The basics of good nutrition
Look on the back of any packaged food and the list of ingredients can be mind-bogging. What are they all? Do you need them? If you do, how much do you need? And which are the ones you should avoid?
A woman’s body relies upon a balanced diet for its well-being. In particular, you can achieve hormonal balance only by eating the right nutrients in the right quantities. As a basic principle, a balanced diet is made up of a combination of good-quality protein and essential fats, unrefined complex carbohydrates, and fiber, as well as plenty of vitamins and minerals.
Protein is one of the three most important nutrients for your body (the others are unrefined complex carbohydrates and essential fats). This is because protein provides your body with amino acids. These nutrients build and repair cells in the skin, muscles, organs, and glands, and they help make hormones. There are eight amino acids we have to derive from food – these are known as essential amino acids and they’re all found in “complete” proteins, such as meat, fish, poultry, eggs, milk, quinoa, and soy beans. “Incomplete proteins”, found in beans, nuts and seeds, contain some, but not all, the essential amino acids.
Your diet should provide a combination of a few complete proteins and a wide variety of incomplete proteins to ensure you gain all eight essential amino acids. Equally important, though, is that all the protein you eat is of high quality – that is, unprocessed and as low in saturated fat as possible. It is recommended that you don’t get your protein form meat products, especially processed meats, such as sausages, as these are high in saturated fat and additives. Instead, opt for soy beans, peas, nuts, seeds, quinoa, eggs, and fish. By mixing and matching your non-meat sources of protein, you’ll obtain all the essential amino acids your body needs in order to thrive at optimal levels. Dairy products also provide good-quality protein, but they can be high in saturated fat. Try to find organic dairy products and eat them only in moderation – for example, one small container (around 6oz.) organic yogurt or approximately 1 ½ oz. (1/4 cup) organic cheese.
Protein deficiency is rarely a problem in affluent societies – in fact, we often have too much protein. This in turn makes our systems too acidic (a healthy body should be slightly alkaline). Your body corrects this imbalance by taking calcium, which neutralizes acidity, from your bones and teeth. However, using up your calcium reserves to restore alkalinity can make your bones more brittle, increasing your susceptibility to fractures an even to osteoporosis. As a general rule, the higher your protein intake, the more calcium you’ll lose. Interestingly, however, this correlation applies only when the protein is derived from animal sources. Research shows that no matter how much vegetable protein you eat (such as from tofu, nuts, and seeds), you’ll not deplete your calcium reserves.
Your body’s most important source of energy is carbohydrate. This includes both sugars and starches. One way or another, all forms of carbohydrate end up being broken down into glucose (your body’s fuel), but it’s the speed with which this breakdown happens that’s crucial to your health.
The amount of sustained energy you derive from your food depends upon whether the carbohydrates you eat are “simple” or “complex”. Simple carbohydrates include, for example, fruit and fruit juices, honey, white and brown sugar, and the glucose that’s added to sports drinks. The energy effect of these foods is fast and unsustainable. Complex carbohydrates give you greater, longer-lasting energy because your body digests them more slowly. These come in the form of grains (including wheat, rye, oats, rice, and so on), beans and peas (including lentils, kidney beans, and soy beans), and vegetables. Complex carbohydrates can be refined or unrefined. A source of unrefined carbohydrate has had no goodness stripped from it. So, for example, the grains you eat will be made up of the seed and husk, and they’ll contain many essential nutrients, such as vitamins B and E and the minerals magnesium, selenium, and zinc, as well as fiber and other valuable nutrients such as flavonoids, oligosaccharides, and phytoestrogens. These have all been shown to promote good health in women. Complex carbohydrates, and in particular whole grains, are better for you because they regulate blood sugar, lower cholesterol, and balance hormones. On top of all that, whole grains encourage better digestion, helping your body assimilate more efficiently all the other nutrients in the food you eat. Good examples of whole grains include amaranth, barley, brown rice, corn, millet, oats, rye, and whole-wheat. Aim for at least one serving of whole grains with each meal.