Nowadays, we are constantly bombarded with catchphrases like ‘detox’, ‘clean eating’ and ‘superfoods’. With the abundance of marketing on the subject of nutrition, it can be hard to identify what is fact and what is fiction. Can certain ingredients boost your overall wellbeing and are there particular food groups we should avoid completely? Dear Doctor is here to quell some common myths on healthy eating and provide you with a nutritional food guide you can trust.
The term ‘healthy’ is generally applied to somebody who is considered to be in peak physical shape, without illness or injury. It could arguably be seen as a fluid concept; one person’s optimal health may be different to another’s. There are a number of factors to take into account: age, height, metabolism, gene pool and general lifestyle. Improvements in health are made possible through consuming a balanced diet, performing regular exercise and avoiding damaging pastimes and addictions like smoking and excessive drinking.
The main food groups
Health organisations often reiterate that a balanced diet is the key to staying healthy. This translates to having a regular intake of each of the five main food groups. Each group has its own purpose and therefore should be taken in certain specific quantities. The NHS’ Eatwell Guide outlines the recommended diet proportions of each food group which can be roughly broken down into 37 percent carbohydrates, 39 percent fruit and vegetables, 12 percent protein, eight percent milk and dairy products, one percent oils and three percent occasional foods.
The key messages to take on board are:
Eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day (but more if possible). Try to consume a colourful variety; different fruits and legumes are packed with vital antioxidants and vitamins.
Base your meals on starchy carbohydrates such as potatoes, rice, bread or pasta—these provide natural energy that your body needs. Choose wholegrain options with less added sugar and salt.
Try to consume some dairy (or a dairy alternative—soy-based products are a good option). Aim to choose low fat options.
Include protein in your diet—most of the protein should be obtained from beans and pulses, including some meat and two portions of fish a week (preferably oily fish that is packed with omega 3 and other minerals).
Eat oil in small amounts and try to opt for unsaturated versions found in spreads and oil sprays.
Aim to drink six to eight glasses of water a day. Hydration is an important part of digestion and everyday functioning. Consume fewer sugary drinks like fruit juice or caffeinated beverages—the latter tends to be dehydrating.
Food high in fat, salt and sugar should only be consumed occasionally. These foods naturally provide less nutritional value as they lack useful nutrients and vitamins. Excessive amounts of these foods (including chocolate, biscuits and deep-fried products, to name a few) can lead to elevated cholesterol levels and other health issues. They should be eaten in small quantities.
According to the NHS, the daily recommended amount of calories is 2000 kcal for women and 2500 kcal for men. Your recommended intake may differ depending on activity levels; those who do rigorous exercise may need more calories for energy, while those who do very little exercise may be advised to consume fewer calories.
Fact vs. Myth
MYTH: Detoxing and fasting is good for you
Now more than ever, new diets are springing up suggesting that the way to a healthy body is to detox or fast. Fasting is particularly unwise; depriving the body of meals can cause lack of energy and electrolyte imbalances. Various teas, juices and supplements have also arrived on the health scene, promising to cleanse your liver or rid your body of toxins. Many of these products make false claims that have no real evidence to prove their efficacy. The purpose of most detox plans is to avoid a particular food type for a certain period, either for weight loss or cleansing purposes. You may be surprised to learn that your body naturally removes unwanted toxins through the liver, kidneys, skin and lymphatic system.
MYTH: ‘No added sugar’ means no sugar
Branding is often made in a way that makes customers believe they are consuming a product that is good—or better—for them when in fact this is not always the case. A label that reads ‘no added sugar’ is often misconstrued as meaning the item contains no sugar at all. Similarly, ‘reduced fat’ or ‘low salt’ labels do not always mean the products they are on are better for you than their regular counterparts. Some low fat options contain a disproportionate amount of sugar to make up for lost flavour. Make sure you check food labels properly to prevent any hidden surprises.
MYTH: Snacking is bad for you
Snacking doesn’t necessarily have to be bad, it all depends on what you are snacking on and how often. If snacking is managed strategically, it can positively contribute to a wholesome lifestyle. Dr Marilyn Glenville, nutritionist and author of Natural Alternatives to Sugar (2016), advises to ‘ensure you are eating little and often during the day to keep your blood sugar steady’. This will mean you are less likely to suffer an energy slump and reach out for a sugar fix. First, it’s important to identify why you wish to snack—if your stomach is rumbling then go ahead. There is no real reason to ignore your body’s natural way of asking for sustenance. However, if you are simply bored or tired, you should seek a better alternative—take a walk, have a refreshing shower or drink a large glass of water. Avoid snacking on overly sugared food types, they may give you a sudden energy rush but soon you will find your body crashing. Instead, opt for something rich in fibre like a banana or protein-rich mixed nuts. If you decide on a larger snack, reduce your next meal accordingly. Remember, good nutrition is all about balance.