When we think of food, we think of aromas, flavors, colors, festivals, and memories in grandma’s kitchen. Food is responsible for the activation of all senses. However, on a macro level, food is consumed to abate hunger, and for the ultimate feelings of satiety and pleasure. Further, food provides our body with the necessary nutrition and helps it perform its key functions at the cellular level. What we eat affects everything, from our energy levels, to the health of vital organs like the heart, and the health of our skin, nails, and hair. Isn’t this reason enough to give deep consideration to what we choose to make a part of our meals?
All food consists of some basic nutrients: Proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals.
Proteins provide the body with amino acids — the building blocks that help the body’s cells do all of their everyday activities. Proteins help the body to build new cells, repair old cells, create hormones and enzymes, and keep the immune system healthy. If there isn’t enough protein in the body, it takes longer for the body to recover from illnesses and one is more likely to get sick in the first place.
Carbohydrates provide instant energy to the body — they quickly go into the blood as glucose (blood sugar), which the body uses for fuel first, before turning the leftovers into fat.
Fats give the body fatty acids that are required to grow and produce new cells and hormones. Fat also helps some vitamins move through the body. Vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat-soluble vitamins, which means they need some fat to execute their functions. Fat also helps protect organs against trauma by safely encasing them. They are also the energy reserves of the body.
Lastly, vitamins keep the bones strong, our vision clear and sharp, and skin, nails, and hair healthy and glowing., and minerals are chemical elements that help regulate our body’s processes. Potassium, for example, helps our nerves and muscles function. Calcium helps teeth and bones stay strong, and Iron carries oxygen to all our cells.
When we eat and drink, we put energy into our bodies. Energy from food is measured in calories. So, when you hear something contains 100 calories, it’s a way of describing how much energy your body could get from eating or drinking it. Intuitively, it would make sense to say that to maintain a stable weight, the energy we put into our bodies must be the same as the energy we use for normal bodily functions and physical activity. While this is true, it is important to factor in not just the number of calories gained from a food, but its overall nutritional value. Thus, backed by some landmark research studies in the last decade, there has been a shift from quantitative eating to more qualitative eating.
As Indians, we have grown up on home cooked meals, which means we have the control over what we choose to eat and how we choose to cook it. So, here are some cues on building a healthy and balanced diet:
To make most of your meal, vegetables and fruits – ½ of your plate.
Aim for colour and variety, and remember that potatoes don’t count as vegetables on a healthy eating plate because of their negative impact on blood sugar.
Go for whole grains – ¼ of your plate.
Whole and intact grains—whole wheat, barley, quinoa, oats, brown rice, and foods made with them, such as whole wheat rotis —have a milder effect on blood sugar and insulin than white bread, white rice, and other refined grains.
Protein – ¼ of your plate.
Fish, poultry, beans, and nuts are all healthy, versatile protein sources—they can be mixed into salads, and pair well with vegetables on a plate. Limit red meat, and avoid processed meats such as bacon and sausage.
Healthy plant oils – in moderation.
Choose healthy vegetable oils like olive, canola, soy, corn, sunflower, peanut, and others, and avoid partially hydrogenated oils, which contain unhealthy trans fats.
Drink water, coffee, or tea.
Skip sugary drinks, limit milk and dairy products to one to two servings per day, and limit juice to a small glass per day.
And don’t forget to stay active!
Mindful eating—defined as eating intentionally based on an understanding of your mood and hunger cues—has grown as an alternative to calorie counting. Diets tend to focus on rules of eating, e.g., what to eat, how much to eat, and what not to eat, including measurement of specific outcomes, e.g., weight loss. All diets have the potential of success or failure based on weight outcomes. Thus, our on-diet behaviour will be subject to daily stress and outside pressures and therefore difficult to sustain. On the contrary, mindful eating techniques help us notice and listen to our physical hunger cues rather than just focusing on specific numbers on a food label. Research shows that approaching mealtimes in this way may be a more effective tool for creating sustainable healthy eating patterns and is linked to better mental well-being.
There are still diet apps and programs that include calorie counting. Calories can have a place in healthy eating—just not the starring role we once cast it in. Understanding the general range of calories in certain foods can help us put together appropriate portion sizes for a meal. This knowledge can then become a reference point as we learn to make more informed decisions around food, keeping our focus on other eating habits that are more sustainable and healthier: eating more fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains, and lean protein. Much of research on nutrition suggests that meeting numbers is not as important as eating the right kind of food. For example, eggs, avocado and olive oil are all calorie dense foods, but also contain additional nutrients that are good for the body as opposed to a bag of chips or a pastry. The bottom line is to avoid processed food, that generally has fats, sugars, and salt in excess, and opt for home-cooked, balanced meals instead.
Often, however, our food choices are not just a result of personal behaviour but on a much deeper level, depend on environmental factors. These factors are called social determinants, which simply means the environment in which we live, work, learn and play in. Our social determinants decide the availability and affordability of food for us. Therefore, from a larger public health standpoint, it is important to change the environmental factors that affect health behaviours. For example, incorporate health curricula in schools and make products like fruits, vegetables and dairy more affordable to those below the poverty line.
Lastly, eating right is to find the balance between satiety, pleasure and the nutrition profile of foods consumed. This means eating a wide variety of foods in the right proportions, and consuming the right amount of food and drink to achieve and maintain a healthy body and maintain wellness.
Note: People with special dietary needs or a medical condition should ask their doctor or a registered dietitian for advice.
Author: Bhumika Desai | BDS, MSc (Clinical Research)
MPH Candidate at Tufts University School of Medicine | Health Communication Specialist
A dentist by training, she gravitated towards public health due to a strong desire to improve disease outcomes with disease prevention and health promotion. As a current MPH candidate, she is focused on studying health behaviours and the influence of effective health communication on them, as individual behaviours are one of the most important modifiable risk factors for diseases.LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/bhumika-s-desai
Verified By: Pooja Ajwani, an Integrative Nutritionist who is the founder of Women Wellness First | Instagram:https://www.instagram.com/womenwellnessfirst/?hl=en Email: email@example.com