The Fundamentals Series - Balanced Diet
By Tim Mugabi
We’re all familiar with the old adage ‘you are what you eat’; far from being a cute saying, it’s 100% true. Every part of you is literally made up of the same molecules as the food you eat and the water you drink. So making sure that you eat the right foods in the right proportions is vital. If you aren’t, then your body will not perform in the way that it should, and all too often this leads to illness, disease and ultimately premature death.
Our food contains different kinds of nutrients, all of which have a different role to play in keeping us healthy. These nutrients are divided into two groups: Macronutrients which include protein, carbohydrates and fat, and Micronutrients which include all your vitamins and minerals. Let’s take a closer look at each group:
Protein is often called the ‘building blocks of the body’ and with good reason. Protein is made up of a combination of 25 different molecules called amino acids, and these same amino acids which combine to make our body’s cells and organs. This makes protein responsible for the growth and repair of our body tissue. It’s up to us to make sure we eat enough protein to ensure our body is able to regenerate itself.
Protein is also required to create enzymes and hormones, both of which are vital to maintain the status quo in the body and keep it functioning correctly.
Protein can be found in a variety of sources, including meat, fish, eggs, nuts, diary products and pulses such as beans and lentils.
Carbohydrates or ‘carbs’ are the main form of energy for the body. They can roughly be divided into two types, slow releasing and fast releasing:
Slow releasing or ‘complex’ carbs take longer for our body to break down and stay in our systems longer. This leads to a sustainable release of energy which gives us less cause to eat again so quickly after consuming them. Wholegrains, vegetables and many fruits fall into this category. A lot of the sources of slow releasing carbohydrates also contain fibre, which further slow down the release of energy.
Fast releasing or ‘simple’ carbs are the reason why carbs have had such a hard time recently – particularly when it comes to diets. These carbs are broken down by are bodies quickly, causing a quick rise in energy. This is soon followed by a corresponding dip in energy, which causes us to eat again soon afterwards, on the lookout for more fuel. This up and down cycle causes excess calories to be consumed and stored by our bodies as fat, a major factor in undesirable weight loss
It isn’t necessary to completely cut out carbs from diet, but we should try to limit our intake of simple carbs. This includes foods high in sugar such as sweets, chocolate (sorry) and soft drinks. It’s also best to ensure your grains are whole and brown instead of refined and white. This includes pasta, bread and rice – opt for the brown choice as they tend to be slow release and more complex. Other sources of complex carbs include root vegetables, fruit, pulses and whole grains including oats, rye and barley
Despite its bad reputation, the truth is we need fat to be at our best. Like carbohydrates fat is a source of energy, provides insulation and protection for our vital organs, and is essential for our nervous, immune and cardiovascular systems. In fact, our brain is composed of 60% fat. The key is to consume the right kinds of fat and limit our intake of the wrong kind.
Broadly speaking there are three kinds of fat, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and saturated; the first two are also referred to as ‘soft’ fats and saturated fat is known as a ‘hard’ fat.
Monounsaturated fat has the effect of increasing good cholesterol, decreasing bad cholesterol and maintaining the health of your heart and cardiovascular system. Olive oil is a great source of monounsaturated fat and should be used for cooking wherever possible.
Polyunsaturated fats include the essential fatty acids (EFAs) Omega 3 and Omega 6; of all fat, this is the kind you should strive to include in your diet. Omega 3 and 6 helps to keep our nervous, immune and cardiovascular systems healthy and helps to prevent heart disease. In addition, they are essential in maintaining healthy skin and hair; in fact, a tell-tale sign of deficiency in these nutrients is dry skin. Good sources of polyunsaturated fats include nuts, seeds and oily fish.
Saturated fat is mainly in found meat and diary produce and is the fat most people are wary of. Excessive saturated fat consumption can lead to cardiovascular disease and weight gain, so this caution is justified; but there’s one kind of saturated fat to be most wary of – Trans Fats.
A trans fat is created when a unsaturated fat is hardened to create a saturated fat. To turn an unsaturated fat such as vegetable oil into a saturated fat is cheaper than actually using a saturated fat. This process is known as hydrogenation and is popular with food producers. Because these fats do not naturally occur in nature, our body literally does not know what to with it, so it tends to get stored; lining our artery walls, midsections and thighs! Be on the lookout for food that list hydrogenated vegetable oil in its ingredients, as these contain trans fats.
Vitamins and Minerals
Vitamins are a vital part of enzyme action in our body, Enzymes are the catalysts for ensuring all bodily processes happen as and when they are supposed to. This includes balancing our hormones, protecting all the essential systems in our body and turning all the food we eat into energy. The most common vitamins are vitamins A, B C, D, E and K. All of which can be obtained naturally from food.
Minerals are also responsible for governing our body’s processes and work in conjunction with vitamins to do so. They include calcium, magnesium, potassium and selenium.
The best way to obtain our vitamins and minerals is to ensure we eat generous amounts of fruit and vegetables as they contain them in abundance
With a new diet or fad popping up each week and with being bombarded with conflicting information on what we should and shouldn’t eat, making the right choices can be confusing. But the fact is, when it comes to your diet and the food you eat, it comes down to a few simple fundamentals. The most important of which is to eat a balance of all nutrients – protein, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins and minerals.
As always we’re here to help with all your dietary questions and concerns.