Every school child was taught how to eat healthy and that a diet based on selections from the four food groups – meat and fish, dairy products, fruits and vegetables, and grains – spells good nutrition. That is still true, but new understanding of the way certain foods can promote or prevent various diseases has changed the way the food groups are used.
Choosing foods that constitute a balanced diet is still important. However, the emphasis is now on choosing low-fat, high-fiber foods from each group. Fat not only has more than twice as many calories per unit of weight as other constituents of food (9 per gram versus 4 per gram of protein and carbohydrate), but is also thought to contribute to the development of cardiovascular disease and certain cancers.
Meat from animal sources which is high in saturated fat and cholesterol has long been seen as a villain. Research suggests some unsaturated fats should be reduced as well.
Polyunsaturated fats – corn and most other vegetable oils – may lower blood levels of low-density lipoproteins, which is beneficial, but they also lower high-density lipoprotein levels, an undesirable effect. When consumed in large amounts, they have been implicated in the development of some cancers.
Monosaturated fats, found in olive, rapeseed and peanut oils and in avocados, lower only low-density lipoproteins and have not been associated with cancer. If you want to eat healthy you must limit total fat intake, particularly by reducing consumption of saturated fat.
Fiber, a word hardly heard in reference to food 50 years ago, is now seen as an essential component of a diet for optimum health. This indigestible plant product is not absorbed by the body and helps promote regular bowel function, prevent constipation and diverticulosis. These benefits have been associated with a reduced incidence of colon cancer.
Fiber speeds progress through the gastrointestinal tract, so cells in the colon wall are exposed to cancer-causing agents in foods for less time. Fiber binds with some carcinogens, preventing them from coming into contact with the cells of the colon. It also binds with bile acids, which are needed for digestion but which can trigger cancer development.
Recently, water-soluble fiber has been shown to significantly reduce blood cholesterol levels. This type of fiber can be found in oats, barley, legumes (dried peas and beans), fruits and vegetables. A diet rich in whole-grain cereals and breads, vegetables, fruits and legumes provides needed fiber.
Current recommendations are to consume 25 to 40 grams of fiber per day. These dietary recommendations are usually geared to the average adult. Modifications must be made for infants, children, adolescents, pregnant and lactating women, the elderly and the ill. Follow guidelines recommended by medical or nutritional experts, not those of current dietary fads.
Fat and cholesterol are essential for cell and hormone development and the need for them during the first two years of life is greater than at any other time. Children under age 2 should not be fed low-fat, low-cholesterol regimes unless recommended by a physician. Whether you’re trying to eat healthy, improve your fitness or reduce stress, small steps can get you on the road to long-term health.
Our shelves are filled with a vast array of foods. So don’t have a boring food-style. Vary the foods you eat from the different food groups daily. It’s the best way to eat healthy and ensure an adequate intake of all the nutrients you need.
How to eat healthy
• Be adventurous. Don’t give up on a new food the first time you try it. A food prepared in one manner may not be to your liking, but can be heavenly in a different recipe. Zucchini soup tastes very different from zucchini salad.
• Watch out for hidden fats in your baked goods. Having a croissant instead of a bagel is triple the fat. Select low fat dessert fare. Choosing a sorbet or an angel food cake with a fruit sauce instead of rich desserts can be palate pleasers.
• When eating out, be sure to ask how the food is prepared. Request that sauces or dressing be served on the side and then use them sparingly.
• Lower the fat in your snacks. Opt for plain popcorn instead of the prepackaged microwave type; pretzels instead of greasy snacks; simple crackers like melba toast instead of rich fancy crackers.
• Instead of eating French fries, toss cut-up potatoes in a little oil and bake them in a hot oven. Better yet, skip the oil and have a baked potato topped with yogurt.
• Bake, steam, broil or microwave your food instead of frying and the fat savings will really add up. Non-stick frying pans are a real boon for low fat cooking. Opt for broiling fish with lemon instead of deep-frying.
Use less fat in preparing your foods but don’t lose out on flavour:
• Add zest to your food with herbs and spices.
• Fresh basil and ripe tomatoes can make a perfect marriage.
• Substitute fruit juice for cooking liquids. Choose lean cuts of meat and trim all visible fat from the meat. Eat smaller portions of meat, fish and poultry. Make the protein part of the meal a garnish instead of the centrepiece. A beef and broccoli stir-fry on a bed of rice is very appealing. This dish exemplifies healthy eating – you’ll combine complex carbohydrates with lower fat.
• Remove skin from poultry before cooking but be sure not to overcook it so it will still be moist and succulent.
• Try some meatless meals. Have a steaming hot bowl of lentil soup and some crusty bread on a cold winter’s night.
• Read product labels to help save on fat and eat healthy. On milk and milk products, for example, M.F. stands for milk fat and B.F. stands for butter fat. The lower the percentage the less the fat in that product. Spread fat on your bread sparingly.
• Boost your fibre. Increase fibre gradually. Too much fibre too quickly can cause abdominal upsets. Be sure to drink plenty of fluids along with the increased fibre.
• Opt for whole grain cereals and breads. Increase the variety of fibres by trying assorted types of breads and cereals. Whole wheat rye, oat bran and corn are just a few examples. Check labels for the fibre listing.
• Eat your fruit rather than drinking it. Choose fruits and vegetables over their juices. Add some fresh fruit to plain yogurt instead of buying the fruit-flavoured kind.
• Scrub rather than peel vegetables like carrots and broccoli. Don’t waste fibre by peeling and seeding tomatoes for cooking. Those fibre rich seeds and peel can add up to more fibre.
• Eat more legumes. Increase the amount of beans and reduce the meat in your best chili recipe or try a tasty black bean or split pea soup rather than a cream soup.
• Fill your salad bowl with fibre. Try spinach instead of iceberg lettuce. Toss some kidney beans or chick peas into your salad.
• Choose whole wheat bread crumbs, crushed cereal, wheat bran, oat bran or wheat germ (or a combination) for baking or as a filler for poultry stuffing and meat or fish patties.
Aim for a healthy weight. There’s a whole range of weights for healthy bodies, but being too thin or too heavy can put you at risk for health problems. Check your Body Mass Index (BMI) to see where you stand. If your weight falls below the healthy level, it may be time to reassess if you’ve been dieting. Eating healthy by having regular, balanced meals will keep you on the track to good weight management.
If you are above the healthy level, don’t look for a fast fix. They are not a good solution. Adjusting portion sizes rather than eliminating foods is the key to successful weight control and healthy eating.