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Nutrition and a healthy diet

What your diet should include

(Components of food that are vital for your health)

This chapter is about nutrition and the science of how food relates to health. It sets out what food components your body needs to function properly and stay healthy. Here, we’ll just give an overview of a few of the main points.

The main reason we humans need to eat so often is to keep our energy supplies topped up. We burn calories all the time – even when we sleep – and our bodies are programmed to feel hunger so that we make the effort to replace those calories (see Hunger).

Your body needs more from your food than just calories

To stay in good shape and ward off diseases, it needs:

Unfortunately, these days there is so much high-calorie food around that it is easy to consume all the calories you need – and more! – without getting enough of these other essentials.

We discuss energy foods in a separate section, but here we’ll run quickly through the rest of what you need each day. The next section discusses how much of each type of food to aim for.

As you’d expect, our book goes into much more depth than we have space for here.


Your body uses a vast number of different proteins as building materials, or to control the different processes that go on inside you, and for many more tasks. It loses some of these proteins every day, so you need to provide your body with the basic materials to make new ones.

Every protein is made out of a small set of building blocks (the ‘amino acids’). When you eat protein, your body breaks it down into the building blocks, and then reassembles them into the proteins it needs.

Good sources of protein are meat, dairy products, beans and soya, but it is also found to a lesser degree in many vegetables and grains. Most people in Western countries eat more than enough protein, but it is especially important for growing children.

Omega–3 oil

Don’t get hung up on the word ‘omega’, which is of little importance. What is important is the number ‘3’. This is a description of the special shape of molecules in these types of oil. Your body needs this exact shape to keep some very important parts of you – including your brain and nerves – working properly.

Unfortunately, it cannot make this shape for itself, so you need omega–3 oil in your food. Omega–3 oils have also been shown to offer important protection against heart disease and other diseases.

The best sources are oily fish, such as herring, mackerel and salmon, and capsules made from fish or algae. These contain ‘EPA’ and ‘DHA’, the two types of omega–3 oil that are especially helpful.  Less useful are the omega–3 oils produced from plants – such as ‘ALA’, though these would be better than nothing.

Omega–6 oil

Your body also needs some omega–6 oil, which again it can’t make itself. However, you are almost certainly getting enough of it already. It’s in cooking oils, other vegetable oils, butter-like spreads, peanut butter, mayonnaise, and many nuts, seeds and grains.

In fact, some scientists believe that many people these days are consuming far too much, especially if they are not eating enough omega–3 oils from fish or algae. This is because omega–6 oil leaves the plant form of omega–3 oil less effective in your body.

Don’t be fooled into buying mixes of omega–3 and omega–6 oils. The omega–6 oil may well cancel out some of the benefits of the omega–3! Your body can make its own omega–9 oil, so don’t worry about buying that either.


Vitamins are just substances your body needs but cannot make for itself. If you don’t get enough of all of them, processes in your body will work less well, and you may eventually become ill.

Getting all the vitamins you need is simple: just eat a wide range of vegetables, fruit, and dairy products or meat. The people who get problems are those with a narrow or restricted diet.

Vitamin pills are not a good substitute – they simply are not as effective. You need to get your vitamins directly from plant and animal products.


Your body needs small amounts of minerals such as iron and calcium. If you eat a wide range of vegetables, fruit, and dairy products or meat, you will almost certainly be getting what you need. If you can’t or don’t eat dairy products, you should be careful to get enough calcium from other sources.

Plant substances that protect against diseases

Eating plenty of vegetables and fruit can help protect you from major diseases such as heart disease and cancer. It is thought that this protection may come from specific chemicals – ‘antioxidants’ and ‘flavonoids’ – found in fruit and vegetables, though this has not yet been proven.


Fibre is the part of food that your body cannot digest to any great extent, and so it passes straight through you. It used to be called ‘roughage’, and it is best known for keeping you ‘regular’.

But fibre is actually important for your body in other ways – some quite surprising. It helps protect you from heart disease and diabetes, and perhaps from bowel cancer, and it can help lower your blood pressure. One type of fibre helps lower cholesterol in your blood.

In general, people in Britain would benefit by eating a lot more fibre than they do. Good sources are vegetables, fruit and whole grains (such as oats or whole wheat, including the bran). Your body needs to get used to higher levels of fibre, so increase the amount you eat slowly.


You lose a lot of water each day in your urine and sweat, and you need to replace this. But it is a myth that you must drink a specific number of glasses of water a day. This is nonsense: the amount you need changes according to circumstances, and you can replace water with all sorts of drinks and juices. There is even quite a lot of water in food.

Drink whenever you are thirsty, and make sure you take in enough liquid so that your urine is not a dark colour. Be careful in hot and windy conditions, when you can sweat several litres without realising it.

What you can do

To get everything your body needs, aim to eat a wide variety of foods, including plenty of vegetables and fruit plus some dairy products such as milk or cheese, and/or some meat. These should take priority over foods that contain lots of calories.

Make sure you are eating plenty of fibre each day, and try to find a way to get omega–3 oil regularly, either through eating oily fish or from capsules made from fish or algae.

Drink enough to avoid thirst.

The next section will talk more about what the ideal healthy diet might look like.

What the book covers

Our book will give you a far greater understanding of

In turn, this understanding should help you make good, healthy food choices that are right for you, your family and your circumstances.


Selected references for the book




How to Live to 110: Longevity, living longer and the steps to take for a healthy old age