• January 28, 2020

The five food groups: how to eat a balanced diet

healthy eating

The five food groups: how to eat a balanced diet

1024 512 Holly Parsons

The Five Food Groups

We all know it’s important to eat a variety of foods to get the nutrients we need to stay healthy, but what does that actually look like? Eating your (at least) five portions of fruit and vegetables a day is a good start, but there’s more you can do to ensure you’re having a balanced diet.

A balanced diet is made up of foods from the five food groups: starchy carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables, protein, dairy and healthy fats. Each provides the range of vitamins and minerals our bodies need to function efficiently. It’s unlikely that every meal will include all five, but the aim is to achieve a balance across the day, or across the week.

Here’s some more information about the importance of each food group…

Jamie's food groups

Cooking carbohydrates

Starchy carbs

Starchy carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy, therefore it should make up roughly one-third of your diet. Consequently, it’s important to understand the different types of starchy carbohydrates and which are the healthier options.

This food group includes potatoes and grains such as wheat, barley and rice. First of all, when choosing starchy carbs, opt for wholegrain where possible to maintain digestive health and give you more fibre, vitamins and minerals. Because research has shown that eating wholegrains (rather than refined grains) reduces the risk of stroke, type-2 diabetes and heart disease.

For this reason, it’s important to read the label to make sure you’re getting an authentic wholegrain– you need to look for the wording: “100% wholegrain” or “100% wholewheat”. You should aim for 3-5 servings a day.

1 serving[1]:
● 180g cooked pasta (75g dried)
● 40g or about 3 handfuls of flaked breakfast cereals
● 1 baked potato about the size of your fist
● 2 slices of medium sliced bread

eat the rainbow

Fruit & veg

Likewise, fruit and vegetables are also an vital part of a healthy, balanced diet. This is because they’re high in fibre and packed full of vitamins and minerals. Different colours indicate different nutrients too, which each play a part in keeping our bodies healthy. This is why it’s important to eat the rainbow, and embrace a variety every day.

It’s not only fresh that can make up your five-a-day: frozen, tinned and dried fruit and veg count as well. In fact, frozen retains more vitamins and minerals, because it is picked and iced at peak ripeness, when it’s at its most nutritious and flavourful[3]. Not only that, frozen produce tends to be cheaper than fresh too.

Fruit and veg should make up just over a third of your diet[4]. An easy way to track this is to make sure it takes up around half of your plate. Aim for at least five portions of different vegetables and fruit every day– roughly a large handful or 80g of each. However, 30g of dried fruit can only ever count as one portion of your 5-a-day, no matter how much you eat. It contains fibre, but lacks most of the vitamins of fresh fruit, and the sugar content is more concentrated. Likewise, 150ml of fruit juice or smoothies also only count as one portion per day – sugar is released from fruit when it’s blended, turning it into a free sugar, which can damage your teeth.

1 serving[5]:
● 1 apple, orange, pear, banana
● A handful of grapes, cherries or berries
● 2 plums, satsumas or kiwis
● 150ml of fruit juice
● 30g dried fruits

dairy sources


Dairy is a great source of protein, vitamins and minerals. Probably the most well known of these is calcium, which is needed for healthy teeth and strong bones. When choosing your dairy sources try and go for low-fat or fat-free options, but be aware that fat-free flavoured yogurts often contain added sugar to boost flavour.

If you’re allergic or intolerant to dairy, there are alternatives that you can use such as soy, nut, oat or rice milks. Also, if you are choosing plant-based drinks, look for those that are unsweetened and fortified with the vitamins and minerals usually found in animal milks, e.g. calcium, vitamin B12 and iodine. You should aim for 3 servings of dairy per day.

1 serving[6]:
● ½ glass or 125ml of milk (or substitute such as fortified soya or almond milk)
● 1 pot of low fat yogurt
● 30g or 3 teaspoons of soft cheese
● 30g or a piece the size of two thumbs of Cheddar cheese

protein sources

Protein provides us with key amino acids, which are the building blocks of the body. Our bodies are continually building and renewing cells, and we need amino acids to be able to do this. In the UK we usually get enough protein, but we do need to be mindful that we’re not having too much. Because only about one-eighth of your balanced diet should be made up of protein.

Just like different fruit and veg, different types of protein provide us with the variety of vitamins and minerals that we need to stay healthy and strong. Therefore, it very important to vary your protein sources. As well as eating meat and fish, we should include vegetarian sources each week; eggs, beans and pulses, tofu, nuts and seeds are all great alternatives. When you do choose meat, buy lean cuts where you can, and limit your intake of processed meat. You should be eating 2-3 servings of protein per day, which can come from a range of different foods.

1 serving [7]:
● A piece of grilled chicken without skin about half the size of your hand
● 2 boiled eggs
● A piece of fresh salmon about half the size of your hand
● ½ a tin of beans
● 2 tablespoons of hummus

healthy fat sources
Healthy fats

Finally, fat is essential. We need a small amount to protect our organs, absorb certain vitamins and to help us to grow. However, we do need to be careful about the type and amount we eat because it’s high in energy.

The reference intake of fat is a maximum of 70g per day for adults (of which no more than 20g of saturated fat should be consumed). Saturated fats are found in foods such as beef, pork, chicken skin, butter, cheese and coconut oil. Eating too much of these fats can put us at higher risk of heart disease and stroke. Hence, you can help to keep your heart healthy by swapping saturated fats with unsaturated fats that come from nuts, seeds, vegetable oils and fish. Consequently, to reduce saturated fat in your diet, cook with vegetable oils rather than butter and lard and try using yogurt instead of cream.

1 serving[8]:
● 1 tablespoon of oil, butter, margarine or mayonnaise
●2 tablespoons of reduced fat cream
● 2 tablespoons of avocado
● 8-10 olives
●10 peanuts

If you’re interested in learning to cook balanced meals and understand more about the five main food groups, you can sign up to Cook Well with Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food where you’ll how easy it is to whip up tasty, nutritious meals from scratch. Similarly, if you’re just after a bit more nutritional guidance, sign up to Eat Well.

[1] https://www.gosh.nhs.uk/conditions-and-treatments/general-health-advice-children/eat-smart/food-science/food-group-fun

[2] https://www.nhsinform.scot/healthy-living/food-and-nutrition/eating-well/eatwell-guide-how-to-eat-a-healthy-balanced-diet#fruit-and-vegetables

[3] https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/know-your-food-groups

[4] https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/fresh-vs-frozen-fruit-and-vegetables#section2

[5] https://www.gosh.nhs.uk/conditions-and-treatments/general-health-advice-children/eat-smart/food-science/food-group-fun

[6] https://www.gosh.nhs.uk/conditions-and-treatments/general-health-advice-children/eat-smart/food-science/food-group-fun

[7] https://www.gosh.nhs.uk/conditions-and-treatments/general-health-advice-children/eat-smart/food-science/food-group-fun

[8] https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/11208-fat-what-you-need-to-know

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