- A healthy diet helps to protect against malnutrition in all its forms, as well as noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), including diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer.
- Unhealthy diet and lack of physical activity are leading global risks to health.
- Healthy dietary practices start early in life – breastfeeding fosters healthy growth and improves cognitive development, and may have longer term health benefits such as reducing the risk of becoming overweight or obese and developing NCDs later in life.
- Energy intake (calories) should be in balance with energy expenditure. To avoid unhealthy weight gain, total fat should not exceed 30% of total energy intake (1, 2, 3). Intake of saturated fats should be less than 10% of total energy intake, and intake of trans-fats less than 1% of total energy intake, with a shift in fat consumption away from saturated fats and trans-fats to unsaturated fats (3), and towards the goal of eliminating industrially-produced trans-fats (4, 5, 6).
- Limiting intake of free sugars to less than 10% of total energy intake (2, 7) is part of a healthy diet. A further reduction to less than 5% of total energy intake is suggested for additional health benefits (7).
- Keeping salt intake to less than 5 g per day (equivalent to sodium intake of less than 2 g per day) helps to prevent hypertension, and reduces the risk of heart disease and stroke in the adult population (8).
- WHO Member States have agreed to reduce the global population’s intake of salt by 30% by 2025; they have also agreed to halt the rise in diabetes and obesity in adults and adolescents as well as in childhood overweight by 2025 (9, 10).
A healthy diet throughout life can help prevent all types of malnutrition and a number of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) and conditions. Dietary patterns have changed, though, because more processed foods are being made, cities are growing quickly, and people’s lives are changing. People are eating more foods that are high in energy, fats, free sugars, and salt/sodium, and many do not eat enough fruit, vegetables, and other foods with fibre, like whole grains.
The exact parts of a varied, balanced, and healthy diet will vary from person to person, depending on things like age, gender, lifestyle, and level of physical activity, as well as culture, food availability, and eating habits. But the basic ideas about what makes a healthy diet stay the same.
A healthy diet includes the following:
- Fruit, vegetables, legumes (e.g. lentils and beans), nuts and whole grains (e.g. unprocessed maize, millet, oats, wheat and brown rice).
- At least 400 g (i.e. five portions) of fruit and vegetables per day (2), excluding potatoes, sweet potatoes, cassava and other starchy roots.
- Less than 10% of total energy intake from free sugars (2, 7), which is equivalent to 50 g (or about 12 level teaspoons) for a person of healthy body weight consuming about 2000 calories per day, but ideally is less than 5% of total energy intake for additional health benefits (7). Free sugars are all sugars added to foods or drinks by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, as well as sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates.
- Less than 30% of total energy intake from fats (1, 2, 3). Unsaturated fats (found in fish, avocado and nuts, and in sunflower, soybean, canola and olive oils) are preferable to saturated fats (found in fatty meat, butter, palm and coconut oil, cream, cheese, ghee and lard) and trans-fats of all kinds, including both industrially-produced trans-fats (found in baked and fried foods, and pre-packaged snacks and foods, such as frozen pizza, pies, cookies, biscuits, wafers, and cooking oils and spreads) and ruminant trans-fats (found in meat and dairy foods from ruminant animals, such as cows, sheep, goats and camels). It is suggested that the intake of saturated fats be reduced to less than 10% of total energy intake and trans-fats to less than 1% of total energy intake (5). In particular, industrially-produced trans-fats are not part of a healthy diet and should be avoided (4, 6).
- Less than 5 g of salt (equivalent to about one teaspoon) per day (8). Salt should be iodized.
For infants and young children
During the first two years of a child’s life, good nutrition helps them grow healthy and develop their minds. It also makes it less likely that you will become overweight or obese and get NCDs later in life.
The advice for a healthy diet for babies and kids is similar to that for adults, but the following are also important:
- Infants should be breastfed exclusively during the first 6 months of life.
- Infants should be breastfed continuously until 2 years of age and beyond.
- From 6 months of age, breast milk should be complemented with a variety of adequate, safe and nutrient-dense foods. Salt and sugars should not be added to complementary foods.
Practical advice on maintaining a healthy diet
Fruit and vegetables
Eating at least 400 g, or five servings, of fruit and vegetables every day lowers the risk of NCDs (2) and helps make sure you get enough dietary fibre every day.
Getting more fruit and vegetables can be done by:
- always including vegetables in meals;
- eating fresh fruit and raw vegetables as snacks;
- eating fresh fruit and vegetables that are in season; and
- eating a variety of fruit and vegetables.
Keeping the total amount of fat eaten to less than 30% of the total amount of calories eaten helps keep adults from gaining weight in an unhealthy way (1, 2, 3). Also, the risk of getting NCDs goes down when
- reducing saturated fats to less than 10% of total energy intake;
- reducing trans-fats to less than 1% of total energy intake; and
- replacing both saturated fats and trans-fats with unsaturated fats (2, 3) – in particular, with polyunsaturated fats.
Fat intake, especially saturated fat and industrially-produced trans-fat intake, can be reduced by:
- steaming or boiling instead of frying when cooking;
- replacing butter, lard and ghee with oils rich in polyunsaturated fats, such as soybean, canola (rapeseed), corn, safflower and sunflower oils;
- eating reduced-fat dairy foods and lean meats, or trimming visible fat from meat; and
- limiting the consumption of baked and fried foods, and pre-packaged snacks and foods (e.g. doughnuts, cakes, pies, cookies, biscuits and wafers) that contain industrially-produced trans-fats.
How to promote healthy diets
Diets change over time because they are affected by many social and economic factors that work together in complicated ways to shape each person’s eating habits. These factors include income, food prices (which affect the availability and cost of healthy foods), personal preferences and beliefs, cultural traditions, and geographical and environmental factors (including climate change). So, promoting a healthy food environment, which includes food systems that encourage a varied, balanced, and healthy diet, requires the participation of many sectors and stakeholders, such as the government, the public sector, and the private sector.
Governments play a key role in creating a healthy food environment that makes it easier for people to start and keep healthy eating habits. Policymakers can take the following steps to make the food environment healthier.
- Creating coherence in national policies and investment plans – including trade, food and agricultural policies – to promote a healthy diet and protect public health through:
- increasing incentives for producers and retailers to grow, use and sell fresh fruit and vegetables;
- reducing incentives for the food industry to continue or increase production of processed foods containing high levels of saturated fats, trans-fats, free sugars and salt/sodium;
- encouraging reformulation of food products to reduce the contents of saturated fats, trans-fats, free sugars and salt/sodium, with the goal of eliminating industrially-produced trans-fats;
- implementing the WHO recommendations on the marketing of foods and non-alcoholic beverages to children;
- establishing standards to foster healthy dietary practices through ensuring the availability of healthy, nutritious, safe and affordable foods in pre-schools, schools, other public institutions and the workplace;
- exploring regulatory and voluntary instruments (e.g. marketing regulations and nutrition labelling policies), and economic incentives or disincentives (e.g. taxation and subsidies) to promote a healthy diet; and
- encouraging transnational, national and local food services and catering outlets to improve the nutritional quality of their foods – ensuring the availability and affordability of healthy choices – and review portion sizes and pricing.
- Encouraging consumer demand for healthy foods and meals through:
- promoting consumer awareness of a healthy diet;
- developing school policies and programmes that encourage children to adopt and maintain a healthy diet;
- educating children, adolescents and adults about nutrition and healthy dietary practices;
- encouraging culinary skills, including in children through schools;
- supporting point-of-sale information, including through nutrition labelling that ensures accurate, standardized and comprehensible information on nutrient contents in foods (in line with the Codex Alimentarius Commission guidelines), with the addition of front-of-pack labelling to facilitate consumer understanding; and
- providing nutrition and dietary counselling at primary health-care facilities.
- Promoting appropriate infant and young child feeding practices through:
- implementing the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes and subsequent relevant World Health Assembly resolutions;
- implementing policies and practices to promote protection of working mothers; and
- promoting, protecting and supporting breastfeeding in health services and the community, including through the Baby-friendly Hospital Initiative.