A selection of food including fruit, vegetables, eggs, wholegrain bread, oils, meat and fish

A balanced diet for women

Find out how much carbohydrate, protein and fat you should be eating and when. Choose wisely for a healthy diet that keeps you full around the clock...

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’?

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The Eatwell Guide defines 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 wholegrains and choosing more fish, poultry, beans and pulses, less red meat and opting for lower fat, lower sugar dairy (or dairy-free alternatives). But that’s not the whole story. How much should you be eating and is there an ideal time to eat protein, carbs or fats? Read on for our guide to healthy eating around the clock.

Reference Intakes (RI)

Nutritional needs vary depending on 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, moderately active adult 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) for women

  • Energy – 2000kcal
  • Protein – 50g
  • Carbohydrates – 260g
  • Sugar – 90g
  • Fat – 70g
  • Saturates – 20g
  • Salt – 6g

Perfect portions

Numbers and figures are all very well but how does this relate to you? Keeping the Eatwell Guide in mind, you can personalise your portion sizes with our handy guide.

Carbs like cereal/rice/pasta/potato

  • Portion size: Your clenched fist
  • Include 1 portion at each main meal and ensure it fills no more than ¼ of your plate

Protein like meat/poultry/fish/tofu/pulses

  • Portion size: Palm of your hand
  • Aim to have a portion at each meal

Cheese

  • Portion size: 2 of your thumbs
  • Enjoy as a snack or part of a meal

Nuts/seeds

  • Portion size: 1 of your cupped hands
  • Enjoy as a snack or part of a meal

Butter/spreads/nut butter

  • Portion size: The tip of your thumb
  • Eat no more than 2 or 3 times a day

Savouries like popcorn/crisps

  • Portion size: 2 of your cupped hands
  • Enjoy as a snack/treat

Bakes like brownies/flapjacks

  • Portion size: 2 of your fingers
  • Enjoy as an occasional treat

Don’t forget, as set out in the Eatwell Guide, we should all be aiming for a minimum of five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. Discover what counts as one portion using our five-a-day infographic.

Breakfast

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 that 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:
Spinach protein pancakes
Mushroom baked eggs with squished tomatoes
One-pan summer eggs
Smoked salmon & mascarpone tortilla
Pear & blueberry breakfast bowl
Berry omelette
Dippy eggs with Marmite soldiers
Egg & tomato baps

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

Lunch

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 wholegrains that help you manage those afternoon munchies.

Opt for an open rye-bread sandwich topped with salmon, chicken or lower fat dairy as well as plenty of salad, or choose wholegrain 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
Indian chicken protein pots
Tuna Niçoise protein pot
Steak & broccoli protein pots

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 that will prevent you reaching for the biscuit tin when you fancy something sweet or crunchy.

Satisfying snacks:
Date & walnut cinnamon bites
Iced grapes with cheddar cubes & celery
Almond, raisin & popcorn trail mix

Dinner

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 along with protein overnight for regeneration and repair, 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 cold-pressed flaxseed, olive or rapeseed oil and add meat, fish or beans with brown rice, quinoa or wholemeal pasta.

Nutritious dinner recipes:
Wild salmon veggie bowl
Moroccan-spiced tuna
Mexican chicken stew with quinoa & beans
Miso prawn skewers with veggie rice salad
Nutty crusted fish
Tomato & crispy crumb chicken
Spicy root & lentil casserole
Lamb & squash biryani with cucumber raita
Mexican penne with avocado
Lamb dopiaza with broccoli rice

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This article was last reviewed on 4 July 2019 by Kerry Torrens.

Kerry Torrens is a qualified Nutritionist (MBANT) with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.

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