How often do we hear the phrase “We need to eat a balanced diet”? But what does it actually mean and what constitutes a truly balanced diet? Of course, we’re all individuals, and therefore our diet should also reflect our individual needs and lifestyle. But there are some general guidelines we should all follow: Consultant Nutritionist, Suzie Sawyer, takes us through the basics.
The body needs a vast array of nutrients on a daily basis – around 50 in total. Whilst vitamins and minerals are very important the body also needs a balance of macro nutrients such as proteins, fats and carbohydrates, together with other compounds frequently found in plant-based foods, such as antioxidants.
By following a few basic ‘rules’, making sure you get what your body needs on a daily basis can be a whole lot easier!
Since our body tissues and blood are slightly alkaline, we need to eat foods that break down into alkaline elements to support this.
It’s actually the residue or ‘ash’ that a food leaves behind when it’s broken down in the body that’s important. For example, lemons are acidic fruits, but when digested leave an alkaline ‘ash’.
Generally, the more fruits and vegetables you eat the better. The only exception to this is cranberries and dried fruits, which tend to be more acidic.
Additionally, grains such as millet, buckwheat, corn, as well as almonds and sprouted seeds are alkaline. On the other hand, meat and animal products, together with white refined foods, especially sugary treats, will all create acidity. Try to aim for around 60-70% of your diet to be made up of alkaline foods.
Proteins (meat, milk, cheese, nuts, seeds, beans and fish), fats (coconut oil, butter, meats, bacon, vegetable oils and their seeds) and carbohydrates (fruit, vegetables, grains, breads and pasta, and all refined flour-based foods) make up the macronutrients you should have in your diet.
As a general guide:
- 15% of the diet should come from proteins
- 25% from fats (10% of which should be the essential omega 3’s and 6’s; 15% other fats)
- 60% from carbohydrates – mostly fruits and vegetables
Don’t forget however that fat has twice the calories of protein and carbohydrates, but as most of your carbohydrate intake should primarily come from fruits, vegetables and whole grains these are are all low in fat.
Make sure to get your 10% of fat from the omega 3’and 6’s found in oily fish and nuts and seeds as these help to speed up the metabolism and are essential for healthy hormone balance. If you have to prioritise any fats, prioritise these!
Eating seasonally should generally be more economical and also provide the nutrients that nature intended at the right times.
For example, in summer the juiciest freshest fruits are more readily available, and conversely during winter, the foods that need more cooking such as root vegetables are the ones that are more in season. Makes sense, right?
As we move into Autumn, this normally signals a big shift in terms of our dietary mix; it’s the official harvest time of nature. Firstly, watery fruits and vegetables are harvested such as apples, blackberries (particularly good for the immune system, which needs supporting right now), spinach, marrow and cabbage.
Later in the season, potatoes, Brussels sprouts, carrots and cauliflower dominate. The diet tends to shift towards eating more cooked foods – it’s also more warming during the colder months – and complex carbohydrates should become the mainstay of the diet.
The body is about 70% water which constitutes all our bodily fluids; blood, lymph, digestive juices, tears and sweat – lovely!
Water is involved in almost every bodily function and it makes up all the mineral salts such as potassium and sodium that are essential for nerve transmission as well as other important functions. However, with so much water available, both from the tap and on the supermarket shelves, does it matter what type we drink, as long as we’re drinking enough?
The quality of tap water will vary from region to region. Many minerals including chlorine are used for purification but the water may still contain environmental pollutants. Bottled spring water is generally less contaminated and most people think that it tastes a lot better than ordinary tap water.
Mineral waters generally contain good levels of trace minerals as one would expect; however, it’s worth remembering that sparkling mineral water will have carbon dioxide injected back into it and too much of this type of water can upset the body’s acid/alkaline balance.
Filtered water is favoured in many homes because it’s cheap and convenient. Obviously it depends on the quality of the filter, which is normally a carbon block, as to how many contaminants are removed.
So how much water do we need? We should certainly drink at least one or two glasses of warm water when we first wake up and then regularly throughout the day, in between meals. Water should not be drunk with meals as it dilutes the digestive juices and therefore nutrient absorption. Try to aim for a minimum of two litres daily.
And remember caffeinated drinks do not count towards this, but herbal and fruit teas do!
Food rotation means getting lots of variety in your diet! The wider the range of foods we have in the diet, the more likely we are to be achieving the ideal number of daily nutrients.
It will also reduce your potential for food intolerances: when people experience what they think of as food intolerances, particularly to wheat, it’s sometimes not an intolerance but your body’s reaction to eating too much of the same food group (i.e. cereal for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch and pasta for dinner). You get the picture!
One of the easiest ways to get variety into your diet is to get colourful – the more colours you have on your plate or in your sandwich, the more nutrients you will eat! But remember that ‘white’ foods do not really count – sugar and white bread are real no-nos! So if you embrace the colour rotation on your plate, your diet will automatically be far more varied and full of nutrients as a result.
So those are my top tips for the best approach to a well-balanced, healthy diet. But don’t forget to throw in the odd treat or two – after all, we are here to enjoy life albeit a healthy one most of the time!
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