What is a healthy, balanced diet? Food writer and journalist Michael Pollen simplified the whole messy drama for us with his oft-quoted aphorism: ‘Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.‘
To work out whether you’re following this advice, consider your typical meals and snacks and ask these questions:
- Would your great-grandmother recognise what you’re eating as food?
The biggest threat in the modern diet is food made up of refined, laboratory-created ingredients and sugar. Across the world, as traditional diets made up of grains, vegetables, a little meat, fish, nuts and fats have been replaced, obesity has soared. When you look at your weekly shop laid out on the supermarket conveyor belt, would your great-granny be easily able to identify the food? Fruit, veg, milk, oats, nuts, meat, fish – of course she would. Twiglets, Coco-Pops, chocolate milk, potato smilies and Lucozade are going to take some explaining. Also, remember that in her day she just bought food, not food that felt it needed to sell itself through health claims on the packaging. An apple doesn’t need a sticker advertising that it’s ‘low-fat!’, nor a chicken that it’s ‘sugar-free!’.
2. How much are you eating? And of what stuff?
There are no foods you should never, ever eat (other than trans or hydrogenated fats), but the ratio of eating them varies from a few times a year (fast food, dirty takeaways) to a couple of times a month (processed meats like bacon and sausages) to once or twice a week (red meat) to multiple times a day (a rainbow of fruit and vegetables).
You’ll note fat as left out of the line-up of villains under point no. 1. That’s because recent research is showing quite comprehensively that the blanket advice for a low-fat diet has not produced the health results hoped for, including maintaining a healthy weight. Listen to a fascinating BBC Food Programme about it here, and read this important study which show a link between a Mediterranean diet rich in nuts and extra virgin olive oil and reduced risk of heart attack. However, fats of all kinds, saturated and unsaturated, need to be eaten in moderation and the research findings so far are anything but simple.
There is no one-size-fits-all portion size. Different people have different metabolisms, and they change as we age. However, it’s safe to assume that if you struggle to control your weight your portions are off somewhere. Use the plate below to see the proportions of foods you should be eating, and then address how much of each you’re having: keep a particularly sharp eye on sugary drinks, ready meals and snacks, and refined carbohydrates like white bread and rice.
Across the world there are different plates, pyramids and infographics to illustrate healthy eating, many of which I don’t think are very up-to-date. The plate developed by nutrition experts at Harvard School of Public Health and editors at Harvard Health Publications is simple and sensible:
(Canola oil is rapeseed oil)
The only caveats to this plate that I would make are that tea and coffee should be limited so you don’t have more than 400mg of caffeine a day (and don’t forget the caffeine in chocolate), and not drunk with or around meals, as the tannins inhibit iron absorption.
There’s no need to totally deny yourself anything. You know that a couple of squares of dark chocolate after dinner is fine, but a family sized bar of Dairy Milk isn’t. You know that a glass of red every other night isn’t the same as eight pints every Saturday. You know that a small sliced steak on a big veg stir-fry is better than a 16oz steak with half a grilled tomato on the side.
It’s hard to eat too many vegetables, but that doesn’t mean you need an expensive Nutribullet habit. Just make most of your plate vegetables and most of your snacks fruit, and you’ll steam past your five-a-day without thinking about it. This is how easy it is: a chopped banana on your porridge; sliced pepper with hummus to snack on; grated carrot and a sliced tomato in your sandwich; an apple mid-afternoon; two veg with dinner = seven a day. Keep it seasonal for more taste and less cost.
The key is to stop seeing fruit and vegetables as the boring chore on the side of your plate or as some kind of self-denying challenge, and start exploring the many ways in which they’re utterly delicious and delightful in their own right. A ripe, juicy mango is one of the most luxurious things you can eat. It might cost £1.50, but so does a pack of choc-chip muffins, and consider the wonderful ritual around your mango: waiting for it to reach its most perfect ripeness; peeling and slicing it; sitting down for a moment with this wonderful fruit, a little holiday in a bowl that makes you feel spoilt for that minute in the way a claggy, over-sweetened muffin never will.
Here are some practical, affordable, delicious and achievable examples of what a healthy day could look like:
Breakfast Porridge made with semi-skimmed milk, topped with nuts and chopped banana (and a maximum of 1 teaspoon sugar or honey)
Snack An apple and some slices of unpasteurised cheese
Lunch Home-made vegetable soup with oatcakes
Snack Sugar-free quick peanut butter and banana blender muffin
Dinner Home-made (free-range) chicken and vegetable curry and brown rice; a few squares of dark chocolate
Breakfast A slice of toast (not from supermarket bread) spread with butter and topped with two scrambled eggs
Snack A handful of nuts and dried fruit
Lunch Sweetcorn fritters with halloumi and avocado
Snack A banana and a couple of squares of dark chocolate
Dinner Wholemeal pasta bake with sardines, roast vegetables and tomato sauce, topped with grated cheese; healthy chocolate mousse
Breakfast No-added-sugar muesli, topped with sliced strawberries and a sprinkling of extra nuts
Snack Natural yoghurt and chopped fruit
Lunch Cous cous salad with roast vegetables and smoked mackerel
Snack Three oatcakes spread with nut butter
Dinner Home-made tortilla pizza; a mug of amazing home-made hot chocolate
Note: drinks are limited to tea, coffee, water, 14 units of alcohol a week, and fizzy drink alternatives such as fresh lime juice with soda water.
* Copyright © 2011, Harvard University. For more information about The Healthy Eating Plate, please see The Nutrition Source, Department of Nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health, http://www.thenutritionsource.org, and Harvard Health Publications, http://www.health.harvard.edu.