What is healthy eating and how can we eat healthier?

I’ve always been relatively health conscious. Growing up in a family where bonding time was centred around food and physical activity, eating well and staying healthy was largely mandatory. This was hard when I starting living on my own; I ate out often, and rarely exercised. It was only recently (about 2 years ago) that realised how important it was for me to prepare my own food and to start doing more exercise. I also started researching on food so I was more informed on what I was going into my body. I lost weight and have become a lot fitter and healthier. I just kept exercising and eating healthily to lose and then maintain my weight. Having a naturally high metabolism has definitely helped.

But in a culture being obsessed with calorie counting and diets such as the 5:2, Paleo and Mediterranean, somehow the focus on nutrition has shifted to dieting for dieting’s sake, for aesthetic – to look good – rather than health reasons. I understand the need for crash diets because people want instant results. But instant results do not translate into good health or provide what is best for your body.

With diets becoming a trend-driven exercise that people do influenced by their peers, I wonder whether of consistant healthy eating and regular exercise ever registers in some people’s minds. Small, right changes made for a longer period are more likely to result in longlasting benefits. Dieting carries great risks for our health with it. Research suggests rapid weight loss can slow your metabolism, leading to future weight gain, and deprive your body of essential nutrients. We do burn calories when we eat, afterall. There has been a lot of study around the negative psychological effects for dieting in recentl years. It is universally acknowledged that it is better for your health in the long term to eat healthily and exercise regularly than to diet to lose weight quickly.

Healthy eating is not some sort of fast or starvation camp where one is deprived of all things delicious and fat is banished, and I’m sure many would agree that healthy eating actually has little to do with not eating fat or doing away with delicious foods.

It goes without saying that all our bodies are same but different: we are anatomically made up of the same organs and cells – we all have hearts and brains – but we are also composed very differently in the sense that because I am Asian, my genetic composition is different and therefore my body cannot metabolize alcohol efficiently, for example. Some of us may be allergic to certain food components and that can mean avoiding dairy or gluten.

Two people can have the exact same diet and can have the same activity levels, but what it means for one person can be drastically different for what it means for the other person, meaning different body habitus and health. Each person has a unique genetic makeup and resultant metabolic and digestive system functioning. We are different and we should embrace this difference. This can mean not following what other people think is good for us, but what we know to be good for ourselves. It is also a good idea to stick to the general daily allowance recommendations by health organisations like the WHO and NHS if your body weight is healthy (18.5 – 25 BMI).

Yet despite knowing (or having a vague idea) of the nutritional benefits of different foods, we continue to make erroneous food choices at times. Some foods are undeniably tempting, and some are part of our eating habits. Even for foods that are undeniably bad for us, that have no nutritional benefits whatsoever, we continue eating those thinking that it’s okay to eat them in decent amounts. But do we even know what the right amounts to consume are?

A walk in the supermarket’s numerous aisles provides plenty of evidence of – and plenty of people buying too – the ‘wrong’ kind of foods. I use the word ‘wrong’, which is quite a strong word, because I think that in eating, as in life, we always have a moral choice between right and wrong. And it is those personal choices we make today that determine our future, that determine who we want to be as individuals.

So the choices of food are open to us most obviously at the supermarket, where you have a range of foods, varying in nutritional value, cost and taste – and nothing but your sense and supposedly sound judgement to guide you. It’s very tempting to go for gleaming box of decadent cupcakes staring at you from the outset as you enter the store. For there is another aisle of fruit and vegetables waiting to be bought, just as there is a confectionary section. Clearly, the choice is there and we know what our options are, but why is it so hard to make the right one? Is it because we are ill-informed? Or because we just don’t care?

I like to think that people do care about their health. It’s the one thing that can determine our futures and is possibly the most important thing in our lives we have a choice in. So why do people still go for the cupcake? Is it possibly due to the commercial supermarket marketing tactics that point your eyes in the wrong (or right) direction the moment you enter?

Supermarkets are driven by sales and the thing that’s going to make them the largest amount of profits especially during lunchtimes are snacks, things like chocolates, crisps and let’s not forget, cupcakes. Positioning of stock is crucial on a supermarket’s sales floor. So as that hand tries to reach for the box of cherries, the eyes invariably catch the box of gleaming cupcakes. Is probably isn’t a coincidence that it’s been placed near the store entrance. Tempting treats like these make big profits and are the things that people love buy also because they are so aesthetically pleasing. And let’s admit it, they taste great.

What does this mean for public health if supermarkets are fully aware that what they are actively promoting in their stores is essentially pure fat plus sugar? Surely supermarkets too have a responsibility to promote healthier options and to advertise what the contents of the processed foods they are actively promoting in their store mean for consumer health, just as it is our responsibility to be more informed about the foods we eat and to make better choices when purchasing foods at the supermarkets.

Tobacco producers are required by law in some countries to put pictures of smoking’s devastating health effects on cigarette packets, so surely supermarkets too have an obligation to advertise the health risks people take when they indulge in treats? These sweet treats, when eaten often enough, can lead to sugar-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart cancer. (There has also been a lot of discussion lately on whether sugar should be taxed.)

We consume large quantities of added sugars in cake, biscuits, muffins, chocolates – you name it, if it’s manufactured it probably has sugar in it. Only when done in the right amounts is sugar-eating acceptable. Sugar occurs naturally afterall, in fruit as well as milk. But too much of it, especially of the refined stuff, also known as added sugars, is bad for you.

The NHS recommends that added sugars shouldn’t make up more than 10% of the energy (calorie intake) you get from food and drink each day. This is about 70g for men and 50g for women, but it varies depending on size, age and how active you are. The World Health Organisation has recommended halving this amount to 5% of our total calories. For a normal weight adult, that’s about 25 grams or 6 teaspoons per day – or 1 cupcake. This recommendation is only for added sugars as there seems to be no recommendations available on the amount we should be taking for natural sugars.

You can check how high the levels of sugar are in manufactured products by looking at the figures: more than 15g sugars per 100g is considered high. Low is 5g sugars or less per 100g. If the amount of sugars per 100g is in between these figures, then that is a medium level of sugars. This figure doesn’t tell you how much of the sugars are added sugars (which are the type to cut down on) as opposed to sugars that are found naturally in some foods. Products such as yoghurt and chocolate are likely to include a significant amount of naturally occuring sugar – lactose. In this case, nutritional reference guides can help estimate the levels of lactose in popular products so you can estimate the amount that was added to the product.

You can spot added sugars by looking at the ingredients list, which always starts with the largest proportion ingredient first. So if sugar is near the top of the list, the food is likely to be high in added sugars. Other words used to describe – obfuscate – added sugars are sucrose, glucose, fructose, maltose, hydrolysed starch, invert sugar, corn syrup and honey (isn’t naming sugar 10 different names clever marketing?). Honey, agave nectar and coconut sugar are all plant (or animal, in the case of honey) derived sugars which occur naturally and involve little processing, but they’re still sugars at the end of the day.

Sugars do play a role in functions of the body; the brain needs glucose (a simple sugar) as its only source of energy and the body’s tissues use sugar (stored in liver and muscles) to carry out their main functions. Sugars, together with starches, are the two main types of carbohydrates and the main sources of energy. But the amount we need to survive is very little, and added sugars are actually completely unnecessary because sugar occurs naturally in so many foods like fruit and milk. An obesity study recently published in the BMJ found that while sugar did not directly cause obesity, those who consumed a lot of it, particularly in sweetened drinks, tended to put on weight as sugary food did not make them feel full.

Cutting down on butter and cheeses, which are high in saturated fat, and going for foods that are rich in unsaturated (monosaturated/polyunsaturated) fat instead, such as vegetable oils (including sunflower, rapeseed and olive oil), oily fish, avocados, nuts and seeds, can also prove a world of good for us. Experts recommend that not more than 10 percent of your calories should come from saturates (saturated fats).

Foods high in saturated fat include things like meat pies, sausages, meat with visible white fat, hard cheese (cheddar, anyone?), butter and lard, pastry, cakes and biscuits, cream, soured cream and crème fraîche, coconut oil, coconut cream and palm oil… the list is endless really.

And we don’t have to stay away from healthy but cholesterol-laden produce such as eggs – a great source of protein and vitamins such as vitamin A, Vitamin D and Vitamin B-12. It has been discovered that much of the excess cholesterol in our bodies is actually produced by eating too much saturated fat rather than eating too much cholesterol. The American Heart Association (AHA)’s guidelines allow for an egg a day for healthy adults while still advising a total daily cholesterol intake of 300mg, which is about less than 2 eggs.

The UK’s Food Standard Agency (FSA) states that healthy eating means eating ‘a healthy balanced diet containing a variety of types of food, including lots of fruit, vegetables and starchy foods such as wholemeal bread and wholegrain cereals; some protein-rich foods such as meat, fish, eggs and lentils; and some dairy foods.’

The main takeaway, I guess, is this: healthy eating is about knowing your body, how much you eat, what you can and cannot, should and shouldn’t eat, and whether the amount you eat is right for your activity level. It’s more about consuming the right amount of the right kind of food than not eating pleasurable foods or worse, not eating at all. This is wonderful news, and particularly so for the foodie in us all I believe.

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