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What is Healthy Eating?

Health and Wellbeing

Eating healthily is one of the choices we can make to give ourselves the best possible chance of physical, mental and emotional well-being. “Food is better medicine than drugs.”(Patrick Holford). It is easy to feel cheated when our bodies let us down and do not allow us to lead happy, pain-free and fulfilling lives. But how can we expect them to support us when we often give little thought as to how we, in turn, support them?

There is no doubt that the most sophisticated organism on Earth makes a valiant attempt at converting everything thrown at it into useful ‘fuel’. However, we cannot expect it to perform miracles!

The human body requires a balanced, varied diet incorporating all the necessary nutrients for growth and development, at the same time arming itself against illness and disease. The long accepted mantra “We are what we eat” (The German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, 1848) has never been more true.

Processed junk food and over-eating, along with polluted air, chemically altered substances that come into contact with our skin and lack of exercise, all have the potential to be life-limiting. It may be very difficult to have complete control over all the harmful contaminants and influences in our environment, but we can assume responsibility for what we put in our mouths. An awareness of good quality food, balanced nutrition and an understanding of appropriate quantities can help us make informed choices about a healthy diet.

Food Groups

As a ‘rule of thumb’ all foods come under one of the following categories. However, those that are rich in multiple nutrients may not fit exclusively into any one group.

1) Fruit and Vegetables

Fruit and vegetables are an excellent source of vitamins (A, C and E) and minerals including folic acid, zinc, magnesium and phosphorous. Eating a wide range of fruit and vegetables to include the whole spectrum of colours, maximises their health giving properties. They also contain a great deal of dietary fibre which aids healthy bacteria in the digestive tract. Remaining largely undigested, it helps to maintain bowel health, lower cholesterol, control blood sugar, prevent chronic renal failure and maintain a healthy weight. Many of us do not eat enough fibre.

2) Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are plant-based foods. They consist of starches and sugars that break down into glucose to feed cells and provide essential energy to the brain and body. Grains – wheat, oats, barley, rye – used in bread, other baked items, porridge and pasta, together with rice and potatoes are important starches. Whole grains break down more slowly in the gut to avoid spikes in blood sugar. Useful quantities of fibre, B vitamins and magnesium come from whole grains and tubers. Refined carbohydrates have had most of the fibre, vitamins and minerals removed creating, for example, white flour and white rice.

Sugars are ‘natural’, as in fruit and milk and ‘free’ as in granulated sugar, glucose syrup and honey. Refined and processed ‘free’ sugars and syrups are found in sweets, fizzy drinks, breakfast cereals and baked goods.

3) Protein

Meat, fish, eggs, legumes (peas, beans and lentils) and nuts all come under the heading of protein and represent a great fuel source. Important in boosting stamina, protein helps in the production of hormones and enzymes and supports the growth and repair of cells, especially muscles.

4) Dairy

Milk and the products of milk – yogurt, cheese and butter supply us notably with calcium to strengthen bones and teeth. However, other benefits are derived from the carbohydrates, protein, many vitamins (A, D, B12, riboflavin and niacin) and minerals (phosphorous and potassium) inherent in everything ‘dairy’.

5) Fat

Fat is a source of energy. It protects the major organs in the body by reinforcing cell membranes and is an insulator. It helps with the absorption of vitamins A,D,E and K.

Saturated fat comes from meat and dairy and is found in some vegetable derivatives such as coconut and palm oil. It can increase the risk of heart disease by raising ‘bad’ cholesterol.

Monounsaturated fat helps prevent heart disease by lowering ‘bad’ cholesterol. Olive and rapeseed oil, together with nuts, seeds and avocados have this beneficial effect.

Polyunsaturated fat contains omega 3 and omega 6 (essential fats the body cannot produce) and lowers ‘bad’ cholesterol. It is found in sunflower and corn oil, nuts, seeds and oily fish.

pulses

A Balancing Act

A balanced diet can address all the human body’s nutritional needs and be the first line of attack in preventing illness and weight gain. By supporting the immune system (“the set of tissues which work together to resist infections” Wikipedia) and with an emphasis on quality and quantity they will help maintain physical, mental and emotional well-being. An awareness of the different food groups and the proportion of each food type necessary for optimum health has led to very similar recommendations about what we put on our plates.

There is much agreement that diets should be plant based with lesser proportions of items from the protein, dairy and fat categories.

The aim for optimum health should be –

  1. Up to 50% fruit and vegetables
  2. Up to 25% carbohydrates
  3. 15 – 20% protein
  4. 5 -10% dairy
  5. Up to 5% fat

Equally essential is water in various forms. Opinions differ as to a daily amount and can range from three to seven pints. About 20% of fluid intake comes from food.

The British Nutrition Foundation www.nutrition.org.uk

The Eatwell Guide – NHS www.nhs.uk

Are there ‘Elephants in the Room’?

Sugar, salt and fat – the three food words with the worst connotations! These are the three most commonly used additives in processed food. We use them ourselves as taste enhancers, probably without considering their potential harm.

‘Free’ sugars are empty calories that cause tooth decay.

Salt is an important nutrient helping to regulate blood pressure, fluid balance, muscle contractions and nerve function. However, there is much controversy as to its over-use.

Saturated (mainly animal) fats and trans fats are linked to high ‘bad’ cholesterol and heart disease. The chemical properties of trans fats (cheap processed hydrogenated cooking oils) are deemed to be amongst the most dangerous of food additives

Which Foods should we leave on the Supermarket Shelves?

“We are living in a world today where lemonade is made from artificial flavours and furniture polish is made from real lemons.” (Alfred E. Newman)

Four ‘ Rules’

Substitute fresh/frozen, seasonal (if possible) foods for the following:-

  1. Manufactured goods containing added sugar, excessive salt and any trans fats.
  2. Items with chemically enhanced additives such as sweeteners, preservatives, artificial flavourings and colourings.
  3. Any processed food that has a long list of ingredients.
  4. Those where it is not immediately obvious how the product has been made.

It is always important to read food labels and look for anything that rings potential alarm bells! 

To eat or not to eat? 

The following should take up a small percentage of a healthy, balanced diet.

Pastries, biscuits, cakes, sweetened breakfast cereals, canned fruit in syrup, sweets, candy bars, fizzy drinks, low fat yogurts, ice cream and most desserts. 

Canned soups, canned meat, processed meat (eg sausages, salami, burgers), processed cheese, ‘spreads’, frozen meals, processed meals in any form and fast food to include pizzas, fish and chips, burgers, fried chicken, kebabs, milkshakes and doughnuts – amongst many others.

However, we must remember that food does not only sustain us it is also one of life’s greatest pleasures. To consider a blanket ban on all food deemed unhealthy would be unrealistic and very difficult, if not impossible, to maintain. The occasional treat can be an acceptable indulgence as part of a wholesome, varied diet and do no long lasting harm.

Should we count Calories (kilocalories or kcals)?

The amount of energy we get from food is measured in calories. If we do not use all the calories we consume the excess is stored as fat and can result in weight gain.

A healthy daily calorie count for men is 2.500kcal and for women 2.000kcal. When this is exceeded on a regular basis by a significant amount it may lead to obesity which can be a serious risk to health.

Counting calories can be a useful tool in any attempt to lose weight but it is still very important to identify the right sort of calories in terms of nutrition. A proper balance of healthy nutrients is essential to regain a healthy weight in a safe way.

Spices

Spice it up!

Reducing the number of ‘take-outs’ – those ever tempting pizzas, burgers and chips, and those seductive fizzy drinks, sweets and doughnuts, in pursuit of a healthier life style need not mean a bland and boring diet.

Chefs worldwide have been inspired by the wonderful aromas, tastes and health giving properties of herbs and spices. For thousands of years across many cultures their sensational flavours and health benefits have been revered.

From subtle, warming, earthy, nutty and smokey, to rich, peppery, tart, fiery and explosive, herbs and spices can turn ordinary food into the amazing. In chillis, curries, sauces, stews, stir-fries, stocks, dips, salads, rubs and condiments – whether slow cooked, barbecued, baked, grilled, steamed or fried – herbs and spices come into their own in revitalising what we eat. See healthy recipes.

These fragrant, aromatic, natural food enhancers can reduce the need for added salt, sugar and fat. What’s more they have the unexpected added bonus of essential nutrients to boost our well-being. An immense range of common place and exotic herbs and spices have medicinal properties that have been known over the centuries. They are full of healthy plant chemicals and are far more effective than supplements in their ability to ward off disease. Anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antimicrobial, antioxidant, full of vitamins and minerals, herbs and spices are recommended as an important part of our everyday diet. They can help in preventing obesity and are a surprising tool in the maintenance of all bodily functions. Spice blends are particularly good giving multiple health benefits.

Pursuing lifestyle changes incorporating healthy eating is an opportunity to experiment with an extensive range of new tastes and aromas. The joys of cooking cannot be overestimated. It is an adventure waiting to happen…

eating together

Food, glorious Food!

“The heart of the home beats in the kitchen and a healthy one beats three times a day.” (Bangambiki Habyarimana. The Great Pearl of Wisdom)

A good relationship with food should be part of a child’s very early development. Learning by example that a healthy varied diet encompassing many different tastes, colours and textures can be fun, is a life-long, valuable asset.

Now more than ever, it is important to consider what supports us on the inside. Surrounded by a multitude of dietary options we need to be equipped with the knowledge that helps us select the most beneficial in terms of growth and development, resistance to harm and the promotion of overall well-being. A robust constitution is a goal well worth pursuing.

Food is an essential ‘building block’ contributing to our physical, mental and emotional welfare. As we do not have to run marathons and climb mountains to benefit from exercise, neither do we need to become vegetarian or vegan (as commendable as a totally plant based diet can be) to profit from what we put on our plates. The importance of food should never be underestimated. The preparation and enjoyment of healthy food is an endless pleasure with endless benefits.

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