Before we start, why should you eat better anyway?
“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” — Hippocrates
Food (and physical activity) is preventative medicine. If you eat the right diet and move more, you will significantly reduce your risk of a whole host of disease & ailments, ultimately extending your lifespan.
“Screw you, I don’t care about living old” I hear you say.
Ok fine. But what about improving your cognitive ability? Or reducing anxiety and depression? This isn’t just about living longer, but also improving the years we do have on this earth.
This little guide, or whatever you’d like to call it, will first cover the fundamentals of nutrition:-
A primer on energy balance, macronutrients and micronutrients. We’ll then delve briefly into the psychology behind the diet, as well as dispelling a bunch of nutritional myths. By no means will this text be comprehensive, nutrition is a constantly advancing (read: contradicting) field with many facets. I’m also trying to keep this as easy to digest as possible, rather than clog your mind with 1000 new concepts all at once. Never the less, I hope to dispel some of the common dietary myths and elucidate what a “healthy” diet actually is.
So, lets start off with….
What is a calorie anyway? Calories are a measure of energy. We take in calories from the carbohydrates, proteins, fats and alcohol which we consume through our diet. While we expend calories through our bodily functions and exercise.
Caloric deficit (Eating less than we expend) is the key to weight loss.
The ketogenic diet, the low fat diet, intermittent fasting… On the surface, all these diets seem quite different. But ultimately, they all garner their success through one thing – restricting what you can eat. In turn producing a caloric deficit.
Maybe you’re not quite convinced yet. Well, heres a photo from propane fitness’ x and y, who both dieted eating a huge amount of haribo, cheesecake & pringles!
So, I hear you asking “ I can eat whatever the hell I want and loose weight?”
Well… Not quite. We’ll touch on this throughout the article. Eating a balanced diet is important for your health.
However, let this example serve to illustrate the power of caloric deficit. Without a caloric deficit your body will not lose fat. Regardless of wether you are eating the most nutritious foods, or complete garbage, if you don’t expend more energy than you ingest, you’re not going to loose weight.
Heres where it gets slightly more complicated.
As mentioned above, calories come from the three macronutrients:
Despite the bad press – dietary fat is essential for hormonal production & a number of other bodily functions. Did you know that a large proportion of your brain is made from saturated fat?
We can break down fats into four groups, polyunsaturated fats, monounsaturated fats, saturated fats & trans fats. Let’s take a deeper look at each of them.
Polyunsaturated fats consist of omega-3, omega-6, omega-9. All of these are essential fatty acids, meaning our body can not produce them on it’s own. If we don’t get these fats from our dietary intake, we won’t be operating on 100%!
Omega-6 is abundant in most modern food sources – it’s unlikely you’ll be deficient. In fact, most of us eat too much. Omega-3 and omega-6 have opposing functions in the body and too much omega-6 can leave us with increased inflammation, risk of heart disease and other ailments.
Omega-3 on the other hand is less common in the typical diet. Omega-3 can aid in fat loss, reduce inflammation, improve cognitive function, improve heart health, aid joint strength… The list goes on and on.
DHA/EPA are the main omega-3 compounds responsible for it’s health benefits, found in oily fish or, for vegetarians, algae oil. ALA, the common plant based omega-3, exerts nowhere near the same health effects. Requiring conversion in the body to DHA/EPA before it can be used. If you are vegetarian/vegan I highly recommend supplementing your diet with algae oil. A source of plant based DHA/EPA. [link]
It is worth noting here, polyunsaturated fats are unstable. Meaning that they can’t withstand much heat without deteriorating & turning rancid compared to other types of fat. This makes polyunsaturated fats, like vegetable oil, a poor choice for cooking oil. We’ll cover this in more detail later in the article.
Monounsaturated fats reduce inflammation, the risk of heart disease and the risk of diabetes. Monounsaturates are found in smaller quantities in meat and dairy, and in particular abundance in olive oil, avocados and cashew nuts.
Saturated fats have been highly vilified over the past 50 years. I could delve very deeply into the scientific literature and why I believe this view is wrong, however that is beyond the scope of this article. All you need to know is that saturated fats are, at the very least, nowhere near as problematic as they are made out to be. There is not conclusive data showing that saturated fats are harmful to health.
Avoid this stuff like the plague. Naturally occurring trans fats found in meat haven’t been shown to cause any ill effect, however processed man-made hydrogenated fats are highly harmful to human health. Substantially increasing the risk of heart disease.
All fats contain 9 calories per gram.
Carbohydrates are the modern diet’s most abundant form of energy – think rice, bread and pasta. The body breaks down carbohydrates to glucose to use immediately as fuel, as well as storing carbohydrates in muscle reserves and the liver in the form of glycogen. (A fuel later used during exercise).
It therefore stands to reason that more active individuals, especially those involved in endurance sports, have a higher requirement for carbohydrates than a sedentary individual.
Carbohydrates come in the form of starch, sugar and fiber.
is a complex carbohydrate, which is broken down by the body slowly into sugar. We want to try to eat more of this if we’re active, in order to fuel our bodies.
on the other hand, is a simple carbohydrate, requiring less breakdown and spiking insulin levels.
If we eat too much sugar, too often, we can become insulin resistant and increase our risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, weaken our immune response and a bunch of other stuff you probably don’t want. But don’t misunderstand me as saying you should never eat sugar. Don’t worry about sugar from whole fruits or fruit juice, they are perfectly healthy. Having a desert here and there is also perfectly fine, especially if you’re active. Moderation is key
is a non-digestible complex carbohydrate, which our body does not contain the enzymes to fully process. Fiber exerts a number of health effects, encouraging the growth of beneficial bacteria in the digestive tract, binding cholesterol in the gut, blunting the rise of blood glucose after a meal and providing roughage to help you poop.
Simple/complex carbohydrates contain 4 calories per gram.
Fibre contains only 1.5 calories per gram.
Protein is used as the building blocks of the body. Essential to the growth and repair cycle, for everything from your hair to your muscles. Protein constitutes a number of amino acids, some essential which the body can not produce on it’s own and some non-essential.
If you’re vegetarian (like me), you’ll have to be more careful to balance out your protein sources. Unlike meat, many vegetarian sources only contain some of the essential amino acids by themselves. Eating a wide variety of foods across the day helps balance things out, with each amino acid profile complimenting each other. In particular leucine & are not found regularly in plant based foods.
Your requirements for protein depend upon your activity levels and wether you are trying to loose weight (in a caloric deficit) or trying to gain weight (in a caloric surplus).
- Carbs are also not the enemy. Eat them depending on your activity levels.
- Sugar is bad, but not that bad. Eat it in moderation, don’t feel guilty for having dessert from time to time. Just make sure not to over indulge.
- Fibre is important for digestive health. Aim to eat 14g for every 1000 calories in your diet.
- Fat is not the enemy. (Except trans fats)
- Try to eat less omega-6 and eat more omega-3.
- Protein is important for weight loss and muscle gain. Active individuals need around 1-2kg of lean bodyweight.
Micronutrients do not provide energy as macronutrients do, however, are required to ensure pretty much every biological process in the body works correctly. From forming red blood cells, to regulating hormone levels, micronutrients play a vital role in our function. Micronutrients can be broken down into two categories, vitamins or minerals.
The role of each individual vitamin or mineral is beyond the scope of this article. All you need to know is that they are very important for our physical & mental health and wellbeing. If you’d like to find out the specifics, visit the following website :- http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vitamins-minerals/Pages/vitamins-minerals.aspx
It’s quite likely to accidentally develop a micronutrient deficiency through poor diet, especially if you have no prior knowledge of nutrition. If you’d like to see how your diet stacks up, the following website can be used to track your food intake and ensure you’re meeting the baseline recommended daily intakes (RDA) – https://cronometer.com However, I personally don’t recommend the long term use of such tracking websites. They can lead to obsessive compulsive, eating disorder-esque tendencies in some individuals.
On a side note, although meeting the RDA for vitamins and minerals does mean you won’t be at risk of known deficiencies which can lead to disease, it is very possible that there are unstudied relationships between micronutrients and disease which we do not yet understand. One area of this research is in mental health.
Phytonutrients are a group of chemicals found in plants which provide anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory roles in our body, protecting us against cancer and heart disease. This is the reason we can’t just eat un-nutritious junk food, take a multivitamin and call our diet healthy.
Phytonutrients can be found in colourful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans, tea and spices. Pretty much all plant-based sources of food.
So with all that said, what is a healthy diet?
- Eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables – aim for 10 portions (80g each) over the course of the day. If you’re nowhere near this yet, slowly add more into your diet week by week. Make things manageable, not a sudden change.
- Try to eat at least 500mg of omega-3 each day. Take a supplement if necessary.
- If your goal is to loose fat, gain muscle or to fuel your training. Aim for 120g of protein a day
Dispelling common myths
X food is healthier than Y
I detest the use of the word “healthy” when it pertains to food. While some foods are more nutritious (they contain more vitamins and minerals than others), a single food item can’t be considered healthy. No single food item constitutes the nutrients required to sustain human life.
This may seem facetious of me, however orthorexia (the fear of “unhealthy” foods) is a real problem. One I myself have fallen into in the past. By branding a food unhealthy, you start to associate guilt with eating it. Mentally this isn’t a great way to live, nor does it make much logical sense.
However, a diet can be considered healthy. If we are to instead look at foods as nutritious and not-so-nutritious, we can balance the foods we include within our diet to ensure we’re still meeting our nutritional requirements, while still allowing some caloric leeway for less nutritious foods here and there.
Repeat after me: There is no such thing as a superfood. There is no such thing as a superfood. (one more for luck) There is no such thing as a superfood.
I’m not sure how this notion came around, likely a mixture of marketing and clickbait articles online, but sadly, there really is no such thing as a superfood. As previously mentioned, a single food item by itself doesn’t make up to a healthy diet. Quite often the superfood claims don’t even stack up against other, better dietary sources of the same nutrients. Lets take a look at a few.
Don’t believe the hype. Just eat a diet rich with a rainbow of fruit and vegetables, whole grains, protein sources and fat sources and you’ll cover your nutritional bases.
There is, at this time, no conclusive evidence that organic foods result in better health outcome than their non-organic counterparts. Nutrient levels in fruit and vegetables are mostly equivalent between both groups of produce, however there is evidence showing greater levels of antioxidants in organically grown food and lesser levels of pesticide residue. The significance of this isn’t clear. So, what you do with this knowledge is up to you.
When applied to meat and dairy, organic appears to pose clearer significance. Meat and dairy animals bred in organic farms are required to be pasture fed, rather than grain fed. This has two implications, dietarily and ethically.
On the ethical side, huge amounts of forestland is cut down to support the production of grain for cattle. Organically raised cattle therefore lessens the environmental damage caused by the meat industry.
On the dietary side, grain isn’t a natural diet for animals. As a result, grain fed meat has much less omega-3 than grass fed meat. I have not seen any studies on dairy, however, the same effect likely holds true.
Lipid oxidation is a biological process which occurs when heating fats, resulting in a number of dangerous byproducts. Unsaturated fats – poly-unsaturated in particular – are at risk of lipid oxidation. Oxidation can produce free radicals in the body, damaging DNA and increase cancer.
Cooking with vegetable oil is a bad idea! Vegetable oil proudly touts “low in saturated fat” on it’s label, while sneakily hiding the fact that it’s very high in polyunsaturated fats.
Olive oil also seems to be an appropriate cooking oil, however, it’s smoke point is at 190C. So it is not recommend it for high temperature cooking like frying in a wok. For high temperature cooking butter, ghee or coconut oil are good choices.