A balanced diet for women

Confused about how to follow a healthy, balanced diet? You're not alone! Our nutritional therapist explains the best times to eat carbs, protein and fat, what your portion size should be and how to nourish yourself for optimum health...

A balanced diet for women

Women have different daily nutritional requirements to men, and below our nutritionist has offered guidance and recipe ideas for women seeking a balanced diet for good health - but what exactly is meant by a 'balanced diet'?

The NHS Eat Well Guide sets out to define different types of foods we should be eating and in what proportions. These include some simple rules to follow like getting a minimum of five fruit and veg a day, including whole-grains and choosing more fish, poultry, beans and pulses and less red meat while opting for low-fat, low-sugar dairy foods. But that's not the whole story - how much should you be eating and is there a best time to eat protein, carbs or fats? Read on for our guide to healthy eating around the clock.


Reference Intakes (RI) – the new term for Guideline Daily Amounts (GDAs)

Nutritional needs vary depending on your sex, size, age and activity levels so use this chart as a general guide only. The chart shows the Reference Intakes (RI) or daily amounts recommended for an average person to achieve a healthy, balanced diet for maintaining rather than losing or gaining weight.

The RIs for fat, saturates, sugars and salt are all maximum amounts, while those for carbs and protein are figures you should aim to meet each day. There is no RI for fibre, although health experts suggest we have 30g a day.  

Reference intakes (RI)
Energy (kcal)25002000
Protein (g)5550
Carbohydrates (g)300260
Sugar (g)12090
Fat (g)9570
Saturates (g)3020
Salt (g)66

Perfect Portionsportion sizes

Numbers and figures are all very well but how does this relate to you? Personalise your portions with our handy guide to finding the right serving size:


Your portion size
FoodsPortion size
Carbs like cereal/rice/pasta/potatoYour clenched fist                              
Protein like meat/poultry/fishPalm of your hand
Savouries like popcorn/crisps2 of your cupped hands
Bakes like brownies/flapjacks2 of your fingers
Butter & spreadsThe tip of your thumb


Full English frittata with smoky beansBreakfast

Kick-start your metabolism by including protein at breakfast, choose from eggs, salmon, lean ham or dairy. We burn more calories digesting protein rather than carbs so, by making your breakfast a protein one, you'll be revving up your metabolism and because protein keeps you fuller for longer, you'll eat fewer calories the rest of the day.

A protein breakfast needn't take any longer to prepare - top your morning toast with a scrambled egg, a slice of smoked salmon or some lean ham and when you do have a little more time enjoy an omelette or frittata.

Whatever you do don't skip breakfast as this sets your blood sugar off on a roller coaster, which means you'll end up choosing the wrong foods later in the day. Remember breakfast makes an important contribution towards your daily intake and it plays a key role in maintaining a healthy weight.

Protein breakfast recipes:
One-pan summer eggs
Smoked salmon & mascarpone tortilla
Pear & blueberry breakfast bowl
Berry omelette
Dippy eggs with Marmite soldiers
Egg & tomato baps

Almond butter

Mid-morning snack

Many people find eating little and often helps them manage their blood sugar levels - this doesn't mean they eat more but instead spread their day's intake evenly throughout the day. Make every snack count with nourishing options that supply both the 'pick me up' you need while topping up your five-a-day.

Swap your morning biscuits for oatcakes spread with peanut or almond nut butter and a banana or have a tasty dip with veggie sticks.

Energy giving snacks:
Almond butter
Bean, feta & herb dip
Spicy chickpeas

LunchOpen cottage cheese & pepper sandwich

Make lunch a mix of lean protein and starchy carbs. Carb-rich foods supply energy and without them you're more likely to suffer that classic mid-afternoon slump. The key is to choose carbs that produce a steady rise in blood sugar, which means passing on the sugary 'white' foods and going for high fibre whole-grains which help you manage those afternoon munchies.

Opt for an open rye-bread sandwich topped with salmon, chicken or low-fat dairy as well as plenty of salad or choose whole-grain toast topped with baked beans.

Protein and carb lunch recipes:

Open chicken Caesar sandwich
Open cottage cheese & pepper sandwich
Salmon & chive bagel topper
Veggie wholewheat pot noodle
Smoked salmon, quinoa & dill lunch pot
Spicy tuna quinoa salad

Spiced apple crisps Mid-afternoon

Satisfy that sweet craving and the need for energy with fruit. A handful of dried fruit combined with unsalted nuts or seeds, provides protein and healthy fats to keep you satisfied till supper.

Swap your chocolate or cereal bar for a handful of dried apple rings with a few almonds or walnuts. Dried fruit is four times as sweet as its fresh equivalent - which is great if you've got an exercise class or a gym session planned for the afternoon. Combining dried fruit with nuts helps stabilise the release of their sugars keeping you energised for longer. Alternatively stock your fridge with plenty of low calorie nibbles like cherry tomatoes, apples and vegetable crudités, which will prevent you reaching for the biscuit tin when you fancy something sweet or crunchy.

DinnerMexican chicken stew with quinoa & beans

Don't curfew carbs - they're low in fat, fibre-rich and help you relax in the evening. Combine them with some healthy essential fats the ones you find in oily fish like salmon, mackerel and sardines as well as nuts, seeds and their oils. Your body can use these healthy fats overnight for regeneration and repair, which is important for maintaining healthy skin and hair.

Fill half your plate with a colourful variety of vegetables or salad, drizzle with a dressing made from flaxseed or rapeseed oil and add meat, fish or beans with brown rice, quinoa or wholemeal pasta.

Healthy dinner recipes:

Mexican chicken stew with quinoa & beans
Miso prawn skewers with veggie rice salad
Nutty crusted fish
Tomato & crispy crumb chicken
Spicy root & lentil casserole


This guide was last updated on 23 May 2016 by Kerry Torrens who is BBC Good Food magazine's nutritional therapist.

All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact  your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

Comments, questions and tips

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Comments (23)

ClaireFox's picture

Very useful article. I need to lose 4 stones and this knowledge is priceless and without any doubt will be very helpful. I'm going to drink natural Tibetan herbs for slimming as well because recently I've heard plenty of good recommendations about them. Hopefully all this will work for we. Thanks and fingers crossed :)

Max Lenser's picture

In addition to this, there are other diets that promise increases in energy, improved complexion, reduced the appearance of allergies, increased libido and that it can get rid the body of toxins. For example this: http://healthyfitnatural.com/3-day-military-diet/ But I don't know how good they are?

davidcharlie's picture

It Had Happened With Me As Well. Whenever I Start Any Diet Plan Or Exercise I Weight Myself Twice A Day And When I Found That There Is Not Much Difference I Was Dispressed And Stopped Doing What Is Was. But Now After Going Through Your Write up I Feel That I Was Wrong And You Are Right. I Should Throw That Stupid Scale In Trash And Be Myself. Thanks


jarrestr's picture

Not sure about all this. Your experts do not seem to be up to date. Also your magizine sells from giving recipes that have nothing to do with healthy eating just good recipes for enjoying eating. Tired of being made afraid from 5 a day, 7 a day and what worries me most as soon as there is a something published about what we shouldn't or should eat you are there. Like this with meat etc. Is this your selling point?

stellahudgens's picture

Eating a healthy, balanced diet plays an essential role in maintaining a healthy weight, which is an important part of overall good health. Being overweight or obese can lead to health conditions such as type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, heart disease and stroke. Being underweight could also affect your health.
Btw, do you guys have any idea about Garcinia Cambogia extract?? Recently I had purchased a product, Garcinia Cambogia Select from http://www.garciniacambogiareviews.ca/garcinia-cambogia-select/. Do you think this product will help me in loosing weight?

Please help!!

Barbara Laurie's picture

I love this blog. Your portion size is right on. That's what I am having (most of the time), and it works to maintain my body weight. Keep providing useful info for us who are health advocates. :-)

Cherry Smith's picture

Great post! Some really useful points included. I recently found another helpful post which lists foods that aid natural weight loss as they require lots of chewing, fill you up, are low in calories, contain high amounts of water or air and improve satiety (to you and me that means keep us satisfied so that we don’t need to over eat, naturally :)) - it's definitely worth a read! http://magazine.siansplan.com/9-foods-that-are-great-for-natural-weight-...

Dees diner's picture

I have just joined! Great idea. Really needed some good guidance on healthy eating and found some great ideas. I love the way I can store them in my own collection.

yumminesss's picture

Just a quick note to say well done kiwi-abroad. I agree with everything you say...however at the start of these comments there are a few messages of praise for the info found here. I agree though. A lot of the meals on the site are high in calories and expensive to make. I am lucky and do usually have salmon for breakfast, but this not possible for most. This is a great hub with most of the nutritional values given so I find it invaluable, as my husband is diabetic.

sybilgodden's picture

Surely one can eat other fish than expensive salmon? What's wrong with potatoes? As a vegetable don't they count as part one one's 'five (seven) a day? Come on Good Food: get real!

alexxx373's picture

Potatoes are not classed as a vegetable because their starch content is so high. Therefore they are classed as a carbohydrate and fall under that category in diet guides. Other root vegetables are a better substitute with lower starch: carrots, parsnips, sweet potato etc.

veggiemaniac's picture

I agree with some of the other comments - not enough fruit and veg included in the overall meal plan PLUS so many bits and pieces in each meal that by the time you've done the shopping, planning and preparing, you'd have no time for living and all this is assuming you don't have a family who will have different needs and demands.

kiwi-abroad's picture

Sorry - had to do this in 2 parts.
Smoked or fresh salmon features in a lot of your recipes. Not available (cost) to the usual person. Please find a substitute. Smoked mackerel does some wonderful recipes. In a salad, in an omelete, in a pita with crunchy accompaniments.
Butter & spreads. Tip of your thumbnail. Is this per day - per slice - per meal?
asb staedn- too general.
Most BBC recipes call for butter in their recipes (to saute etc).
For those without the time for your breakfast recipes, simple baked beans on toasts provides both carbs & protein. So does simple scrambled eggs with chives on toast. All meals should contain both protein & carbs.....
Mascapone (not cheap) is loaded with calories. Can you not substitute low-fat creme fraiche or similar?
Generalisation needs to be broken down in to more practical & detailed components.

kiwi-abroad's picture

Once again as in all short columns, this is too general. Portions have always been advised for years e.g. meat no bigger than the palm of your hand.
When stated above in Dinners - add meat - this needs to be clarified. Opening paragraph states 'choose more fish, poultry and less red meat'. ...So 'add meat" means?
Also agree with allenz, more veg recipes are required. I have lived on the Med diet for many years. Most days are veges only - meat is a special/weekend occasion. (If you partake of course). Char-grilled peppers, aubergines, spring onions, courgettes etc are very tasty and along with skewers of halloumi/bread cubes/potato etc can create a 'balanced meal' along with fish. In winter I do a baked pasta dish with cheese sauce incorporating the same peppers onions etc.
These kind of practical recipes - esp for people with lower incomes - would be more welcome. Tks

allennz's picture

I am enjoying your series. I would encourage you, however, to provide more recipes for vegetarians. Thanks heaps.


Questions (7)

mixamixa's picture

Hi! First, thank you for this site. I am a 55 year old woman and 5'4" tall. I weigh 122 kg and need to lose weight as it is effecting my health - thyroid, cholesterol, asthma. I wonder if there is a nutritionist who could advise me? My physician has suggested I try a no carb diet to try to get rid of the sleep apnea problem as well. Thank you.

azatakc's picture

It's easy to overlook, but choosing healthier drinks is a key part of getting a balanced diet.
Many soft drinks – including instant powdered drinks and hot chocolate – are high in sugar. Food and drinks that are high in sugar are often high in calories, and having too many calories can make you more likely to gain weight.
Some energy drinks are high in both sugar and caffeine. Checking the nutrition labels on soft drinks such as fruit juices and fizzy drinks can help you make healthier choices.
For more information, see Food labels.
Drink plenty of water
Water is a healthy and cheap choice for quenching your thirst at any time. It has no calories and contains no sugars that can damage teeth. Plain tea, fruit tea and coffee (without added sugar) can also be healthy.
If you don't like the taste of plain water, try sparkling water or add a slice of lemon or lime. Or heat the water and infuse a tea bag, some coffee or a slice of lemon. You could also add some no-added-sugar squash or fruit juice for flavour.
Drink semi-skimmed, 1% fat or skimmed milk
Milk is a good source of calcium, a mineral that helps build and maintain healthy bones. It also contains protein, vitamins and other minerals, and doesn't cause tooth decay.
For a healthier choice, choose semi-skimmed, 1% fat or skimmed milk. Limit your intake of flavoured milks, milkshakes, condensed milk and milk-based energy or malt drinks – these contain added sugar, which is bad for teeth.
Milk is especially important for young children. They should drink whole milk until they are two years old because they may not get the calories they need from lower-fat milks.
Cow's milk should not be given as a drink until a baby is one year old as it doesn't contain the balance of nutrients a baby needs.
From the age of two, children can gradually move to semi-skimmed milk as a main drink as long as they are eating a varied and balanced diet and growing well.
For more information, see Drinks and cups for children. http://bit.ly/1Iq7Wgi

goodfoodteam's picture

Hi there, thanks for your question.

We cannot give medical advice, though would suggest seeing a nutritionist who will be able to help you - your GP should be able to refer you. Here at BBC Good Food we advocate a healthy, balanced diet that includes whole foods that have been minimally processed. 

Many thanks and all the best,

The BBC Good Food team


Kerry Torrens's picture

Hi there, thanks for your question.

Good quality, high cocoa chocolate is a source of flavonols which are protective and anti-inflammatory in nature. However, you do need to look for the dark, high cocoa (minimum 70%) chocolate which has been subject to limited processing. Stick to a small portion of 25g as an occasional treat.

pippinose61's picture

what foods should i avoid for frequent upset tummy? trying to cut out wheat and dairy currently. could really do with a couple of week's worth of recipes so I can plan my shopping and diet

Kerry Torrens's picture

Hi there, thanks for your question.

Stress, diet and lifestyle can all disrupt our stomachs – however, if this is a consistent change in your digestive pattern you should visit your GP. Getting dietary advice from a registered dietician will also help and is advisable before making significant changes to your diet. When we eliminate foods like wheat and / or dairy we need to ensure we replace them with nutritionally equivalent alternatives so that we’re not missing out on valuable nutrients, like calcium from dairy. Non-dairy calcium rich foods include nuts and seeds especially almonds, canned fish, leafy greens and veg like broccoli. Keep a food and symptom diary and take this with you to your GP / Dietician.

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