Everyone needs a variety of healthy foods from the major food groups everyday:
Fruit is the sweet, juicy, edible part of a plant. It generally contains seeds. Fruits are usually eaten raw, although some varieties can be cooked. They come in a wide variety of colors, shapes and flavors. Common types of fruits that are readily available include:
- Apples and pears
- Citrus – oranges, grapefruits, mandarins and limes
- Stone fruit – nectarines, apricots, peaches and plums
- Tropical and exotic – bananas and mangoes
- Berries – strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, kiwifruit and passionfruit
- Melons – watermelons, rockmelons and honeydew melons
- Tomatoes and avocados.
Depending on age and sex federal guidelines recommend that adults eat at least 1½ to 2 cups per day of fruit.
Vegetables are available in many varieties and can be classified into biological groups or ‘families’, including:
- Leafy green – lettuce, spinach and silverbeet
- Cruciferous – cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and broccoli
- Marrow – pumpkin, cucumber and zucchini
- Root – potato, sweet potato and yam
- Edible plant stem – celery and asparagus
- Allium – onion, garlic and shallot.
Depending on their age and sex federal guidelines recommend that adults eat at least 2 to 3 cups per day of vegetables
Make at least half the grains in your diet whole grains. You can find whole-grain versions of rice, bread, cereal, flour and pasta at most grocery stores. Many whole-grain foods, including a variety of breads, pastas and cereals, are ready to eat.
Examples of whole grains include:
- Brown rice
- Bulgur (cracked wheat)
- Whole-wheat bread, pasta or crackers
Low-fat dairy products
- Low-fat (1%) or fat-free (skim) yogurt, cottage cheese, or milk.
- Neufchatel or “light” cream cheese or fat-free cream cheese.
- Fat-free American cheese or other types of fat-free cheeses.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Choose My Plate recommendations state that adults should consume 3 servings of dairy products per day. Children should consume around 2 or 2.5 servings per day, depending on their age.
1. White-Fleshed Fish
Most white-fleshed fish are super lean and excellent protein sources, providing under 3 grams of fat, around 20–25 grams of protein and 85–130 calories per 3.5-ounce (100-gram) plain, cooked serving (4Trusted Source, 5).
Examples of very lean white fish include cod, haddock, pollock, flounder, halibut, tilapia and orange roughy (6).
These white fish generally have only 10–25% as much omega-3 fat as higher-fat, higher-calorie, darker-fleshed fish like coho or sockeye salmon. Therefore, it’s good to eat both types of fish (6, 7Trusted Source).
A convenient way to buy plain fish fillets is in the frozen food section of your supermarket. If you move the fillets from your freezer to the refrigerator first thing in the morning, they’ll be thawed and ready to cook for your evening meal.
SUMMARYWhite-fleshed fish like cod and halibut are excellent sources of hunger-satisfying protein with little fat and relatively few calories, making them a diet-friendly food.
2. Plain Greek Yogurt
A 6-ounce (170-gram) serving of Greek yogurt packs 15–20 grams of protein, compared to only 9 grams in a serving of regular yogurt (8Trusted Source).
This is due to how Greek yogurt is made. It’s strained to remove the liquid whey, leaving a more concentrated product with more protein that’s also thicker and creamier (8Trusted Source).
If you’re looking for the least calories and fat, opt for plain, nonfat Greek yogurt, which has 100 calories per 6-ounce (170-gram) serving (9Trusted Source).
Low-fat plain Greek yogurt, which has 3 grams of fat and 125 calories per 6-ounce serving, is also a good choice. By opting for plain, you skip the unnecessary sweeteners and can add your own fruit (9Trusted Source).
SUMMARYPlain nonfat or low-fat Greek yogurt contains around twice as much protein per serving as regular yogurt.
3. Beans, Peas and Lentils
Dry beans, peas and lentils, also called pulses, are a subgroup of legumes. They average 8 grams of protein per 1/2-cup (100-gram) cooked serving and are also low in fat and high in fiber (10Trusted Source, 11Trusted Source).
Both the high fiber and protein contents in pulses help make them more filling. What’s more, the fiber may lower your blood cholesterol if you eat pulses regularly (11Trusted Source).
In a review of 26 studies in 1,037 people, eating an average of 2/3 cup (130 grams) of cooked pulses daily for at least three weeks resulted in 7 mg/dL lower “bad” LDL cholesterol, compared to control diets — that equaled a 5% reduction in LDL over time (12Trusted Source).
Notably, pulses are low in a few essential amino acids, the building blocks of protein in your body. However, by eating other plant protein sources over the course of a day, such as whole grains or nuts, you’ll fill in those gaps (11Trusted Source, 13Trusted Source, 14Trusted Source).
SUMMARYBeans, peas and lentils are good sources of lean protein. They’re also high in fiber and may help lower your cholesterol if you eat them regularly.
4. Skinless, White-Meat Poultry
A 3.5-ounce (100-gram) serving of cooked chicken or turkey breast has around 30 grams of protein (15, 16).
Skip dark meat cuts like drumsticks and thighs to get the leanest meat. White meat includes the breasts, breast tenderloins (tenders) and wings.
Also, don’t eat the skin — 3.5 ounces (100 grams) of roasted chicken breast with the skin has 200 calories and 8 grams of fat, while the same amount of skinless, roasted chicken breast has 165 calories and 3.5 grams of fat (15, 17).
You can remove the skin either before or after cooking, as the fat savings remain virtually the same either way. Note that poultry cooked with the skin intact is moister (18Trusted Source).
SUMMARYWhite-meat chicken and turkey, particularly the breast, are rich in protein and low in fat if you remove the skin either before or after cooking.
5. Low-Fat Cottage Cheese
Cottage cheese is a high-protein, low-fuss food.
A 1/2-cup (4-ounce or 113-gram) serving of low-fat (2% milkfat) cottage cheese has 97 calories, 2.5 grams of fat and 13 grams of protein (19).
The newest trends in cottage cheese include single-serve containers, flavored options and the addition of live and active probiotic cultures.
Besides protein, you get around 10–15% of the RDI for calcium in 1/2 cup of cottage cheese. Some food scientists recently suggested manufacturers should add vitamin D, which aids calcium absorption, though this is not currently common practice (19, 20Trusted Source).
If there’s one drawback to cottage cheese, it’s that a 1/2-cup has around 15–20% of the daily limit for sodium (salt). If you’re watching your salt intake, one study suggests that rinsing cottage cheese for three minutes could reduce its sodium by around 60% (21Trusted Source).
SUMMARYLow-fat cottage cheese is an excellent source of protein and becoming even more convenient with the increased availability of single-serve containers. It’s also a good source of calcium.
6. Lite Tofu
Tofu is an especially viable protein option if you avoid animal foods. A 3-ounce (85-gram) serving of lite tofu has 45 calories, 1.5 grams of fat and 7 grams of protein, including sufficient amounts of all essential amino acids (22).
Tofu comes in different textures, which you can choose based on how you plan to use it. For example, use firm or extra-firm tofu in place of meat that you’d bake, grill or sauté, but soft or silken tofu in creamy soups or desserts.
Many healthy tofu recipes and tips are available online, such as from the Soyfoods Association of America.
Note that about 95% of soybeans produced in the US are genetically modified (GM). If you prefer to avoid GM foods, you can buy organic tofu, as organic foods cannot be genetically modified (23Trusted Source, 24, 25).
SUMMARYLite tofu is a good source of plant protein that provides adequate amounts of all essential amino acids and is very versatile in recipes.
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7. Lean Beef
Lean cuts of beef are those with less than 10 grams of total fat and 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat per 3.5-ounce (100-gram) cooked serving (26).
If you’re buying fresh beef that doesn’t have a nutrition label, certain words tell you the meat is lean. These include “loin” and “round.” For example, sirloin and tenderloin steaks, as well as eye of round roast and round steak are all lean (27).
Flank steak and the brisket flat-half (the leaner half of the whole brisket) are lean as well (28, 29).
When it comes to ground beef, opt for 95% lean. A 3.5-ounce (100-gram) cooked hamburger patty made with this lean ground beef has 171 calories, 6.5 grams of total fat (including 3 grams of saturated fat) and 26 grams of protein (30).
What’s more, a serving of lean beef is an excellent source of several B vitamins, zinc and selenium (27).
SUMMARYLean beef is generally signaled by the words “loin” or “round.” It’s an excellent source of protein and also packs B vitamins, zinc and selenium.
8. Powdered Peanut Butter
The natural oil in peanut butter is heart-healthy but packs a lot of calories. Just 2 tablespoons (32 grams) of regular peanut butter have about 190 calories and 16 grams of fat, along with 8 grams of protein (31).
A slimmed-down option is unsweetened, powdered peanut butter. Most of its fat is pressed out during processing. A 2-tablespoon serving has just 50 calories and 1.5 grams of fat but 5 grams of protein (9Trusted Source).
To use the powder like peanut butter, mix it with a little water at a time until it reaches a similar consistency to regular peanut butter. Keep in mind that it won’t be quite as creamy.
Reconstituted powdered peanut butter works especially well for dipping apples, bananas or even dark chocolate, for a treat. Alternatively, add the dry powder to smoothies, shakes, oatmeal or batter for pancakes and muffins.
SUMMARYPowdered peanut butter is a convenient protein source that has just a fraction of the calories and fat of regular peanut butter.
9. Low-Fat Milk
Whether you drink it, cook with it or add it to cereal, low-fat milk is an easy way to get protein.
An 8-ounce (240-ml) serving of low-fat milk with 1% milkfat has 8 grams of protein, 2.5 grams of fat and 100 calories. In comparison, a serving of whole milk with 3.25% milkfat has the same amount of protein but 150 calories and 8 grams of fat (32, 33).
Clearly, opting for low-fat milk will save you calories and fat. However, some recent studies suggest that drinking whole milk may not increase heart disease risk, as was once thought (34Trusted Source).
Still, not all whole-milk research is rosy. For example, observational studies have linked frequent intake of whole milk — but not skim or low-fat milk — to a higher risk of prostate cancer (35Trusted Source, 36Trusted Source).
While scientists continue research in this area, most experts still advise drinking low-fat or skim milk, rather than whole (37Trusted Source).
SUMMARYLow-fat milk is a good source of protein and can save you a significant amount of fat and calories compared to whole milk, especially if you consume it often.
10. Pork Loin
There are a handful of pork cuts that meet the USDA’s definition of lean, which means less than 10 grams of fat and 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat per 3.5-ounce (100-gram) cooked serving (38).
The keywords that indicate lean pork are “loin” and “chop.” Therefore, lean cuts include pork tenderloin, pork (loin) chops and pork top loin or sirloin roasts (39).
Pork tenderloin, the leanest cut, has 143 calories, 26 grams of protein and 3.5 grams of fat per 3.5-ounce (100-gram) cooked serving (40).
Before cooking pork, trim off any fat around the edges and use low-fat cooking methods, such as grilling or broiling, to save on fat and calories (39).
Similar to lean beef, lean pork is also an excellent source of several B vitamins and selenium and a good source of zinc (39).
SUMMARYYou can find lean pork by looking for the words “loin” or “chop.” Even so, be sure to cut off excess fat on the meat to avoid unnecessary fat and calories. In addition, pork is rich in B vitamins, selenium and zinc.
11. Frozen Shrimp
If you’re looking for a lot of protein for few calories, frozen, unbreaded shrimp are a convenient option. A 3.5-ounce (100-gram) serving has 99 calories, 21 grams of protein and 1 gram of fat (41).
Though the same serving also has 195 mg of cholesterol, scientists have found that consuming cholesterol as part of a healthy diet generally has little impact on heart health (42Trusted Source).
However, the high amount of sodium often added to shrimp during processing may be of concern for some people. According to USDA data, the sodium in some brands of plain, cooked shrimp sometimes tops 900 mg per serving (9Trusted Source).
The majority of this sodium comes from additives, including sodium tripolyphosphate, which helps retain moisture, and the preservative sodium bisulfite.
Some frozen shrimp contain only naturally-occurring sodium of around 120–220 mg per 3.5-ounce (100-gram) serving (9Trusted Source, 41).
SUMMARYUnbreaded, frozen shrimp are a convenient, low-fat and high-protein food. Read nutrition labels when shopping to avoid brands with high sodium counts.
12. Egg Whites
You can eat whole eggs (cholesterol and all) as part of a heart-healthy diet, but if you’re looking for something a little lighter, just use the whites (43Trusted Source, 44Trusted Source, 45Trusted Source).
The white from one large egg has 16 calories, which is less than a fourth of the calories in a whole egg. Additionally, one egg white contains less than 0.5 gram of fat but 3 grams of protein, which is about half of the protein in a whole egg (46, 47, 48, 49Trusted Source).
Try an egg white omelet or egg white muffins made with baby spinach and chives or diced peppers and onions. Alternatively, scramble egg whites with veggies to make a filling or topping for wraps, tostadas or toast.
You can also buy powdered egg whites and egg white protein powders with minimal or no additives. These products are pasteurized, so you don’t have to cook them to ensure food safety (50).
Mix powdered egg whites with water and use them like fresh egg whites. You can also add powdered egg whites to smoothies, shakes or homemade protein bars.
SUMMARYHalf of the protein in eggs comes from the whites, yet they contain only trace amounts of fat and less than a fourth of the calories of whole eggs.
Whether you call it bison or buffalo, it’s a healthy, lean protein source that may have an edge over conventionally raised beef.
First, bison is leaner than beef. When scientists compared sirloin steak and chuck roast from grain-fed cattle (beef) versus bison, the same cuts of beef had more than twice the fat as bison meat (51Trusted Source).
Additionally, bison is more likely to be grass-fed rather than raised in a feedlot like cattle, which are primarily fed grains.
That gives bison a healthier fat profile, including 3–4 times more anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats, particularly alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Preliminary research suggests that consuming bison may yield health benefits (51Trusted Source).
When healthy men ate 12 ounces of beef or bison (sirloin steak and chuck roast) six times weekly for seven weeks, C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker of inflammation, increased by 72% on the beef-rich diet. However, CRP increased only slightly on the bison-rich diet (51Trusted Source).
That’s not to say you should eat that much red meat of any kind, but it does suggest bison is a beneficial meat to include as part of a healthy diet.
Nuts and Seeds
Research shows that making nuts a regular part of a healthy diet helps to regulate our weight, and can protect against chronic diseases (such as heart disease and diabetes).
Although there has been limited research on seeds. they are thought to have similar health benefits due to their nutrient content.
Types of nuts
A nut is a simple dry fruit consisting of one or two edible kernels inside a hard shell. Nuts include:
- Brazil nuts
- cashew nuts
- pine nuts
- peanuts are legumes, they are classified as nuts due to their similar characteristics to other tree nuts.
Types of seeds
The nutrient profiles of seeds are also very similar to those of nuts. Common seeds include:
- pumpkin seeds
- flax seeds
- sesame seeds
- poppy seeds
- sunflower seeds
- psyllium seeds
- chia seeds.
Benefits of nuts
Most nuts have very similar macronutrient (protein, carbohydrate, and fat) profiles, but different types of nuts may have slightly different micronutrient (vitamin and mineral) content.
Nuts have about 29 kJ of energy per gram, and are:
- High in ‘good fats’ – monounsaturated fats (most nut types) and polyunsaturated fats (mainly walnuts).
- Low in saturated fats.
- Good sources of dietary protein – a good alternative to animal protein.
- Some nuts are also high in amino acid arginine, which keeps blood vessels healthy.
- Free of dietary cholesterol
- High in dietary fibre.
- Rich in phytochemicals that act as antioxidants.
- Rich in vitamins and minerals – vitamins include – E, B6, niacin and folate) and minerals include – magnesium, zinc, plant iron, calcium, copper, selenium, phosphorus, and potassium.
Benefits of seeds
Like nuts, most seeds are rich in:
- protein, healthy fats, and fibre
- minerals (such as magnesium, potassium, calcium, plant iron and zinc),
- vitamins B1, B2, B3 and vitamin E.
Oily seeds also contain antioxidants that stop the fats from going rancid too quickly.
Due to the unique nutrient profiles of nuts and seeds, they are known to provide several health benefits, such as:
- helping to maintain your weight
- reducing your heart disease risk
- reducing your diabetes risk.
Nuts, seeds and weight management
Although nuts and seeds are high in energy and fats, eating nuts is not connected with weight gain. In fact, based on large population studies, higher nut intake has been associated with lower body weight.
When included as part of a weight-loss diet, nuts have been shown to enhance weight loss and fat loss in the abdominal region.
Lower fat in the abdominal region means lower risk for chronic diseases (such as heart disease and diabetes). Therefore, nuts should be part of a healthy diet.
The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend 30 grams of nuts on most days of the week.
Nuts help with:
- Fat absorption – fats in nuts are not fully digested and absorbed by the body. When less fats are absorbed it means that less energy from nuts is absorbed too.
- Hunger and fullness – nuts help to suppress our hunger. As a result, food intake is reduced. This effect is due to the protein, fat, and fibre content of nuts.
- Energy expenditure – research suggests that nuts can increase the amount of energy we burn. Energy we burn following a nut-enriched meal comes from fat sources, meaning that we burn more and store less fat.
The effect of seeds on body weight has not been researched extensively but is likely to be similar to nuts as they are also high in protein, healthy fat and fibre.
Nuts and heart disease risk
Including nuts as part of your diet has been linked with a lower risk of heart disease.
Although high in fats, nuts are good sources of healthy fats (such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats), and are low in (unhealthy) saturated fats.
This combination of ‘good fats’, makes nuts heart healthy – they help to reduce low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, (known as ‘bad’ cholesterol) in the body.
LDL cholesterol can add to the build-up of plaque (fatty deposits) in your arteries, which can increase your risk of coronary heart disease.
Nuts also help to maintain healthy blood vessels and blood pressure (through their arginine content), and reduce inflammation in the body as they are high in antioxidants.
Recommended daily serving of nuts
The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend 30 grams of nuts on most days of the week
One serving quals approximately 30 grams – or 1/3 of a cup (or one handful).
Since all nuts have a similar nutrient content, a wide variety of nuts can be included as part of a healthy diet. This equal to about:
- 30 almonds
- 10 Brazil nuts
- 15 cashews
- 20 hazelnuts
- 15 macadamias
- 15 pecans
- 2 tablespoons pine nuts
- 30 pistachios
- 10 whole walnuts or 20 walnut halves
- a small handful of peanuts or mixed nuts.
How to include nuts and seeds in your diet
Different types of nuts have slight differences in their vitamin and mineral content, so eating a variety of nuts will increase your levels of various nutrients. Tips on how to make nuts and seeds a part of your diet include:
- Instead of snacking on biscuit or piece of cake as a snack, have a handful of raw or dry roasted nuts.
- Combine nuts and seeds with low-energy dense foods (such as vegetables). This is a good way to enhance vegetable-based meals – such as in Asian-style dishes or added to a salad.
- If you are vegan or vegetarian, nuts and seeds are a good protein substitute for meats, fish and eggs. They also contain fat, iron, zinc and niacin. You may need more than 30 grams of nuts and seeds a day to ensure adequate protein.
- Eat them with vitamin C rich foods and add them to drinks (such as tomato, capsicum, orange and citrus juices) to boost your iron absorption.
- There is no need to soak or remove the skin of nuts (or ‘activate’ them) unless you prefer the flavour and texture of soaked nuts. In fact, the skin of nuts is high in phytochemicals that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
- Roasting nuts (either dry or in oil) enhances their flavour but has little impact on their fat content. This is because nuts are physically dense and cannot absorb much oil, even if they are submerged in it. Most nuts only absorb 2% of extra fats.
- Salted nuts are not recommended due to their higher sodium content – especially if you have high blood pressure. Save salted nuts for parties and make raw and unsalted roasted nuts your everyday choice.
Be mindful of the risks when eating nuts.
Nuts can be a choking hazard
Whole nuts are not suitable for children under 3 years because they may cause choking if they are not chewed well. However, nut and seed spreads or paste (such as peanut or almond butter, or nut and seed oils) can be included in young children’s diets from 6 months.
Nuts can trigger allergic reactions
All tree nuts, peanuts and seeds may trigger life-threatening allergic reactions (anaphylaxis) in those with nut allergies.
Unlike many other allergies where children seem to ‘grow out of it’, peanut allergies tend to persist into adulthood.
There is no cure for allergies, so if you or your child have a nut or seed allergy, avoid nuts, seeds and foods containing them until you have seen a doctor who specialises in food allergies (an allergist). They will conduct medically supervised food tests to find out which nuts or seeds you may be allergic to.
Nuts and seeds should be introduced to infants in the form of butters or pastes, to prevent choking. Do not give whole nuts to your child until they are 3 years.
Read food labels for traces of nuts and seeds
Always read food labels to check nuts and seeds are not present.
Beware of products that ‘may contain traces of nuts and/or seeds’. ‘Cross-contamination’ can occur during manufacturing when products without nuts and seeds are made in the same facility or on the same equipment as those containing nuts and seeds.
- “Good” unsaturated fats — Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats — lower disease risk. Foods high in good fats include vegetable oils (such as olive, canola, sunflower, soy, and corn), nuts, seeds, and fish.
- “Bad” fats — trans fats — increase disease risk, even when eaten in small quantities. Foods containing trans fats are primarily in processed foods made with trans fat from partially hydrogenated oil. Fortunately, trans fats have been eliminated from many of these foods.
- Saturated fats, while not as harmful as trans fats, by comparison with unsaturated fats negatively impact health and are best consumed in moderation. Foods containing large amounts of saturated fat include red meat, butter, cheese, and ice cream. Some plant-based fats like coconut oil and palm oil are also rich in saturated fat.
- When you cut back on foods like red meat and butter, replace them with fish, beans, nuts, and healthy oils instead of refined carbohydrates.
Read more about healthy fats in this “Ask the Expert” with HSPH’s Dr. Walter Willett and Amy Myrdal Miller, M.S., R.D., formerly of The Culinary Institute of America
Vitamins and minerals in fruit and vegetables
Fruits and vegetables contain many vitamins and minerals that are good for your health. These include vitamins A (beta-carotene), C and E, magnesium, zinc, phosphorous and folic acid. Folic acid may reduce blood levels of homocysteine, a substance that may be a risk factor for coronary heart disease.
Fruit and vegetables for good health
Fruits and vegetables are low in fat, salt and sugar. They are a good source of dietary fibre. As part of a well-balanced, regular diet and a healthy, active lifestyle, a high intake of fruit and vegetables can help you to:
- Reduce obesity and maintain a healthy weight
- Lower your cholesterol
- Lower your blood pressure.
Fruit and vegetables and protection against diseases
Vegetables and fruit contain phytochemicals, or plant chemicals. These biologically active substances can help to protect you from some diseases. Scientific research shows that if you regularly eat lots of fruit and vegetables, you have a lower risk of:
- Type 2 diabetes
- Heart (cardiovascular) disease – when fruits and vegetables are eaten as food, not taken as supplements
- Cancer – some forms of cancer, later in life
- High blood pressure (hypertension).
How much is recommended?
A healthy diet includes the following:
- Fruit, vegetables, legumes (e.g. lentils and beans), nuts and whole grains (e.g. unprocessed maize, millet, oats, wheat and brown rice).
- At least 400 g (i.e. five portions) of fruit and vegetables per day (2), excluding potatoes, sweet potatoes, cassava and other starchy roots.
- Less than 10% of total energy intake from free sugars (2, 7), which is equivalent to 50 g (or about 12 level teaspoons) for a person of healthy body weight consuming about 2000 calories per day, but ideally is less than 5% of total energy intake for additional health benefits (7). Free sugars are all sugars added to foods or drinks by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, as well as sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates.
- Less than 30% of total energy intake from fats (1, 2, 3). Unsaturated fats (found in fish, avocado and nuts, and in sunflower, soybean, canola and olive oils) are preferable to saturated fats (found in fatty meat, butter, palm and coconut oil, cream, cheese, ghee and lard) and trans-fats of all kinds, including both industrially-produced trans-fats (found in baked and fried foods, and pre-packaged snacks and foods, such as frozen pizza, pies, cookies, biscuits, wafers, and cooking oils and spreads) and ruminant trans-fats (found in meat and dairy foods from ruminant animals, such as cows, sheep, goats and camels). It is suggested that the intake of saturated fats be reduced to less than 10% of total energy intake and trans-fats to less than 1% of total energy intake (5). In particular, industrially-produced trans-fats are not part of a healthy diet and should be avoided (4, 6).
- Less than 5 g of salt (equivalent to about one teaspoon) per day (8). Salt should be iodized.
For infants and young children
In the first 2 years of a child’s life, optimal nutrition fosters healthy growth and improves cognitive development. It also reduces the risk of becoming overweight or obese and developing NCDs later in life.
Advice on a healthy diet for infants and children is similar to that for adults, but the following elements are also important:
- Infants should be breastfed exclusively during the first 6 months of life.
- Infants should be breastfed continuously until 2 years of age and beyond.
- From 6 months of age, breast milk should be complemented with a variety of adequate, safe and nutrient-dense foods. Salt and sugars should not be added to complementary foods.
Practical advice on maintaining a healthy diet
Fruit and vegetables
Eating at least 400 g, or five portions, of fruit and vegetables per day reduces the risk of NCDs (2) and helps to ensure an adequate daily intake of dietary fibre.
Fruit and vegetable intake can be improved by:
- always including vegetables in meals;
- eating fresh fruit and raw vegetables as snacks;
- eating fresh fruit and vegetables that are in season; and
- eating a variety of fruit and vegetables.
Reducing the amount of total fat intake to less than 30% of total energy intake helps to prevent unhealthy weight gain in the adult population (1, 2, 3). Also, the risk of developing NCDs is lowered by:
- reducing saturated fats to less than 10% of total energy intake;
- reducing trans-fats to less than 1% of total energy intake; and
- replacing both saturated fats and trans-fats with unsaturated fats (2, 3) – in particular, with polyunsaturated fats.
Fat intake, especially saturated fat and industrially-produced trans-fat intake, can be reduced by:
- steaming or boiling instead of frying when cooking;
- replacing butter, lard and ghee with oils rich in polyunsaturated fats, such as soybean, canola (rapeseed), corn, safflower and sunflower oils;
- eating reduced-fat dairy foods and lean meats, or trimming visible fat from meat; and
- limiting the consumption of baked and fried foods, and pre-packaged snacks and foods (e.g. doughnuts, cakes, pies, cookies, biscuits and wafers) that contain industrially-produced trans-fats.
Salt, sodium and potassium
Most people consume too much sodium through salt (corresponding to consuming an average of 9–12 g of salt per day) and not enough potassium (less than 3.5 g). High sodium intake and insufficient potassium intake contribute to high blood pressure, which in turn increases the risk of heart disease and stroke (8, 11).
Reducing salt intake to the recommended level of less than 5 g per day could prevent 1.7 million deaths each year (12).
People are often unaware of the amount of salt they consume. In many countries, most salt comes from processed foods (e.g. ready meals; processed meats such as bacon, ham and salami; cheese; and salty snacks) or from foods consumed frequently in large amounts (e.g. bread). Salt is also added to foods during cooking (e.g. bouillon, stock cubes, soy sauce and fish sauce) or at the point of consumption (e.g. table salt).
Salt intake can be reduced by:
- limiting the amount of salt and high-sodium condiments (e.g. soy sauce, fish sauce and bouillon) when cooking and preparing foods;
- not having salt or high-sodium sauces on the table;
- limiting the consumption of salty snacks; and
- choosing products with lower sodium content.
Some food manufacturers are reformulating recipes to reduce the sodium content of their products, and people should be encouraged to check nutrition labels to see how much sodium is in a product before purchasing or consuming it.
Potassium can mitigate the negative effects of elevated sodium consumption on blood pressure. Intake of potassium can be increased by consuming fresh fruit and vegetables.
In both adults and children, the intake of free sugars should be reduced to less than 10% of total energy intake (2, 7). A reduction to less than 5% of total energy intake would provide additional health benefits (7).
Consuming free sugars increases the risk of dental caries (tooth decay). Excess calories from foods and drinks high in free sugars also contribute to unhealthy weight gain, which can lead to overweight and obesity. Recent evidence also shows that free sugars influence blood pressure and serum lipids, and suggests that a reduction in free sugars intake reduces risk factors for cardiovascular diseases (13).
Sugars intake can be reduced by:
- limiting the consumption of foods and drinks containing high amounts of sugars, such as sugary snacks, candies and sugar-sweetened beverages (i.e. all types of beverages containing free sugars – these include carbonated or non‐carbonated soft drinks, fruit or vegetable juices and drinks, liquid and powder concentrates, flavoured water, energy and sports drinks, ready‐to‐drink tea, ready‐to‐drink coffee and flavoured milk drinks); and
- eating fresh fruit and raw vegetables as snacks instead of sugary snacks.
How to promote healthy diets
Diet evolves over time, being influenced by many social and economic factors that interact in a complex manner to shape individual dietary patterns. These factors include income, food prices (which will affect the availability and affordability of healthy foods), individual preferences and beliefs, cultural traditions, and geographical and environmental aspects (including climate change). Therefore, promoting a healthy food environment – including food systems that promote a diversified, balanced and healthy diet – requires the involvement of multiple sectors and stakeholders, including government, and the public and private sectors.
Governments have a central role in creating a healthy food environment that enables people to adopt and maintain healthy dietary practices. Effective actions by policy-makers to create a healthy food environment include the following:
- Creating coherence in national policies and investment plans – including trade, food and agricultural policies – to promote a healthy diet and protect public health through:
- Encouraging consumer demand for healthy foods and meals through:
- Promoting appropriate infant and young child feeding practices through: