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Nutrition: What your body really needs

June 18, 2013 - Medical Advice

heart mouse smallHere’s what to include in your own personal eating plan to keep your body happy – and healthy.

A healthy, balanced diet is made up of carbohydrate, protein and fats, which all also supply you with essential vitamins and minerals. Here’s what they do and why you need them…

Carbohydrate & fibre

Where you find it: veg, fruit, pulses, rice, maize, millet, yams, pasta, oats, noodles,squashes, sweet potatoes and potatoes.

Unrefined carbs – like pulses, brown rice and wholegrain cereals, breads and pasta – tend to be more nutritious than more refined carbs (like white bread, white pasta and white rice) and are a source of dietary fibre (along with barley, seeds, oats, fruit and veg).

What it does: carbohydrate is your body’s preferred energy source. Those that can be broken down into simple sugars in your small intestine yield 4 kcal per gram, while the type known as dietary fibre is fermented by bacteria in your large intestine, providing 2 kcal per gram. Fibre has lots of beneficial effects, including helping your bowel work normally.

Management tip: fill half your plate with veg, minimise your intake of starchy ‘white’ refined carbs, and experiment with small quantities of unrefined carbs and fruit.

Protein

Where you find it: animal products (like meat, fish, eggs, cheese, milk and yoghurt) and plant-based foods (such as pulses, nuts, seeds, quinoa, soya and Quorn).

What it does: protein is involved in body tissue growth, repair and maintenance. It comprises chains of amino acids; your body needs 21 of these, with nine being ‘essential’, ie. they have to come from food as your body can’t make them. ‘Complete’ proteins contain all the essential amino acids and are usually animal products. Plant-based proteins
tend to lack at least one essential amino acid, although quinoa, soya products (like tofu) and Quorn provide all nine.

Management tip: base a quarter of your intake around lean protein, partly because it’s the most filling of all three food groups. Plus, your body burns 26% of the energy it contains just to break it down, compared to 7% with carbs and 3% with fats – so, gram for gram, protein has fewer available calories.

However, this currently isn’t accounted for in the way calories have to be calculated by law, so protein-rich foods like steak might contain fewer calories than it says on the label. Unlike LighterLife, some food producers aren’t declaring the calories in fibre… This is one reason why it’s important not to get too hung up on calories but to experiment to find what works for you.

Fats

Where you find it: the best source of omega 3 fats is oily fish; veggie options include flaxseed, linseed or walnuts. Omega 6 fats are found in nuts, seeds, soya, wholegrains, vegetable oils, meat and dairy products. Nuts, seeds, avocados, olives and olive oil are good sources of monounsaturated fats. Replacing saturated fats (found mainly in animal products like butter, ghee, lard and meat), which raise your ‘bad’ low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels, with mono- and polyunsaturates helps maintain normal cholesterol levels, including LDL.

What it does: fat contains fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) and, like amino acids, some fats are ‘essential’ – including omega 3 and 6 (polyunsaturated) fats. Omega 3 fats include alpha-linolenic acid, which helps maintain normal cholesterol levels. Another two types – DHA and EPA – play a role in normal heart function, while DHA contributes to normal brain function. Omega 6 fats include linoleic acid, which like Omega 3 fats, also helps keep
cholesterol levels normal. Monounsaturated fats are non-essential, but still play a role in good health.

Management tip: get your ‘good’ fats from whole foods like fish, nuts and seeds, and minimise added fat (at 9 kcal per gram it’s over twice as calorific as protein and carbs). See our recipes for cooking ideas!