To understand what a nutritious, balanced diet is, it’s important to understand the various nutrients your body needs, what they do, how much is needed, and what foods provide them.
Most people in the industrialised world consume far too much fat and not nearly enough fibre, though for most people a healthy diet isn’t too difficult. In most cases, eating healthier is a simple matter of eating a little more fruit, vegetables, grains, pasta, and potatoes.
In the UK, one of every three people will develop cancer at some point in their lives. A healthy diet that includes at least five servings of fruits and vegetables can significantly reduce the risk of both heart disease and cancer.
Eating a healthy diet means eating the right amounts of foods from each of five basic groups.
Many people are often not even aware that the may have a nutritional deficiency.
Grains and Starches
This group consists of foods like bread pasta, noodles, rice, and cereals, as well as starchy foods like potatoes and rice. These foods should make up a significant portion of each meal. Opt for high fibre foods that are high in B vitamins.
Fruit and Vegetables
Fresh, frozen, and canned fruits and vegetables are all fantastic sources of vitamins, minerals, and fibre, as well as antioxidants and other nutrients. Fruits and vegetables are also low in fat and calories. Aim to eat five servings every day.
Here’s how to know what a serving looks like:
2 scoops of tiny vegetables like corn or peas, green vegetables like cabbage or broccoli, or root vegetables like carrots
1 small bowl of tiny fruits like grapes or strawberries
2 small fruits like plums or peaches
1 medium size fruit like apple or orange or medium vegetables like tomato
1 medium slice of large fruits like melon
1 medium bowl of greens
1 glass of juice
Dairy products such as milk, cheese, and yoghurt are high in protein and calcium, as well as several vitamins and minerals. They also tend to be high in unhealthy saturated fat, so consume these in moderation. Aim for two to three low-fat servings a day. Calcium is essential for strong bones and teeth.
You need about two servings of high protein foods such as meat, poultry, fish, lentils, nuts, and beans each day. Try to include a couple of servings each week of oily fish, such as sardines and salmon, for omega-3 fatty acids. Red meat is especially high in iron and vitamin B12, but can also be high in unhealthy fat, so look for lean cuts.
Fat and Sugar
Limit your consumption of foods from this group, such as butter, cream, ice cream, spreads, oils, dressings, cakes, cookies, candies, sweet drinks, pastries, and crisps. These foods taste good, but they are low in nutrients but contain a lot of fat and calories. Opt for naturally sweet treats like fruits, or use honey, stevia, monk fruit or other natural sweeteners if you want a sweet treat rather than sugar or high fructose corn syrup.
Eating a variety of foods from the basic food groups is a good way to get you started on a healthy diet, but it’s just the beginning. Here is some more information to help you optimize your diet for good health.
While there are some health benefits to an occasional drink, especially red wine, drinking too much can result in elevated blood pressure, liver cirrhosis, and heart disease. If you drink, limit the amount you consume in any one evening. To learn more about alcohol and how it affects the body, click here.
There are two basic types of carbohydrates; starch and sugar.
Starches are found in bread, potatoes, rice, cereal, and pasta. These foods are generally low calorie by themselves, as long as you avoid adding fat and sugar. This means not adding butter or sour cream to baked potatoes, baking instead of frying, and not adding sugar to cereal. Starches are a good source of energy.
Sugar is high in calories but contain no nutritional value. Excess sugar leads to cavities, obesity, and blood sugar spikes and crashes. Eliminating sugar from your diet is the best way to cut calories without losing nutrients. Sugar is physically addictive, and quitting cold turkey can lead to headaches, cravings, and other withdrawal symptoms. If you find it difficult to eliminate sugar, try cutting back gradually. Choose water or fresh-squeezed juice over sodas and other sugary drinks. Swap the sugar in your tea or coffee for honey, stevia, or agave nectar, and steer clear of cakes, cookies, and candy.
Fats are vital for energy, brain and heart health, and satiety. However, many people eat too much of the wrong kinds of fats, leading to high cholesterol and increased risk of heart disease and stroke. The two main types of fats are saturated and unsaturated.
Unsaturated fats can be further categorized as polyunsaturated and monounsaturated. These fats promote good brain and heart health and are found in olive and other vegetable oils, avocado, oily fish, and products labelled as high in polyunsaturated fat.
These are the unhealthy variety of fat that many people consume in excess. These fats are responsible for increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease and are found in red meat, full-fat dairy products, butter, pastries, fried foods, and chocolate.
Try cutting back on your overall fat, and focus more on heart-healthy unsaturated fats. Swap butter or margarine for healthier options and fried foods for baked or grilled. When cooking with red meat, cut away visible fat and remove skin from poultry before cooking.
Fibre keeps your intestines healthy and keeps things moving, along with providing a variety of nutrients. Fibre is found in whole grain, fruits and vegetables, rice, pasta, potatoes, beans, and lentils.
Proteins are the body’s primary building blocks. Proteins are needed to make and repair tissues, organs, skin. They are also needed in the production of hormones, neurotransmitters, and enzymes to keep the body functioning smoothly. Most people think of meat when they think of protein, but protein is also found in eggs, nuts, lentils, and beans.
Salt is vital to regulating fluid levels in the cells and controlling muscle function, but too much can lead to high blood pressure, can exacerbate asthma symptoms, and even lead to kidney failure or stomach cancer. Most people eat too much salt and would benefit from cutting back. Avoid salty snacks like chips, choose nuts with no salt added, choose herbs and spices to flavour your food instead of salt, and limit consumption of salty foods like ham and bacon. Also, read food labels, as many processed foods contain a surprising amount of salt.
Vitamins and Minerals
Vitamins and minerals are vital for a wide range of biological processes. Those who eat a healthy diet consisting of a variety of whole foods probably get enough vitamins and minerals without supplements. If you have or think you may have a nutrient deficiency, please talk to your doctor before using a supplement, as too much of a nutrient can be as harmful as not enough.
Vitamin A is vital to normal cell reproduction and keeps hair and skin healthy and radiant. Vitamin A is found in leafy green vegetables, liver, dairy, apricots, and prunes. Vitamin A deficiency is rare in industrialized nations, though it may be seen in patients with coeliac disease and certain other illnesses that interfere with nutrient absorption. One of the early symptoms of deficiency is night blindness. Too much vitamin A is particularly dangerous during pregnancy and can lead to birth defects.
Vitamin B6 vital to the formation of red blood cells and DNA replication. Deficiency can cause neuropathy, cognitive impairments, and seizures. Processed foods are often fortified with B6, as processing can deplete the vitamin. It is available in poultry, kidney beans, liver, bananas, bread, spinach, and fortified breakfast cereal.
Vitamin B9, known as folate or folic acid, is especially vital during pregnancy. A deficiency during pregnancy can lead to neural tube defects such as spina bifida. Excess vitamin B9 is generally not dangerous, though it can mask the symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency. Vitamin B9 is found in leafy green vegetables, liver, poultry, whole grains, and kidney beans.
Vitamin B12 is needed to produce blood cells and nerve fibres. Deficiency can cause a specific type of anaemia, peripheral neuropathy, and damage to the white matter of the central nervous system. Too much vitamin B12 is generally considered toxic, though it is not recommended. Vitamin B12 is found in meat, poultry, fish, liver, and oysters.
Vitamin C helps the body absorb and use iron, maintain cardiovascular health, and protect against infection. Symptoms of vitamin C deficiency include depression, fatigue, impaired wound healing, and gingivitis. Severe vitamin C deficiency is known as scurvy, but this condition is rare in the modern day. Symptoms of vitamin C toxicity include nausea and diarrhea. Vitamin C is found in citrus fruits, green vegetables, tomatoes, and frozen peas. These foods should be eaten raw or lightly cooked, as Vitamin C is sensitive to heat and can be destroyed by overcooking.
Vitamin D is unique in that it can be synthesized in the body through exposure to sunshine. Vitamin D helps the body absorb and use calcium and is vital to healthy bones. Besides sunshine, vitamin D can be found in oily fish, egg yolk, fortified milk and breakfast cereal, and some brands of margarine. Simple steps can be taken to avoid Vitamin D deficiency.
Vitamin E is fat-soluble antioxidant and has powerful antioxidant functions. It reduces the risk of a variety of diseases, including cardiovascular disease and cancer, and protects cell membranes to promote overall health. Symptoms of vitamin E deficiency include haemolytic anaemia and neurological impairment. Vitamin E toxicity is uncommon, even at high doses. Symptoms of toxicity include weakness, fatigue, nausea, and diarrhoea. Vitamin E is found in leafy greens, wheat germ, nuts, vegetable oils, and egg yolks.
Like vitamins, minerals are needed in varying amounts for a variety of physiological functions.
Calcium is vital to growing strong bones and teeth, and for proper nervous system function. Symptoms of calcium deficiency include numbness and tingling, muscle cramps, fatigue, and poor appetite. Calcium toxicity is uncommon, but can lead to kidney failure. Calcium is found in dairy products and leafy green vegetables.
Magnesium is found in every cell in the body, including your bones, and is needed for hundreds of physiological functions, including making new cells, relaxing muscles, blood clotting, and using B vitamins. Symptoms of magnesium deficiency include weakness, muscle cramps, tremors, and anxiety. Too much magnesium can cause low blood pressure, lower heart rate, and reduce blood calcium. Magnesium is found in leafy greens, whole grains, nuts, and brown rice.
Potassium is vital for normal cell function, especially nerve and muscle cells, and good heart and kidney function. Symptoms of deficiency and toxicity are similar and include numbness, tingling, weakness, cramps, nausea, and vomiting. Potassium can be found in milk and many fruits and vegetables.
Phosphorus is found in every cell, particularly teeth and bones. Symptoms of deficiency include neurological impairment and disruption of cell function. Too much phosphorus can interfere the absorption of other minerals and hardening of soft tissue. Phosphorus is found in meat, dairy, and fish.
Iron is a vital component of haemoglobin, the part of the red blood cell responsible for transporting oxygen. Iron deficiency is known as anemia and causes fatigue, because the cells do not get enough oxygen. Symptoms of iron overdose include stomach cramps, nausea and vomiting. Iron is found in red meats, organ meats, fortified cereals and juices, oysters and fish. Cooking in cast iron cookware, especially cooking tomato-based or other acidic foods, can increase the iron content of food. Consuming vitamin C with high iron foods will help your body absorb more.
Zinc is critical to growth and fertility and is found in at least a hundred different enzymes. Zinc deficiency can be difficult to diagnose, as the symptoms are wide-ranging and include immune system impairment. Too much zinc can interfere with absorption of copper and iron. Zinc is found in meat, fish, dairy products, whole grains, and pulses.
Iodine is critical to normal thyroid function. Iodine deficiency can lead to hypothyroidism, mental impairment, and depression. Iodine toxicity is uncommon, but can cause burning of the mouth and throat, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhoea. Iodine is found in milk, seafood, and iodized salt.
Fluoride is vital to healthy tooth enamel and can help reduce the risk of osteoporosis. The most common symptoms of fluoride deficiency is cavities. Too much can cause stomach pain, headaches, nausea, and vomiting. Fluoride is found in canned fish, cooked spinach, tea, and, of course, toothpaste and other dental care products.
Selenium is vital to normal thyroid function, immune function, growth, and development. Deficiency can cause miscarriage in pregnant women. It can also cause cognitive impairment, fatigue, and hypothyroidism. Symptoms of selenium toxicity include garlic breath, hair loss, fatigue, irritability, and neurological damage. Brazil nuts are especially high in selenium. It can also be found in fish, red meat, cheese, and eggs.
Photo: Maciej Lewandowski on Flickr