There is so much information out there about what you should and shouldn’t eat, a lot of which is contradictory or changes at frequent intervals. It’s no wonder people don’t know what is and isn’t good for them when even the ‘experts’ can’t agree.
What you regularly eat and drink has a major impact on your health. And of course, regular exercise is also a vital component of a healthy lifestyle, along with stress management, relaxation and getting good quality sleep. Food provides our bodies with the building blocks it needs to grow, repair, and maintain the healthy function of all its systems. If we don’t provide our body with good quality building blocks then we will, sooner or later, suffer with poor health. The following diet recommendations apply to those without specific health concerns. Seek further advice from your health care professional if do you have specific concerns.
Firstly, if your diet could do with some improvement, you don’t need to change everything all at once. Make one change at a time. Simply improving your water intake can make a huge difference, so perhaps start there.
The number 1 principle is to eat as natural a diet as possible. Try to eat foods as close to their raw natural state as you can. For example, instead of eating canned beetroot, try fresh beetroot. You may need to adjust the shape it takes on your plate – grated fresh beetroot in a salad is probably more palatable than a fresh slice.
Ideally, at least half of what you eat should be fruit and vegetables, mainly vegetables. Fresh is best, but lightly steamed vegies are good too. Try to cook vegies for as short a time as possible as heat destroys their health promoting enzymes and vitamins. Include dark leafy greens like English or baby spinach, or Cos lettuce instead of lighter coloured lettuce, as they have a much greater nutritional content than standard iceberg lettuce.
Eat a rainbow of colours from your fruit and vegies. The more colours you eat the greater range of beneficial compounds you’ll get. Importantly, many plant compounds help protect us from cancer.
You need adequate amounts of protein every day. Have some protein with each meal, especially at breakfast, it helps keep you feeling full for longer and reduces the need for snacks. An easy way to know how much meat is the right serving amount for you is to have an amount about the size of your palm, including it’s thickness. If you don’t eat meat then you need to be aware of how much protein the foods you do eat contain. There are many charts and resources on the internet that can help you work this out. For a very good summary, search www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au for protein. You also get good levels of protein in beans, nuts and seeds, dairy products and eggs, and smaller amounts in fruit and vegies. Limit the intake of processed meats like salami, hams etc.
If you exercise strenuously or are trying to build muscles, you don’t need to increase your protein intake despite what protein powder makers tell you. Your body will build more muscles just because you use them. A very high protein intake can strain your kidneys and liver and cause your body to loose calcium, which can then lead to calcium loss from your bones and increase your risk of osteoporosis or fractures.
Healthy oils include monounsaturated oils like olive oil, coconut oil and avocado oil. Oily fish like salmon, tuna, and sardines provide healthy omega-3 fats. Fresh fish is best but canned is better than not having any. Choose fish in spring water instead of brine, or in olive oil instead of other oils. Omega-3s are important as they reduce inflammation. Our diets are typically too high in omega-6 fats that can increase inflammation throughout the body. The oils used in processed foods are usually omega-6 rich fats. Inflammation is implicated in most disease states including heart disease, arthritis, allergies, autoimmune diseases, cancer, and type 2 diabetes. Safflower, sunflower, and corn oil are high in omega-6 fats, so try to avoid/reduce consumption of those oils.
Avoid trans-fatty acids. These fats interfere with the normal functioning of body cells, increase the risk of heart disease, cancer, obesity, and infertility - to name just a few of the problems they cause. You’ll find them in most processed foods! Check the label of any food in a package.
We all know we need to drink water. How much? That varies depending on your level of activity, the weather, your metabolism, the amount in the food you eat, etc. Generally, we could all do with more than we get. Look at the colour of your urine as a guide. The first urination of the day will generally be quite yellow, but for the rest of the day you want it to be fairly colourless. Gradually increase your water intake throughout the day until you notice a change. If you take a multi-vitamin it will be harder to gauge as vitamin B2 will turn your urine bright yellow, but you will notice a decrease in colour intensity with increased water intake.
If you can, filter your water to reduce the amount of chlorine and fluoride (if you get town water). Use glass or stainless steel drink bottles rather than aluminium or plastics, to reduce the intake of potentially harmful substances. Likewise use glass or stainless steel when cooking instead of aluminium or plastics. Definitely don’t use any cling wrap in the microwave - pop a plate or bowl over the top instead. Soft plastics contain compounds that can interfere with our hormone systems, and can be cancer causing.
Loads of vegetables and fruits, adequate protein and healthy oils plus a good water intake are the essentials for a healthy diet. So what about dairy products and cereals and grains?
Our ability to digest milk tends to decrease with age causing lactose intolerance. Milk is after all designed by nature to nourish our babies and children. You may be able to tolerate milk in your tea but a whole glass of milk may cause bloating, gas, diarrhoea and/or abdominal discomfort 30 minutes to 2 hours later. So we turn to alternatives such as soy milk. Any milk in the UHT blocks will be quite processed. A healthier alternative is to make your own almond milk! Sure it’s not as easy as buying a carton, but it’s not hard. Google will tell you how.
Dairy intake can be kept low if you get enough calcium from your vegetables, nuts and seeds and from sardines or canned salmon eaten with the bones. A cup of lightly cooked spinach has 80% of the calcium of a cup of milk. The best way to make sure you have strong bones is to use them. You need to move and put a strain on your bones so your body knows you need to keep them strong. Use it or lose it! Your body is smart. If you don’t make use of your bone strength it’s not going to waste resources keeping them strong.
Cereals and grains can provide us with valuable fibre to help keep the bowels moving, as well as carbohydrates that the body breaks down into sugars and uses for energy. Whilst you can get both of those from your fruit and vegetables, most people enjoy their cereals. They are cheap and convenient. But you do want to avoid rapid increases in blood sugar levels from highly refined carbohydrates, which are quickly digested and absorbed into the bloodstream. This causes a rapid release of insulin to push the sugar out of the bloodstream into body cells, which then leads to a rapid fall in blood sugar levels and a strong craving for more carbohydrate foods. Before you know it you’ve eaten the whole pack of biscuits or ½ a loaf of bread! Instead of white bread, eat wholegrain breads. Instead of sweet biscuits try some wholegrain crackers (low salt varieties) with wholesome dips (low in artificial ingredients, high in vegetable content). Try replacing a portion of white flour in recipes with wholemeal flour. Brown rice, and Basmati or Doongara rice are better options than other white rice as they are digested slower. Use Yellow Box or Manuka honey instead of sugar or artificial sweeteners. Speaking of sugar - STOP DRINKING SOFT DRINKS! They are full of sugar and play havoc on your blood sugar levels.
Salt is much condemned for causing high blood pressure. Salt causes your body to retain more water than it should, so your blood volume becomes higher than it should, causing high blood pressure. If the excess water leaks out of your blood vessels due to the increased pressure, you may get fluid retention (eg. swollen ankles, puffy bags under the eyes). Most processed foods have added salt. Again, check the labels and compare products. Avoid table salt as it also contains aluminium to make it flow nicely. Aluminium is toxic and is linked to Alzheimer’s disease. Replace table salt with sea salt crystals (Himalayan or Celtic are great), but make sure to reduce your salt intake from processed foods.
Make changes gradually so your body has time to adapt. Pick one thing to change at a time so you don’t feel overwhelmed. Swap processed foods for healthier ones. Take the time to look closely at one food item each time you shop, comparing the labels of different brands. Find the one with the least amount of numbers or chemical sounding ingredients. The better quality one may cost more but consider it an investment in your health, you’ll save on medical bills later!