Healthy eating and drinking
Why do I need a healthy diet?
The food you eat has a huge impact on your health. A well-balanced, nutritious diet can help to prevent many illnesses and can significantly improve some existing health conditions, such as diabetes or high blood pressure. It can also lower your chances of developing heart disease, stroke and some types of cancer.
A good diet alongside Keeping physically active is also important to help you to maintain a healthy body weight, which in turn will help to prevent or improve conditions such as osteoporosis and arthritis.
You may have heard of the term BMI, which stands for Body Mass Index. This is calculated by measuring your weight against your height. You can calculate your BMI on NHS.UK to see if you are in the healthy weight range. Nearly two thirds of adults (63%) were classed as being overweight or obese in 2015.
What is a healthy diet?
You should aim to try and eat a variety of foods including fruit and vegetables, fibre and starch foods, some protein, and some dairy products. This is to ensure that you are getting all of the vitamins and nutrients that are vital for good health. It is also important to ensure that you drink plenty of fluids including water and that you only drink alcohol in moderation.
- What should I be eating and drinking
- Food Labelling
- Maintaining a healthy weight
Fruit and Vegetables
It is recommended that you should try to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables every day. A portion is:
- An apple, banana, pear, orange or other similar size fruit
- Two plums or similar size fruit
- A grapefruit or avocado
- A slice of large fruit, such as melon or pineapple
- Three heaped tablespoons of vegetables (raw, cooked, frozen or tinned)
- Three heaped tablespoons of fruit salad (fresh or tinned in fruit juice) or stewed fruit
- A heaped tablespoon of dried fruit, such as raisins or apricots
- A dessert bowl of salad
- A cupful of grapes, berries or cherries
If you think you may find it difficult to eat five portions every day, you could try some easy ways to include them in your diet. Try adding a sliced banana to your cereal, adding fruit to yoghurt, having a side salad with your lunch, or having a piece of fruit as an afternoon snack. Remember that potatoes don’t count towards your fruit and vegetable intake.
Fibre and Starch
Food containing starch and fibre should make up about one third of the food that you eat. These foods also contain calcium, iron and B vitamins, so are very important for your health. Starch and fibre are found in many foods, including the ones listed below. You should choose wholegrain and seeded varieties wherever possible (or fermented bread to maintain a healthy gut), as they contain more nutrients and help bowel movements:
- Bread (wholegrain, seeded and fermented)
- Cereals (oats and barley are particularly good)
- Rice (brown)
- Potatoes (with skins are best)
- Pasta (wholemeal)
Research now shows us that we need to keep “good bacteria” in our gut. Fibre helps protect the gut. Adults should eat 30g fibre per day. Resistant starch is a form of starch that cannot be digested in the small bowel. As a result it is a type of fibre. It is found naturally in some foods such as bananas, potatoes, grains, and legumes and is also produced or modified commercially and incorporated into some food products. It is considered to have a role in controlling blood glucose levels.
Protein is found in the foods listed below and should make up around 10% to 15% of your diet:
- Pulses (peas, beans and lentils)
You should aim to eat some protein every day as it helps to build and repair your body. For example, healing sore muscles, or growing fingernails. Many of these foods also contain zinc, omega 3 fatty acitd and iron, which is important to prevent anaemia. Plant based protein (beans and pulses) are inexpensive and a rich source of protein, as well as fibre, vitamins and minerals.
Red meat and processed meats should be kept to a maximum of 70g a day. This is equivalent to a piece of steak about the size of a pack of cards, 3 average-sized rashers of bacon or slices of ham, or a quarter-pounder beef burger.
It is recommended to eat two portions (140g cooked weight) of white, oily and shellfish a week. One oily portion is essential.
Oily fish such as sardines, herring, mackerel, trout and salmon are all rich sources of omega 3 fatty acids which help prevent heart disease. Oily fish is also a good source of vitamins A and D. Fresh tuna is an oily fish and is high in omega 3 fatty acids. But when it’s canned, these fatty acids are reduced to levels similar to white fish. So, although canned tuna is a healthy choice for most people, it doesn’t count as oily fish.
Fluids and Water
It is recommended that we should drink 6 to 8 glasses of fluids a day, (circa 1.2 litres). Water, lower fat milk and sugar-free drinks, including tea and coffee, all count.
Not drinking a sufficient amount of fluid can result in problems from headaches and tiredness to dehydration. There are many benefits to be gained from drinking the Recommended Daily Amount (RDA) of water. It is important to keep up fluids during hot weather. It can:
- Help to prevent pressure ulcers and heart disease
- Help to avoid constipation
- Maintain a healthy urinary tract and kidneys
- Stabilise blood pressure and prevent fainting
- Improve concentration and short-term memory
- Help to reduce the risk of falls by improving co-ordination
- Improve your dental health
- Keep skin healthy and young-looking
- Improve your general sense of well-being
If you don’t enjoy plain water you could:
- Add a slice of lemon or lime
- Drink fizzy water
- Drink water with meals instead of alcohol
- Carry a small bottle of water with you when you go out
- Have a glass of water before breakfast
Many of our foods are pre-packaged and we are buying more ready prepared meals. Understanding food labelling is important in maintaining a healthy diet. The following content is important to understand when buying food:
High: more than 17.5g of fat per 100g
Low: 3g of fat or less per 100g
High: more than 5g of saturated fat per 100g
Low: 1.5g of saturated fat or less per 100g
High: more than 22.5g of total sugars per 100g
Low: 5g of total sugars or less per 100g
High: more than 1.5g of salt per 100g (or 0.6g sodium)
Low: 0.3g of salt or less per 100g (or 0.1g sodium)
What should I be eating and drinking less of?
Most people in the UK eat and drink too many calories, too much fat, sugar and salt, and not enough fruit, vegetables, oily fish or fibre. Eating too many calories and too much fat and sugar lead to weight gain and tooth decay as well as contributing to other medical conditions including diabetes, high blood pressure and causing stroke, cancer and heart disease.
There are two main types of fat – saturated and unsaturated. Eating too much saturated fat increases the cholesterol in the blood which can cause serious health problems, such as heart disease or a stroke. These should be eaten infrequently and no more than 20g for a woman and 30g for a man.
Examples of foods which have a high fat content are:
- Cakes, biscuits and chocolate
- Butter and lard
- Pies and pastries
- Meat with visible white fat
- Sausages and bacon
- Cured meats such as chorizo
- Coconut milk
- Chocolate spread
- Processed foods
- Fried foods and rich sauces
Healthier choices include:
- Swap cooking with butter, ghee or coconut and palm oil, for rapeseed or olive oil
- Look at food labels – for example, if you’re trying to cut down on saturated fat, eat fewer foods that have more than 5g of saturated fat per 100g.
- Grill, bake, poach or steam food rather than frying or roasting
- Eat oily fish (salmon, mackerel, trout, sardines etc), vegetable oils, soft margarine and nuts as they are good sources of unsaturated fats
We are consuming too much sugar in the UK. Sugar consumption leads to eating too many calories and weight gain as well as worsening conditions such as arthritis and osteoporosis. Consumption of sugar- sweetened drinks is particularly high in the UK and too much sugar causes tooth decay.
The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition has announced that the public should be made aware of the term “free sugars” as these are the sugars we need to consume in smaller amounts. Free sugars includes all the monosaccharides and disaccharides added to foods by the manufacturer or cook, plus sugars naturally present in honey, syrups and unsweetened fruit juices.
The recommended allowance of free sugars for an adult is 30g, or 7.5 tsp or 7 cubes per day. Children under 11 years should eat less. For example, one 330ml can of cola contains 36g of free sugars and 200ml flavoured milk contains 16.2g free sugars.
Food labelling legislation requires information about total sugars to be declared so this doesn’t help you when purchasing or making food. Key words that should alert you to free sugars are:
- cane sugar
- brown sugar
- high fructose corn syrup
- fruit juice concentrate
- corn syrup
- fructose, sucrose, glucose, crystalline sucrose and
There are simple ways of cutting down on the amount of sugar in your diet. You could:
- Have fresh or dried fruit as snacks, rather than biscuits and chocolate
- Fruit and vegetables contain intrinsic sugars which are a healthy choice
- Drink water, semi skimmed milk, dairy alternatives or tea/coffee instead of fruit juices, smoothies or fizzy/energy drinks.
Most people know that too much salt is bad for your health. However, it may surprise you to know that 75% of the salt we eat doesn’t come from adding it to your food, but is already contained in the food itself. Processed foods such as soups, sauces, bread, biscuits and ready meals often contain a large amount of salt.
A diet high in salt can cause raised blood pressure which can increase your risk of heart disease and stroke. High blood pressure often has no symptoms, and many people who have high blood pressure don’t know it.
The maximum amount of salt that we should be eating is 6g per day, which is about a teaspoonful or 2.4g sodium. Always check the labels of the food that you buy to see how much salt it contains. To convert sodium to salt, you need to multiply the sodium amount by 2.5. For example, 1g of sodium per 100g is 2.5 grams of salt per 100g.
The following foods are almost always high in salt. To cut down on salt, eat them less often and have smaller amounts:
- gravy granules
- salted and dry-roasted nuts
- salt fish, smoked meat and fish
- soy sauce and stock cubes
- yeast extract
Although alcohol is thought to have some health benefits in small quantities there are also many risks when alcohol consumption is too high.
How much alcohol can I drink?
The more you drink the more likely it is that alcohol will harm your health. To keep health risks from alcohol to a low level it is safest to drink fewer than 14 unites a week. We all need several days a week without alcohol. Doctors agree that drinking more than the sensible limit damages health in the short and long term. As we get older, we become more sensitive to the effects of alcohol. See the alcohol page for more information or visit The Royal College of Psychiatrists’ information on alcohol and older people for more information.
Managing your weight is essential throughout your life. It can be harder to keep a healthy weight if you have a medical condition and you exercise less. Being overweight can deprive you of 9 years of life expectancy, but it can also decrease your quality of life because you are placing too great a strain on your hips, knees and feet as well as your internal organs. You may have an increased risk of cancer, heart disease and stroke. The Health survey for England 2016, shows an increase in men and women who are overweight or obese, between the ages of 45 and 74 years of age.
Managing your weight means thinking about what you eat, when you eat it and cutting out sugar and fatty snacks. For most men, this means sticking to a calorie limit of no more than 1,900kcal a day, and 1,400kcal for most women. As you get older it may be sensible to consume less but you should talk to your GP. It is safe to lose weight at a rate of 0.5kg to 1kg (1lb to 2lb) each week by sticking to a daily calorie allowance. Managing your weight isn’t easy and you should give yourself non-food rewards if you are on a weight loss programme to maintain your motivation. You could also join a community group or Newcastle Can to share your success and keep motivated.
The following may also help:
- fitness apps such as walking/running trackers
- diet clubs
- NHS and diet programmes
Becoming underweight can also be harmful. It is common for appetites to decline as people get older and this can be worsened by ill health or difficulties like bereavement, chewing or swallowing problems. Poor diet over time, coupled with excessive weight loss, will lead to weakness and put your wellbeing and health at risk. Weighing too little can contribute to a weakened immune system, fragile bones or osteoporosis and feeling tired.
Your body needs a similar level of nutrition from all the food groups mentioned earlier. If your appetite has reduced then try to add unsalted nuts or fruit to cereal, eat eggs, yoghurts and milky puddings, try peanut butter and baked beans on toast or a baked potato and increase your cheese intake. You can also:
- Switch to smaller meals and frequent snacks, so that you’re not struggling to eat three large meals a day.
- Avoid filling up on foods that are high in saturated fat or sugars, such as sugary fizzy drinks, cakes and biscuits.
If you are losing weight and over 60 years old, then contact your GP.
Local Information and Advice
Healthworks can offer help, advice and support, including food skills and staying steady programmes.
Ways to Wellness service helps people in the West of Newcastle to manage their long-term health conditions through activities such as:
- Getting involved in local groups and activities
- Accessing specialist services and support
- Healthy eating and getting more active
Food Nation can teach you a range of cooking skills to help you eat a healthier diet. They also offer training courses on how to grow your own crops.
Northern Initiative on Women and Eating (NIWE) helps women to increase their understanding of their use of food, and supports them to make changes. NIWE offers a confidential telephone helpline, groupwork sessions, and occasional open support sessions.
Other Useful Information
- Read Age UK’s guide to Healthy Living.
- Alcohol Concern
- Food Standards Agency
- NHS.UK – Food and diet pages
- Ramadan Health Guide – a guide to healthy fasting. Communities in Action booklet
- One You on alcohol
- Change 4 Life sugar smart app
- Vegetarian for Life are an advocacy and educational charity for older vegetarians and vegans and people who cater for them.
Last updated: February 4, 2020