Healthy eating – a balanced and varied diet

Healthy eating can have a positive effect on health and help prevent many illnesses. Eating a balanced and varied diet is an important part of this. A healthy diet includes lots of fruit, vegetables and wholegrain products and is low in salt and sugar. 

At a glance

  • A varied diet is an essential pillar of healthy eating.
  • Fruit, wholegrain and dairy products are among the most important parts of a whole-foods mixed diet.
  • Salt and sugar are not forbidden in a healthy diet, but should only be enjoyed in moderation.
  • People who don’t eat meat, fish and dairy products need to ensure that they meet their bodies’ need for specific nutrients like iron or calcium with plant-based foods.
  • Smart shopping, eating home-cooked meals and avoiding overcooking are three great ways to start healthy eating.

Note: The information in this article cannot and should not replace a medical consultation and must not be used for self-diagnosis or treatment.

Mixed salad with lentils

Why is healthy eating important?

We all have a basic need to eat in order to survive. However, eating and drinking are also an important cultural and social element of life and make an essential contribution to well-being. Healthy eating can also help people to be more productive, get sick less often and lead a happier life.

The cornerstone of healthy eating is making informed and, in particular, varied choices about our daily food intake. Furthermore, food should not be overcooked, high-fat ingredients avoided and time should be taken to really enjoy meals – as time out from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Healthy eating means eating mindfully and appreciating food – this makes eating more enjoyable and increases the sense of satisfaction. This can also help with weight loss.

Ein junger Mann isst einen Salat.

What exactly is healthy eating?

It’s not always very easy to eat a balanced diet due to the vast choice of readily available snacks, TV dinners, fast food and takeout. People often fall back on these options and forget that a fresh, healthy meal doesn’t take too much work. For example, a light salad or pasta dish with vegetables only takes a short time to prepare. There are also plenty of options for eating quick and healthy snacks on the go.

Guidance for healthy eating is provided by the 10 rules set out by the German Nutrition Society (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Ernährung, DGE):

1. Enjoy a variety of foods

The more varied, the better – and healthier. This should include more plant-based than animal-based foods.

2. Fruit and vegetables – take 5 a day

2 portions of fruit and 3 portions of vegetables supply the body with important vitamins and other valuable minerals.

3. Choose wholegrain

Wholegrain products such as pasta and bread contain more nutrients than products made from white flour and help us feel full for much longer. 

4. Add some animal-based foods

Milk and dairy products can be consumed daily; fish once or twice a week. It is recommended that meat should be limited to between 300 and 600 grams per week.

5. Use healthy fats

Vegetable oils like rapeseed oil contain healthy fatty acids and are preferable to animal-based fats. 

6. Limit sugar and salt

Sugar contains an unnecessarily high number of calories and increases the risk of tooth decay. Too much salt can raise blood pressure – more than 6 grams per day (roughly a teaspoon) is unhealthy. 

7. Drink plenty of water

Drinking at least 1.5 liters of water or other calorie-free drinks each day ensures that the body has a good supply of fluid. Sugar-sweetened and alcoholic beverages are best avoided, as they are high in calories, conducive to weight gain and may increase the risk of developing certain illnesses.

8. Prepare with care

Foods cooked for a short time with just a little water and oil retain more nutrients and natural flavor. Food that is overcooked or even burned contains substances that are harmful to health.

9. Eat slowly and enjoy your food

Slow, mindful eating makes mealtimes more enjoyable and increases the sense of satisfaction.

10. Watch weight and stay active

Wholesome food and physical activity are the ideal combination for health. 30 to 60 minutes of exercise (such as riding a bike or taking a walk) each day is recommended for adults.

The food pyramid and the food circle provided by the German Nutrition Society (DGE) give a graphical overview of healthy eating guidelines.

A healthy day’s menu could look something like this: drink 1.5 to 2 liters of water throughout the day – more when doing physical exercise. Enjoy wholegrain muesli and fruit in the morning and, between meals, snack on vegetables, fruit, yogurt or rye bread with cheese. For a midday or evening meal, eat a warm dish with colorful, freshly prepared vegetables – accompanied by wholegrain pasta, potatoes or rice.

Healthy eating includes drinking 1.5 to 2 liters of fluids every day, having a balanced breakfast and eating small snacks between meals. At midday or in the evening, it’s important to eat a wide range of healthy – ideally plant-based – foods.

Important: It’s also important to always listen to the body itself when it comes to nutrition. Helpful questions to ask are: what is good for me, which foods do I tolerate better than others, which make me lethargic or energetic?

How much fruit and vegetables should be included in a healthy meal plan?

Fresh fruit and vegetables occupy a special place in our diet. The rule of thumb is that 5 portions of fruit and vegetables a day supply the body with important micro-nutrients – vitamins, minerals, fibers and antioxidants. Fruit and vegetables can help prevent certain illnesses, in particular cardiovascular diseases such as high blood pressure, stroke and coronary heart disease. Examples of single fruit or vegetable portions include one apple, one banana, a handful of steamed vegetables and a handful of fresh berries.

5 portions of fruit and vegetables a day supply the body with the vitamins, minerals, fibers and antioxidants it needs.

Vegetables in particular should be eaten every day. Kale, Brussels sprouts and spinach, for example, provide large amounts of provitamin A, vitamin E, vitamin K, vitamin B2, vitamin C, folic acid, calcium, potassium, phosphorus and iron. Legumes such as lentils and beans are also a good choice. These deliver important minerals like potassium, magnesium and iron, as well as lots of B vitamins.

Why choose wholegrain flour over white flour?

As part of a balanced diet, it’s important to avoid products made from white flour and choose wholegrain products instead.

Firstly, products made from white flour supply fewer nutrients than wholegrain products. Secondly, white flour, unlike wholegrain flour, contains barely any fiber. As a result, products made from white flour are digested more quickly and remain in the gut for less time. This means that white-flour products give a feeling of satiety or satisfaction that doesn’t last as long as the feeling produced by consuming whole grains.

In addition, the fiber in wholegrain flour helps prevent diseases like type 2 diabetes, colon cancer, lipid metabolic disorders and cardiovascular diseases.

What is type 2 diabetes?

The video below explains the possible symptoms, causes, and treatment methods of type 2 diabetes.

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Why should sugar and salt be used sparingly?

Sugar and salt are essential to the human body. Sugar quickly supplies the body with energy. When the brain or muscles need energy quickly, monosaccharides like glucose supply this especially rapidly. The red blood cells and parts of the kidneys also rely on glucose as an energy source.

Salt consists of the minerals sodium and chloride, which the body needs, for example, to regulate blood pressure and to maintain the fluid balance of cells.

However, excessive quantities of sugar and salt can have a negative impact on health. Eating too much sugar is often associated with tooth decay, being overweight, obesity and diet-related diseases like type 2 diabetes. Too much salt can raise blood pressure, which can in turn increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases.

Why is high blood pressure dangerous?

The video below explains what happens in the body in the event of high blood pressure. What consequences can high blood pressure have and how can it be lowered?

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Reducing sugar and salt

Experts recommend that sugar should make up no more than 10 percent of daily energy intake. This also includes the sugar contained in convenience foods, honey and fruit juices. Sugar intake can be drastically reduced by cutting out heavily processed and sugar-sweetened foods and drinks as far as possible.

The same applies to salt – as processed foods often contain large amounts of hidden salt, it’s better to eat fresh and unprocessed foods and to cook at home. Salt can also be replaced to some extent by herbs and spices. In total, adults should consume no more than 6 grams of salt per day, which is roughly equal to a teaspoon. If salt is used, it should ideally be enriched with the essential trace elements iodine and fluoride. Iodine is important for the functioning of the thyroid gland and for many metabolic processes in the body. Fluoride is important for strengthening tooth enamel and to prevent tooth decay.

Interesting fact: The body becomes accustomed to the taste of salt and sugar but can also gradually be weaned off both. It therefore makes sense to reduce sugar and salt intake in steps to make it easier for the body to learn to do without. If a child never gets used to a lot of sugar and salt in their diet, they will generally never feel a need for either.

What are the recommendations regarding animal-based foods?

Milk, dairy products and eggs

Milk and dairy products like cheese and yogurt can be eaten every day without any need for concern. They deliver important protein and minerals such as calcium and B vitamins. Eggs also contain protein, vitamins and minerals and can be eaten regularly. However, since egg yolks in particular contain a large amount of animal fats and cholesterol in addition to health-promoting substances, the German Nutrition Society (DGE) advises against excessive consumption.

Important: Animal fats contain saturated fatty acids, which, if consumed in excess quantities, can increase the risk of developing lipid metabolic disorders and cardiovascular diseases. Unsaturated fats derived from plants similarly contain a lot of calories but also have a positive effect on important metabolic processes. For this reason, vegetable oils should be used in place of butter and lard as often as possible.

Fish and meat

Fish contains important nutrients like selenium, iodine and healthy omega 3 fatty acids. Omega 3 fatty acids can reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases and stroke because they have a positive effect on the body’s triglyceride and cholesterol levels. In particular, oily fish like salmon, mackerel, herring and trout are rich in omega 3 fatty acids. As part of a balanced diet, fish (and especially oily fish) should be included on the menu once or twice a week.

In contrast to fish, meat products are not explicitly recommended by the DGE. While meat is a good source of protein and iron and supplies lots of zinc, selenium and vitamin B12, it also contains a lot of saturated fatty acids. Red meat – meat from cattle, pigs, sheep and goats – also increases the risk of bowel cancer. It is therefore recommended that consumption of meat and sausages be limited to between 300 and 600 grams per week.

What exactly are vegetarian and vegan diets?

More and more people are deciding to adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet for health reasons – and due to environmental and animal protection considerations.

Going meat-free – a vegetarian diet

There are many benefits to a varied, plant-based diet. After all, fruit, vegetables and legumes are rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber. Cutting out meat entirely or only eating very little meat also reduces the amount of animal fats in a person’s diet. Dairy products and eggs supply the protein, calcium and vitamin B12 that the body needs. People who don’t eat meat can normally cover their body’s iron requirements by eating wholegrain products, nuts, oil seeds and pulses.

Cutting out all animal-based products – a vegan diet

Those who want to stop consuming all animal-based products can also cover their calcium requirements with a diet comprising only plant-based foods. Large quantities of calcium can be found, for example, in dark-green vegetables like spinach and broccoli, as well as in nuts, tofu and calcium-rich mineral water. However, those who adopt an exclusively vegan diet have an increased risk of a vitamin B12 deficiency because meat, fish, seafood, eggs and dairy products are particularly good sources of vitamin B12. For this reason, vegetarians and vegans are strongly advised to take vitamin B12 supplements on a continuous basis.

More helpful hints for following a vegan diet are provided in the brochure “Vegan essen – klug kombinieren und ergänzen” (“Smart combinations and supplements for a vegan diet”) published by the German Nutrition Society (DGE).

Points to remember when buying and preparing food

The quality of food and the way it is prepared also determine how healthy a snack or meal is. TV dinners and fast food often conceal large quantities of salt, sugar and unhealthy fats. Cooking at home means having more control over how healthy food is. Carefully prepared dishes made from fresh ingredients have far more vitamins and minerals than heavily processed foods.

TV dinners and fast food often conceal large quantities of salt, sugar and unhealthy fats.

Another advantage of cooking at home is that unwanted additives can be avoided. This is of particular benefit to people who react sensitively to chemical additives like flavor enhancers, coloring agents and preservatives. Intolerance due to additives in food (also known as “pseudoallergic reactions”) are not very common but can affect some individuals.

Choosing organic products can help reduce residues of pesticides or antibiotics in food. It is also advisable to choose seasonal, regionally sourced produce that has been harvested when ripe. Long-haul transportation of food can result in lost vitamins and minerals and often affects flavor too.

For helpful advice on how to reduce sugar, salt and fat when shopping for food, visit the website of the Federal Center for Nutrition (Bundeszentrum für Ernährung, BZfE)

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