Macmillan Cancer Support looks at the importance of a healthy diet

In this month’s regular column from Macmaillan Cancer Support, the charity explains the importance of a healthy diet.

Why is a healthy diet important? Food has nutrients that our bodies need. The main groups of nutrients are carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins and minerals, fats, fibre and fluids. A healthy, balanced diet gives you all the nutrients you need to keep your body working well. For most people, this includes: lots of fruit and vegetables – at least five portions a day; plenty of starchy foods (carbohydrates) – choose wholegrain types such as wholemeal bread, rice, pasta, noodles, cous cous and potatoes; some protein-rich foods, such as lean meat, poultry, fish, nuts, eggs and pulses (beans and lentils); some milk and dairy foods, such as cheese and yoghurt.

You should limit foods that are high in fat and sugar. This is because they often do not have any additional vitamins or minerals. High-fat or sugary foods give you a large amount of energy, but they can cause weight gain. Choose unsaturated fats, such as nuts, avocados and olive oil.

Try to reduce the amount of processed and red meats you eat. You should also avoid foods which have a lot of salt or sugar.

It is best to drink water or unsweetened squashes that contain no added sugar. You can also drink tea and coffee (without sugar). If you drink fizzy drinks or sugary squashes, try to reduce the amount you drink and have the diet, sugar-free types instead. Try to limit the amount of fruit juice you drink to 1 glass a day (150ml), as these also contain sugar. It is better to eat whole fruits.

Having a healthy, balanced diet is one of the best choices you can make for your overall health. This includes thinking about what and how much you drink. Many people find making the decision to follow a healthy, balanced diet helps give them a sense of control. It can also help you feel that you are doing the best for your health.

Eating well and keeping to a healthy weight will help: you feel stronger, increase your energy levels, keep your immune system healthy, improve your sense of well-being.

If you have had cancer, eating well can also help reduce the risk of new cancers and other diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes and strokes. After cancer treatment, some people have a higher risk of other health problems. This can include diabetes, heart disease or osteoporosis (bone thinning). If you have been told that you are at increased risk, it is very important to follow a healthy diet to help prevent them. Some people also need to make changes to their diet if cancer treatment has affected their immune system.

It is not healthy to be overweight or underweight. Eating too much can make you overweight. This can lead to health problems such as: heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes.

Eating less food than your body needs can make you underweight. This can also affect your health.

Many people in the UK are heavier than the recommended weight for their height. And some types of cancer treatment, such as hormonal therapy or steroids, can lead to weight gain.

Losing weight can be difficult. But trying to keep to a healthy weight is one of the best ways to reduce your risk of developing cancer. Being overweight increases the risk of many types of cancer including bowel, kidney, womb and oesophageal (gullet) cancer. Women who are overweight and have been through the menopause have an increased risk of breast cancer. Being a healthy weight may also help reduce the risk of some cancers coming back.

Try to keep your weight within the normal range for your height. Body mass index (BMI) is a way of measuring if you are a healthy weight for your height. Your GP or nurse will work out your BMI for you. There is also a BMI calculator on the NHS website.

If you are concerned about your weight, ask your GP or a dietitian for advice and support. Dietitians can give you advice about food choices that are more healthy but still make you feel full.

Be patient with yourself. Losing weight is a gradual process. It is important to eat a healthy, balanced diet to make sure you get all the nutrients you need to keep your body healthy. It is reasonable to aim to lose about 0.5 to 1kg (1 to 2 pounds) a week.

Tips for keeping to a healthy weight

Only eat as much food as you need. This depends on how active you are. You may need to talk to a dietitian about this.

Eat a healthy diet with lots of fruit and vegetables and less fat and sugar.

Try to be physically active.

What does a healthy balanced diet look like?

A healthy, balanced diet contains a variety of foods, in the right amounts. This will give you enough energy, protein, vitamins and minerals to stay healthy.

Having a healthy, balanced diet is important for everyone, especially if you have been diagnosed with cancer. Eating well and keeping to a healthy weight will help you keep up your strength, increase your energy levels and improve your sense of well-being.

Try to eat plenty of fruit and vegetables. They should make up over one third of the food you eat each day. Starchy foods (carbohydrates) should also make up over a third of what you eat each day. The amount of protein you eat should be smaller. The amount of dairy you have should be even smaller. You should try to have only a small amount of oils and spreads. Foods that are high in fat and sugar should be limited because they often do not have any extra vitamins or minerals. You do not need to get the balance right with every meal, but try to get it right over a day or even a week.

This chart shows the amount of each food group you should try to eat for a healthy, balanced diet.

Food labels

Most packaged foods have labels giving information to help you make healthier choices when buying food. The labels give information about what the food contains, including:

• fats

• salt

• sugars

• calories.

The label also sometimes gives information about sodium and fibre.

Many food manufacturers and supermarkets use a food traffic light system on their labels. This tells you the amount of fats, saturated fats, sugars and salt in 100g (3½ ounces) of the product.

The colours in the chart show if the level is high, medium or low:

Red – the level is high.

Amber – the level is medium.

Green – the level is low.

You should eat more foods with amber and green labels and fewer with red.

If a product does not have traffic light labelling, you can use this diagram to check by comparing it with the list of ingredients.

If you have any questions about cancer you can phone the Macmillan Cancer Support Line which is open 7 days a week, from 8am – 8pm.

It offers confidential support to people living with cancer and their loved ones. Phone: 0808 808 00 00. Visit the Macmillan website at: