what is a balanced diet

A balanced diet

Simple guidelines from qualified experts make it easy to have a balanced diet and nutritious and healthy food.

The 5 food groups

The best way to eat for health is to choose a variety of foods from each of the 5 food groups every day:

  • vegetables and legumes (beans)
  • fruit
  • grains and cereals
  • lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, legumes (beans) tofu, nuts, seeds
  • milk, cheese yoghurt or alternatives.

Each food group has important nutrients.

The amount of each food you need will vary during your life, depending on factors such as how active you are and whether or not you are growing, pregnant, breastfeeding and more.

Vegetables and legumes (beans and peas)

Vegetables and legumes have hundreds of natural nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and dietary fibre.

To get the most from this group:

  • choose vegetables and legumes in season
  • look for different colours:
    • greens like beans, peas and broccoli
    • red, orange or yellow vegetables like capsicums, tomatoes, carrots, sweet potato and pumpkin
    • purple vegetables like red cabbage and eggplant
    • white vegetables like cauliflower, mushrooms and potatoes.

Eating your vegetables raw is indeed sometimes the healthier option. However; there are also some vegetables which offer useful health benefits when they're cooked.

How much?

  • 2 year-olds, 2½ serves a day
  • adults and children aged 9 and over, 5 serves a day.

One serve is ½ cup cooked or 1 cup raw.

You can include vegetables at lunch (salads, raw vegies or soups) as well as dinner. Cherry tomatoes, snow peas, green beans, red capsicum, celery or carrot sticks with hummus makes a great snack.


Fresh fruit is a good source of vitamins and dietary fibre. It’s best to eat fresh fruit.

How much?

  • 2 to 3 year-olds, 1 piece a day
  • 4 to 8 year-olds, 1½ pieces a day
  • adults and children over 9, 2 pieces a day.

If you want to have fruit juices, do it only occasionally. Half a cup is enough. Fruit juices lack fibre and they’re not filling. Their acidity can also damage tooth enamel. Commercial fruit juices are often high in sugars.

Dried fruit also has a high sugar content. It is only suitable as an occasional extra.

Grains and cereal foods

Grain foods include rolled oats, brown rice, wholemeal and wholegrain breads, cracked wheat, barley, buckwheat and breakfast cereals like muesli.

Wholegrains have protein, dietary fibre, minerals and vitamins. In processed grains, some of these nutrients are lost.

How much?

  • 2 to 8 year-olds, start with 4 serves a day
  • 14 to 18 year-olds, 7 or more serves
  • adults, 6 or 7 serves a day depending on activity.

A serve is equivalent to:

  • 1 slice of bread, or
  • ½ cup cooked rice, oats, pasta or other grain, or 3 rye crispbread, or
  • 30g of breakfast cereal ( ⅔ cup flakes or ¼ cup muesli).

Lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, legumes (beans) tofu, nuts and seeds

These foods provide protein, minerals and vitamins. Legumes, nuts and seeds also have dietary fibre. It’s good to choose a variety of foods from this group.

How much?

  • 2 to 3 year-olds, 1 serve a day
  • 4 to 8 year-olds, 1½ serves a day
  • women and children over 9, 2½ serves a day
  • men aged 19 to 50, 3 serves a day

A serve is 65g cooked red meat, or 80g poultry, or 100g fish, or 2 eggs, or 1up legumes, or 170g tofu, or 30g nuts, seeds or pastes (peanut butter or tahini).

Adults should eat no more than 500 g of red meat a week. There is evidence that those eating more than 500 g of red meat may have an increased risk of bowel cancer.

Milk, cheeses, yoghurts

Milk gives you protein, vitamins and calcium. Soy drinks with added calcium can be used as a milk substitute for children over 1.

Some nut or oat milks have added calcium but they lack vitamin B12 and enough protein. Check your child’s total diet with a doctor or qualified dietician before using them.

Children should have full-cream milk until aged 2. Reduced-fat varieties may be suitable after that.

Read more on Pregnancy, Birth and Baby on introducing allergy foods to babies and children.

How much?

  • 2 to 3 year-olds, 1½ serves a day
  • 4 to 8 year-olds, 1½ serves (girls), 2 serves (boys) a day
  • 9 to 11 year olds, 2½ serves (boys), 3 serves (girls) a day
  • 12 to 18 year-olds, 3½ serves a day
  • adults, 2½ serves a day.

A serve is 1 cup of milk, or 2 slices of cheese, or 200g yoghurt.

If you use plant-based alternatives to milk, like soy milk, check that they have at least 100mg calcium per 100 mL.


Apart from milk, the ideal drink for children is tap water.

Discretionary choices

Foods that are not included in the 5 food groups are called ‘discretionary choices’ or ‘extras’. Some of it could be called junk food.

You can eat small amounts of unsaturated oils and spreads. These may be from olives, soybeans, corn, canola, sunflower, safflower, sesame or grapeseeds.

Other ‘discretionary choices’ are not needed in a healthy diet. This includes:

  • biscuits
  • cakes
  • ice cream
  • ice blocks
  • soft drinks
  • cordials, sports, fruit and energy drinks
  • lollies and chocolates
  • processed meats
  • potato crisps
  • savoury snack foods
  • commercial burgers
  • hot chips
  • fried foods
  • alcohol.

These foods and drinks often provide excess energy, saturated fat, sugar or salt. They are often described as ‘energy-rich but nutrient-poor’.

They also often replace healthier foods in the diet.

In Australia about 40% of children’s food energy come from discretionary foods. This is too high for their good health.

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What is a healthy balanced diet?

Healthy eating is about getting the balance right. This means having a variety of foods, basing meals on starchy foods and eating at least five portions of fruit and veg a day.

It also means having moderate amounts of meat, fish and alternatives; having moderate amounts of milk and dairy foods and having small or only occasional amounts of foods high in fat, especially saturated fat, or foods and drinks high in sugar, or foods high in salt.

See below for the impact you can make on people's health in relation to various types of food, and for links to further information.

Foods high in fat and foods and drinks high in sugar

Most people would benefit from eating less saturated fat, which is the type of fat found in meat- and milk-fat, lard, butter, hard margarine, cheese, pastries, pies and cakes. Eating too much fat in general may promote weight gain and saturated fat can encourage heart disease and increase the risk of other common illnesses.

Eating sugary foods too often is the main cause of tooth decay, so try to limit the amount of sugar you use.


Fat is an important energy source, providing 9kcals per gram. However, too much of the wrong type of fat can put strain on the heart and ‘squash’ internal organs. Different types of fat are made up of differing proportions of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat. Some fats and products made with these fats, contain trans fats.

We currently recommend that fat should make up no more than 35% of our total dietary energy intake (saturated fat should make up less than 10% of our total dietary energy intake). To meet these targets, try to cut down on the amount of fat in your diet, especially saturated and trans fats.

Too much fat isn't just a factor in obesity. Saturated and trans fats may also raise the level of cholesterol in the blood, and this increases the risk of heart disease. The good news is that unsaturated (monounsaturated or polyunsaturated) fat actually reduces cholesterol levels. So try to replace saturated fats, such as lard and butter, with monounsaturates such as rapeseed (canola) or olive oil. And try to limit your use of hard margarines because these may contain high levels of trans fats.

As a guide when you're looking at the label of a product:

  • 3g or less of fat per 100g is a low level
  • Between 3g and 17.5g of fat per 100g is a medium level
  • More than 17.5g of fat per 100g is a high level
  • 1.5g or less of saturates per 100g is a low level
  • Between 1.5g and 5g of saturates per 100g is a medium level
  • More than 5g of saturates per 100g is a high level

For more information on fats and sugars, see the NI Direct website

Fruit and vegetables

You probably already know that we should be eating at least five portions of a variety of fruit and veg each day.

But did you know that:

  • fresh, frozen, juiced, canned and dried fruit or veg all count
  • a portion of fruit or veg is about 80g, this means people should be having at least 400g of fruit and veg every day
  • potatoes don't count because they're included in the starchy foods group
  • juice only counts as one portion however much someone drinks
  • beans and pulses count as a maximum of one portion a day

Why are lots of fruit and veg needed?

Many different studies have shown that populations with a high intake of fruit and veg have a lower incidence of heart disease, some cancers and other health problems.

Fruit and veg provide the body with vitamins, minerals, fibre and carbohydrate, mainly in the form of sugars.

For more information on five a day and for some practical tips, visit the NI Direct website

Milk and dairy

Milk and dairy foods are an important part of a person’s diet. They provide protein and:

For more on milk and dairy, and for more information on vitamins and minerals, see the NI Direct website

  • are rich in calcium, which is needed for healthy bones and teeth
  • provide B vitamins, especially vitamin B2, also called riboflavin, which has a number of important functions, including helping the body turn the food we eat into energy
  • vitamin A, which is found in red, orange and yellow vegetables, fortified margarine and spreads, meat, dairy, oily fish and egg yolks, is involved in the normal development of tissues, growth and is essential for the manufacture of rhodopsin in the retina which is necessary for vision in dim light


Many people in Northern Ireland eat too much salt. Too much salt can raise your blood pressure which puts you at an increased risk of health problems such as heart disease and stroke.

You can help to limit the salt in your customer's diet by:

  • choosing ingredients low in salt
  • asking your supplier for foods or ingredients low in salt
  • use herbs and spices to add flavour instead of salt

On average, adults should aim to keep their salt intake to less than 6g per day (equivalent to about 2.4g sodium). Most of the salt we eat comes from bought food products, so when you are choosing products, compare similar ones to find those with lower amounts of salt/sodium.

As a guide when you're looking at labels:

Low level - less than 0.3g of salt per 100g
Medium level - 0.3g and 1.5g of salt per 100g
High level - more than 1.5g of salt per 100g

If you prepare food for children, you should be aware that babies and children should have less salt than adults. Babies under a year old require less than 1g of salt per day as their kidneys are unable to cope with more. If a baby is being breastfed, he or she will get its full salt requirement from the breast milk. Older children’s daily salt requirements are outlined below:

1-3 years old - 2g per day
7-10 years old - 5g per day
11+ years old - 6g per day

For more information on salt, see the NI Direct website

Starchy foods

Starchy foods contain carbohydrates mainly in the form of starch, which provides energy. Examples include bread, potatoes, and cereals such as rice, pasta, breakfast cereals and couscous. Starchy foods also contain some protein, minerals, vitamins and fibre.

Fibre helps the digestive system function properly and helps prevent bowel disorders such as constipation. Most people in Northern Ireland don't eat enough fibre, the majority eat 14g a day instead of the recommended 18g.

The healthiest choices are wholegrain foods, such as wholemeal bread or brown rice, because these also help protect us against the risk of heart disease and stroke.

See the planning your menu section for some practical tips on how to increase the amount of starchy foods you serve.

For more information on starchy foods, visit the NI Direct website

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what is a balanced diet