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.
A balanced diet is considered an excellent requirement for healthy living. But, with all kinds of nutrition information on the internet and new products showing up on the food-shelves every day, it is easy to get confused.
However, the classes of foods you need for your body to satisfy its needed nutritional requirements have not changed. They serve as the pillars on which a truly balanced diet is built.
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.
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.
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Carbohydrates or Carbs
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.
Carbohydrates are one of the three primary macronutrients required daily by the body. They are a significant energy source that fuels many of the metabolic processes in the body. Carbohydrates can be classified into two categories depending on their chemical structure and how quickly they are digested; simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates.
Simple carbohydrates generally contain just one or two sugars and are quickly broken down and absorbed in the body. Their examples include fructose which is found in fruits and galactose found in milk.
Single sugar carbohydrates are referred to as monosaccharides while their two sugars counterparts are called disaccharides.
Complex carbohydrates are more slowly digested in the body and are also termed as polysaccharides because they have three or more sugars.
Whole grains bread, cereals, lentils and potatoes are considered healthy sources of carbohydrates as compared to sources like white bread, pastries and other highly processed or refined foods. This is because the latter group contains easily digested carbs that can contribute to weight-gain promoting diabetes and heart disease.
Carbohydrates provide the energy to run the central nervous system and power the muscles.
Whenever you take in a diet containing carbohydrates, it is ultimately broken down into glucose. This is the form in which the body can utilize it to generate energy for running the body. However, if the glucose is not immediately needed, it is converted to glycogen, a kind of energy store that the body can use later.
Because energy is needed to run the body, insufficient intake of carbohydrates will lead to spells of dizziness, physical weakness and reduction in mental alertness. This is because the central nervous system does not have access to enough energy to keep it running.
In the same vein, more intake of carbohydrates than needed by the body will cause it to be converted to fat. Increased fat may lead to cases like obesity and heart problems due to high cholesterol levels.
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.
So, just what amount of carbohydrate is needed by the body?
According to the National Institutes of Health, the recommended daily amount of carbohydrates for an adult is 135 grams. However, this may be lower or higher, depending on your energy needs. It is, however, advised that persons with diabetes should not eat more than 200 grams of carbohydrates per 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.
Proteins are complex high molecular weight organic compounds that are essential and involved in virtually all cellular functions. Such is their importance that they are often referred to as 'the building blocks of life.
Proteins come in two forms; the complete proteins that contain all the eight amino acids that our bodies cannot produce on its own (essential amino acids) and the incomplete proteins that lack or have only a small proportion of one or more of these amino acids.
Soy milk, peanuts, legumes and green peas are considered to be some of the richest plant sources of proteins.
It should be noted that all eight essential amino acids are needed for healthy living in a fixed ratio, and the deficiency of any of these amino acids may impair the optimal functioning of the human body. Acquiring all the needed amino acids can be achieved by merely mixing foods that are rich in the different amino acids.
Proteins are needed for body tissue maintenance and repair, production of different enzymes and the formation of antibodies which helps in defending the body against infections and diseases. As a result, deficiency of protein in the diet can lead to problems like loss of muscle mass, hair loss and fatigue. In contrast, serious protein insufficiency can lead to conditions such as Marasmus and Kwashiorkor.
But what happens in the case of excess protein intake?
This could be potentially dangerous as well with consequences ranging from an overreaction of the immune system to liver dysfunction due to increased toxic residues. This is why the recommended daily allowance for protein is pegged at a value of 0.8grams of proteins per kilogram of body weight.
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.
The final nutrient out of the three macronutrients and necessary for healthy living is fat.
Fats are made up of several fatty acids that are bound to glycerol. Fats are contained in the foods we eat and provide energy to meet the body's calorie demands. They are the primary source of energy in the body and can produce up to two times the energy released by either carbohydrates or proteins.
Fats are an essential part of a healthy diet because they are a source of essential fatty acids which the body cannot make on its own. They also help the body to absorb vitamin A, vitamin E and vitamin B. However, the intake of too much fat or the wrong type of fats can be unhealthy for the body.
There are two main types of fats found in the food we eat. These are; saturated fats and unsaturated fats.
Saturated fats are often referred to as unhealthy fats. These are the kinds of fats found in chocolate confectionaries, fatty cuts of meat, cakes and pastries. Consuming too many saturated fats can increase the level of bad cholesterol in your body, and this can increase the risk of heart diseases and stroke.
On the other hand, unsaturated fats are mostly found in oils from plants, e.g. in olive oil, almonds and avocados. They are also found in fish oils. Unsaturated fats, however, protect your heart by reducing the level of bad cholesterol in your body and maintaining the levels of good cholesterol. Deficiency of the essential fatty acids founds in fats will result in increased susceptibility to infections, poor wound healing and decreased growth.
Hence, it is recommended to restrict fats to only 20-35 percent of your daily calories with a saturated fats composition of 10% or less.
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.
Fruit and Vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are rich sources of many essentials nutrients, including potassium, dietary fiber and vitamin c. Also, they are naturally low in sodium, calories and fat.
The high potassium content of fruits and vegetables helps to maintain healthy blood pressure, and its dietary fiber helps to reduce blood cholesterol levels, constipation and is necessary for proper bowel function.
People who eat more fruits as part of their overall diet are likely to have a reduced risk of some chronic diseases. As part of an overall healthy diet, eating foods such as fruits and vegetables with lower calories per cup instead of some other high calories food may help reduce calorie intake.
Not having enough fruit and vegetables in your diet can come with dire repercussions. These include scurvy from the deficiency of vitamin C, night blindness caused by vitamin A deficiency or bleeding disorders from a vitamin K deficiency. On the system level, there is a higher chance of heart disease and digestive problems.
While it is rare to have severe cases of excess fruit intake problems, you should also be aware that there is a reason why a 'balanced diet' is advised. As such, the daily recommended allowance for fruit intake is around 400grams per day.
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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The dairy class of food contains all fluid milk products alongside other products from milk that retain their calcium content.
Examples of these products include yoghurt, cheese and soy beverage. Dairy products are a rich source of calcium needed in the body for healthy bones and teeth, especially during childhood and adolescence. They also contain nutrients such as magnesium, potassium, and riboflavin, which are all needed for optimal growth and development.
Dairy products contain lactose, a type of natural sugar that is found in all milk products. Lactose is broken down in the body by the enzyme lactase. However, lactase production reduces with age, and because of this, it is common for people to develop lactose intolerance later in life. If this happens, other food sources that are rich in calcium and can serve as an alternative to dairy products include; soybeans, soy products, leafy greens and calcium-fortified cereals.
Consuming too much of dairy products also has adverse effects. This is because milk and other dairy products are some of the top sources of saturated fats and cholesterol. Diets rich in saturated fats and cholesterol increase the risk of heart diseases. This is why UK guidelines advice only two-three portions of dairy products and also that you go for dairy products with reduced fat content, e.g. skimmed milk.
To create a healthy and balanced diet, these five food classes should be combined in the recommended proportions. The USDA advises that half of your food plate consists of fruits and vegetables with the other half made up of grains (carbohydrates) and protein. They also recommend that you accompany each meal with a serving of low-fat dairy products or any other source that contains the major nutrient (calcium) that dairy provides.
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.
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.
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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