The basics of a healthy diet

Ideas about what comprises healthy eating behaviour vary from one culture to another. For several generations, America has been a meat and milk country with the daily consumption of dairy products and beef seen as a healthy luxury. However, growing evidence suggests that the typical American diet is too high in protein, fat and salt and too low in fruit, vegetables and complex carbohydrates.

People choose to eat foods for many reasons, not just for their nutritional value. Habit, tradition, economy, convenience, availability, emotional comfort, religious beliefs and environmental concerns play an important part in food choices. It seems that there is no right way for everybody to eat. However, there are some general guidelines to help you eat a healthy diet. It is important to remember that it is the food eaten over a number of days which is important rather than individual meals or days. This allows more flexibility in choosing foods, and fits the theme of consuming a variety of foods with room for the occasional treat.

Eat a wide variety of different types of foods. This ensures you get all the nutrients you need and limits your intake of the ones which may cause you harm. Eating fresh foods, preferably simple ones that are in season, is vital to make the most of what your food has to offer. Processed and prepared foods should be avoided as much as possible, as they are often high in sugar, salt, fat and additives.

Try to eat plenty of different types of fruit and vegetables, particularly greens and those that are brightly coloured. They should be raw or lightly cooked and should not be coated in fatty dressings or cream sauces. If possible, eat organic to minimise consumption of pesticides.

Legumes and whole grains should be regularly included in your diet . They are great sources of carbohydrate, and they contain healthy levels of protein and many other beneficial substances.

Complex carbohydrates should account for around 40 to 50 per cent of total calories consumed; more if you exercise a lot. Whole grain products are better than refined ones because they still contain the vitamins and minerals lost in the refining process.

Try to limit your sugar intake, particularly if you suffer mood swings, depression and fluctuating energy levels. If you do eat sugar, try not to combine it with fat, particularly if you are trying to lose weight.

The latest research on fat suggests that it is not just how much you eat but what type that increases the risk of obesity and disease. Try to cut down on foods high in saturated fat such as meat, whole milk, butter, palm oil and coconut oil. Polyunsaturated fats found in margarine and some vegetable oils are linked to an increased risk of cancer, autoimmune diseases and lowered immunity. Replace these fats with olive oil, preferably extra virgin or virgin. It is consistently associated with lower disease levels. Beneficial omega-3 fatty acids are found in oily fish and oils such as flaxseed oil, and these should be included in your diet as often as possible.

Limit your protein intake. A 110 g serving of meat, chicken, fish or tofu once a day is likely to be enough unless you are pregnant, breastfeeding or ill. Too much protein may contribute to fatigue, lowered immunity, lack of energy and liver and kidney problems. It also leaches minerals such as calcium out of your body, and increases the risk of osteoporosis.

Limit intake of dairy products as they can aggravate mucus production and lower immunity.

Limit salt intake, particularly if you are salt-sensitive.

How your body processes the food you eat is as important as the food you put into it. Try to eat with full attention and chew your food properly. Eating with care and attention helps your body to digest food more efficiently than if you eat when you are angry or stressed. And last but by no means least, learn to trust your body and understand its needs and signals. Eating should be a pleasurable experience and eating foods you don’t like because you think they are good for you is not listening to your body.

Drink alcohol in moderation if at all. Children, adolescents and pregnant women should not drink alcohol.

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