What we eat can be an emotive subject and there are many schools of thought on what is good for us and bad for us. It can also be confusing to look online and find one study saying a diet is good and another saying the same diet is bad. When looking at nutrition it’s useful to know what we mean when talking about macronutrients and micronutrients.
Macronutrients – The body needs these in larger amounts and are made up of:
- Fibre – helps to remove waste from the body and promotes healthy digestion. Most of the fibre we get comes from wholewheat breads, brown rice and grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables. It is widely known that eating more fibre can help with constipation, but it has so many other benefits. Our gut bacteria also feed on ‘insoluble fibre’ to produce short chain fatty acids which keep us healthy by supporting our immune function. ‘Soluble fibre’ found in fruits, vegetables, legumes, and porridge oats, slows down digestion and has a role in regulating our blood sugar levels by increasing insulin sensitivity and lowers cholesterol. Fibre intake is also associated with a decreased risk of colon cancer.
- Carbohydrates are the primary energy source for the brain and there are good sources and bad sources of carbohydrates. Good sources are complex carbohydrates found in wholegrains, fruits, vegetables, fruit, legumes. We tend to overeat carbohydrates by consuming too many processed foods and sweets. Refined flour, such as white bread, white pasta, have most of the nutrients and fibre taken out and just increase your sugar levels which can cause inflammation in the body. Other “bad” sources include cakes, crackers, packaged cereals, juices, sweets. Eating too many “bad” carbs can lead to obesity, metabolic disorders, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
- Protein is a major structural component of all our cells within the body. The building blocks of protein are called amino acids there are 20 different amino acids and 9 are known as “essential amino acids”. Labelling animal meat as mainly protein is a poor description as often more calories are from saturated fat and not protein. Also, eating an excess of protein results in the excess being converted to fat. For those following a vegetarian/plant-based diet, if you are eating enough plant foods, the amino acids tend to complement each other, and it is very hard to become deficient.
- Fat – certain fats, the essential fatty acids, are essential for the structure of our cells, energy stores, nerve development and growth, hormones, and the transport of fat-soluble vitamins. We have several types of fat:
- Polyunsaturated fats (essential fatty acids) are split into omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids. Sources of omega 3 include oily fish such as mackerel and salmon, flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, soybeans. Sources of omega 6 include walnuts and other nuts and seeds, sunflower and olive oils, soybeans.
- Monounsaturated fats include the various olive, canola, peanut, sunflower and sesame oils, avocado and generally these fats are better for you than saturated and trans fats.
- Saturated fats are found in meat, poultry, dairy – cheese butter milk, and coconuts. These fats are associated with an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Cholesterol is fat which required for the creation of bile acids, steroid hormones, and vitamin D. It is produced by the liver and is not required in the diet. However, it is present in animal products when eaten.
- Trans fats – are deemed as harmful as they raise "bad" cholesterol and lower "good" cholesterol. They can be found in in certain foods, mainly hydrogenated plant oils and some red and processed meats and dairy. They are more likely to be present in refined grains such as donuts and cakes and processed grains – white flour white rice and white pasta. Cholesterol is carried in the blood by lipoproteins. We have low density lipoproteins (LDLs) which transport cholesterol through the body and high-density lipoproteins (HDLs) which pick up excess cholesterol and take it back to the liver to be removed. Hence, we talk about measuring “good cholesterol and bad cholesterol”.
Micronutrients - needed in tiny amounts that are valuable for health but not essential for life.
A variety of wholefoods, fruits and vegetables is a much better way of achieving good micronutrient balance rather than taking supplements.
- Vitamins – these are mostly molecules the body needs but cannot make itself - Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and Vitamin K are often under consumed.
- Minerals - Iron, Calcium, Magnesium, Potassium, Iodine and Zinc are also often under consumed – all needed for bone health, hormone health and other functions.
Micronutrients include antioxidants, phytochemicals, polyphenols, anti-inflammatory molecules, carotenoids, and all are necessary for our bodies to stay healthy and function properly.
Why should we eat the rainbow?
Plants have phytochemicals which give them their colour. These phytochemicals protect the plant against environmental toxins. When we ingest these plants, the phytochemicals work in the same way in our bodies acting as antioxidants and preventing inflammation.
For example, dark berries and fruits contain polyphenols such as anthocyanidins and anthocyanins. These are antioxidants that have been shown to reduce inflammation and prevent a whole host of conditions from cancers to heart disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Orange and yellow foods like carrots, yams and mango contain carotenoids which again fight inflammation and enhance your immunity. Similarly red foods and green foods have similar distinct phytonutrients that have benefits to the body.
The above information is a lot to digest (Pun intended!!). We do tend to eat with all our senses, we may be attracted to how food looks or smells. It can be useful to start thinking about food in terms of what it is, where it has come from and what will it do to our body.
Eating slowly is also helpful to prevent sudden spikes in blood sugar and you are more likely to eat slowly if eating socially with family or friends if there are others at home. It is also worth remembering that there is a connection between human health and planetary health when thinking about our food choices.
Good food habits to digest:
- Eat a diverse range of wholefoods, fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds to help keep your gut bacteria healthy and diverse.
- The more colourful your plate, the more phytonutrients, and the better benefit for your body.
- Having a diet high in fibre will feed your gut microbiome.
- Try to avoid refined carbohydrates – this includes white bread, white rice, and white pasta.
- Try to get your fat from sources such as nuts and seeds.
- Eat slowly and mindfully
A healthy diet does not have to be boring and bland, start experimenting with colourful foods using new herbs and spices and see where it takes you this year.