Nutrition 101 – Confused About What To Eat? Read On …
I know you are somewhat interested in nutrition because you’ve subscribed to my blog. I’m also guessing that although you want to eat healthily you are fed up with the constant bombardment of sensational headlines and anecdotal rubbish that’s peddled about food in the media and online. So, this post is for you. Everything you need to know about what to eat in a very small nutshell.
Calories are simply a way to measure the energy potential of the food we consume which is required for our bodies to function. To lose weight we need to achieve a calorie deficit – using more energy than we consume. Of course, that’s over-simplifying it and there are other factors that can affect our weight, but it is generally recognised that calorie balance is the key to weight management. But (and there’s always a but) the way calories are packaged is important too because it affects the way we digest them. Generally whole foods require more energy to digest than processed foods, for example, if you eat 100 calories of almonds because they are a whole food packaged with fibre etc. they take more energy to digest than say, a Toffee Crisp and so the net calorie count would be around 70. Conversely, if you eat 100 calories of Toffee Crisp, which requires less energy to digest, most of those calories would ‘count’. So, if you are trying to lose weight or just maintain a healthy weight, making whole foods the mainstay of what you eat is a good idea.
It’s a shame the word fat has such negative connotations because fat is an absolutely essential part of a healthy diet. Of particular interest to us midlifers, healthy fats are crucial to maintain endocrine (hormone) balance, so following a low-fat diet is generally not desirable as we get older. Fat is the most calorie dense of the macronutrients (fat, protein, carbohydrate) and requires the least amount of energy to digest so if you are trying to achieve a calorie deficit (see above) you need to keep an eye on the quantity and types of fat you are eating. A good idea is to minimize hidden fat for example those in processed/packaged foods. If you use olive oil at home and get your fat mainly from oily fish, full-fat yogurt, avocados, nuts and seeds you’ll be just fine.
Carbs are everywhere and just as well because they are absolutely essential for our bodies to function optimally. Low carb diets are only advisable in very specific cases and would ideally be done under supervision, for example if you are pre-diabetic or already have T2D (type 2 diabetes). Having said that our western diets can be very skewed in favour of carbs over and above the other food groups. So, a bowl of cereal for breakkie, a sandwich for lunch and pasta for dinner is quite unbalanced. A better food day would include a small amount of complex carbs at each meal, so perhaps porridge for breakfast, soup made with beans, pulses or lentils with a slice of wholegrain bread for lunch and some salmon with brown rice and veggies for dinner. These are the kind of carbs that are going to give you sustained energy and plenty of fibre.
Sugar is not the devil! Sugar can be consumed as part of a healthy diet as long as you limit ‘free sugars’. These are sugars that are added to things, for example sugar in a cake, sugars added to processed foods (check the labels, most things have added sugar) and sugar you add to your porridge. And yes this does include ‘healthier’ alternatives (confused about sugar? read
) honey, maple, coconut sugar – they are all free sugars. Sugars occurring naturally in foods, for example in fruit, are not free sugars but remember juicing the fruit removes the fibre and is effectively changing the composition to something more akin to sugar water. Eat the whole fruit instead.
Protein is important but MY GOD the wellness brigade don’t half bang on about it. You need remarkably little protein to function well in fact most of us probably eat more than we need to already. For an ‘average’ person you need around 45-55g protein per day (I’m assuming you aren’t a body builder!) and this equates to 2 eggs and a 150g salmon fillet – easily done. Protein shakes are not necessary even if you have just done pilates! And by the way this whole ‘proats’ thing … to be clear it’s just porridge.
Now this is something we could probably all be eating more of. Fibre is the unsung hero of the food world and stats imply that most of us aren’t eating enough. In midlife it’s particularly important because studies have found that diets high in fibre not only reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, but can help you eat less overall and lose weight if that is your goal. However, don’t go too mad, ironically if you eat too much fibre you can end up constipated! As long as you are eating plenty of fruit and veg and wholegrains you’ll be getting enough. I also love this graphic from Maeve Hanan who is a Registered Dietician which gives some simple ideas for ramping up your fibre intake.
Simply put, alcohol is fine in moderation assuming you don’t have any medical conditions or an alcohol allergy or intolerance. That means no more than 14 units a week (about 6-7 glasses of wine), 3 drink free days a week (2 consecutive) and don’t binge (that’s more than 3 glasses of wine in one session). If you drink more than this on a regular basis you will be in a higher risk category for some age-related diseases so it’s worth getting a handle on it. I’ve just started writing a column for Top Santé magazine on this very topic if you are interested, this was this month’s piece:
So that’s really all you need to know about nutrition. If you have any questions or there’s anything important you think I’ve missed out please leave a comment below as I know there are some very knowledgeable people reading this blog and I often learn as much from you as you do from me!