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Putting healthy eating guidelines into practice

We often know what the healthy eating guidelines say, but with so many nutrients to think about and mixed messages on food labels and in the media, it can be surprisingly hard to put them into practice. On our HEART UK helpline we often receive questions such as these:

“Some crisps contain less saturated fat than a handful of plain nuts? Do I opt for the crisps?”

“Olive oil contains more saturated fat per 100g than lean beef so why is it promoted as healthy?”

“I know I should eat wholegrains, but does that mean I should do without baked potatoes?”

“According to the food label, my baked beans are high in salt but I know they contain a lot of fibre and are otherwise healthy. Do you leave it on the supermarket shelf?”

“Some sunflower and olive oil spreads are labelled as high in saturated fat, should I avoid them?”

Dietary guidelines are important for our health, including heart health, and are based on the best scientific evidence available. They are designed to make sure we get enough of all the different nutrients.

There are lots of ways to eat a healthy diet, and the guidelines allow for personal preferences and cultural traditions. Guidelines can be used in a flexible way which allows for a variety of foods and drinks that suit you and your lifestyle.

Use these suggestions to help you put the guidelines into practice and find enjoyable healthy foods that fit with your preferences and beliefs.

Look at your diet as a whole

When thinking about the guidelines, look at the foods you are eating over a period of weeks and even months rather than individual foods or meals. A healthy diet can still include a Saturday night pizza or a slice of birthday cake. It’s what you eat most of the time that counts.

Use these 3 steps to guide you:

Step 1. Variety is the spice of life

Heart-healthy diets are mainly made up of:

  • fruits and vegetables
  • foods made with wholegrains
  • healthy sources of protein – plant foods such as beans, peas and lentils, as well as fish and seafood, low-fat or fat-free dairy products, and if you eat meat or poultry, choose lean cuts and unprocessed options
  • oils made from plants such as rapeseed and olive oil (but not coconut oil or palm oil which are high in saturated fat)
  • un-processed foods and foods with minimal processing.

They’re also low in foods and drinks with added sugars and salt.

Eating a wide variety of foods from these groups, rather than having the same foods every day, will help to make sure you get a good range of nutrients.

Step 2. Getting the balance right

As well as choosing a wide variety of foods, it’s important to get the balance of different types of food right. As a guide, try to divide your plate into one half and two quarters. Fill half with fruit and vegetables, a quarter with starchy carbohydrates such as wholegrain pasta or potatoes, and the last quarter with protein-rich foods.

A small amount of healthy oil (such as olive or rapeseed oil) is also important in a healthy diet but use small amounts because fats are high in calories.

You don’t need to lay the foods out on your plate in this way because sometimes it won’t be possible, such as with a curry, spaghetti Bolognese or stew. Instead, just visualise the ingredients as if they were laid out, so you can gauge the proportions.

You can also bear this guide in mind when you’re eating out, especially if you eat out often.

Step 3. Avoid portion pitfalls 

Make sure your portion sizes are not too big and not too small for different types of food in order to stay a healthy weight. Use our Getting the Proportions Right guide to plan meals and gauge your portions for vegetables, starchy foods and protein.  

Some high fat foods are worth special consideration when thinking about portion size. Nuts for example are a very heart-healthy choice containing plenty of fibre, proteins, vitamins and minerals, but they are also high in calories, so stick to about a palmful (around 30g) a day. Similarly, use oils and spreads in small amounts for cooking, drizzling on salads, or on bread – not more than three tablespoons per day.

Focus on foods, not individual nutrients

Healthy eating messages often place a lot of emphasis on nutrients, but we don’t eat nutrients in isolation and all foods are made up of a variety of different ones. Focusing too much on individual nutrients can detract from the other benefits of a particular food. It’s far better to consider the whole package.

Plain mixed nuts, for example, have more saturated fat per portion than crisps, however, comparing crisps and nuts based on their fat content doesn’t show the full picture. Nuts also contain a huge amount of other nutrients while crisps contain very few.

For saturated fat, the UK guidelines allow some in the diet:

  • women should eat less than 20g saturated fat a day
  • men should eat less then 30g each day.

While salmon, olive oil and nuts contain saturated fat, when eaten in the recommended quantities, the amount is likely to be within these guidelines. As they contain more unsaturated fats and other nutrients, they are excellent choices to include in a healthy diet.

On the other hand, foods with a higher proportion of saturated fat such as cheese are best limited as they are more likely to take you over the recommended amount. In particular, limit foods such as biscuits, cakes, ice cream and pastry which contain ‘empty calories’, meaning they contain high levels of saturated fat, sugar and salt but very few essential nutrients.

Cook more meals from scratch

Cooking your meals from basic ingredients means you are less likely to eat processed foods which are high in sugar, salt and fat, and you’re more likely to eat a healthier diet.

By including plenty of wholesome, basic ingredients means your meals have another advantage. In addition to nutrients, they also contain components which have an active role in the body, such as antioxidants. Although there are no guidelines for the amounts to have, they are needed as part of a healthy diet. These tend to be found in plant-based foods and may be responsible for some of the heart-healthy effects of foods such as wholegrains, vegetables and nuts.

Try our cholesterol-friendly recipes