A diet that is rich in a variety of plants, vegetables and fruits has been shown to improve health and ward of disease. There is a lot of debate over what proportion of your diet should be dedicated to plants to have the maximum health benefits.
Research has shown that eating a wide range of different colors increases the diversity of nutrients consumed. Many plants help to reduce cholesterol levels and some can actually help with weight loss (e.g.green bananas).
The size of the portions eaten and the balance between carbohydrates, proteins and fats really depend on the physical characteristics of the individual and on the fitness regime that they are following. Here we discuss diet in general to help understand what constitutes a healthy diet and why it does so.
A well balanced diet consists the the appropriate balance of foods from the three main food groups:
- Healthy Fats
Plus a variety of vitamins, minerals and fiber.
Generally common sense is all the is required to determine which foods are bad, and which good. For example, fried foods and food made from processed meats is unhealthy, which is why takeaway food is generally of such poor quality. Fried food is usually very high in saturated fat and processed meat often contains high salt and fat content. All of this increases risk of developing heart disease and cancer as well as a range of other obesity related illnesses.
What is a Healthy Diet?
In a nutshell, a healthy diet is one in which all the nutrients, minerals. vitamins and fluids that your body requires are provided in full without providing excessive unhealthy substances, such as salt, sugar and saturated fat. The body has lot of requirements, and when exercising on a regular basis these requires increase. Also, as medicine advances, our understanding of what benefits the body is constantly changing.
A well balanced diet is essential to athletes and martial artists who are pushing their bodies to the limits on a regular basis, as without a good diet, the body will not have the fuel to recover.
One of the benefits of a healthy diet that is rich in vitamins and minerals is that it helps to ward off common illnesses, such as colds and flu. If you eat a healthy diet your immune system becomes stronger and you are more able to fight infection.
Also, a healthy, well balanced diet helps the body to recover after illness. This is why there is such an outrage when there are reports of people leaving hospital malnourished – the one simple act that doctors could do to improve the speed of recovery of their patients is to feed them properly while in their care.
Essential Macronutrients for a Well Balanced Diet
Proteins and Amino-Acids
Proteins are the building blocks of the human body. Proteins are required for the repair and growth of muscle tissue, which is why professional athletes and bodybuilders often need to take protein supplements. The average diet has enough protein to maintain the body, but when you train very hard you need additional sources to keep up with the body’s needs. Timing the consumption of protein can boost muscle growth and aid athletic performance too.
Proteins contain amino-acids, and although some are produced by the body, some known as essential amino-acids have to be consumed. Amino acids are mostly required for the repair of muscle tissue, whereas the proteins are required for growth of new tissue. The amount of amini-acid you require depends on hos much muscle you have. There is not minimum daily requirement as everyone has different needs.
Healthy fats, or fatty acids, are essential for the production of cell membranes. They are also oxidized to produce energy and of course fats can be stored by the body for future energy needs.
There are three main types of fat:
- Saturated Fat
- Monosaturated Fat
- Polyunsaturated Fat
The most dangerous type of unsaturated fat is trans fat which is usually abundant in proceeds foods. The body can make some types of fat (for example it can convert energy from sugars into fatty deposits) there are some fats that cannot be made. These, like the amino-acids, are know as essential fatty acids. Omega 3 and omega 6 are the main types of essential fatty acid that our body requires.
Carbohydrates are essentially combinations of sugars such as glucose and fructose. Glucose is the sugar that muscles utilize for energy. When excess carbohydrates are consumed they are stored by the body in the muscles, combined with water the chemical is called glycogen.
Glycogen is the fuel that muscles require to operate, and when athletes talk about carb loading, it is building up the glycogen reserves in the muscles so that they have a greater supply than normal to carry them through a race, event, fight or match.
Fructose is not stored in the muscle tissues, instead it is converted into glucose by the liver. This releases harmful triglycerides. Table sugar / cane sugar is the main source of fructose in a Western diet.
Minerals and Salts
Salts are required for healthy body function, however, too much salt can cause high blood pressure that can lead to other health problems such as stroke and heart disease. Processed foods still contain relatively high salt levels, even with new government guidelines in place.
Potassium helps to regulate blood pressure and a deficiency can lead to a heart condition known as arrhythmias which are irregular heart beats and heart palpitations.
Magnesium is required by the central nervous system and also helps to regular blood pressure.
Calcium provides the building blocks for healthy teeth and bones and is also required by the central nervous system. A lack of calcium can lead to osteoporosis.
Iron is the vital ingredient of red blood cells which are used to carry oxygen. Maintaining a healthy iron supply is therefore essential for athletes that have higher oxygen demands than average. Too much iron can kill.
Copper is another essential nutrient that is deadly in high doses. It is vital for proper functioning of the nervous system. Supplements are not required though, you can get most of your copper requirements from drinking water served through copper pipes alone!
Zinc is essential for the healthy functioning of the immune system, brain function as well as maintaining healthy skin. Too much zinc can actually damage the effectiveness of the immune system. Most zinc requirements can be obtained from plants as it is absorbed by plants from the soil. Zinc is found in wheat, seeds, beans, nuts, almonds, whole grains, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and blackcurrant. However, intensive agriculture does deprive soil of zinc which leads to zinc deficiencies in many countries.
A wide variety of vitamins are required for a healthy body. There are too many to go into detail here. Most are obtained through a healthy and varied diet. Vitamin D is one exception that can only be obtained through sunlight.
How Much Should You Eat?
The amount of food that you need to eat, or the number of calories, really depends on so many factors that it is impossible to make a single rule for all. In the past health organizations have said that men should eat 2500 kcal and women 2000kcal a day.
However, these figures do not take into account the size of the person, the muscle mass, their activity levels, the type of food or the genetics and natural metabolic rate of the person. It is just a very rough guide which is really quite meaningless.
This is especially true for athletes, you only need to look at Micheal Phelp’s daily diet to for proof of this. He says that he consumes around 12,000 calories a day when training, which is 5-6 times more than the average person needs.
The British Heart Foundation and Diet
The British Heart Foundation released its own, government-funded advertisements, labeled “Food4Thought” which were targeted at children and adults displaying the gory nature of what fast food is generally constituted of – displaying a “censored” sticker over the actual contents of an average processed burger, hot-dog or slice of pizza.