Understanding the Principles and Benefits of Healthy Eating
Thabiso forced himself out of bed to get to work by 8 a.m. fighting a headache and lack of energy. “If only I could get my coffee before I leave home, I’ll be fine”, he thought.
This may be a familiar scenario played out in hundreds of homes across South Africa as people struggle to stick to a healthy diet that leaves them energized, agile and disease-free. Back in the “good old days” when we tended the fields or walked with the cattle or cooked for the family, the body’s constant physical activity was a buffer against any dietary indiscretions that could deflect us sideways. But the twin factors of lack of exercise and unhealthy dietary choices are resulting in soaring rates of obesity, overweight, high blood pressure and diabetes in South Africa and around the world.
What Is a Healthy Diet?
“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food” ancient Greek physician Hippocrates (460-377 BC), the founding father of natural medicine.
With the body of evidence mounting about the value or danger of certain foods and the continual emergence of new “weight loss” diets, it is easy to get confused with what to eat and what to avoid. But unlike fads and fashions that have come before, let’s look at the facts that speak for themselves. The South African Food Based Dietary Guidelines (FBDGs) recommend eating a variety of foods daily, including starchy foods in each meal, eating meats, legumes, milk products, fruits and vegetables daily and limiting sugar, fats and alcohol. Dieticians and nutritionists agree that excessive intakes of refined carbohydrates, especially sweetened cold drinks and fruit juices are associated with obesity and NCDs (non-communicable diseases). The top five American health organizations basically said the same thing: “Choose a diet rich in grain products, vegetables and fruits and one that is low in saturated fat, fat and cholesterol and moderate in sugar and salt”.
The Food Pyramid
The food pyramid developed by the US Dept of Agriculture and revised every 5 years is a fairly good guide for consumers on how to eat a balanced diet to stay healthy and active. Combined with regular exercise and control of alcohol and smoking, the food pyramid ensures a reasonable state of health.
For vegetarians they may substitute the meat, fish and eggs with more beans, pulses, nuts and legumes like soya, tofu, peanut, dairy products, etc.
Big Is Not Always Best
In many cultures a big, healthy body is a sign of robust health and strength. But nowadays our changing food habits may also result in being overweight and at the same time being malnourished! That’s because of the “empty calories” phenomenon found in many convenience foods such as French fries, fat cakes, chocolates and pastries. These foods can be described as energy dense (too many calories) but nutrient poor (not enough vitamins and minerals).
So in the category of Things That Your Mother (or Grandmother) Was Right About All Along, you should really take your vitamins. Vitamins and minerals lubricate the wheels of our metabolism, helping the chemical reactions in our bodies run properly. Among those biochemical processes aided by nutrients is the regulation of sugar and burning of fat. For this reason a generous daily helping of vegetables (3-5 servings) will ensure an adequate vitamin and mineral supply.
A New England Journal of Medicine study of 120,000 participants over a four year period found that the food most associated with adding weight were french fries, potato chips, sugary drinks, meats, sweets and refined grains. The foods most associated with shedding weight were yogurt, nuts, whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Why would that be so?
Take the example of nuts and french fries. Nuts take longer to chew whereas the cooked starch of french fries is quickly broken down. Nuts contain fat and fibre that need more time to digest. The french fries cause a spike in sugar in the bloodstream. With nuts your stomach stays fuller and you feel satisfied longer so you eat less at your next meal . The french fries causes the body to secrete insulin, leading to hunger signals, so you eat more at your next meal. The result is that you lose 0.30 kg on the nuts but you gain 1.50 kg. with the french fries.
Source: New England Journal of Medicine
The Benefits of Traditional Foods
Grandma’s good advice was usually complemented by a preparation of nutritious food made as her parents did. There is a lot to be said for the way food was obtained and prepared the old fashioned way: No added chemicals; most food was grown organically before the arrival of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
Minimally processed—all the nutrients in the freshly harvested food were retained
Easily processed by the body since that is what our bodies have been accustomed to over thousands of years.
The food is highly nutritious since the body can assimilate and extract more readily the nutrients in the food.
Locally grown: fits to our genes and personal psychology.
Prepared with love by mother or grandmother.
The Inherent Risks of Fast Foods
As urban life becomes increasingly complex and time bound, we look for quick, easy-to-grab foods that are more convenient. Moreover, these foods are often delicious and cheap on the budget.
Unfortunately statistics in the USA reveal the rates of obesity have increased steadily over the last 30 years, a time period that has witnessed an explosion in the numbers of fast food restaurants, vending machines and convenience stores.
In South Africa we are just around the corner. According to a study by the University of the Witwatersrand the average South African child only exercises for 34 minutes each week. Lifestyle diseases like obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes, which are directly related to inactivity and poor nutrition (high-fat foods, too much salt and sugar, and too little fibre, fruits and vegetables), are increasing in young adults. The Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study (2010) monitored the eating habits, recreation and activity levels of 3,021 young adults over 15 years. CARDIA revealed that people who ate fast food two or more times a week experienced an average weight gain of 4.5 kg more than study participants who ate fast food less than once a week. The study also proved that regular fast food consumption increased the risk of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. This risk is heightened further with other lifestyle factors such as alcohol consumption, little exercise and smoking.
What Are the Benefits of Eating Right?
Peaceful and undisturbed sleep
High energy the whole day
No need for excessive supplements or medicines
Strong appetite before all meals
Digestive system strong and fully functional
Recover quickly from any illness or ailment
Body feels light Mind feels joyful and content
Seven Tips for a Healthy Diet:
You may make up your own rules but here is a sampling from a variety of experts:
Eat in moderation
Choose foods that look like they did when they came out of the ground, i.e. the less the food is processed the better it is.
Get some exercise
Rise with the sun and sleep during darkness
Drink plenty of water
Eat in a relaxed, happy frame of mind
Living healthily is as important as earning money and getting a good education. Our life quality increases one hundred fold when we are healthy and energetic. Healthy eating is a major component of a healthy life. Healthy eating must go together with right exercise and right thinking. Balance is the mantra for healthy eating—eating in moderation. A balanced diet is the best way to ensure an adequate intake of essential nutrients. Using the food pyramid as our guide there is no reason why we cannot attain and maintain optimal health through wise eating habits.