What is healthy eating and why is it important?

A woman sprinkles seeds on a salad

It’s important to eat foods from different food groups to ensure your body gets all the nutrients it needs to be healthy.

Potatoes, bread, rice, pasta and other starchy foods

We recommend choosing wholegrain foods such as oats, wholemeal bread, brown rice and wholegrain breakfast cereals (containing little or no added sugar and salt). These foods are high in fibre which can protect against bowel cancer. Eating a fibre-rich diet, high in wholegrains, can also protect against weight gain, overweight and obesity, which is linked with a reduced risk of 13 types of cancer.

Fruit and vegetables

These are a good source of nutrients, including vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients, as well as fibre, which all help to reduce our cancer risk. We recommend eating at least five portions of fruit and veg every day – one portion is around 80g, which is one medium fruit, a handful of berries or three tablespoons of cooked vegetables. For more information, take a look at our 5 A DAY portions guide.

Dairy and dairy alternatives

There’s some evidence that milk may protect against bowel cancer, but we don’t yet know enough to make a recommendation about dairy foods. What we do know is that dairy foods are a good source of nutrients such as calcium, which is important for bone health. Choosing low-fat and unsweetened varieties can help you to maintain a healthy weight.

Beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins

Pulses such as beans and lentils count towards one 5 A DAY portion. They also contain protein, which makes them a healthy alternative to meat, fish and eggs.

We suggest eating no more than three portions of red meat a week (350–500g cooked weight), which can be part of a healthy diet without increasing cancer risk. We also recommend avoiding processed meats, as there is evidence that eating even small amounts increases our risk of bowel cancer.

Oils and spreads

Eating too much fat can lead to weight gain so choose unsaturated oils and fats and use a small amount. Being overweight or obese is linked to an increased risk of cancer and other diseases such as heart disease.

Food and drinks that are high in fat, sugar and salt

Foods such as biscuits, crisps, sauces and cakes, and high-calorie drinks such as cola and flavoured coffees, should be seen as an occasional treat rather than something we have every day – even small amounts contain a lot of calories that can contribute to weight gain. Try to have these types of food and drink less often and in small amounts.