Research shows that eating 400g or more of fruit and vegetables every day can decrease your risk of coronary heart disease and some types of cancer. On average, a portion of fruit and vegetables weighs approximately 80g and this is where the recommendation for 5 portions of fruit and vegetables comes from.
A portion is:
- 1 medium sized piece of fruit, eg apple, orange, banana, pear
- 2 small fruits, eg kiwi, satsumas, plums
- 1 large slice of pineapple or melon
- 1 tablespoon of dried fruit, eg raisins or 3 apricots*
- 1 cereal bowl of salad
- 3 heaped tablespoons of fresh or frozen veg, eg cooked lentils, frozen peas, mashed carrot and parsnips or turnip
- 3 heaped tablespoons of frozen vegetables
- 1 glass (approximately 150mls) of fresh fruit juice or a smoothie containing 150mls of fresh fruit juice*
Potatoes are not included in the fruit and vegetables food group.
For children aged 1–5 years, a portion is equivalent to roughly half of an adult size portion, for example:
- half a medium sized apple
- half a banana
- 1 small fruit, eg mandarin orange or kiwi
- half a large slice of pineapple or melon
From the ages of 3–5 years, children should be encouraged to gradually increase the portion size to that recommended for adults, eg 1 medium sized apple, 2 small kiwi fruits or a medium sized banana.
*Dried fruit and fruit juices/smoothies can each only be counted as one portion a day, however much you have. Both dried fruit and juices should only be eaten as part of a meal, as the high sugar content means it can be damaging to teeth if taken between meals.
A supplement will provide you with vitamins and minerals; however, there are added benefits of eating fruit and veg every day. Fruit and veg are a good source of insoluble fibre, which is important for a healthy digestive system and to protect against some types of cancer and heart disease.
Any food eaten in large amounts can contribute to weight gain. Carbohydrates are an important part of a healthy diet as they provide fuel for the brain and the rest of the body. Bread, rice, pasta, potatoes and other cereals are a great source of energy, fibre and B vitamins. Quite often, it is what we serve carbohydrates with that adds the calories, eg creamy sauces served with pasta and rice, butter on baked potatoes and bread, so try to choose healthier alternatives of these such as tomato based sauces and low fat spreads.
Fibre is helpful in controlling our weight as it helps us feel satisfied at the end of a meal or snack. Wholegrain varieties of bread, rice and pasta contain lots of fibre, so try to include foods such as granary or multigrain breads, and high fibre cereals such as Weetabix, Shredded Wheat or Ready Brek, into your diet. Make a point of eating the skin on new potatoes and baked potatoes and why not try brown rice or pasta for a change.
There are certain spreads on the market that can help lower cholesterol by reducing cholesterol absorption.However, not all spreads do.
Cholesterol lowering spreads such as Benecol, Flora Pro Activ and Danone Danacol contain plant sterols (naturally occurring substances usually found in grains such as maize and wheat, and oils such as soya, olive and vegetable oil) that have scientifically been proven to lower LDL cholesterol in the blood. A prescribed amount of these sterols (2-3g) should be eaten each day to help lower cholesterol levels. They are available in spreads, cheeses and yogurts.
It is important to remember that spreads such as these are only one part of a healthy balanced diet. Other important dietary factors to consider are:
- eating at least 5 portions of fruit and veg every day;
- increasing pulses, such as beans, peas and lentils, in your diet as they contain soluble fibre, which can help lower cholesterol;
- reducing alcohol intake;
- cutting down on saturated and trans fats in your diet;
- including oily fish in your diet.
The yolk of eggs is rich in cholesterol, however, this is not well absorbed by the body so doesn’t have a big impact on our blood cholesterol. People who don’t have high cholesterol can eat an egg a day; however, those with raised cholesterol are advised to eat no more than 4 eggs a week. Other dietary changes such as reducing the total amount of fat, and increasing fibre, fruit and vegetables are also important. If your cholesterol is very high, dietary changes may not be enough and your doctor may prescribe medication.
Before conception and for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, it is recommended that you take 400 micrograms of folic acid a day to help prevent neural tube defects such as spina bifida in your unborn baby. It’s also important to include other sources of the vitamin, eg: peas, Brussels sprouts, and orange juice.
A healthy diet during pregnancy is much the same as at any other time. Eat 3 meals plus small snacks each day and aim to eat a wide variety of foods from the four main food groups. During the last trimester of pregnancy (26–40 weeks) an extra 200 calories is required daily. This is easily provided by one extra nutritious snack, eg a yogurt and piece of fruit, a bowl of cereal or a small sandwich.
While you are pregnant, it is also important to take a 10mg supplement of vitamin D. This is particularly important for women of Asian, Middle Eastern or African origin as their babies are more at risk of vitamin D deficiency, which can increase the risk of rickets (soft bones).
During pregnancy, the amount of vitamin C needed increases by 10mg, which can be easily met through diet. For example, one small orange can supply up to 95mg of vitamin C.
Dried fruit can be counted as 1 of the recommended 5 portions a day, but it contains concentrated fruit sugar, which can cause tooth decay, so it should be eaten at meal times when the sugars don't cause as much damage to teeth.
Products such as fruit winders and fruit flakes cannot count towards 5 a day. These are processed products and have a high sugar content that can contribute to tooth decay.
The best drinks to offer between meals are milk and water. Pure fruit juice and smoothies provide vitamins and can count towards 1 of the recommended 5 portions, but these have a high concentration of sugars so are best taken at meal times and diluted 1 part juice to 10 parts water. Fizzy drinks or minerals contain sugar and should be avoided.
It is recommended that children eat 2 portions of fish a week, 1 of which should be oily. Oily fish such as fresh or tinned salmon, mackerel, pilchards and sardines are a good source of omega 3 fatty acids. Fresh tuna is also an oily fish; however, tinned tuna is not as the oils are removed during the canning process. Some research has shown that omega 3 fatty acids can be beneficial for children with problems such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia, while other studies have found no significant effect. More research is therefore needed to show whether these effects are greater than those achieved by eating a healthy balanced diet containing fish as recommended for the general population. If choosing omega 3 supplements, choose fish body oil rather than liver oil supplements.
Over the last number of years, there has been a steady increase in the number of young children who are overweight or obese. This can have a serious impact on children’s health, both now and in the long term. If you think your child is overweight, ask your doctor or health visitor to check your child’s weight and height on their centile chart, which can be found in their red parent-held record book.
If you are concerned about your child’s weight, ask your doctor to refer you to a paediatric dietitian. It is also a good time to look at what your child is eating and how much physical activity they are getting each day. It is recommended that children have at least 1 hour of physical activity each day, so organise trips to the park and the swimming pool.
Small children have high energy demands and need small amounts of food often. Offer snacks throughout the day, such as fruit or a slice of toast. Try to limit the amount of sweet foods your child eats, such as biscuits, sweets and chocolate. Instead, offer pieces of chopped-up fruit and veg – these contain fewer calories and contain lots more vitamins and minerals!