How to eat a balanced diet

What is a balanced diet?

Everyone always talks about “eating a balanced diet”, but have you ever wondered what that actually means?

Firstly, it is important to note that a balanced diet is essential for general health and well-being, as well as for maintaining a healthy weight. How it is achieved in practice can be very different for different people – not least because every individual is different, taking into account factors such as lifestyle, level of activity and energy demands, metabolism, pre-existing medical conditions, age, gender, health goals etc.

For example, athletes, vegetarians, vegans and those suffering from food allergies, sensitivities or intolerances will all have very different dietary requirements.

Having said that, the broad meaning of a balanced diet is simply one that includes an appropriate amount of food from the various food groups, along with plenty of pure water. Moderation and variety are key.

The modern diet

Unfortunately, in this modern age (with growing time and financial constraints), more and more people are relying on “fast foods” / “junk foods”, ready-meals, frozen foods and highly refined and processed foods to make up the majority of their meals.

Although obviously time-savers, these types of foods tend to be high in refined carbohydrates, sugar, salt, saturated fats and chemicals (such as food additives and preservatives). Not only do they fail to supply the body with the nutrients that it needs, they actually contribute to toxin build-up, which can (for example) potentially lead to digestive problems, poor immunity, weight gain and all of the problems that come with it (including increased risk of diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure etc).

Another common phenomenon is that people will often skip meals in an attempt to lose weight, which in reality is counter-productive. Not only is this approach unhealthy (and has the potential to damage your digestion and internal organs), it can actually prevent weight loss and even contribute to weight gain. Although this sounds illogical, when you think about it, it does make sense.

How skipping meals can lead to weight gain…

It is important to activate your metabolism with the right foods at certain times of the day. Skipping meals (particularly breakfast) can lead to weight gain in a number of ways.

  • When you don’t eat for a prolonged period of time, your body can go into “starvation mode” and your metabolism then slows down to preserve energy. This means that your body will compensate for the inadequate calories by burning fewer calories than it normally would. When your body goes into starvation mode it does not draw from its fat reserves for energy, making it more difficult to lose weight.
  • It tends to result in extreme hunger later in the day, which can then lead to cravings, bingeing and weight gain.
  • It gives you an uneven distribution of calories throughout the day.
  • It means you are depriving your body of the energy it needs to properly function, exercise, burn calories etc.
  • It causes low blood sugar levels and delays insulin response, which can lead to diabetes.
  • It is a temporary measure and won’t solve your long-term weight problems.

Skipping meals is therefore clearly not the answer to healthy weight loss and a balanced diet. The most effective means of losing weight and keeping off is adopting a sensible weight management plan, i.e. making healthier eating choices, exercising, drinking pure water and keeping your metabolism active. Metabolism plays a key role in how quickly you burn fat and lose weight; therefore, it cannot be overlooked as part of your plan for weight management and optimum nutrition.

Why is a balanced diet important?

Exercise alone won’t make you “healthy” – it is just one piece of the puzzle. As the saying goes, you are what you eat. A balanced diet is arguably the most important factor because it gives you access to the broad spectrum of vitamins, minerals, salts, oils and other nutrients required by your body to function in an optimal way, including the energy to exercise.

Learning how to maintain a balanced diet is important for long-term health and weight management.

Where do health supplements come into it?

As a person trying to achieve a truly balanced diet and manage your weight, you might choose to take health supplements for a number of reasons, e.g.:

  1. As a result of depleted soil, long-distance importation, long shelf-life, pasteurisation, cooking methods (such as microwaving) and chemicals in our food, it is often lacking in nutrients, including digestive enzymes. For example, the level of vitamin C in vegetables can decrease by half within 5 minutes of being cut and by up to 70% after just 20 minutes. Similarly, cooking food destroys around half of the protein content and approximately 60% of vitamins and renders about 60% of the minerals non-absorbable. Nutrient-dense, food form supplements can help you top-up on nutrients easily and conveniently, every day.
  2. Restricted food choice can often make it harder to ensure you are getting the full spectrum of nutrients that your body needs on a daily basis. Many slimmers, vegans, vegetarians and others with restricted diets (such as allergy or intolerance sufferers) therefore choose to supplement their diets with tailored health foods and products.
  3. Those suffering from long-standing digestive health problems will often find that it is harder for them to absorb nutrients and lose weight. Digestive system issues are a common side-effect of being over-weight, most likely due to poor diet over a number of years. Many slimmers and those with digestive disorders therefore find that they benefit from, for example, colon cleansers and cleanse and detox supplements as part of their wider weight management programme. Others use probiotics and digestive system supplements to support their inner health and help to restore balanced levels of gut flora.

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Antioxidants for health

What are antioxidants?

Antioxidants are beneficial compounds found in certain natural foods, such as fruit, vegetables, grasses, grains etc and even some animal products (such as fish oils). They help to defend your cells from damage caused by potentially harmful molecules, known as free radicals.

How do free radicals damage the body?

When free radicals accumulate in the body (as a result of, for example, poor diet, exposure to pollution, stress and many other factors), they can lead to what is known as oxidative stress. This has the potential to damage your DNA and other important structures in your cells.

Chronic oxidative stress, where your body is repeatedly exposed to high levels of free radicals, can increase your risk of disease (including heart disease), place a strain on your immune system, lead to inflammation in the body and also accelerate the ageing process.

How are antioxidants good for health?

Fortunately, eating a diet rich in antioxidants can help to support your body in neutralising these harmful free radicals. What’s more, naturally antioxidant-rich foods tend to be alkalising, which can simultaneously help to address any inflammation.

What are the best antioxidant foods?

Scientists use several different methods to measure the antioxidant content of foods. However, one of the best tests is the FRAP (Ferric Reducing Ability of Plasma) analysis. It measures the antioxidant content of foods by how well they can neutralise a specific free radical. The higher the FRAP value, the more antioxidants the food contains.

Another method is the ORAC system. The ORAC unit (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity), ORAC value, or ORAC score is a method developed by scientists at the National Institute of Health and Aging (NIH) to measures the antioxidant capacity of different foods. Whilst the exact relationship between the ORAC value of a food and its health benefit has not been fully established, it is generally believed that foods with higher ORAC scores have greater antioxidant capacity, and more effectively neutralise harmful free radicals.

Here are the some of the most notoriously antioxidant-rich foods…

  • cloves
  • sumac
  • cinnamon
  • oregano
  • turmeric
  • acai berries
  • sorghum
  • cocoa
  • pecans
  • wheatgrass
  • blueberries
  • krill oil
  • artichokes
  • goji berries
  • kale
  • raspberries
  • beetroot
  • cherries
  • spinach
  • and the list goes on.

If you are trying to integrate more antioxidants into your daily diet, seek out foods that are naturally rich in colour. The common phrase “eat the rainbow” is a good rule of thumb. The pigments that naturally colour these foods tend to contain the antioxidant compounds that are so beneficial for health! Certain vitamins, such as vitamin C and E, are also powerful antioxidants. You may therefore turn to antioxidant supplements for a reliable daily source, coupled with a well-balanced, varied and seasonal diet.

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How to get healthy

Am I healthy?

Everyone needs to be healthy. There is not a single logical person on this planet who should not want to have a properly functioning body. A healthy body is more likely to lead to fewer illnesses and a longer life.

So how do you know if your body is healthy? And, if it’s not healthy, how can you get healthy?

Well the answer is simple…

If you are taking care of yourself properly, keeping your body nourished through optimum nutrition, hydrated through sufficient water consumption and strong through regular exercise, then you are more than likely maintaining a healthy body.

If you cannot honestly say that you are doing these things, find some quick and easy tips on how to nourish your body below.

Optimum nutrition

Obesity and excess weight are significant problems in the modern age – both for the person affected and for the NHS. Eating a poor diet (e.g. high in saturated fat, refined sugar, synthetic ingredients etc), comprised largely of ready-meals and other “fast” or convenience foods, is one of the most common ways in which you may be failing your health. Such foods are nutrient-poor, providing empty calories that not only fail to nourish your body, but can actually actively run you down. Many of the elements in these food types are “anti-nutrients”, meaning they can sap your body of nutrients, making you more unhealthy and more prone to illness.

The other side of the coin are those people who fail to eat enough (or at least enough of the right things) on a daily basis, because they fear putting on weight or are just short on time. It is not all about quantity; it is also about quality. Starving yourself is never the road to good health. Once again, this can lead to a body that is badly in need of nutrients. In reality, the best way to achieve a healthy body through optimum nutrition is to ensure that you are properly fuelled, with a good number of calories from nutrient-dense foods.

To achieve this, you actually need to eat a reasonable amount of food a day. Of course, depending on your body type, lifestyle and any health conditions, you may have to eat more or less of a particular food group or type. But the general rule of thumb is to eat three good meals a day, with a couple of healthy snacks in-between, to promote a healthy metabolism and prevent your body from going into “starvation mode” and clinging on to its fat reserves. In other words, by providing your body with the food (nutrients) it needs to function correctly, it will actually promote not only better immunity, higher energy levels and enhanced state of mind, but also healthy weight loss which will naturally follow.

Protein

One of the most important aspects of building a healthy body through optimum nutrition is ensuring a regular supply of quality protein – the nutrient that provides the building blocks of our bodies. Review your daily diet and consider if there is enough protein in it. What type of protein are you eating? All proteins are not equal. Animal sources, for example, the most common protein source, provide protein that is high in saturated fat. It can also be high in contaminants such as antibiotics, medication etc, that have been administered to the animal. Animal protein, does however, offer a source of complete protein – i.e. protein that contains all of the essential amino acids required by our bodies.

The key is to seek protein sources that are not only low in saturated fat, but are also high in dietary fibre, vitamins, minerals, beneficial oils and digestive enzymes. Ideally, these sources should also provide a complete amino acid profile. From this perspective, fish and plant protein (foods such as legumes, hemp, wheatgrass, soy and rice) can offer some of the best sources. Plant-based sources of protein are not always complete and balanced, but you can achieve this through careful meal planning and ingredient combinations. Alternatively, you can supplement your diet with a high-quality, preferably organic, protein powder, for a reliable source of complete and balanced plant protein. And this way you don’t have to eat a mountain of vegetables to achieve the desired amount of protein every day!

By adding high-quality protein to your diet on a regular basis, you should have higher energy levels and a faster metabolism. If the source is plant-based, you will also benefit from the greater level of nutritional input in the form of phyto-nutrients, fibre, vitamins, minerals and healthy fats.

Vitamins and minerals

This leads on to ensuring that your body is getting enough nutrients on a daily basis via all the other elements of your diet too. Coupled with regular exercise, doing so will be the best way to ensure a strong immune system. Vitamins and minerals, for example, are involved in every process in your body and so, ensuring appropriate intake will only naturally serve to enhance your health and vitality.

Eating a varied and well-balanced diet is the first and most obvious means of accessing vitamins and minerals. However, even the healthiest of foods no longer offer the nutritional content they once did (due to, for instance, intensive farming, long-distance food transportation, long shelf-lives etc). As such, to ensure the quality and range of nutrients you are consuming daily, you may wish to supplement your diet with vitamins and minerals in the form of capsules or food-based powders.

Body detox

Regular body detoxification can also be a useful means of achieving a healthier body. Surrounded by environmental and other pollutants everywhere we go, coupled with poor dietary habits, use of medication etc, toxins naturally build up in our bodies over time. In many cases, this may overwhelm our body’s natural detoxification systems (such as the liver), leading to the accumulation of toxins in our systems. By doing regular cleanse and detox programmes, and exercising, you can make sure that you are clearing out your body and lessening its load. So start eating foods that are rich in dietary fibre – a natural ‘broom and sponge’ for the intestines. Fibre-rich foods help “pick up” all the toxins and other unwanted matter that can build-up in the gut, sweeping it out of the body as it leaves. Cleanse and detox supplements can also support such programmes.

Once you know how to practice healthier ways of living, and are familiar with them, it becomes far easier to follow them. So start practising healthier eating habits to get yourself on the fastest road to a healthier you.

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