So today we’re going to look at the basics of a healthy balanced diet, and how you can get them in your diet. Now by its very nature, science is always making new discoveries and so there will always be a new bit of research that we need to take note of. But it’s really difficult to know whether a particular health message applies to you, and that’s where a dietitian comes in really helpful! But, for the most part, your body will always need the nutrients in the different food groups so it’s a really good place to start.
I’m going to talk to you about all of the different food groups that your body needs in order to function. So what is a healthy balanced diet? Well I personally would argue that the most important word in that sentence is balance. You need all of the food groups in order for your body to be able to function effectively. I have seen people manage to get a relatively balanced diet from places that are not traditionally associated with health. I have a client at the moment who eats most of his food from the local greasy spoon, but actually he’s doing really well at getting a balance of food groups. He gets some protein, some energy, and some fruit and veg.
Now if you take the balance out of your meals, you can’t really say that they are healthy because your body hasn’t got the nutrients it needs to function properly. And that’s why there’s a real issue with this clean eating movement – which hopefully is on the wane. If you only eat food that is traditionally thought of as healthy, let’s take vegetables for example, you miss out on a lot of the different food groups your body needs. So, a salad is healthy but if it’s just got vegetables in it then you’re missing out on protein, good fats and energy, which means your body can’t work properly.
First food groups. nNow carbohydrates have had a really bad rap recently it’s still going on even now. I constantly see people in clinic trying to eat less carbs; worried about their bread intake; oh my god they had pasta salad for lunch yesterday. First of all stop worrying! Our bodies have evolved to use carbohydrates as the primary source of fuel, so whenever our bodies are looking for energy to wave our arms around or go for a run, it will always look for carbohydrate energy first.
It can use other forms of fuel – it can use protein and it can use fat – but carbohydrate is the most efficient place to get energy from and that’s why your body likes it so much! Protein is the next food group and it’s really important. Protein is used for making muscles and cells but it’s also the main ingredient of hormones; enzymes; neurotransmitters; the immune system, nothing can happen without protein. It can also be used as an energy source. But, if you’re using it as an energy source it then can’t go to do all of the jobs that only protein can do, and that’s why the balance between protein and carbohydrates is so important.
Let’s talk through a scenario: you go into a cafe for lunch and you decide to get a salad. Let’s say you’re gonna have some feta on it, some feta cheese. You decide not to have the couscous that goes with it because you’re trying to cut down on carbohydrates. You think you’re being really healthy, however because you then don’t have an energy source in that lunch, what happens is your body uses the protein as an energy source, which means that that protein then can’t go to do all of the jobs that only protein can do. This is why a balance makes a difference! Protein in the Western diet comes mainly from things like meat, fish, eggs, dairy but also we’ve got lovely protein that comes from plants things like beans, lentils, tofu, soya. All of those things are great sources of protein as well.
The next food group is fruit and vegetables. I’m sure you all know you’re supposed to get 5 a day, but actually most people in this country only 3 a day. Even though they know that they’re supposed to get 5 a day! So what do we need fruit and veg for? Well they give us vitamins, minerals,fluid and fibre. Some vitamins are water soluble so we can’t store them in the body. Let’s say you have a glass of orange juice for breakfast, that might give you 200 times the amount of vitamin C you need in a day, but you can only use what you can use at that point, and the rest of it gets excreted in the urine.
So if you’ve had orange juice for breakfast but no other vitamin C throughout the day and you need to make a skin cell in the afternoon, you’re still not going to be able to make that skin cell because you haven’t got any vitamin C left. The last food group is fat. Also quite a controversial one, although perhaps less so these days which is great. Fat is used for insulation in the body, keeps us warm, but it also protects our organs. It’s useful stored energy and it’s where we get our fat soluble vitamins from.
It’s really really important! We don’t need a great deal of it but we definitely need it, and there are some fats that our bodies cannot make. We have to get them through our die. An example of this is omega-3 Brain cells use a mega 3 as part of their cell structure. So it’s really important that we get some through our diet! The main sources of fat in the Western diet are things like oil, butter, but also it’s integral to some foods like egg yolk, meat, dairy products and those kind of thing.s Meal pattern is quite important because that determines when we get our energy and nutrients throughout the day.
If you eat every three or four hours, what happens is you get a delivery of energy – glucose to the brain and to the rest of the body. If you have a nice balance to your diet you’ll also be giving your body a regular dose of protein and vitamins and minerals, and remember those water soluble vitamins we can’t store so we need to get them regularly throughout the day. If your diet is pretty good you really enjoy it, you feel great, you’ve got brilliant energy levels and you sleep well, you never get brain fog, you carry on doing whatever you is you’re doing because you’re probably doing fine.
But if you feel there is room for improvement in any of those areas then looking at your meal pattern might be worth doing. Eating every three or four hours means that you are getting giving your body all of those nutrients throughout the day. The last element of a healthy balanced diet is portion sizes. My favorite way to measure portion sizes is with your hands. Your hands are brilliant because you always have them with you, you don’t need to have scales or get scales out in restaurants or anything! Your hands are a really good guide as to what portions your body needs. If you are a giant, you have giant hands and you need giant portions. My portions are relatively small because I am and my hands are quite small. A portion of carbohydrates is about the size of your fist and you need about four or five portions a day depending on how busy you are. If you are going to the gym for an hour you’re probably going to need five portions, if you’re just sitting a desk all day is going to be more like four.
We want to get them spread throughout the day remember, eating every four hours or so. A portion of protein is about the size of the palm of your hand and the thickness. Now again we need to eat them regularly throughout the day ideally, so it’s not okay to just eat a massive steak in the evening! It’s much better to eat a little bit at breakfast a little bit at lunch and a little bit in your evening meal. You need about two to three portions of protein a day. A portion of fruit or veg is whatever you can fit in your cupped hand. Now again portion sizes will vary depending on the size of your hand. If you eat more than that it’s not the end of the world, but what we don’t want is for you to eat so much fruit and veg that you haven’t got enough room to have the carbohydrates and the protein that you need.
As I mentioned before most people only get about three handfuls a day but you are aiming for about five. So we’ve got the one visual guide with our hand-size measures, but I’m also going to give you another really useful visual guide to help you remember how to put a meal together. Imagine your plate split into three. You fill half of your plate with a fruit or veg or a mixture of the two; a quarter with carbohydrate, and a quarter with protein. If you do that, in combination with your hand size measures, the chances of you getting everything you need and not too much of what you don’t need are really high.
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