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...

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

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 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 foods. 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)
 
 MenWomen
Energy (kcal)25002000
Protein (g)55                   50                 
Carbohydrates (g)300260
Sugar (g)12090
Fat (g)9570
Saturates (g)3020
Salt (g)66


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.
 

FoodsPortion size
Carbs like cereal/rice/pasta/potato (include 1 portion at each main meal and ensure it fills no more than ¼ of your plate)Your clenched fist                              
Protein like meat/poultry/fish/tofu/pulses (aim to have a portion at each meal)Palm of your hand
Cheese (as a snack or part of a meal)2 of your thumbs
Nuts/seeds (as a snack or part of a meal)1 of your cupped hands
Butter/spreads/nut butter (no more than 2 or 3 times a day)The tip of your thumb
Savouries like popcorn/crisps (as a snack/treat)2 of your cupped hands
Bakes like brownies/flapjacks (as an occasional treat)2 of your fingers

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

A stack of spinach protein pancakes topped with a poached egg

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

A wholewheat noodle dish with vegetables in a glass jar

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

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

A dish of wild salmon and vegetables in a bowl on a blue table

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 linseed 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

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This article was last reviewed on 26 June 2017 by nutritional therapist Kerry Torrens.

A registered Nutritional Therapist, Kerry Torrens is a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food magazine. Kerry is a member of the The Royal Society of Medicine, Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC), British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT).

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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kiwi-abroad
25th Feb, 2014
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. Tks
kiwi-abroad
25th Feb, 2014
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
13th Jan, 2014
I am enjoying your series. I would encourage you, however, to provide more recipes for vegetarians. Thanks heaps.
haraheart
13th Jan, 2014
Excellent practical guide to portion sizes! Useful stuff, thanks.
cretalake
7th Sep, 2013
Excellent post!!! I really need it!!!
helmut
15th Jul, 2013
Thanks, I really enjoyed reading this section on a balanced diet for women. It gives great and healthy ideas. Well done!

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