Eat this. Don't eat that. The rules of healthy eating seem to get more complicated by the day. But the perfectly balanced menu is simpler than you think.

Most people, it seems, really don't have much idea what they are eating. Labels on food packaging designed to help people to eat more healthily are not being read, according to new research, and even when consumers do try to read them, little of the information is actually understood.

Most people, it seems, really don't have much idea what they are eating. Labels on food packaging designed to help people to eat more healthily are not being read, according to new research, and even when consumers do try to read them, little of the information is actually understood.

Over the last decade or so, food producers have been putting more and more information on labels so that almost everything from colouring, vitamins, calories and flavourings, to water, fat, fibre, sugar and starch is now listed. The aim was to empower consumers to make healthy choices about what to eat, but the research shows that many shoppers are having problems. "A high proportion of consumers make little or no use of label information in making food choices. Unfortunately, even when food labels are read, people do not appear to understand them fully," says the report in the Journal of Consumer Studies.

The researchers asked shoppers whether they read labels and then quizzed them about the contents of a sample label. They found that fewer than one-in-five shoppers even looked at the list of ingredients, while almost no one looked at the nutrients. Only one-in-10 of the shoppers, both men and women, always read labels, and a quarter had never looked at one.

There was also widespread confusion about what the data meant. Most had difficulty understanding numerical amounts, and their knowledge about calories and energy was also poor.

The research highlights what many believe is the growing problem of health-information overload. "It is very difficult for people to make judgements any more. When there was less information, people felt able to trust it more; now we get so much and a lot of it is conflicting. People are confused," says psychologist Professor Cary Cooper of Manchester University Institute of Science and Technology.

Once upon a time there was a simple rule of thumb for making healthy food choices - greens were good, sugars were bad. But not any more. Almost every day new research emerges that overturns previously held wisdom, extolling the virtues of little known fruit and veg, or promoting hitherto unheard of compounds that are found in foods which are commonly eaten by rainforest tribes who never seem to get a certain type of cancer.

Eating five or six apples a week, for instance, has been found to be good for the lungs. According to researchers they contain an antioxidant called quercetin which may protect against the effects of pollution and cigarette smoke.

Avocados, too, have hidden depths. Researchers have discovered the fruit has phytochemicals which may be important in anti-ageing, and they are also said to be rich in manganese and monounsaturated fat for lowering bad cholesterol levels.

An eight-year study at Harvard University involving 44,000 men suggests that five bananas a day lowers high blood pressure, while bilberries in the diet may enhance night vision. The watermelon has been found to contain lycopene, which could help reduce the risk of prostate and cervical cancer, while a night-cap of cocoa may offer some protection against heart attacks and strokes.

Then there are the bad reports on food once considered good. Aspartame, for example, a sugar substitute food additive, has been blamed for dizziness, seizures, and menstrual problems, while caffeine has been linked to stomach ulcers, insomnia, nervousness and birth defects.

Monosodium glutamate causes headaches and a tightening of the chest, and has also been blamed for neurological problems, while sulphites, used to preserve food colouring, may trigger severe asthma attacks and fatal shock. Nitrates and nitrites, used in cured meats, have also been linked to cancer in laboratory animals.

Professor Cooper says that there is now so much information and advice about healthy food and diets, consumers are having difficulty coping. "One of the problems is that we have so many conflicting reports from doctors on what is nutritious. The advice changes all the time. First roughage was good for you, then it was found it didn't prevent bowel cancer. Salt was first bad, and now it might have some good properties. Too much information is being thrown at people. There is confusion and people no longer know what the definitive line is on nutrition. They don't hear common messages from the nutritionists. First one study will show one thing, then a second, another. As a result, I don't think that people actually take much notice."

Despite the confusion, dieticians say it is still possible to cut through the overload, the jargon, and the conflicting reports, and come up with healthy meals. Here, leading dietician Gaynor Bussell has done just that, designing and explaining the perfect day's menu with readily available foods, and not a mung bean or tofu salad in sight.

Breakfast Orange juice fortified with calcium (eg Tropicana), Weetabix with soya milk, Wholemeal or rye bread with olive oil-based marg

The orange juice provides vitamin C and the calcium helps prevent osteoporosis, which more and more people are getting. Weetabix or something like Shreddies are wholegrain, and not made with added bran. Bran used to be popular in planned diets but it is now thought that added bran might strip the body of some minerals. Oat-based cereals are good, too, because they help to reduce cholesterol levels.

American studies have shown that half-a- pint of soya milk a day reduces the risk of heart disease, and might also be beneficial against prostate and breast cancer. It can also be used fortified with calcium.

Olive oil spread helps to control blood cholesterol levels. Some other spreads now also have cholesterol-blocking agents, too.

Lunch: Baked potato, baked beans, Side salad, Bio yoghurt, Linseed-fortified bread (eg Burgen bread), Glass of water

People should not just rely on one grain because they could become allergic to it, so the baked potato can be an alternative source of nutrients. The skin provides vitamin C and several minerals, and the potato is very starchy, which provides someone with energy for the afternoon.

Five helpings of fruit and vegetables a day are recommended, and baked beans count. They are high in fibre and are good for the heart and digestion. They are also low in fat.

The salad provides plenty of antioxidants, and the bio-yoghurt helps normalise the bacteria balance in the gut.

So-called Sheila bread which came from Australia originally (also sold as Ladies Loaf or Burgen bread), has soya protein, which may protect against heart disease and cancer, and linseed, which has antibodies.

Dinner: Stir-fry with chicken, Brown rice, Fresh fruit salad or sorbet, One glass of red wine

The stir-fry and rice provides another grain, as well as more fruit and vegetables. The meat is lean and a source of iron and can be alternated with tofu. With the fruit, go for a mix of many different colours because each colour has a different acting antioxidant. Red wine also contains antioxidants and has been found to protect against heart disease.

Supper:, Oily fish dip, Malt loaf/wholemeal scone, Cocoa

An oily fish dip is rich in omega three fatty acid which helps protect against heart disease. Malt loaf is low in fat and will give you carbohydrates during the night.

An occasional snack on the hoof, like a chocolate biscuit or a sesame seed chew, is permissible, too, with the perfect meal, and eight cups of water a day are also recommended.

Most of the ingredients are based on foods for which there is relatively little, at least yet, in the way of conflicting reports. But with new food research spinning out of academia and the food industry with such speed, it may only be matter of time before soya and calcium are found to have a downside. The only hope is that one day, someone, somewhere, will find a good healthy reason for not eating Brussels sprouts.

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