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A balanced diet

To be healthy, strong and energetic, we need to eat a variety of foods

Written by Mary Jane Poynor 2023

Plastic bags and crates at a Guatemalan street market hold different types of colourful beans, grains, fruits and vegetables

Eating a variety of foods, such as these in Guatemala, helps to ensure a balanced, healthy diet. Photo: Lydia Powell/Tearfund

Three smiling Guatemalan women, one heavily pregnant, hold bowls of food in a kitchen with wooden walls.

From: Food and nutrition – Footsteps 119

How to eat well, address malnutrition and reduce food waste

To be healthy, strong and energetic our bodies need a variety of foods from each of five nutritional groups.

These groups are:

  • Carbohydrates
    These provide the energy we need to keep our bodies working. Foods rich in carbohydrates include grains, some fruits and root vegetables.
  • Proteins
    These provide the building blocks our bodies are made from and are essential for growth, good function, healing and repair. Protein-rich foods include beans, pulses, fish, meat, eggs and insects.
  • Fibre
    This is important for good digestion and helps to reduce many diseases. Vegetables and fruit are good sources of fibre.
  • Fats and oils
    These are needed for many essential body functions. Foods such as oils, butter, cheese, nuts and seeds are high in fat.
  • Vitamins and minerals
    Although we only need small amounts of these each day, they are very important for everything our bodies do. We become weak and sick if we do not have enough of them. Good sources of vitamins and minerals include fruits, vegetables and insects.

Eating too much or too little from these groups means our bodies do not receive the full balance of nutrients they need to work properly. 

An illustration of a circle broken up into different segments each showing a different type of food

Eating a variety of foods helps to ensure that we have all the nutrients we need to stay healthy and strong.

How to eat a balanced diet

  1. Whenever possible, eat fresh, locally grown food rather than processed foods. Processed foods often contain too much salt, sugar and fat, and not enough protein, fibre, vitamins or minerals.
  2. Try to eat foods from different nutritional groups in the same meal. This helps to ensure that food is properly digested, nutrients are absorbed and waste is removed.
  3. Eat as many colours of vegetables and fruits as possible. Each colour has different vitamins and minerals.
  4. Onions, garlic, ginger, herbs and spices are very good for your health and make food taste better.
  5. Eating fermented or pickled foods each day will strengthen your digestive system.
  6. Before cooking, soak legumes and pulses overnight, then rinse and boil in fresh water to make them easier to cook and digest.
  7. If you only have a small amount of food available, try to eat some grains or root vegetables, some dark green and colourful vegetables, and some beans or pulses at each meal. These will fill you up and provide most of the nutrients you need. If you can find them, add insects, nuts, seeds, eggs, milk or fats in small amounts.
  8. For children and young people, for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, or if weight gain is needed, try to add more nuts, seeds, coconut meat and milk, avocados, oil, dairy products, meat, fish or insects to meals and snacks. 
  9. If weight loss is needed, or for those with long‑term health problems such as diabetes and high blood pressure:

     

    • reduce the amount of butter and ghee, sugar, salt, grains, root vegetables and starchy fruits eaten in normal meals (plus meat and dairy products if you consume them frequently)
    • replace them with more vegetables and snack on whole fruits rather than drinking fruit juice or eating something sweet
    • exchange processed foods for nutritious local dishes
    • avoid eating fried foods, sweets and desserts, except on special occasions
    • instead of eating white rice, bread, pasta and porridge, look for unprocessed, wholegrain or brown versions.
A young Ethiopian boy drinks water from a silver bowl

Hariri Ali in Ethiopia enjoys a drink of clean, safe drinking water. Photo: Chris Hoskins/Tearfund

Water

Your body cannot function without sufficient water and you will quickly feel weak and unwell if you do not drink enough. Pregnant and breastfeeding mothers need to drink extra. 

Make sure drinking water is free from harmful germs. If in doubt, boil it for two minutes and then leave it to cool before drinking. 

Avoid too many sugary drinks, such as fizzy soda, because they can damage teeth and contribute to the development of diabetes and other non‑communicable diseases.

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Written by

Written by  Mary Jane Poynor

Mary Jane Poynor is a health and self-care coach. She was based in the Middle East for many years and provided health and nutritional advice to local families.

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