Nutrition Explained

Here you can find accurate, reliable information about nutrition. We’ll explore together some of the key messages for adults and children, and how we can eat a delicious and varied diet. As this is Five-a-Dale, we’ll be taking a really close look at fruit and vegetables and all the benefits they offer.

The Eatwell plate is a great way to think about the variety of foods we should eat during the day, and how much. The foods are split into 5 different groups. Getting the right balance of what we eat is very important. For adults and children (aged 2 and over), a third of our daily intake should come from a variety of fruit and vegetables, and another third should come from foods such as bread, rice, potatoes and pasta. One eighth of our diet should come from meat, fish, eggs and beans and another eighth from milk and dairy foods. The final amount can be made up of foods and drinks that contain fat and/or sugar.


Why should we eat from all the different food groups?

Fruit and vegetables

To get the full range of vitamins and minerals our bodies need, we should eat a minimum of 5 portions a day, and a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. An adult portion is generally regarded as 80g of cooked or raw or 30g of dried fruit or veg.

A portion would be an apple, medium banana, a slice of melon or 2 satsumas, 2 medium plums, 2 kiwi fruits, a handful of grapes, 1 heaped tablespoon of dried fruit – sultanas, apricots, 3 tablespoons of cooked, raw, canned or tinned vegetables, a bowl of salad, 150ml glass of pure unsweetened fruit juice (which only counts once a day).

Portion sizes are different for children, and depend on their age or size. However, as a rough guide, one portion is the amount that fits into the palm of their hand.

Fruits and vegetables provide us with a wide range of vitamins and minerals. The main ones are carotenes particularly beta carotene (which our bodies turn into vitamin A), vitamins B and C, folate, potassium and fibre – particularly soluble fibre.

Generally fruits and vegetables that are yellow, orange or red have the highest carotene levels. For example: tomatoes, pumpkins, carrots, red, yellow and orange peppers, apricots, mangoes and peaches and some dark green leafy vegetables, such as spinach and broccoli.

Vitamin A is needed to help our bodies fight infection, aid vision in dim light and keeps healthy our skin and the linings of some parts of the body, such as the nose.

As long as you eat your five a day, vitamin C is fairly easy to get in our diet. Vitamin C is found in most fruit and vegetables in varying amounts but its best sources are citrus fruits such as oranges and grapefruits, and berries and currants such as blackcurrants, strawberries and blueberries. Vegetables such as broccoli, green peppers and kale are other good sources.

Vitamin C is needed to protect the cells in our bodies and keep us healthy. It keeps connective tissue (collagen) healthy, too. Vitamin C is great at helping us heal. Eating fruits and vegetables that are high in vitamin C will get rid of our bruises, cuts and generally keep our skin healthy.

Vitamins A and C are two of the three vitamins (along with Vitamin E) that are called antioxidants. These act like ‘superheroes’ and help to fight off free radicals or ‘chemical bad guys’ in your bodies that might make you sick. Antioxidants help to prevent diseases like heart disease or cancer.

The amount of vitamin C can be reduced dramatically during food storage, preparation and cooking. To retain as much vitamin C in our fruit and vegetables, they should always be chopped just before cooking and placed directly in boiling water. B vitamins are very water-soluble too, which means like vitamin C it leaks out of our food into cold water. Vegetable cooking-water should be used for stocks, sauces or gravies or even used to cook rice in, to retain the vitamins.

Some B vitamins are found in green leafy vegetables and some in citrus fruits. Folate or folic acid is the most common and is found in broccoli, peas, sprouts, spinach and asparagus. Along with vitamin B12, it helps our bodies to make healthy red blood cells. It is also helps reduce the risk of central nervous system defects such as spina bifida in unborn babies.

Iron is a mineral found in green leafy vegetables such as broccoli, peas, spinach, watercress, sprouts and dried fruit, such as raisins. Iron is needed to keep our blood red, which helps to carry the oxygen we breathe in to all the organs in our bodies. Iron from green vegetables is harder for our bodies to take in, so it’s important to have some foods containing vitamin C, at the same meal to make it easier to absorb. Drinking lots of tea or coffee can stop our bodies taking in the iron we eat.

Potassium is found in a wide range of fruits and vegetables. Some of the best sources of potassium are bananas, peas, broccoli and other leafy green veg, oranges and dried fruits like raisins. Potassium is really important when exercising as it helps to control the balance of fluids in the body.

There are two different types of fibre in our food – soluble and insoluble. Each type of fibre helps your body in different ways so a healthy varied diet should include both types. Soluble fibre can be digested by your body. It may help to reduce the amount of cholesterol in your blood and helps to control the sugar in your blood, too. Bananas, apples and carrots are all fruit and vegetables that give us soluble fibre.

Have you noticed that some fruits and vegetables appear to be good sources of lots of different nutrients? Broccoli, peas and oranges are all good examples. So does this mean we shouldn’t eat any other types of fruit and vegetables? No – the other fruit and vegetables that don’t get mentioned here very often will still give us nutrients, just not in large amounts. It’s still important to eat a rainbow of colours in our diet, whether it’s lettuce and cucumber in a crunchy salad, blackberries, rhubarb or plums in a smoothie, or red onions and leeks in a stew.

What about potatoes? Why is this veggie missing from the list? Potatoes, in fact, belong to a different food group, along with other starchy vegetables such as corn.

Bread, rice, potatoes, pasta and other starchy foods are good sources of energy, B vitamins and – if wholegrain – insoluble fibre. Starchy foods give us energy as carbohydrates. When they are broken down in our bodies they give us energy (glucose) in the form our bodies like the best and the B vitamins help our bodies to use this energy efficiently.

If you eat wholegrain types of these foods like wholemeal/wholegrain bread, jacket potatoes (with the skin on) and wholegrain breakfast cereals, you will get some fibre. This is called insoluble fibre (we’ve talked about the other type in fruits and vegetables). It’s called insoluble as your body cannot break it down and absorb it. It helps to keep your digestive system in good working order and ends up being expelled from the body as poo!

White and brown flour (but not wholemeal) and their products contain calcium, thiamin (B1) and iron. As wheat is being processed thiamin and iron, important nutrients, are lost, so some flours are enriched with these missing nutrients.

Fortified breakfast cereals are potentially a good source of iron in the diet. You will need to check that your cereal is fortified, as not all are. You can get 25% of your daily iron intake from a single bowl of cereal. Drinking a small glass of pure fruit juice containing vitamin C with your cereal helps your body absorb the iron.

Starchy foods should be eaten at each meal and for most people they should aim for 4–6 servings a day.

Meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non-dairy sources of protein, such as lentils and nuts, give us protein, iron, B vitamins, zinc and magnesium. We should eat 2 portions of these foods a day. Protein is needed to help grow and repair our bodies and is found in meat, poultry, offal, fish, meat and fish products, eggs, beans, lentils, nuts, soya products and products like Quorn.

Red meat and meat products are good sources of iron that we can absorb easily into are bodies. Other sources that are not easily absorbed are breakfast cereals, bread and cereal foods made with UK fortified flour, leafy green vegetables, pulses, soybean flour, dried fruit, nuts and seeds.

Many of the B vitamins (thiamin (B1), niacin (B3) and pantothenic acid) work together to help down and release energy from food. Riboflavin particularly helps energy to be released from carbohydrates, while pyridoxine (B6) allows us to store energy from protein and carbohydrates and helps to make red blood cells. Thiamin and niacin help to keep the nervous system healthy.

Good sources
Thiamin (B1) Bread and pasta made with fortified flour, yeast extracts, pork, nuts, pulses and wholegrain cereal foods, fortified breakfast cereals and peas.
Riboflavin (B2) Bread and pasta made with fortified flour, yeast extracts, liver and offal meats, leafy green vegetables, eggs, fortified breakfast cereals.
Niacin (B3) Meat, fish, wholegrain and fortified breakfast cereals, yeast extracts.
Pantothenic acid Chicken, beef, potatoes, tomatoes, eggs, brown rice, wholemeal bread, fortified breakfast cereals, broccoli.
Pyridoxine (B6) Meat, wholegrain and fortified cereal products, bananas, nuts, pulses, potatoes.
Cobalamin (B12) Meat, salmon, cod, milk, cheese, eggs, fortified breakfast cereals.


Zinc is important for healthy growth and helps us to fight infections and heal wounds. It is found in lots of protein foods, such as red meat, chicken, seafood, dairy foods, bread and wholewheat cereals.

Magnesium has a range of functions in the body. It is needed for the development of enzymes, to make muscles contract and it helps the body create energy and make proteins. It is found in leafy green vegetables, broccoli, spinach (magnesium is a component of chlorophyll, the green pigment found in plants), wholegrains and nuts.

Milk and dairy foods are the best source of calcium in the diet. Calcium is needed to keep your bones and teeth strong. Calcium can be found in milk (whole milk, semi-skimmed, 1% and skimmed (there’s actually slightly more calcium in skimmed milk as it has had the cream taken out of the milk), cheese, yoghurt and fromage frais. Other non-dairy sources of calcium are fish containing soft bones (canned pilchards and sardines), leafy green vegetables (like cabbage and broccoli again!), bread and foods containing white and brown flour that are calcium-fortified, pulses, nuts, tahini, sesame seeds and calcium-enriched soya drinks.

We also get protein and riboflavin from dairy products and vitamins A and D in whole milk. Vitamin A and D are fat-soluble vitamins and can be stored in the body.

Vitamin A is found in a range of other foods. We’ve already looked at how we can get carotenes in our fruits and vegetables, but we also get vitamin A from cheese, eggs, yoghurts and fortified spreads. Liver and liver pate is an excellent source of vitamin A, but pregnant women should avoid these foods, as they contain too much vitamin A.

While we can get some vitamin D from our food in oily fish, eggs and fortified fat spreads and breakfast cereals, the main source of Vitamin D is via the action of the sun on our skin. Vitamin D is needed to keep our bones and teeth strong healthy. If you don’t get out in the sun for about 20 minutes each day (from March to September from 11 a.m. till 3 p.m. in the afternoon), you maybe lacking in vitamin D and supplements maybe necessary, particularly if you:

  • are pregnant or breastfeeding
  • are a baby or child under 5 years
  • are aged 65 or over
  • cover up your skin when outdoors or you don’t get out very often
  • have darker skin, e.g. people of African, Afro-Caribbean and South Asian origin
  • have a body mass index (BMI) of over 30

Foods containing fat and sugar give us energy. A little bit of fat in the diet is good, as it does give us fat-soluble vitamins (A and D) and essential fatty acids, which our bodies cannot make. However, research shows that many of us eat too much fat and sugar in our diet, which can lead to excessive weight gains, unhealthy hearts and tooth decay.

Chips, sweets, doughnuts and pastries all contain a high percentage of sugar and/or fat. While the Eatwell plate makes it clear we can still have these foods in our diet, they should be the smallest part of our daily intake. Chips should always be chunky, preferably oven-baked and not thin-cut or fried. There is now a wide range of baked crisps and lower-fat or lower-salt alternatives available.

A small amount of sugar or sugary foods and drinks should only be eaten at a main meal, which will lessen the risk of tooth decay and erosion. Not eating or drinking sugary foods between meals will give your teeth chance to be remineralised by your saliva.

Now that you know which foods our bodies need to stay healthy, let’s look at how to make a healthy packed lunch. There are 6 steps!


(References: NHS choices, www.nhschoices.uk , B Thomas, (2007) Manual of Dietetic Practice, 4th Edition, Blackwell Publishing,

http://www.sustainweb.org/realbread/flour_fortification/, McCance and Widdowson’s (2010) The Composition of Foods, 6th Summary Edition, Food Standards Agency)

Eatwell plate used with kind permission from Public Health England in association with the Welsh Government, the Scottish Government and the Food Standards Agency in Northern Ireland.

Key Points

  • Children from 5 to 12 years grow very rapidly and can be very active. A diet providing adequate energy and nutrients is essential for children at this stage.
  • School children should eat a healthy, varied diet based on the eatwell plate and this should be combined with regular physical activity in order to maintain a healthy body weight.
  • It is recommended that children and young people should engage in at least 60 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity each day. • It is important to teach children about dental hygiene to keep their teeth healthy and strong. New food-based and nutrient-based standards have been set to make school lunches healthier.

Information and worksheets for Schools & Parents


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