The key to good health is eating well – that’s no secret. But there is a lot of confusion about what constitutes a healthy diet. Is fat the enemy? Is it carbs? Should I be counting calories? If something is organic, does that make it healthy?
As more research is done, professional approaches to nutrition change and that is where the confusion often stems. People are getting mixed messages. Just 15 years ago, fat was to be avoided at all costs, which led to a proliferation of low-fat packaged products, many of which were high in sugar. Now, experts are changing their approach, with many advocating a diet containing good fats, especially omega-3s, and advising people to limit their sugar intake.
A recipe for well-being: What's inside
Similarly, many people believe that if they are slim, they do not need to follow a healthy diet and can eat whatever they want. But being healthy isn’t all about appearances. People can be slim and unhealthy at the same time.
Fatima Sadek, registered dietitian and education and awareness specialist at the Imperial College London Diabetes Centre, says that by making the right food choices, people can protect themselves from a number of health problems. “Even for people at a healthy weight, a poor diet is associated with major health risks that can cause chronic diseases, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, osteoporosis and certain types of cancer,” she says.
“To maintain a healthy lifestyle, it is so important that each one of us strives to have a good nutritional intake, attributed to a balanced diet.”
As well as contributing to a healthier weight, good nutrition makes us feel great. “It helps ensure vitality and energy,” Sadek continues. “It enhances your ability to concentrate. It helps you achieve and maintain a body weight that’s right for you. And it helps ward off serious illnesses, like heart disease, certain cancers, diabetes and problems with the gallbladder.”
With so much confusion about what constitutes a healthy diet, how can we make the right food choices? “Often, unhealthy diets are energy-dense, which means they are much higher in calories than nutrient-dense diets that include fruits, vegetables and other fibre-rich foods,” Sadek explains.
An example of energy-dense, nutrient-poor food is fast food, such as combo meal of a burger, fries and soft drink, which is high in calories and saturated fats, with very little nutritional benefit. Similarly, most refined, processed food is energy-dense and nutrient poor, so choosing whole food, such as vegetables and lean meats, is a good start.
Sadek offers advice on what a healthy meal looks like on page 27, where she also addresses another major problem – portion sizes, which have increased dramatically over the years, leading to overeating (which also leads to weight gain) and overconsumption of salt, saturated fats and sugar.
Importantly, good nutrition is not about following a fad diet for a few weeks and then going back to unhealthy eating habits. Research suggests that yo-yo dieting can have serious health implications. “A yo-yo diet can be described as a consistent pattern of alternating between gaining and losing weight over an extended period of time,” Sadek says. “This will confuse the body and its organs, especially those areas that store and distribute fat for energy.” Consequences of yo-yo dieting include loss of muscle mass; weakness; increased risk of chronic diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure; gallstones; demotivation; and stress.
Good nutrition and healthy eating should be a habit – a way of life – and it need not be difficult. “First and foremost, eat breakfast every day, ensuring that this kicks off at least five portions of fruits and vegetables every day, alongside at least two 150-gram portions of fish each week,” Sadek suggests. “Meanwhile, limit your salt intake and ensure you drink ample water. It is also important to take at least 30 minutes of exercise every day, such as a good walk.” Try it; your body, your health and your mind will thank you for it.