How to enjoy a healthy diet

The food we eat can affect our risk of developing cancer. There’s no ‘food prescription’ for exactly what you should eat, or how much of it, to help reduce the risk of cancer. But as the evidence grows, we can make recommendations about the balance of foods to aim for.

Find out how you and your family can eat a healthy diet and by doing so reduce your risk of certain types of cancer. A healthy diet is one that is:

  • High in fibre, fruits and vegetables.
  • Low in red and processed meat, saturated fat and salt.

For straightforward tips on healthy changes to your diet that can help you manage your weight, visit How to Keep a Healthy Weight.

Fruit and vegetables and a healthy diet

Fruit and vegetables are an important part of a healthy diet and can affect the risk of some cancer types, like mouth and throat cancers.

Try to have at least 5 portions of fruit and vegetables each day.  A portion of fruit of vegetables is an 80g serving. Examples of a portion: a medium-sized apple, a banana, 2 satsumas, 3 heaped tablespoons of cooked veg, or a cereal bowl’s worth of salad.

Fruit and vegetables are a good source of many important nutrients such as vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E and folate, and are an excellent source of fibre.

  • Include tinned, dried or fresh fruit and vegetables in your diet, they all count towards your daily portions.
  • Choose fruit and vegetables with a variety of colours to help you include a broad range of vitamins and minerals in your diet. The chemicals that give these foods their colour are often the same ones that are good for you.
  • Some foods can’t count for more than 1 portion of your 5-a-day, even if you eat more than that. Lentils, beans and pulses are a good option, but don’t contain as many nutrients as other fruits and vegetables. And 150ml of fruit juice or smoothie can only count for 1 of your 5 as it is high in sugar and low in fibre.

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

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

If you’re trying to get your children to eat more fruit and veg, research shows that tiny tastes can help get them into a new food. Don’t force them to eat something they hate, but do give them several opportunities to try a small amount of it. Working with their preferences can help too - children tend to like crunchy and sweet foods. So try them out on crunchy raw carrots or peppers as a snack.

Meat and a healthy diet

Eating a lot of red and processed meat can increase the risk of bowel cancer, and possibly stomach and pancreatic cancer. Eat smaller and fewer portions, or choose fish or chicken instead.

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

  • Swap red meat for chicken or fish. White meat is unlikely to increase cancer risk.
  • Use beans or pulses instead of meat in your recipes.
  • If you cook meat, use low-temperature cooking methods such as braising where possible. Cooking meat at high temperatures until it chars can produce cancer-causing chemicals.

Fibre and a healthy diet

Bowel cancer is less common in people who eat lots of fibre. Boost the fibre in your diet.

  • Choose wholegrain varieties of starchy foods wherever possible, such as wholemeal bread, whole wheat pasta and whole grain cereals. Choose brown rice and pulses too.
  • Eat fruits and vegetables that contain lots of fibre, such as peas, beans, onions and celery.

Salt and a healthy diet

Foods that are high in salt or preserved using salt can increase the risk of stomach cancer. Try not to eat too much salty food.

This link between salt consumption and cancer tends to be seen most strongly in areas of the world where people have diets that are very high in salt. Too much salt can also increase your blood pressure and your risk of heart disease and stroke.

  • Check the salt content of processed foods and ready meals. There is often salt hidden where you wouldn't expect it and you may not be able to taste it if the foods are also high in sugar.
  • Taste your food at the table before adding salt, as you may not need to add any.
  • Use herbs, pepper and other spices to add flavour to food, instead of salt.
  • You get used to how salty your food usually tastes. So although you might notice a difference at first, you’ll quite quickly adjust so that less salt tastes normal to you.

Fats and a healthy diet

Eating too much fat, particularly saturated fat, may increase the risk of breast cancer. Fats are a necessary part of our diet, but try not to eat too many fatty foods.

High-fat diets can also increase the risk of heart disease and other conditions.

  • Cut down on saturated fats, which are found in fatty meat, biscuits, crisps, cheese and butter. Vegetable foods are richer in monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats, while meat is higher in saturated fats.
  • Choose lean cuts of meat and semi-skimmed or skimmed milk.
  • Avoid frying food in lots of oil - try steaming, braising or lightly grilling instead.
  • Swap to low fat versions of food, such as yoghurt and salad dressings – but watch out as many low fat alternatives have greater quantities of sugar.

Understanding food labels

It is not always possible to tell how nutritious a food is by its appearance. Looking at food labels can guide you to make better food choices.

Nutrition information

The nutrition information box lists the amounts of calories and nutrients, such as fat, in different foods. But it can be difficult working out whether the values in these boxes are good or bad. To help you, products may also display ‘traffic light’ labels to show whether a food is high (red), medium (orange) or low (green) in sugar, fat, saturated fat and salt.

When you’re comparing products, check the information on each label is for the same quantity e.g. 100g.

The ingredients list

Check the ingredients list. The first ingredient on the list is present in the greatest amount (by weight) and the last ingredient is present in the smallest amount.

If fatty ingredients or sugars are fourth in the list or lower, the product is likely to be a lower fat/low sugar option. Fats and sugars can go by many different names; for a full list, visit Weight Concern’s page on understanding food labels.

Misleading labels

Nutritional food claims can be misleading. ‘Light’, ‘diet’ or ‘reduced fat’ food may have less fat than a similar product but they can still be very high in calories, fat or sugar.

For example, ‘low fat’ spreads have about half the fat content of butter or margarine but are still 40% fat. So while they have less fat than so-called ordinary spread, they are still high fat foods - use them sparingly. ‘Low fat’ crisps, biscuits, cakes and sausages can still be high in fat, sugar or both.

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