthy diets cause one in seven deaths in Britain every year. That's about 90,000 deaths, making a poor diet a bigger risk factor than smoking.

At its most basic level, healthy eating boils down to eating about 2,500 calories per day if you’re a man and 2,000 calories per day if you’re a woman. The other simple, boringly effective advice is to have a varied diet. Public Health England’s Eatwell advice suggests a diet of 39 per cent fruit and vegetables, 37 per cent carbohydrates, 12 per cent protein, 8 per cent dairy, 1 per cent oils and spreads, and 3 per cent everything else.

"The trick is to mix the food groups," says nutrition therapist Ian Marber. "In part because when eaten together the digestive system breaks them down relatively slowly, which means that one is more likely to manage appetite and reduce hunger, but also as nutrients in all forms have a synergistic relationship and enhance each others activity." 

However, the problem is while most people of us have access to a varied diet, we just don’t eat in the correct proportions.

“Our assessment suggests the leading dietary risk factors are high intake of sodium, or low intake of healthy foods, such as whole grains, fruit, nuts and seeds, and vegetables,” said researcher Dr Christopher Murray who was part of the study.

Of course, most of us know that we need to eat more fruit and vegetables, or consume less salt, but it can be difficult to remember the basics while diet trends wax and wane over the years. Most adults will remember when fat was universally demonised, but in recent years we’ve learned more about good fats versus bad fats, for example.

To help simplify things, the Telegraph spoke to a raft of dietitians and nutritionists to learn their simplest advice for ensuring your diet should keep you reasonably healthy.

The basic healthy eating dos

Flying in the face of the trend for going carb-free, BDA registered dietitian Emer Delaney asserts that carbohydrates “aren’t the enemy and, in fact, should be included in every meal. Aim to cover just over a third of your plate as an easy portion guide.”

Consultant dietitian Helen Bond followed up by naming exactly which carbohydrates you should be including in your diet: porridge oats, wholemeal bread, wholegrain pasta, quinoa, sweet potatoes, buckwheat noodles, brown rice, barley, oatcakes and pulses. These are all low-glycemic index carbs, “which release energy slowly and steadily, filling you up without piling on the pounds and provide you with gut healthy fibre and prebiotics.”

Nutrition consultant Rob Hobson says switching to these wholegrain carbs will also ensure you’re getting enough fibre. “Only 9 per cent of men and 4 per cent of women eat enough fibre," he says. "A diet high in fibre has been shown to reduce heart disease, type 2 diabetes and bowel cancer. This is a really easy dietary change to make - you just switch from white to brown bread.”  

"We need 30g a day but most of us barely get 18g," says Marber, of fibre. "Fibre is in fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds as well as legumes, but also in wholegrains such as oats, wholewheat and quinoa. Fruits and vegetables are important sources of a wide range of nutrients, not just vitamins and minerals, but also flanavols and carotenoids, plant chemicals with a variety of roles including having antioxidant properties and offsetting inflammation."

“Eat coloured fruits and vegetables as they not only contain vitamins and minerals they also  contain phytonutrients that are antioxidants and these help reduce long-term health problems such as heart disease,” adds Hobson.

And fruit juices can work just as well too, says dietitian Lucy Jones. “Adding a small 150ml glass of fruit juice to your breakfast is a simple way to increase your fruit intake and counts towards your 5-a-day. UK dietary survey data has shown that fruit juice drinkers were 42 per cent more likely to achieve their 5-a-day.”

Of course, one of the diciest areas around healthy eating is meat, with plenty of conflicting opinions. However, Delaney is a proponent of red meat as a health food: “It’s an excellent source of iron and protein and plays an important role in a healthy diet.” However, she recommends only having it once a week.

Keep away from processed meat

So what should you eat aside from red meat to get your protein fix? Well, chicken and fish are a good place to start. “Eat oily fish once a week,” says Rob Hobson. “We know this is good for the heart, reduces inflammation and may help to protect the health of your heart. In the UK very few people even eat one piece of oily fish a week.”

Oily fish is important because of the specific kind of fat in contains, says Marber, but it's not the only place one can get it. "The food fats are called essential and found in avocado, oily fish, nuts, seeds and their oils. The most important of these is omega 3, richest in fish but also in walnuts and chia seeds, ideal for those on a plant based diet."

The basic diet don’ts

"Don’t eat too much of the same thing," says Marber. 

However, the other key advice is to remove ultra-processed foods from your diet. According to NOVA, a food classification system that ranks foods on how processed they are, these foods are designed as “industrial formulations”, anything containing dyes, colour-stabilisers, flavourings, non-sugar sweeteners, and emulsifiers, such as pre-made ready meals, powdered soups, biscuits, chocolate, and ice cream.

Processed meats are particularly bad in this regard, says Delaney. “Processed meats such as bacon, sausages, salami, ham and pâté, should be limited and only eaten a couple of times a month. They’re high in saturated fat and salt and provide very little in the way of vitamins and minerals.”

She also advises watching your salt intake. “Salt should only be used in cooking, if at all. Experiment with herbs and spices instead.”

Another easy change to help you eat smarter is to simply stop using big plates, says Bond. “It’s no coincidence that our tableware has got bigger along with our waistlines. Research shows that simply downsizing your plus-sized plates, bowls and glasses can help you eat fewer calories and manage your weight.”