Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food
There is a lot of information out there about nutrition: what we should eat when we should eat it, and what we should avoid, but the wealth of information, especially online, is often confusing.
We are constantly bombarded with the latest diet or superfood, and the nutrition we require for our bodies to function at its best seems to change with the latest trend. With so much choice on supermarket shelves today, it is sometimes easy to forget the basics of nutrition. What are the staple nutrients? How much should we eat? Should we buy into the latest superfood? It is okay to feel a little lost and need a little help with the basics.
To provide some basic information and help answer these questions we can begin with simple government advice.
The British Nutrition Foundation lays out the five food groups that, when consumed in the right quantities, means that our bodies will gain the right variation of nutrients. Last updated in March 2016, the government’s Eatwell Guide can act as a foundation to nutrition, helping us to understand how foods are divided and the proportion of carbohydrates, fats, protein, fruit and vegetables, and dairy (although debated) the body needs.
There is conflicting advice on whether all the foods depicted in this guide are necessary or as healthy as we are led to believe but here is a breakdown of all the five food groups and possible alternatives that can serve as a simple basis to healthy living.
The Eatwell Guide: the 5 food groups important for nutrition (Source: The British Nutrition Foundation)
One of the three main nutrients necessary to consume on a regular basis, carbohydrates appear as one of the main food groups on the Eatwell Guide. Despite this, carbohydrates have received a bad rap in recent years. Low carb diets focus on cutting down or completely removing this food group from our diets but this often means that our bodies become sluggish and we end up having very little energy throughout the day.
Carbohydrates are essential in helping our bodies to function and release energy efficiently. As the Eatwell Guide outlines, this group includes foods such as bread, pasta, potatoes, rice, and cereals.
The guide also says to ‘choose wholegrain or higher fibre versions with less added fat, salt and sugar’. This means avoiding refined foods where possible, which include white bread, white rice and pasta and, instead, choosing wholegrain versions that are less processed and release energy more slowly.
The second of the three, what we call macronutrients, is protein. This nutrient, again, is often misunderstood. The Eatwell Guide highlights a mixture of options in this food group that provides different sources of protein including fish, eggs, beans and pulses, and meat. The Guide advises to ‘eat more beans and pulses, 2 portions of sustainably sourced fish per week, one of which is oily’ and ‘eat less red and processed meat.’
Alternatively, as research has developed in the last 10 years outlining the dangers of consuming too much meat and fish, there are huge health benefits to eating plant-based sources of protein, which can prevent serious illnesses, such as heart disease and stroke.
The egg industry has also been warned against using the word ‘healthy’ or ‘nutritious’ when advertising in recent years and this is due to the high cholesterol content found in them. Therefore, nutritionists are stressing that, despite counter-beliefs, the best source of protein comes from beans, pulses, seeds, and green, leafy vegetables including spinach, broccoli, and peas.
Green, leafy vegetables are a healthy way to consume protein. (Source: Lou Liebau on Unsplash)
The final nutrient out of the three macronutrients and necessary for healthy living is fat. The Eatwell Guide has a very small section that could be labelled as fats but it only focuses on oils and spreads and advises to use these ‘in small amounts’. This advice is valid when it comes to refined oils and saturated fats such as cheese, butter, and meat but information around fat is often confusing and misrepresented, too.
Fat has different forms and one of these forms is what we now refer to as ‘good fats’. These ‘good fats’ include polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats that can minimise the risk of heart disease by lowering cholesterol levels as well as helping to balance hormones; promote good skin, and maintain a healthy metabolism.
Foods such as nuts, avocados, seeds and unrefined oils are considered good fats and great for our overall health.
This is the food group that should be eaten in equal measure to carbohydrates. The general advice is to consume five portions of fruit and vegetables per day, but the more you eat, especially in place of unhealthy sugary or salty snacks, the better your overall, general health will be.
This food group contains the most diverse source of vitamins and minerals, and sticking to a diet rich in fruit and vegetables will help the body thrive. Fruits and vegetables also keep the immune system strong, helping to protect the body from illness and disease.
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This food group and the consumption of dairy products has become more and more debated. Dairy is a separate food group due to the body’s need for calcium, a nutrient for healthy teeth and bones. Dairy is rich in calcium and still considered by many as the best source for this nutrient.
However, recent research has found that although these products contain calcium, they can also contain high amounts of saturated fat. Dairy is also the cause of many intolerances and allergies. Consuming large quantities of dairy-based foods including milk, cheese and yoghurt can be harmful to our bodies and overall health in the long term. There is also an ethical debate surrounding dairy farms.
Although milk is still a staple in many diets in the UK, people are starting to change their habits. (Source: Peter Lewicki on Unsplash)
Instead, dairy can be replaced by plant-based alternatives even richer in calcium but without the negative impact. Foods such as soy or nut-based milk, seeds, beans and pulses, as well as vegetables including kale and okra, all contain enough calcium to avoid dairy altogether.
It is not always easy to understand what our bodies need but having a basic knowledge of the food groups provides a starting point about health and general well-being.
Do not forget, these food groups are a guide and finding the perfect quantities to eat is much more subjective. Diet can depend on the lifestyle we lead, our likes and dislikes, and how our bodies react to certain foods.
It is also important to read the labels on the back of food packets as the nutritional information is always provided and includes the fat, protein and carbohydrate content as well as any vitamins and minerals it contains. It is also a legal requirement for food manufacturers to show the amount of fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt content a product contains on the front of all food packaging.
Always try to eat a variety of foods. Do not be afraid to add different herbs and spices to every dish as this not only improves flavour and creates colour, but also provides extra health benefits.
Understanding basic nutrition can help us to make healthier choices. (Source: Brooke Lark on Unsplash)
Finally, it is important to eat at least three meals a day to maintain energy; skipping meals will only confuse the body’s process and slow down its metabolism. Healthy snacks such as seeds, nuts and fruit can are great for giving our bodies that extra boost during those busy days.
Once we understand the basics of nutrition, we can create meals that not only match our dietary needs but also our taste buds. Don’t be afraid to experiment with food, look up recipes, research cooking methods and have fun in the kitchen; enjoy eating with friends and family.
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