Is your food intake anyhting like this? Thirty-four per cent bread, potatoes, pasta and other cereals (especially whole grain or high fibre types); 33 per cent vegetables and fruit (a wide variety but especially dark green- and orange-coloured produce); 15 per cent milk, cheese, yogurt (lower fat varieties); 12 per cent meat, fish and alternatives (lower fat versions); 7 per cent fatty and sugary foods (fats should include minimal amounts of poly- or mono-unsaturated vegetable oils, margarine/spread and low fat spread, plus "extras" such as crisps, chocolate, fizzy drinks, takeaways).

If the answer is yes, congratulations. According to current thinking, your diet is perfectly balanced.

If not, perhaps you are a reflection of the statistic which finds that despite consuming fewer calories than 20 years ago, more people are overweight than ever before. Traditional health messages to reduce fat, sugar and salt and increase fibre in the diet have apparently failed: we are still eating too much fatty and sugary food (as well as not taking enough exercise).

But there is good news. A more permissive attitude to food and diet has replaced the "thou shalt not" approach of the 1980s. The new doctrine is that we can eat anything we like - as the breakdown illustrates - as long as we get the proportions right and take account of age and activity levels.

This balance is suitable for everyone from school age upwards. It helps to control weight and includes "nutrient dense" foods with high levels of the vitamins, minerals, unsaturated fats and anti-oxidants that protect against heart disease, cancer and other diseases associated with Western diets. Treats such as cakes, biscuits and chocolate can still be enjoyed but not eaten in such quantities, there is a danger that their "empty calories" replace those of morenourishing foods. Those with a sweet tooth should stick to cereals, fruitcake and wholemeal fruited scones or hot cross buns, all of which are packed with vitamins and minerals.

The real trick is to eat the amount needed to suit age and activity level. Schoolchildren and teenagers, for example, often need to eat up to double the amount of adults to fuel growth spurts. Adults need to cut down on "extras" such as alcohol, especially if they are sedentary. People over 50 may need to reduce the amount eaten as they become less active, or eat smaller amounts more frequently.

Other nutritional niceties affect different ages. Teenagers who replace meals with chocolate, chips, crisps, biscuits, cakes, takeaways and fizzy drinks are eating too much fat and have low vitamin and mineral intakes. Fertile women need to consider folic acid supplements, 400 micrograms (400ug/0.4mg) daily, and eat foods rich in folates such as green leafy vegetables, pulses, yeast extract, kidney, fortified bread and breakfast cereals. After the menopause, women lose the protective effect of hormones against heart disease and osteoporosis, so they should increase calcium intake and reduce fat, although both are most effective done throughout life.



Breakfast: fruit juice, fortified breakfast cereal with milk. If they won't eat breakfast, give them a wholemeal scone to take to school.

Mid-morning snack: fruitcake or cereal bar.

Lunch: baked potato with beans (or chilli or meat/fish/cheese), plus salad, followed by fruit/yogurt.

Teatime snack: breakfast cereal (if not eatenearlier), or sandwich(es).

Evening meal: Shepherd's pie made with lamb mince or vegetarian equivalent with two servings of vegetables and extra potato, if hungry.

Pudding: choose from fruit salad, rice pudding with added fruit, bread and butter pudding, fruit fools or brules, fruit tarts.

Evening snack: milk shake or yogurt or fruit or toast.

Adults (age 18 plus)

Breakfast: fruit juice, breakfast cereal with milk and fresh fruit. If desired, wholemeal toast with low-fat spread or small amount of preserves.

Mid-morning snack (if required): fresh fruit/hot cross bun.

Lunch: sandwiches of lean meat/fish/cheese, with generous amount of salad, hummus or peanut butter mixed with grated carrot or mashed banana. Salad on the side, if possible. Yogurt/fromage frais and/or fresh fruit. Fresh fruit juice or milk shake or drinking yogurt.

Dinner/main: fish (oily once/twice a week), lean meat or vegetarian equivalent with generous portion of (low-fat) potatoes/pasta/rice/bread and two servings of vegetables. Puddings: see above.

Adults (50 plus)

Breakfast: fruit juice, wholewheat or high-fibre breakfast cereal (don't add bran, it reduces mineral absorption) with milk and sliced banana/prunes.

Lunch (main meal): grilled or baked mackerel with potatoes or rice, peas and beans. Pudding: fruit crumble and custard made with semi-skimmed milk.

Teatime: fruit loaf or wholemeal toast.

Supper: cheese, bread/biscuits (no spread), fresh fruit, glass of milk. Leave 30 minutes after a meal before having a cup of tea to reduce iron loss and drink lots of fluid (water, fruit juice as well as tea/coffee and alternatives) as thirst diminishes with age.