Look in the health section of any good bookshop and you will find no shortage of books, which propose ‘the ideal diet for life’. With such a plethora of books reportedly portraying the ideal diet, is it any wonder that the consumer is confused? Here we attempt to simplify the subject, suggesting most of what you need to know is contained in this brief overview.
The organic food market is the fastest growing industry in the UK, partly because people are willing to pay more for foods that they believe to be healthier and more nutritious. Although little research has been published comparing the quality of organic versus conventionally grown food, an article published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry in 2007 reported on a 10-year study (1994-2004) of two different flavonoid compounds, quercetin and kaempferol, in tomatoes.
Quercetin is an anti-oxidant linked with inhibiting production and release of histamine and other allergy/inflammatory mediators. The study found that the levels of quercetin in organic tomatoes were 79% higher than those in conventionally grown tomatoes.
Kaempferol has been associated with reduced risk of heart disease. The study found the levels of kaempferol in organic tomatoes were 97% higher than in conventionally grown ones.
Nutritional variations aside, eating organic food should significantly reduce one’s exposure to pesticides.
A study published in Italy in 2007 examined the data provided by local laboratories from 2002-2005 on 3508 samples of plant origin (e.g. citrus fruits, legumes, potatoes); 266 samples were from organic farming products. All samples were analysed for pesticide residues and the results showed:
….the vast majority of organic farming products were in conformity with the relevant legislation and did not contain detectable pesticide residues….organic fruits and vegetables can be expected to contain fewer agrochemical residues than conventionally grown alternatives.
So the evidence suggests that organic is better because it reduces the risk of us imbibing many of the toxic compounds which are more readily found in foods grown using conventional methods. If we the consumers demand more of our food be grown in this way, inevitably the prices will fall. It should be noted that organic foods are not always affordable to everyone and in such cases, washing one’s fruit and vegetables in warm water with a tablespoon of vinegar will neutralise many of the toxic compounds that attach themselves to our food. But none of us should be under the illusion that organic foods alone can resolves our problems. Until we address the pollution of the planet, all food carries risk.
Eat more fruits and vegetables
There is much debate over the amount of fruit and vegetables one should eat each day. According to an article published in The Times in 2005, the ‘five-a-day’ slogan originated in 1991 in a promotional campaign run by the fruit and vegetable producers and the Health Department in California. In spite of this recommendation, which incidentally was not scientifically derived, the average intake of fruit and vegetables in Britain is a meagre 2.7 servings per day.
Five servings of fruit and vegetables per day should be considered the minimum and variety is equally important. Plants contain phytochemicals (plant or fruit-derived chemical compounds), which perform numerous functions within the body and are important for health. The suggestion is to include foods from each of these categories:
- White/yellow: onion, garlic, cauliflower
- Orange/red: pepper, tomato, carrot, apricot, mango, sweet potato
- Purple/red: aubergine, dark grapes, red cabbage, berries, plums
- Green: spinach, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale, watercress, parsley
Eat the right type of carbohydrate
Carbohydrates form a large food group, which is composed of many different classes of compounds.
Although carbohydrates are best known for providing the body with its main source of energy, they also perform numerous other vital functions. Carbohydrates have traditionally been classified as ‘simple’ and ‘complex’. However, this definition fails to take into account the ‘intermediate’ carbohydrates, such as fructooligosaccharides (FOS), which are ‘prebiotic’ carbohydrates. Prebiotic carbohydrates avoid being digested in the upper part of the intestinal tract and arrive in the large intestine where they are used by beneficial bacteria as a food source. Prebiotics are found in foods such as onion, garlic, Jerusalem artichoke and asparagus.
When carbohydrates are refined, such as when whole corn is processed to make high-fructose corn syrup (present in numerous soft drinks), many vitamins, minerals and fibre are lost. Other examples of refined carbohydrates are table sugar, cakes, biscuits and white flour. Consuming these refined carbohydrates generally has adverse effects on the body (and is linked to Type 2 diabetes). For this reason, most healthcare practitioners recommend eating foods, which have not been refined or that have been minimally processed. Other carbohydrates may be used in the body as glyconutrients and include arabinose, mannose and the gylconutrients from mushrooms, which can be valuable.
The ideal diet for life is one in which refined carbohydrates are kept to an absolute minimum and one increases fruit and vegetables to at least the 5 per day recommendation. Research is building linking the consumption of refined carbohydrates to obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
The increasing rates of obesity are contributing to the frequency and the total number of cases of Type 2 diabetes in adults, young people and children. While in Type 1 diabetes the body produces little or no insulin, in Type 2 diabetes the body does not make enough insulin, or cannot use insulin properly, which is called insulin resistance.
A simple explanation of how carbohydrates are metabolised starts with a carbohydrate meal. As the carbohydrates are eaten, the body’s blood glucose (sugar) levels rise. The pancreas (a gland behind the stomach) then secretes insulin, which moves glucose out of the blood and into muscle and fat cells, where it is either broken down to produce energy or stored.
Insulin levels should be kept as stable as possible throughout the day. This is accomplished through the consumption of fibre-rich, fresh fruit and vegetables, unprocessed whole grains combined with some fat and protein at each meal. An example of a good breakfast or lunch could be: whole, unprocessed oats (not instant oats), 1 chopped apple or banana or a handful of berries, milk of choice (e.g. rice, soya or cows), 2 tablespoonfuls of pumpkin and/or sunflower seeds and a sprinkled 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon for breakfast.
Eat enough good fat and protein
Fats should primarily be composed of polyunsaturated (e.g. fish, flax, hemp) and monounsaturated (e.g. olive and rapeseed oil, avocado), with saturated fat being kept to a minimum. This does not mean that saturated fat should be eliminated from the diet, as this type of fat plays important physiological roles within the body, one of which is to stabilise the outer membrane of all cells. However, most people’s diet is already high in saturated fat through the consumption of red meat and full fat dairy products. Poultry (without skin) and fish have lower saturated fat and these foods are good sources of lean protein.
Another good way of adding protein to one’s diet is by eating beans and grains. One does not need to eat legumes (beans and peas) and grains at the same meal in order to obtain a ‘complete’ protein. Animal proteins are called ‘complete proteins’ because they contain all of the essential amino acids that humans require (‘essential’ meaning they must be acquired from the diet). Soya protein (i.e. soybeans, tofu, soya milk) is also a ‘complete protein’ due to the fact that it contains appreciable amounts of essential amino acids. However, most plant foods contain ‘incomplete proteins’ because they are low in one or more of the essential human amino acids. For example, legumes have low levels of an essential amino acid called methionine; cereals and grains have low levels of a different essential amino acid called lysine. The combination of a legume with a grain will produce a complete protein, but they do not always need to be eaten at the same meal. This is because the amino acids are circulated in the blood for several hours after a meal. When the next meal is eaten, as long as it provides the complementary amino acids, then the body will be able to make complete proteins for numerous functions, such as the manufacture of muscle.
By adhering to much of what has been documented here, you will find that within 2 to 3 months your general health will improve. These recommendations are incomplete without also increasing water consumption, making time for stretching and exercise and building relaxation of some kind into your daily routine. Sleep is also the bedrock of good physical and mental health (see Quick Facts – The Pineal Gland and Melatonin and The Secret of Sleep). For further recommendations, also see A Prescription for Health.