Healthy Eating: What You Need to Know

Eating a healthy diet is essential for good health and nutrition. But what exactly is a healthy diet? A healthy diet is one that is composed of a variety of foods from all the food groups, including fruits and vegetables, legumes and beans, nuts and whole grains, and lean proteins. It should also be low in salt, sugar, and saturated fats. The exact composition of a diversified, balanced and healthy diet will vary depending on individual characteristics such as age, gender, lifestyle, and degree of physical activity.

It will also depend on cultural context, locally available foods, and dietary habits. However, the basic principles of what constitutes a healthy diet remain the same. In the first two years of a child's life, optimal nutrition promotes healthy growth and improves cognitive development. It also reduces the risk of being overweight or obese and of developing non-communicable diseases later in life. Eating at least 400 g, or five servings, of fruits and vegetables a day reduces the risk of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) and helps ensure an adequate daily intake of dietary fiber. Reducing salt intake to the recommended level of less than 5 g per day could prevent 1.7 million deaths each year.

People are often unaware of the amount of salt they consume. In many countries, most salt comes from processed foods such as ready meals, processed meats like bacon, ham and salami, cheese, and savory snacks. Salt is also added to foods during cooking (e.g., broth, bouillon cubes, soy sauce and fish sauce) or at the point of consumption. Potassium may mitigate the negative effects of high sodium intake on blood pressure. Potassium intake can be increased by consuming fresh fruits and vegetables. In both adults and children, the intake of free sugars should be reduced to less than 10% of total energy intake.

Reducing total energy intake to less than 5% would provide additional health benefits. Consuming free sugars increases the risk of tooth decay. Excess calories from foods and beverages high in free sugars also contribute to unhealthy weight gain which can lead to overweight and obesity. Recent evidence also shows that free sugars influence blood pressure and serum lipids, and suggests that a reduction in the intake of free sugars reduces risk factors for cardiovascular disease. The diet evolves over time and is influenced by many social and economic factors that interact in complex ways to shape individual dietary patterns. These factors include income, food prices (which will affect the availability and affordability of healthy foods), individual preferences and beliefs, cultural traditions, and geographical and environmental aspects (including climate change).

Therefore, promoting a healthy food environment requires the participation of multiple sectors and stakeholders including government and the public and private sectors. The “WHO Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health” was adopted in 2004 by the Health Assembly. The strategy urged governments, WHO, international partners, the private sector and civil society to take action at the global, regional and local levels to support healthy diets and physical activity. Eating a healthy diet isn't about strict limitations or depriving yourself of the foods you love. Rather it's about feeling good, having more energy, improving your health and improving your mood.