How to enjoy a healthy diet

Healthy groceries on a table

The food we eat can affect our risk of developing cancer, both directly and by helping us keep a healthy weight. Keeping a healthy weight is the second best thing you can do to cut the risk of cancer, after not smoking.

Summary of key diet messages to keep a healthy weight

Some of the same foods that can affect our body weight can also affect our cancer risk directly:

  • High fibre foods like wholegrain foods, pulses, fruits and vegetables can also reduce the risk of cancer.
  • Processed and red meat can also increase the risk of bowel cancer.

On this page you’ll find practical ideas on how you and your family can eat a healthy diet, help keep a healthy weight, and reduce your risk of cancer.

For more ways to help manage your weight, visit our How to Keep a Healthy Weight page

Eating more fruit and vegetables

Fruit and vegetables are an important part of a healthy diet. They are a good source of many important nutrients. They are low in calories and an excellent source of fibre, which can help you keep a healthy weight. Eating more fruit and vegetables could also reduce the risk of mouth, throat and lung cancers.

Try to have at least 5 portions of fruit and colourful vegetables each day. Examples of a portion include: a medium-sized apple, a banana, 2 satsumas, 3 heaped tablespoons of cooked veg, or a cereal bowl’s worth of salad.

  • Include fresh, frozen, tinned and dried fruit and vegetables in your diet- they all count towards your daily portions.
  • Choose fruit and vegetables with a variety of colours.
  • Some foods can’t count for more than 1 portion of your 5 a day, even if you eat more than that- for example, 150ml of fruit juice or smoothie can only count for 1 of your 5 a day, as they are high in sugar and low in fibre.
  • If children don't want to eat veg, keep offering them small tastes - having several opportunities to try new foods can help get them interested.

Here are some tips to add an extra portion of fruit or veg at each meal:

  • Top your wholegrain breakfast cereal with fruit.
  • Put some crunch in your lunch with carrot and celery sticks.
  • Add extra beans, mushrooms or chopped peppers to sauces and casseroles.

Eating more wholegrain foods

Wholegrain foods are higher in fibre and nutrients, which can help fill you up for longer and keep a healthy weight. Fibre from wholegrains can also help reduce the risk of bowel cancer.

Simple ways to include wholegrains in your diet include:

  • Choose brown, grainy bread instead of white bread.
  • Choose brown rice instead of white rice.
  • Choose wholewheat pasta instead of white pasta.
  • Choose wholegrain breakfast cereals like rolled oats (porridge oats), Weetabix or Shredded Wheat (or your supermarket’s own brand versions).
  • Snack on plain popcorn instead of crisps.
  • Add barley to soups and stews.

Eating less processed and red meat

Eating a lot of processed and red meat can increase the risk of bowel cancer, and possibly stomach and pancreatic cancer. Processed and red meats can also be high in calories, which can contribute to weight gain. Healthier choices of protein foods include fish, fresh chicken, pulses (e.g. beans, lentils and chickpeas) and eggs.

Processed meat includes ham, bacon, salami and sausages.  Red meat includes all fresh, minced and frozen beef, pork and lamb.

  • Try to have some meat-free meals a week.
  • Eat smaller portions of meat.
  • Swap processed and red meat for fresh chicken or fish.
  • Use pulses (e.g. beans, lentils and chickpeas) instead of meat in your recipes as these are a good source of both protein and fibre.

When you cook meat, use low-temperature cooking methods such as braising where possible. Cooking meat at high temperatures (e.g. barbecuing) until it chars can produce cancer-causing chemicals.

Eating less salt

Foods that are preserved using salt may increase the risk of stomach cancer. And cutting down on how much salt you eat is good for your overall health.

  • Cut down on salt-preserved foods, like bacon, some types of ham, salt beef, salt cod and some pickled vegetables.
  • Base your meals on vegetables, wholegrain foods, pulses and fruit which are naturally lower in salt.
  • Most of the salt we eat comes from processed foods, so check the salt content of things like breakfast cereals, breads and ready meals. There is often salt hidden where you wouldn't expect it.

Eating less high-calorie food

High-calorie foods and drinks (such as fried foods, biscuits, savoury snacks, confectionery, sugary drinks and fast foods) can lead to weight gain, as it’s easy to take in lots of calories from smaller amounts of food. They also tend to be lower in beneficial vitamins and minerals and higher in saturated fat, sugar and salt.

  • Base your meals on vegetables, wholegrain foods, pulses and fruit which fill you up on fewer calories.
  • Cut down on or avoid sugary drinks - make water your first choice.
  • Cut down on ‘fast’ or ‘takeaway’ foods by cooking at home more.
  • Snack smarter- pack fresh fruit to reduce your chances of reaching for biscuits, chocolate or crisps later in the day.

Putting it all together

A simple way to get the right foods in the right amounts is by thinking about your plate. At lunch or dinner try to:

  • Fill ½ your plate with colourful vegetables
  • Fill ¼ with high fibre wholegrain foods like brown rice or wholewheat pasta
  • Fill ¼ with a healthy protein food like fish, fresh chicken or pulses (e.g. beans or lentils)

The Eat Well Guide shows you the balance of foods to aim for over a day or even a week.

Eat Well Guide infographic

Understanding food labels

Looking at food labels can help you make healthier choices. By comparing the food labels of different products, you can look for options higher in fibre and lower in calories, salt, saturated fat and sugar.

To find out more, head to the NHS Food Labelling page.

how to read food labels infographic

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