With so many varying and conflicting emerging views on what a ‘healthy’ diet and lifestyle is, it can be tricky to know which route to adopt to achieve general good health and overall physical and mental well-being.
It’s clear diet can play a vital role in lifelong health as well as how we feel within ourselves on a day to day basis; and that a healthy diet can contribute to overall feelings of wellness and vitality. But what is a healthy diet?
There are certain substances that are essential for the human body to operate and basically stay ‘healthy’. A healthy diet is simply a diet which provides these essential substances and in doing so helps to maintain or improve overall good health; and sustain human life. But what should this ‘healthy’ diet consist of?
Our body is made from 4 kinds of biomolecules, namely, proteins; lipids -fats; carbohydrates; and nucleic acids. The body requires all of these substances via diet as well as varying amounts of essential vitamins; essential minerals and micronutrients; trace minerals; essential fatty acids; and essential amino acids; each having a role to play in maintaining health and providing fuel for the body to function. And it goes without saying a healthy diet should include plenty of fluids, namely sufficient amounts of water.
So why do we mess with these basics and come up with a whole host of ‘super diets’ which largely involve cutting out some of the substances we need to maintain optimum health?
Sticking to these simple steps can help us to achieve the basics of a healthy diet:
- Eat 5 A DAY - Eat a variety of between 5-7 portions of different fruits and vegetables. Vegetables are important sources of many vitamins and nutrients, including potassium, dietary fiber, folate (folic acid), vitamin A, and vitamin C. Fruits provide the body with vitamins and minerals, including antioxidants, such as vitamin A, C, E and selium, as well as being a source of nucleic acids.
- Include starchy carbohydrate foods like potatoes, bread, rice or pasta. Starchy foods should make up just over one third of everything we eat, so should form the foundations of a meal.1 Carbohydrates provide the body with energy.
- Include some dairy or dairy alternatives (such as soya drinks). Milk and dairy foods such as cheese and yoghurt are good sources of protein and contain a range of vitamins, minerals and nutrients, such as calcium, which helps keep bones and teeth healthy.
- Include plenty of beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other protein. Increase consumption of beans and pulses; they are a great source of protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals. They are a good source of nucleic acids, along with fish. Eat 2 portions of sustainably sourced fish per week, one of which should be oily; providing essential omega 3 and 6 fatty acids. Eat less red and processed meat; but some red meat in our diets can be beneficial. The body needs protein to build and repair tissues and to make enzymes, hormones, and other body chemicals. Protein is an important building block of bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, and blood.
- Opt for unsaturated oils and spreads and eat in small amounts.
- Drink plenty of fluids, especially water. Recommended amount is 6-8 cups/glasses per day.2
With so many restrictive diets being offered as the answer to a ‘healthy’ way of eating, often based on reduced calorie intake and coupled with an intensive and strict exercise regime; It’s now time to redefine what ‘healthy’ is in terms of both diet and physical exercise. In particular, recent trends based on distorted views of what ‘healthy’ is have led to perceptions of a healthy body weight equating to a low body weight. This means a change in attitude is required as to what a healthy body weight should be.
Why we need fats and fatty acids
There is a danger of thinking that eating healthy and maintaining a healthy body weight means not eating fats. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Our bodies need fat:
- Fats are a vital source of rich energy; 1 gram of fat gives the body 37 kJ (9 kcal).
- The body will use fatty acids as energy for the cells if there isn’t sufficient glucose to use as fuel instead, so they play an important function as an energy reserve.
- Fats help regulate body temperature.
- Fats function to protect body tissues and organs.
- ‘Good’ fatty acids can lower ‘Bad’ cholesterol.
Furthermore, fat has the crucial job of transporting the four fat-soluble Vitamins: A, D, E, and K.3
All fats are made up of both saturated and unsaturated fatty acids. But it’s all about the balance. Some fatty acids are crucial to the human body but others can be harmful if over indulged.4 If we consume too much saturated fat it stands to reason that the levels of this ‘bad’ fat will increase in our blood system. And calories that are not used by the body are changed to fat and stored in the body. We need to give our bodies the right amounts of the right types of fat but bear in mind that too much fat can lead to health problems.
Calories aren't bad or unhealthy. The body needs calories for energy. The body needs some calories just to function; to make the heart beat and allow the lungs to breathe, for example. Consuming too many calories, however, and not using/burning enough of them off through physical activity, will inevitably lead to weight gain and can lead to health problems. Likewise, consuming too few calories can be damaging to health and put stress on the body as it struggles to function.
The number of calories we need daily will depend on factors such as age, metabolism and amount of physical activity. We all come in all sizes, ages and have different rates of metabolism; so each person's body burns energy (calories) at different rates. This basically means there isn't a set or right number of calories each person should live by..There is, however, an average or recommended amount of calories for adults offered as a guideline.
As part of a healthy, balanced diet, men require approximately 10,500kJ (2,500kcal) per day to maintain a healthy weight and women need about 8,400kJ (2,000kcal) per day. An adult’s other reference intakes ("RIs") for a day are:
Total fat: 70g
Total sugars: 90g
Calories are sourced from three main macronutrients in the foods we eat, namely protein, carbohydrates and fat.
Carbohydrate contains 4 calories per gram.
Protein contains 4 calories per gram.
Fat contains 9 calories per gram.5
Studies have indicated that any more than 30% of our calorie intake via fat is unhealthy. Within this 30% of total fat intake, only 10% of this fat should be saturated fat.
Under-eating or consuming too few calories and over-eating or consuming too many calories can both have drastic results in terms of health. All of us can benefit from eating a healthy, balanced diet that includes the right number of calories; not too many, not too few.
BMI - Body Mass Index
The Body mass Index is a useful way to check if our weight is healthy in relation to height. Online BMI calculators are available that will do the maths for you. There is a healthy weight range for each height and if the BMI falls below or rises above the recommended weight range it’s definitely time to reassess diet and lifestyle to avoid serious health risks.
A BMI below 18.5 indicates that you are underweight. Being underweight is not healthy. A BMI below 18.5 indicates that you may need to build your weight up.It’s important to eat a healthy, balanced diet and include daily physical exercise (ideally a combination of aerobic and muscle strengthening) to maintain a healthy weight. Being underweight can have serious health implications such as weak bones; osteoporosis; poor immune system; anemia; fertility issues; and hair loss.
A BMI of over 25 indicates being overweight. Being overweight also has serious implications to health. If overweight we carry a much higher risk of diseases such as heart disease and stroke, type 2 diabetes; so knowing your BMI result can help us to know when we need to lose weight for reasons of health.
Limitations of the BMI
The BMI can indicate if we’re carrying too much weight but it can't tell if we’re carrying too much fat. The BMI can't tell the difference between excess fat, muscle, or bone. A good way to get around this problem is to take a waist measurement to check there isn’t too much fat around the stomach, which could indicate an increased risk of developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes and stroke. The BMI result can show as healthy but there could still be excess waist fat which heightens the risk of developing such diseases. An example of how the BMI result could be misleading can be seen when we look at adults who lose muscle as they get older falling into the "healthy weight" range even though they may be carrying excess fat. Likewise, extremely muscular adults and athletes could get a result of "overweight" or "obese" even though their body fat is low. 6
Bad ‘fad’ dietary habits
There is a risk with some interpretations of what ‘healthy’ equates to, resulting in strict ‘super diets’ that advocate cutting out certain food types considered ‘unhealthy’ which inevitably results in deficiencies in essential vitamins, nutrients and minerals. Modern day obsessions with cutting out dairy, gluten, yeast, wheat, fat and protein, for instance, or worse still cutting out everything except one food substance; coupled with extreme exercise regimes and maintenance of low body weights may seem like the answer to a ‘healthy lifestyle’ and a ‘healthy’ body, but can actually cause serious malnutrition and health concerns.
It’s necessary to note that while food pyramids recommend we eat a balanced diet, which includes dairy and gluten, for example, this is only good for us if we aren’t intolerant to specific food substances.
There is a danger of certain ‘free from’ diets becoming the latest trend rather than being followed for reasons of health or necessity. Both the Dairy and Gluten free diet have the potential of falling into this category; and can be a choice for those who tend towards an ‘alternative’ lifestyle, rather than a dietary requirement for reasons of health.
Gluten is needed by the body. It’s a major source of carbohydrates, which is what you need to keep going. Gluten is also a source of fibre, which keeps your bowels moving correctly.
If you suffer from Coeliac Disease, however, gluten can be dangerous for you - it damages your intestines and can cause malnutrition as your body is unable to absorb all the vitamins and minerals it needs from your foods.
Saturated fats tend to be found in meat, particularly red meat, so red meat can be shunned as ‘unhealthy’ for this reason. Cutting out red meat and only eating white can lead to deficiencies in iron; Vitamin B12; and Vitamin B9. Eating some red meat is an absolutely healthy dietary choice, providing the body with essential B vitamins, iron and zinc.
Essentially B Vitamins are crucial nutrients needed by the body for growth, development, and a range of other important functions. The Vitamin B complex supports the promotion of normal energy metabolism leading to a reduction in fatigue (Vitamins B1,B2,B6,B12); normal nervous system function leading to overall improvement of psychological function (Vitamins 1,B2,B3,B6,B8,B9,B12); blood flow to active tissues (Vitamin B3) and can also prevent oxidative stress, caused by free radicals; and offers support and maintenance of the immune system. Other benefits of the Vitamin B complex include support and maintenance of: skin; mucous membranes; vision; iron metabolism; red blood cell production; and the digestive system.
Red meat is an excellent source of Iron, required by the body for the formation of hemoglobin, which transports oxygen from the lungs to cells throughout the body. Other sources of Iron include eggs, dark green leafy vegetables, legumes, whole grains and enriched food products, like cereals.
Red meat is also a source of Zinc. Zinc (Zn) is a trace element, that’s found in almost every cell in the human body and is a vital cofactor component of many enzymes. Zinc is essential, meaning it’s only found in the body due to its consumption in foods; we are unable to make it. Zinc is found in other foods such as organ meats, yeast, whole grains and eggs. Zinc is known to contribute to the health of the immune system and is highly effective in combating cold and flu symptoms. Additionally, Zinc is an antioxidant that protects DNA, protein and lipid structure and is thought to be effective in helping to fight infections; also an antiviral, particularly useful in preventing lower respiratory infections.
If choosing to cut out red meat for moral reasons such as veganism or vegetarianism eating foods rich in vitamin B such as broccoli, bananas and tomato juice in addition to taking a B vitamin complex can help to ensure you are getting adequate amounts of the essential B vitamins.
If cutting out red meat due to the misguided idea that it’s unhealthy then perhaps all that’s needed is a healthy way of consuming red meat. Quite simply, the key is moderation; not eating too much red meat, mixed with a good exercise regime and ensuring we cover all the bases in terms of a healthy, mixed diet.
Saturated fats tend to be found in dairy products, such as butter and cheese so dairy-free is often embraced as a healthy diet to undertake. There are a number of nutrients that humans get from dairy products. These include: calcium, Vitamin A, Vitamin B1, Vitamin B2 and Vitamin B12, iodine, protein, phosphorous and potassium. Cutting out dairy can lead to a deficiency in calcium; magnesium; and essential B Vitamins. Calcium is essential for maintaining strong and healthy bones. Vitamin A plays a vital role in bone growth, reproduction and contributes towards a healthy immune system. It’s also beneficial to the skin and assists in getting rid of bacteria and viruses in the mucous membranes. It’s also vital in maintaining good vision and used for the normal metabolism of iron. Vitamin A, known as Retinol, is only found in animal sources. Some people find an intolerance to dairy in which case care should be taken to ensure essential nutrients, such as calcium and essential B vitamins, are gained via other dietary sources. 8
Average recommended exercise.
To maintain good health and a healthy body weight we not only need to eat healthily we need to exercise and keep our bodies active as well. Too little exercise can lead to weight and other health issues. Too much exercise can also be harmful.
The recommended amount of exercise for the average adult is 150 minutes of weekly physical activity, consisting of a mixture of aerobic and strength exercises. This equates to 30 minutes of exercise over 5 days of the week. It’s worth noting that one minute of vigorous activity provides the same health benefits as two minutes of moderate activity.9
We know a certain amount of exercise is good for us and exercise makes us feel good. There is a risk of doing too much exercise however which can lead to an obsession with exercise. Too much exercise puts both the body and mind under undue stress and can have serious health implications.
It’s important to not exercise too much. The recommended guideline of 30 minutes of physical activity per day, however, may not feel like enough for some people, especially those of us who are athletes, long distance or marathon runners, for example. These guidelines are there to help and it’s accepted that each body is different and some people will be able to cope with more exercise than others without it causing undue physical strain and stress. As with most in things in life it’s all about balance and moderation; coupled with getting to know your own body and physical limits, as well as being mindful of individual physical health. Quite simply; make a habit of exercising enough for your own personal good health. Don’t do too little; don’t do too much. Look after the body that we’ve been blessed with so our body can look after us.
It’s important, within our weekly exercise regime, to take a break from exercise, particularly if your general routine is intensive. So including rest days and days when exercise focuses on lighter-intensity training is crucial; giving the body time to recover.
Extreme over exercising can put us at risk from:
- Excessive weight loss.
- Menstruation health problems for women.
- Irritability and mood swings.
- Frequent and reoccurring injuries.
- Heart problems/cardiovascular damage. Heart attack/stroke.
- Muscle, joint and bone issues.
- Mobility issues. Stress fractures.
- Risk of isolation and withdrawal from social relationships. Although taking up a sport can be a socially integrative experience, an obsession with exercise can have a negative effect on personal relationships.
- Risk of death in extreme cases.10
Some people who over-exercise also follow a severely restricted calorie intake diet, with the aim of increasing muscle tone and mass. This dietary trend towards a high-protein/low-carb intake, coupled with intensive over exercising, isn’t a wise move to make in terms of health. This kind of ‘lifestyle’ can have hugely negative impacts on overall health and result in the loss of both essential fat and muscle.
Super healthy; fit; not nutrient deficient; and happy!
So being super healthy isn’t rocket science. It’s not the latest ‘free-from’ restrictive diet that cuts out essential nutrients, or an unhealthy obsession with restricted calories either; Nor is it the latest intense ‘over exercise’ regime. It’s about being mindful of eating a varied, balanced and healthy diet and exercising enough to keep us fit and healthy. This basically means our diet should contain a balance and range of the right foods that contain all the essential substances needed by the body in the right proportions; A healthy diet means consuming the right amount of the right food and drink to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight, that will provide the body with all the substances it requires to carry on operating. In addition to this, it can be a good idea to enrich a healthy diet with the right combination of health/dietary supplements to help support the immune system and any other specific, individual health conditions. Ultimately being healthy is about a healthy state of mind and attitude towards eating and exercising. Very rarely in life does the philosophy ‘All or nothing’ work successfully. Redefining healthy is as simple as leading a lifestyle in balance, based on healthy eating and healthy exercising.
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