One question I get asked time and again is "What should I actually be eating?" or "What is the ideal balanced diet?" So I thought I'd write something to try to give you a good broad idea of what a good balanced diet looks like, to me. I say 'to me' because there are many schools of thought on this, but this is what makes most sense to me.
The most important thing to remember when it comes to nutrition is eating whole foods, in their most natural form. Eat as wide a variety of colours as you can (think about the rainbow of colours) every day, and you can be sure you’re getting plenty of beneficial phytochemicals and antioxidants to support whole-body health.
When it comes to what you eat, quality is much more important than quantity because all calories are NOT created equal. The sources and nutrient-density of your food plays a much bigger role in your health than the amount of calories a food contains.
For example, compare a packet of low fat crackers to an avocado. The avocado will of course contain much more fat and calories than the crackers, but avocados also provide the body with real nutrients like mono-unsaturated fats for heart health, and vitamin K for strong bones and healthy blood cells. All of these nutrients help the body function optimally. The crackers are made from refined flour, sugar, and preservatives, so while you may not be consuming as many calories, your blood sugar will definitely be affected (the main cause of fat increase around our middles), cholesterol will increase, and your waist line is much more likely to be affected despite the low-fat label. Following the principles of a Low GL way of eating will ensure that you are getting the right amount and type of energy producing foods in your diet.
I am not one for adhering to specific diets, even if they are supposedly healthy such as ketogenic or paleo. People of course have their morals and beliefs such as vegans and vegetarians, and I respect these fully (I was a vegetarian for 25 years and eat very limited amounts of meat, and am picky about what meat I eat), but on the whole I recommend as balanced, colourful and broad diet as possible, with a low Glycaemic Load, as with as many colours of the rainbow as you can manage.
There are rules that I do try to follow, and encourage my clients to follow too:
These can contribute to a fair proportion of dietary fibre as well as significant levels of B Vitamins but they should be eaten in moderation following the low GL principles, and they should be whole grains, not refined (so not flours). Avoid all white things – white bread, white pasta, white rice and so on. Yes, we need some carbohydrates in our diet (I’m don't believe in cutting them out completely for most people, as they are the most efficient form of energy for the body), but most people eat way too much carbohydrate foods, and the wrong sorts.
Vegetables are SO important. I can’t stress enough how important having more vegetables in your diet is. Forget 5 a day, aim for 10 a day! Vegetables are the main contributor of vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants in the diet, as well as significant amounts of protein, slow release carbohydrate, soluble and insoluble fibre, and some high quality water. Think about loading half your plate with vegetables, plus at least one snack including vegetables a day, and you won’t go far wrong. And think about the colours of the rainbow (yes, I said it again!). Try to make sure you get something red, yellow, orange, green and blue/purple in your diet, every single day, and from different sources. I.e. mix up your choices. Try one new vegetable (or have a vegetable you haven’t had for a while) every week. Too many people stick to the same vegetables day in day out. You are missing out on so many amazing nutrients, some of which we are probably not even aware of yet through science!
These can be a good contributor of protein in our diets. I really encourage people to add in some to their diet for protein, rather than just relying on animal products. When combined with other grains, beans provide a wonderful and broad range of amino acids (for example in an Asian diet where bean dishes are combined with rice on the side), and provide a complete range of essential amino acids. They also provide a modest level of fat. I encourage you to switch two main meals a week to beans/legumes. It also helps to cut down on the very acid-forming meats that too many of us consume every day. However, quantity is also an issue, and can have an effect on blood sugar, so don’t go mad on them either. Remember, moderation!
Some people struggle with beans/legumes and cannot digest them, or they cause gastro-intestinal issues. If this is the case, they should be avoided, or at the very least soaked for a long time before cooking.
And of course, if you are vegetarian or vegan, this is likely to be a main form of protein so it’s really important to look at the combination of beans/legumes and grains you have in a dish, to make sure you get a full profile of amino acids.
Meat, Eggs, Fish, Dairy
There are large amounts of complete proteins in all of these, but high levels of saturated fats, and the micronutrient Vitamin B12 (missing in many vegetarian and vegan diets). Fats are important for energy storage and thermal insulation as well as the essential raw material for hormone production. Whilst saturated fats need to be eaten in moderation, they are still an important part of the diet, but ensure they come from whole foods rather than processed varieties.
I always get asked how many eggs is safe to eat a week, due to the misconception that eggs raise cholesterol levels and contribute to heart disease. This has been completely disproved, however, I don’t recommend going overboard with eggs but I suggest up to 6 to 8 eggs a week is perfectly acceptable.
Vegetarians and vegans need to ensure they are getting a range of complete proteins and adequate B vitamins, especially B12 (found mostly in eggs, dairy and meat). If this is not possible through diet, it is very important to supplement.
The principle benefit of raw food is vitality. Vitamins have not been destroyed by cooking, friendly, live bacteria are intact and the plant fibre is at its highest quality. Whilst I don’t think we should eat a purely raw diet, it is really important to have some raw vegetables and fruit in our diet. This can be achieved simply by eating a variety of salads and fruits.
Fermented and Bacterial Cultured products
There are many reasons why our microbiome (our own unique culture of microbes in our gut) can be imbalanced, from poor diet, to chemicals in foods and products, and from antibiotics and other pharmaceutical medicines, to alcohol. It’s very important that we get some fermented and cultured products into our diet. These are essential for gut health and mainly consist of probiotic cultures and pre-biotic foods to feed the good bacteria. This can be achieved by eating things like Kombucha (fermented green or black tea), Kefir (fermented yoghurt drink), sauerkraut (fermented cabbage), or Tempeh (fermented soy).
In terms of pre-biotics, think bananas, onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus, oats and apples. These are the foods that feed our friendly gut bacteria.
If consuming fermented foods is a step too far at present, I would advise taking a probiotic supplement for a period of time, and then intermittently. It’s best to take advice from a health professional for this, as not all probiotic supplements are created equal.
Oils and Fats
As well as their vital function as an energy store, insulator and hormone producer, fats and oils contribute the fat-soluble vitamins A, E and K, as well as essential fatty acids that we cannot produce ourselves, with the crucial function of blood fat regulation and immune function, as well as brain health!
Let’s start with the fats to avoid:
Hydrogenated fats – these are unsaturated fats that are naturally liquid at room temperature and have had hydrogen molecules pumped through them to ultimately make them solid. Also known as trans fats, think margarine in all its many varieties. Also look out for processed foods that are made with trans fats such as cakes and biscuits, crackers, donuts and some sandwiches.
Deep fried foods – Fairly obvious but foods that have been deep fried should be avoided as much as possible.
Frying - In terms of cooking with fats, when cooking at high temperatures it is always best to avoid liquid oils, especially when frying. Instead, use saturated fats such as butter, ghee or coconut oil. When baking/roasting, it’s ok to use olive oil, but don’t allow food to burn. The burning is oxidisation. The oxidants that are created, when consumed, are released into the body as free radicals which cause damage to the body.
Contrary to popular belief, and what you may have been told, fat is very important part of our diets, especially healthy fats. But what constitutes healthy fats? There are a number of fats that are considered healthy for the body and these include unsaturated and poly-unsaturated fats, as well as essential fatty acids (called essential because we cannot produce them in the body, hence they are essential in our diet).
Here’s a list of foods that should be included in our diets on a regular basis:
I hope you've found this article informative and useful. If you'd like to find out about how I can help you to personalise your own diet, and help you on the way to optimum health, do get in touch.
Helping people to achieve optimal health and wellness - sharing simple nutritious recipes, tips and advice on how to improve your health through food, without compromising on taste.