Hesperian Health Guides

Eating a Variety

In much of the world, most people eat one main low-cost food with almost every meal. This main food provides energy to get through the day. But the main food alone is not enough to keep a person healthy. To grow, have strength and energy, and fight infection we must also eat other foods.

A boy with a bowl of plain porridge
A very happy, excited boy with a bowl of porridge with added vegetables and beans
Plain porridge is not enough. Add beans, meat, dairy, eggs, vegetables, or fruit.

For health, we need:

The different the types of food we need for health, with starchy foods, protein foods, and vitamin-rich vegetables and fruits

plenty of grains or
starchy vegetables or
fruits for energy
strength-giving protein foods,
such as beans, eggs, fish or meat
protective, vitamin-rich vegetables and fruits

By eating a range of different healthy foods each day, we can prevent many serious health problems.

Starchy foods such as potatoes, bananas, bread and rice

Starchy foods give us energy

Our main filling, starchy food gives our bodies most of the energy needed to work, and to care for ourselves and our families. Depending on where you live, the main food may be:

  • rice
  • maize
  • wheat
  • cassava
  • breadfruit
  • plantain
  • potato
  • yam
  • millet
  • or some other grain, root vegetable, or starchy fruit
Three people holding out different types of starchy foods

These starchy foods are cooked into porridges, baked into tortillas and breads, pounded or ground into pastes, or cooked whole.

Women harvesting crops in a field

Choose local grains

If you have a choice of which starch to eat, local grains grow more easily, without the need for expensive chemical fertilizer, and are also the most nutritious choice. Corn, wheat, and rice are fine. But local grains like millet, buckwheat, and sorghum are even better because they have more protein, vitamins, and minerals.

Rice and wheat

If you eat mostly wheat or rice, preparing it with the germ and bran layers still attached is healthiest. Whole wheat and brown rice are rich in nutrients but heavily milled white flour and white rice provide only energy.

A cassava root, with leaves

Cassava (manioc, yucca)

Cassava root is a common main food that has plenty of energy, but few other nutrients. If you eat mainly cassava, it is especially important to add other foods like dried fish, vegetables, or beans. The leaves of the cassava plant are rich in vitamins and minerals and good to eat if cooked. Some types of cassava are bitter because they have a high level of cyanide (a poison). People make bitter cassava safe to eat by a process of pounding, grating, soaking, or fermenting that "cleans out" the poison.


If maize is your main starchy food, process it first with lime “cal,” to bring out its vitamins.

A woman saying no to packaged white bread and biscuits

Factory breads and noodles are not as good

Packaged white breads, biscuits, and noodles lack the nutrition found in home-cooked main foods (like porridges and grains). And they often have too much fat, salt, and sugar.

Protein foods make us strong

Protein foods such as fish, nuts, and milk

Everyone needs protein foods for strength, to grow, and to recover from illness and injury. Protein foods include:

  • lentils, peas, beans, or other pulses.
  • ground nuts, tree nuts, and seeds.
  • eggs.
  • any kind of meat that is available where you live: large or small animals, birds, fish, shellfish, or insects.
  • milk, cheese, and yogurt.

Whole grains without the bran or germ removed, such as brown rice and whole wheat, also contain some protein. So do many edible mushrooms.

A child holding up an egg, and showing her strong arm muscle

You can be just as healthy eating beans, nuts, and other protein foods from plants as you can by eating meat. And plant proteins often cost less than meat to grow or buy.

We need to eat protein regularly. Pregnant women, children, old people, and those recovering from injury or illness need protein foods every day. Be sure to give some of these strength-giving foods to the
people who need them most.

Vegetables and fruit protect our bodies

Fruits and vegetables such as pineapple, avocado and carrots

Try to eat fruits and vegetables every day. They contain different vitamins and minerals that:

  • protect the organs inside our bodies.
  • keep our eyes, skin, teeth, and hair healthy.
  • keep our digestion working well and help us to have normal stool.
  • protect us from infection and disease.

The fruits and vegetables that grow where you live are as healthy as imported ones. And they usually cost less or are free.

A group of children using a long stick to get fruits down from a tree

Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables. Any vegetable or fruit is healthy, including:

  • squash.
  • melon.
  • peppers and chilies.
  • fresh peas and beans.
  • berries, including edible wild berries.
  • mango, papaya, guava, oranges, and other tree fruits.
  • leafy greens — cultivated or edible wild greens are both good and so are the leaves of many root vegetables, including sweet potato, turnip, and taro.

A mix of different colored vegetables and fruits gives a better variety of vitamins and minerals.

Problems from lack of variety of food

When we do not eat a variety of different kinds of food, then we do not get enough of the vitamins and minerals we need. This can lead to sickness.

Anemia and iron

Tiredness, weakness, and shortness of breath are commonly caused by anemia — a lack of iron in the blood.

Anemia is especially common in women, who lose iron from menstrual bleeding. Anemia can cause babies to be born small and can make bleeding during birth more dangerous.

A blood test for hemoglobin checks the amount of iron in the blood.

A woman showing her pale gums and inner eyelids
Signs of anemia
  • pale gums and inner eyelids
  • weakness
  • tiredness
  • dizziness
  • trouble catching the breath

iron-rich foods such as fish, molasses and green vegetables
Treatment and prevention

Eat iron-rich foods:

  • beans, peas, and lentils
  • greens and seaweed
  • dried fruits
  • seeds and nuts
  • any kind of meat, including poultry, fish, shellfish, or small animals

NWTND Nut Page 8-3.png
Cooking in iron pots adds iron to food.

Organ meats like liver and heart, and foods made with blood are inexpensive and especially rich in iron.

Someone who is very pale, tired, or weak, or who has bled a lot may have severe anemia and needs to take iron pills.

Foods rich in vitamin C allow our bodies to get much more iron from the foods we eat. So eat vitamin C rich foods in the same meals as iron-rich foods.

Fruits and green leafy vegetables
Vitamin C is found in green vegetables and most fruits, including tomatoes, oranges, papaya, mango, melons, and berries.

Night blindness and vitamin A

A child stumbling over a rock at night

Lack of vitamin A leads to not being able to see well in poor light (night blindness) and eventually complete blindness. Vitamin A is also needed for healthy skin and bones and for fighting infection. Children and women in particular often lack enough vitamin A.

When you do not eat enough foods with vitamin A:

Illustration of the three stages of blindness from not eating enough foods with vitamin A, described below.
First, there is more difficulty seeing in dim light.
Later, the eyes become dry. The white of the eyes loses its shine and begins to wrinkle. Patches of little gray bubbles (Bitot’s spots) may form.

As the disease worsens, the cornea may become dull and pitted.
Then the cornea may quickly grow soft, bulge, or even burst. Usually there is not pain, but blindness can result.

Protect the eyes by eating any of these vitamin A rich foods that are available in your area:

NWTND Nut Page 9-3.png
  • most orange fruits and vegetables — such as pumpkin, carrots, peppers, orange melons, papaya, mango, or orange sweet potato
  • most green vegetables — such as leafy greens, green peas, and wild edible leaves
  • liver
  • eggs

If there are any signs of eye damage from lack of this vitamin, supplements of vitamin A (usually drops) should be given. Supplements can also be given out to children during vaccination campaigns or to prevent blindness during a measles outbreak.

Goiter and iodine

A goiter is a swelling on the throat caused by a lack of iodine in the diet. A lack of iodine in the diet of a pregnant woman can cause deafness and other physical and mental disabilities in the baby. This can happen to the baby even if the mother does not have goiter.

The easiest way to prevent goiter and iodine deficiency is to use iodized salt (salt with iodine added when it is processed). This prevents most goiter and can make goiter go away. (An old, hard goiter can be removed only by surgery, but this is not usually necessary.) You can also eat foods that have iodine in them such as fish, shellfish, seaweeds, and other foods from the ocean. But in some mountainous areas, it is not possible to get enough iodine from food.

A woman with a goiter holding a bag of ordinary salt, and a woman with no goiter holding a bag of iodized salt
Iodized salt costs only a little more than other
salt and is much better for your health.

If you cannot get iodized salt, you may need an iodine supplement.

Other vitamins and minerals

We also need other vitamins and minerals, all of which we can usually get by eating a variety of foods. Getting vitamins regularly from food (not from tablets or tonics) is the best way for our bodies to use them. Some of the most important vitamins and minerals are listed in the chart below.

Name of vitamin or mineral What foods contain this nutrient What it does for our bodies Problems from not getting enough
Meat, shellfish, beans, milk products, whole grains (like millet, brown rice, or whole wheat).
Foods with zinc such as fish, milk and beans
Needed for
growth, energy,
fighting infection,
and many other
body functions.
Infections are more
common. Children get
more diarrhea, and
take longer to recover
from diarrhea.
Meat, fish, liver, eggs,
whole grains, vegetables, and fermented and yeasted foods (such as bread).
Foods with B vitamins such as bread, bananas and potatoes
Helps our cells,
nerves, muscles,
and immune
systems work.
When people have only one food to eat during times of severe hunger, this can lead to a severe B vitamin deficiency called pellagra — a disease of peeling skin, diarrhea, and mental confusion.

Leafy greens, beans, peas, fruit, avocado, mushroom, liver.
Foods with folic acid such as leafy greens and beans
Needed especially by women before and during pregnancy for normal growth of a baby in the womb.

Babies born to mothers who do not get enough folic acid are more often born small or with birth defects.
CALCIUM Milk products, seaweed,
dark green vegetables,
nuts and seeds. Small
fish with edible bones
are a good source
because bones are
almost pure calcium.
Finely ground eggshells
are another source.
Foods with calcium such as milk, cheese and fish
Keeps bones and teeth strong. Helps muscles and nerves.
Weak bones that break easily.
Beans, whole grains,
vegetables and fruits, nuts
and seeds.
Foods with fiber such as seeds and vegetables
This is not a
vitamin or mineral,
but fiber helps
keep digestion and
bowel movements
Constipation and
stomach aches. Over
many years, lack of
fiber makes cancers
and diseases of
the intestine more

What about vitamin tablets and injections?

A syringe with a cross through it

Some people think vitamin tablets, syrups, or injections will cure everything from tiredness to problems with sex. When both licensed doctors and so-called "injection doctors" promote vitamins as a cure-all this only worsens the problem – and empties your pockets!

Anyone who eats a good variety of foods, including vegetables and fruits, gets all the vitamins he needs. Save your money for fresh food – not expensive vitamin supplements.

Vitamin supplements are a kind of medicine. Like medicines, they should be used only when they are really needed. Vitamins are needed in cases of severe malnutrition, or during pregnancy when the demands on a woman’s body increase. Otherwise they are not needed and will not improve health or make children grow.

Avoid vitamin injections. They are needed only in the rarest cases of severe deficiency. And avoid re-used needles which spread germs that can lead to abscesses, hepatitis, and HIV.

This page was updated:12 Jun 2019