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Article - 4 October 2011

How To Eat Right.

How To Eat Right

The September issue of TIME magazine featured a superb article by Dr. Mehmet Oz, the practicing heart surgeon and US TV host. Essentially the piece was about getting back to basics when it comes to eating properly and for good health. Oz makes lots of very valid points which I am going to summarise below as well as adding a few points of my own. Read it. Remember it. Eat by it. Check it out:-

The rules on what constitutes a good diet constantly seem to change. How then should common folk know what to eat for good health? Red meat good, pasta bad. Then, red meat bad, pasta good. Sugar good, err no, bad. Saturated fat bad, very very bad, or is it? Dark chocolate or red wine, both good right? What about the Atkins diet? And so on and so forth. You get the picture. The good news is that the era of myth, gimmickry and fad in the world of nutrition is coming to an end to be replaced by an era of hard fact. We now have a much better idea of what foods do, how they combine in the body and what effects they have. Let’s take a closer look at some of the supposed bad boys.

According to the American College of Sports Medicine, we should all ensure that we get at least 180 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week. This means brisk walking for half an hour six days a week. If that is too difficult or you are too busy, rethink your life and possibly consider what it is you are too busy for.

Fat. Eating it will make you fat and clog up your arteries, right? Wrong. Fat, the right fat, in moderation, is very good for you indeed and you should include it in every meal of every day. Fact. Monounsaturated fat (olive oil, canola oil) and polyunsaturated fat (flaxseed oil) have been shown to lower ‘bad’ cholesterol (LDL) and increase ‘good’ cholesterol (HDL) which may reduce arterial plaque and coronary artery disease. Saturated fats such as those found in animal products, have always been touted as villains of good health. This may not be the case. New research shows that dietary cholesterol does not affect blood cholesterol as much as was previously thought. Futhermore, some saturated fats such as that found in coconut oil are now considered to be a very healthful addition to dietary fat intake. Eggs and red meat when eaten in moderation are much more likely to do you a lot of good – first class protein, myriad of vitamins and minerals – than was once thought. Same goes for whole fat milk and yoghurt. Certainly they contain more fat than the skimmed varieties but ironically, this may actually help control weight. One reason is that the calcium found in these foods binds with fat in the gut and reduces fat absorption. Another reason is that when you take the fat out of say, milk, what remains is a much higher concentration of sugars which causes an increased insulin response in the body in the same way that eating sweets does ultimately leading down the road of increased diabetic risk.

What about Salt? (or specifically the sodium in salt). Sodium restriction can benefit certain salt sensitive people with high blood pressure and might possibly delay the development of high blood pressure in others. However, this does not apply to the general population, where no study has ever found an association between low-sodium diets and a reduced incidence of cardiovascular or other diseases. Red wine has had a much better press of late due ‘resveratrol’ which is an antioxidant compound found in grape skins. However, there is actually very little in red wine and it is thought that you would need to drink 60 litres to get the full benefits. That said, Dr.Oz makes the valid point that small quantities of red wine and the alcohol therein may help protect arteries against cholesterol damage and even more powerful is the human connection element that can be very beneficial to health when small quantities are consumed in the presence of others. Chocolate contains fat and sugar but is also packed with antioxidants. The key here is to ensure that you eat the dark stuff, minimum 70% cacao solids. Coffee is the top source of antioxidants (polyphenols) in the western world. Studies have also shown it to be linked to reduced Type 2 diabetic risk, dementia, Parkinson’s disease and depression. Nuts, once touted as solidified fat pellets, are actually high in unsaturated fats (the right sort), can help cut appetite when a few are consumed shortly before a meal and contain many trace elements essential for health. The bottom line here is the need for moderation. Eat a ton of red meat, drink a skin full of red wine or a pint of whole fat milk and the fat content, the calories and generally the excess of it all will blow to bits the health giving qualities of these foods. So how much is too much? Oz reckons that no more than 2 servings of full fat dairy per day, 0.5kg of red meat per week, 20-30g of dark chocolate a few times per week, not so much coffee that you are wired and one glass (125ml) of red wine a day would all be considered to be ‘moderation’. How do you measure up? Make no mistake, excess consumption will lead to excessive weight gain and excessive health risk.

‘Fat-free’ on food labels does not mean ‘THIS FOOD IS VERY GOOD FOR YOU AND SO YOU CAN EAT IT UNTIL YOU FEEL LIKE EXPLODING’. Portion size and sugar content are more important than worrying about whether a food has been stripped of its natural fat content or not. When fat is removed it also needs to be replaced with something, typically thickeners, sugar and salt. Fat also curbs appetite. Try eating a stack of lamb chops and your brain soon gets the message when you have had enough – this is often not the case with fat-free foods where you just end up overeating big time. As for ‘diets’ that involve cutting food groups out of your usual intake – carbohydrates (Atkins diet), dairy and grains (Paleolithic diet) – even eliminating almost everything (Grapefruit diet, Cabbage Soup diet, Lemon diet) – they almost certainly result in rapid initial weight loss and then equally rapid weight gain as you begin to crave the lost food groups and nutrients only to be back at first base.

For those with genuine food allergies, keeping wheat, gluten, dairy etc in the diet clearly is not going to be helpful or healthful. But neither is replacing them with junk. It is far better to substitute with like-for-like foods that are also likely to optimise the nutrient content of the diet. So for example, replace wheat grain with gluten free wheat or quinoa. Don’t dump the diary if you have lactose intolerance but rather search out alternatives like aged (more than 2 years) Cheddar cheese which, due to the ageing process, contains almost no lactose. The same is true of some fermented diary products like certain types of yoghurt and milk (kefir). The alternatives are there, you just need to do the work and find them.
To maintain weight calories in must equal calories out. End of story. Full stop.

So what about eating to maintain a healthy weight? To do this, calories in must equal calories out. If that balance is tipped in one direction or the other, then you either gain or lose weight. So lets say that again – calories in must equal calories out. End of story. Full stop. However, this maybe fact but a) how do you know how many calories are going in if you just do not have the time and (rather sad) inclination to be counting them all the time and b) how do you know how many calories you are using as you go through the day, when you are sitting, exercising, indeed just being alive? The hard truth is how thin or fat you are currently is sort of a large clue as to how good you are at getting that balance right. Don’t be offended but that is just how it is. That said, various studies have shown that certain foods are more likely to fuel appetite and result in overeating. Typically these have been found to be crisps, chips, sugary drinks, sweets and refined grains. No surprises there then. So the first course of action for those struggling to control their weight is to stop eating these foods. This cannot be stressed enough and it certainly cannot be sugar coated. Equally, foods shown to be associated with weight loss are fruits, vegetables, whole grains, natural yoghurt and nuts. Again, hardly news of the century. One reason is that high fibre foods expand in the gut and slow digestion. Try adding a few teaspoons of flax seeds to breakfast cereals or salads. They swell up and increase satiety. It really does work. Also, eating a little fruit or a few nuts before a meal can have the same effect. Essentially what you are trying to do is to use various foods in a strategic way such that you get the calories and nutrients you need but no more.

Finally, get serious about exercise. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, we should all ensure that we get at least 180 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week. This means brisk walking for half an hour six days a week. If that is too difficult or you are too busy, rethink your life and possibly consider what it is you are too busy for. These recommendations are not made willy nilly but are based on hard evidence showing that if you fall short you are heading to an early death. Your call tough guy. If you do manage to get out, bear in mind that brisk walking burns around 400 calories an hour – or about the same as that muffin you were about to reward yourself with afterwards! An apple and small handful of nuts will do just fine.

Eating right is not easy but nothing worth doing is. Follow these simple rules and you are on the right track: Eat in moderation, choose unrefined foods wherever possible (remember there are no chocolate brownie trees), be an omnivore (there are many food groups for a reason), take time to eat and be aware of what and how much you are putting in your mouth, and get some exercise.

YES – Vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, lean cuts of red meat, fish, poultry, whole grains.

YES IN SMALL QUANTITIES – Full fat dairy, dark chocolate, tea and coffee, wine.

NO, NOT EVER (ok, so once a month) – Biscuits, cakes, crisps, chips, sweets, milk chocolate, refined cereals.

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