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Eating healthily: think it's hard to put into practice? Think again! - Action on Salt

SaltThis means eating a wide variety of foods in the right proportions to ensure that you get all the nutrients you need, in the right amounts for optimal health and to maintain a healthy body weight. Eating too little or too much of the wrong types of food and drink can cause a multitude of problems - from nutrient deficiencies to chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease and cancer. Currently in the UK, over two thirds of adults and one third of children aged 10-11 years are overweight or obese; it’s clear that people are getting the balance wrong. types of food and drink can cause a multitude of problems - from nutrient deficiencies to chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease and cancer. Currently in the UK, over two thirds of adults and one third of children aged 10-11 years are overweight or obese; it’s clear that people are getting the balance wrong.

In 2016, Public Health England (PHE) launched a new healthy eating model for the UK called the Eatwell Guide, which shows the amounts and types of foods we should be eating (as well as those to consume less often and in small amounts), in order to have a healthy, balanced diet.

In essence, the focus is on eating whole fruits and vegetables, high fibre starchy carbohydrates and cutting down on fat, salt and sugar. Here we explain what it means in terms of the foods and drinks we buy and consume on a regular basis, along with a few tips to help.

Cooking fats

Less fat, sugar and salt

Fat provides calories, and too many calories can lead to weight gain and obesity which increases the risk of diseases like coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes. We only need a small amount of fat in our diets, and this should be unsaturated fat from plant sources (i.e. vegetable or olive oil) as this is healthier than saturated fat found in animal products like butter. Too much saturated fat increases blood cholesterol, which also increases the risk of coronary heart disease.

If you’re cooking with fat, it’s better to use oil instead of hard fats like butter, goose fat or lard. However, all oils and spreads are high in fat and contain a lot of calories, so they should be used and consumed in small amounts. Like fat, sugar also contains calories. Regularly consuming foods and drinks high in sugar (like biscuits, cakes, chocolate, ice cream, sweets and soft drinks) increases your risk of obesity and tooth decay.

As a nation we are consuming around 2-3 times more sugar every day than what is recommended, and so cutting back on these types of products is important to avoid damaging our health and teeth. These foods are not an essential part of the diet; they should only be consumed in small amounts and not every day.

Remember sugar is also hidden in foods that we might not expect to find it in - including those that don’t necessarily taste sweet - like soups, sauces and ready meals.

Eating too much salt raises blood pressure, which increases the risk of heart attacks and strokes. 75% of the salt we eat is already present in the food we buy, including foods that don’t necessarily taste salty, like bread and breakfast cereals. In the last 15 years the UK has led the way with a successful salt reduction programme that has seen the amount of salt added to food by manufacturers lowered, with products now containing around 20-40% less salt.

However, there is still more that can be done, as our salt intakes are still too high (about 8g per day on average compared to the recommended maximum daily limit of 6g). That’s why it’s important to check the label and compare products, choose those with less salt and avoid adding salt during cooking or at the table.

Traffic lights

Lots of pre-packaged foods and drinks have a colour coded nutrition label on pack which shows you the amount of energy, fat, saturated fat (referred to as ‘saturates’), sugars and salt in a serving of that product. It is better to go for products with fewer reds and more ambers and greens, as these indicate healthier choices.

Fruit and vegEat more fruit and vegetables - at least 5 A DAY

Fruit and vegetables provide a range of different nutrients and fibre and we should aim to eat at least 5 portions a day (1 portion =80g). It’s better to eat the fruit or vegetable whole, rather than drink it in juiced form. Fruit juices and smoothies don’t provide the same nutritional benefits as the whole fruit or vegetable, and they contain free sugars which we need to eat less of.

Swap canned fruit in syrup for fruit in juice and choose canned veg in water with no adder sugar or salt. Avoid adding sugar, salt and fat to fruit and veg when cooking, and if you’re buying pre-prepared vegetables, go for ones that don’t have butter or oil added and check the label for salt.

BreadStarchy carbohydrates - brown varieties are best

Our diets should also be based around starchy carbohydrates like bread, rice, pasta and potatoes, which provide us with energy.

Choose higher fibre varieties (e.g. wholemeal/brown bread, brown pasta and brown rice) as these get digested more slowly compared to white varieties, which helps us to feel full for longer. We should all aim to eat more fibre to keep our guts healthy and avoid constipation. Adults should eat 30g fibre per day – but we are falling well short of that at the moment. Some brands now offer high-fibre white versions of bread and pasta, so look out for these when you shop. Remember also to avoid adding salt when you cook them.

Less meat and more beans, pulses, fish, eggs and other protein

Along with protein, these foods also provide us with other essential vitamins and minerals like iron and zinc. We should aim to eat at least two 140g portions of fish per week, including a portion of oily fish (e.g. salmon, mackerel and sardines). It is recommended that we eat no more than 500g of red and processed meat per week (about 70g per day), as eating too much can increase the risk of bowel cancer.

Processed meats (like sausages, bacon, cured meats and reformed meat products) offer no real nutritional benefit, and can be high in fat and salt. It’s better to go for high quality fresh, unprocessed meats. Some cuts of meat can be high in fat, particularly saturated fat, so choose leaner cuts with less visible fat, leaner mince and remove the skin from poultry.

Beans and pulses (e.g. lentils, chickpeas) are good alternatives to meat because they are lower in fat and higher in fibre. If you’re buying canned varieties, opt for ones in water with no added sugar or salt.


Dairy and alternatives - watch the fat and sugar

Dairy foods are an important part of the diet, providing protein, vitamins and calcium, which is crucial for healthy bones. Some dairy foods and dairy alternatives can be high in fat and/or sugar (e.g. full fat milk, cheese and flavoured yogurts) but there are healthier options available, including reduced fat cheeses, 1% and skimmed milks, plain low fat yogurts and unsweetened dairy alternatives (e.g. soya milk).

Drinks - choose sugar free varieties

Not only is the food that we eat important, but also what we drink. Sugary drinks are a major source of calories and free sugars in the diet – with some fizzy drinks found to contain as much as 12 teaspoons of sugar per serving! Choose healthier, sugar-free alternatives instead like water, low fat milk, and tea and coffee with no added sugar. Beware of flavoured hot drinks like coffees and hot chocolates with syrups - these can contain more sugar per serving than the entire maximum daily recommended amount for adults.

Putting it all into practice

It’s all well and good knowing what we should be eating, but what we actually choose to eat can be very different. Sometimes the possibility of eating healthily may seem impossible. However, there are some simple tools available to help you make healthier decisions when choosing food on-the-go or doing the weekly shop.

Many coffee shops, sandwich bars and some restaurants now display nutrition information for their products on the shelf or on the menu, so you can see how products and meals compare and go for the healthiest.

Remember to watch portion sizes - when eating out with family and friends why not share a cake, starter or dessert rather than having one each?

Similarly, check the serve size on packaged food and drinks - what is quoted as a serve size on pack may be smaller than what you actually eat or drink, so try and stick to what is recommended.

Use the Foodswitch UK app

With so much choice on the supermarket shelves, and many brands to choose from, deciding which product to buy can be far from easy.

When it comes to nutrition, you might think that all brands are the same, but there can be huge differences in the nutrient content of similar foods and drinks. For example, one brand of flavoured noodles can contain 14 times more salt per serving compared to another! That’s why it pays to check the label and shop around, and using apps like FoodSwitch UK make it easier to find those healthier choices and reduce the amount of fat, sugar and salt in you and your family’s diet.

FoodSwitch UK is a free, independent and simple-to-use smartphone app developed by researchers that helps you find out what is in the food you’re eating so that you can make simple switches to healthier options. It allows users to scan the barcode of a food or drink product and instantly see whether it is high (red), medium (amber) or low (green) in fat, saturates, sugars and salt. The app brings up a list of similar but healthier alternatives to switch to.

The app includes a SaltSwitch filter to help those with, or being treated for, high blood pressure, which displays healthier products with less salt than the product that has been scanned. Users can save healthy favourites on a shopping list ready for next time they shop, and share the information with other users via social media.

App storeGoogle play


Content supplied by Consensus Action on Salt & Health. For more information please visit


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