How much do you know about healthy eating?


Let dietary guidelines steer your choices

Worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975 and with it has come the rise of heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Countries have developed dietary guidelines, adapted to local food situations and populations, to provide advice on healthy eating. ©FAO/Alessandra Benedetti

Diets vary greatly from place to place based on food availability, eating habits and culture. Yet, when it comes to food, there is a lot that we know about what is and what is not good for us and this is true no matter where we live. Societal changes, however, are making these choices more complicated. While many countries are still dealing with undernutrition, more and more people around the world are eating energy-dense, high-fat, high-sugar and high-salt foods. Urbanization, more sedentary types of work and changing modes of transportation are decreasing people’s levels of physical activity, creating entire populations at risk of obesity, overweight and related diseases.

Worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975 and with it the increase of health-related problems, such as diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers. This trend is not confined to high-income countries. In fact, in low- and middle-income countries, the number of overweight and obese people is on the rise at an even faster rate. At the same time, in many cases, low- and middle-income countries also have to deal with high rates of stunting, wasting and micronutrient deficiencies.

At a time when obesity is on the rise, dietary guidelines are that much more important. Based on the latest available evidence, guidelines are a country’s recommendations to its population for eating better and being healthier.

FAO’s website contains the most comprehensive compilation of dietary guidelines worldwide. More than 100 countries have developed dietary guidelines that are adapted to local food situations and populations.

Although the guidelines and food guides may vary in terms of structure and format (from booklets to posters and videos, from the popular food pyramid and South Korea’s roly-poly to Fiji’s pineapple and Guyana’s stew pot), the content has a lot of common advice.

Most countries’ guidelines recommend that people have at least 3-5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. For a sweet tooth, fruit is a good alternative to processed sugars.
Left: ©FAO/Alessandra Benedetti; Right: ©Fundación Comunidad/Alberto Pascual

7 eating habits that we know are good for us:

1. Eat plenty of vegetables and fruits – Some countries are very specific about the number of servings of fruits and vegetables that we should consume daily, for example Greece says six, Costa Rica and Iceland say five. Canada even specifies the colors of vegetables to consume (one dark green and one orange vegetable a day). Serving sizes can vary by country; however, all guidelines recommend eating plenty of fresh vegetables and fruits on a daily basis.

2. Watch your intake of fats – Said in different ways, most guidelines make mention of reducing solid, saturated fats and give recommendations for replacing animal fats with vegetable oils. In Greece, olive oil is recommended, in Viet Nam it is sesame or peanut oil – demonstrating the importance of availability and cultural preference in each country’s guidelines.

3. Cut back on foods and beverages high in sugar – It is generally agreed upon that processed sugar is harmful to our health. The guidelines in every country recommend to maintain a low-sugar diet and to choose fruits over processed sweets or sugary beverages to satisfy a sweet tooth.

4. Reduce sodium/salt – Nigeria mentions reducing the use of bouillon cubes; Malta specifies limiting ready-made food high in sodium. Colombia on the other hand suggests limiting processed meats, canned foods and packaged products that usually have high salt content. Across all countries, the general agreement is that diets with less salt are better for you. 

5. Drink water regularly –Across the board, the guidelines recommend that water is the best thirst-quencher. Of course, we should always first make sure that the water is safe for drinking.

6. If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation– If you do choose to drink alcohol, whether that is beer, wine or spirits, the general consensus is that it should be done in moderation.

7. Make physical activity part of your day, every day – For people who have more sedentary jobs or lifestyles, the broad recommendation is to get at least 30 minutes of daily exercise. However, Benin’s guidelines point out that for people with jobs that require hard physical labour, additional exercise is not of top importance.

Eating habits start young. By providing advice on nutrition, dietary guidelines empower families to take charge of their own diets and health. ©FAO/Mia Cusack

Various guidelines offer other good advice about healthy eating: enjoy your food (Romania), eat with your family (Venezuela), keep traditional diets alive (Benin), protect the environment (Qatar), share meals (Costa Rica) and do not overcook meals (Germany). Brazil proposed an alternative way of grouping foods by levels of processing and recommends avoiding ultra-processed foods. Some of these guidelines also highlight that we need to protect our natural resources and nature’s biodiversity while also ensuring food and nutrition security for all people.

FAO supports countries in the development, revision and implementation of their dietary guidelines. Serving as a basis for nutrition policies and education programmes, dietary guidelines help people achieve healthy eating habits and lifestyles. Check out the recommendations in your country’s dietary guidelines!

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