We all want to maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle, but what exactly does it mean in our day-to-day lives? How do we balance or get the right amount of macro and micronutrients in our diet? The key is to understand the different food groups and develop good eating habits by choosing foods from each group proportionally, that are sustainable in the long term. We should plan our daily meals around 5 food groups such as fruits & vegetables, carbohydrates, protein, dairy and healthy fats (unsaturated fat). We get varying amounts of calories from all these food groups. Therefore, a key factor is eating the right amount (portion/proportion) from each group to meet our energy & nutrient requirements and maintain a healthy weight.
You all may have heard about the Eatwell guide, food pyramids, or My plate of different food groups used in different parts of the world with different names but they all provide the same information. The guide shows us different types of foods & drinks and the portions necessary to maintain a healthy, balanced diet. This guide applies to the majority of the population except for children whose nutritional needs are different. People with chronic and acute conditions may need to adapt the guide as per their own individual needs. The guide gives us an idea of the average portions required to maintain a balanced diet but does not specify the calories and protein. Remember, each individual’s calories and protein requirements are different as they are based on their weight, height, gender, age, level of physical activity, and also medical condition.
So what are the different food groups?
- Fruits & Vegetables: Aim to eat at least 5 portions/types of fruits & vegetables per day.
Benefits: Include a rainbow of colors as it provides us with different types of vitamins, minerals, fibers, antioxidants and phytochemical prevents chronic condition (diabetes, cholesterol, heart disease,), fight against cancer, and boost our immune system. Fruits and vegetables contain indigestible fiber which keeps our digestible system healthier.
A portion would be 1 apple, a handful of grapes (80g), juice or smoothie not more than 150ml per day, dried fruits(raisins, apricots) not more than 30g (2 tbsp) per day. It’s important to keep in mind that dried fruits, fruit juice, and smoothies have concentrated sugar.
Tip: vitamin C rich fruits & vegetable lemons, oranges, strawberries, capsicum, and broccoli reduces respiratory tract infections
- Carbohydrates: Can be divided into 4 categories. Starchy or complex carbohydrates: potatoes, grains, wheat, barley, rice. Natural sugars from fruits, milk (lactose), and yogurt. Free or added sugar in sweets, juice, and syrups. Dietary fiber indigestible part of plant foods present in wholegrain, fruits, vegetables and legumes.
Benefits: These foods are our main source of energy, but Its important the type or quality of carbohydrate you choose. Aim to have wholegrain varieties such as brown (lal) rice/bread/pasta/chapatti, oats, rye, bran, millets as they provide us with energy, B vitamins, iron, zinc, magnesium, phytochemicals and dietary fiber. Wholegrains keep us fuller for longer, therefore prevents overeating. Also, helps maintain blood sugar levels, therefore, lowering the risk of developing diabetes, lowering cholesterol, and helping our digestive system.
A portion would be: 1 slice of wholegrain bread/1 roti/ 1 chapati , 150 g (1/4 plate )of brown rice, 30g of plain corn/bran flakes
Tip: White bread & white rice is highly processed refined carbohydrate that spikes blood sugar levels, interferes with weight loss & promotes diabetes.
- Proteins: meat, fish, seafood, poultry, eggs, beans, pulses, nuts and seeds: If you are suffering from Covid 19 it is advisable to have high protein diet.
Benefits: Proteins are building blocks of the body required for repair, growth, development, bone/muscle maintenance. Protein from animal sources are of high biological value or complete proteins, more efficiently used by the body, but its important to eat lean/low-fat meat and poultry (without skin) and avoid processed meats. Plant-based proteins are good sources as they are naturally low in saturated fat, provide high fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Vegetarian options in the protein group are beans, peas, and lentils, nuts, seeds, and soy products.
Omega 3 fatty acid: Oily fish and seafood such as pangaish, Katla, carp, trout, hilsa, and salmon provide us with omega 3 fatty acids or fats (type of unsaturated fat especially good for the heart).
A portion would be: 120g to 140g piece of chicken or fish for main meals (size of your palm), 1-2 eggs, 1 tablespoon of seeds, just a handful of unsalted nuts ( even though nuts are good source of protein & fats, they are high in calories), 3-4 tablespoon of lentils.
Tip: Intake of red and processed meat is linked to heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cholesterol. Plant protein has no cholesterol.
(note: People with certain health conditions such as kidney and liver conditions may need to limit protein intake)
- Dairy: Includes low-fat milk and milk products such as low-fat yogurt, cheese, lactose-free milk and fortified soy milk and yogurt. Cream cheese, sour cream, cream, and butter have high-fat content and should not be included in the diet.
Benefits: Dairy is another source of protein and provides us with important nutrients such as calcium, phosphorus, vitamin D (fortified food items), potassium, riboflavin, vitamin B 12, magnesium and selenium vital for health and maintenance and strong bones. Even though some countries do not include dairy as a food group due to high saturated fat content, dairy products are our main source of calcium which is vital for maintaining strong bones and teeth, especially for the elderly. The trick is to have a lower fat version of dairy.
Facts about cheese: People who suffer from high blood pressure and cholesterol should avoid cheese or use it sparingly. Cheese contains high saturated fat and sodium, lower fat versions are mozzarella, feta or cottage cheese.
A portion would be: 200ml of low-fat milk (1 medium-sized glass), 125g of low-fat yogurt (4 tablespoons), 30g or matchbox size low fat cheese (mozzarella, feta or cottage).
Tip: Diabetics should keep in mind low fat yogurt may not always mean lower sugar, therefore low fat yogurt may spike blood sugar levels.
Healthy fats: Good fats include vegetable oils such as (olive, canola, sunflower, soy, and corn), nuts, seeds, and fish.
Yes fat is beneficial for our diet. What does this mean? A small portion of fat is part of a healthy balanced diet.
Benefits: Fats provides energy, help absorb fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamin A, D and E and produces some important hormones. Fats also support cell functions and keep our body warm. Importantly, fats provide omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids which are essential for a healthy brain and our nervous system. But, It is important to understand the type and quality of dietary fats.
Types & qualities of dietary fats: There are 3 types.
- Saturated fat– ‘bad’ fat mainly found in animal-based products meats, meat products, butter, ghee, lard, dairy products and tropical oils like coconut, and palm. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature. It is referred to as bad fat as too much-saturated fat can raise the level of LDL cholesterol in your blood, which increases your risk of heart disease and stroke.
- Unsaturated fat- ‘good’ fat either polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fatty acids. Found generally in plant foods such as seeds, nuts, olives, and avocados. Polyunsaturated fat is known as omega-3 and omega-6 They cannot be produced by the body, prevents blood clotting, and regulates heart rhythm so a small amount is needed from your diet. The oily fish best source of omega 3, plant sources include walnuts, flaxseeds, linseeds or green leafy vegetables. Omega-6 is found in nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils/spreads, such as rapeseed, corn, or sunflower oil.
Monounsaturated fats are olive and rapeseed oils/spreads.
- Trans fat is worst for the body as it increases disease risk found mostly in processed foods and hardened vegetable oils. Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils are used by manufacturers to prolong the shelf life of processed foods- cakes, biscuits, fast foods, and some types of margarine.
A portion would be: 120g-140g (size of your palm) oily fish, half of an avocado, 1 tablespoon of olive oil, 1 tablespoon of flaxseeds, 1-2 walnuts (nuts contain good fats but high calories, if taken in large portion may lead to weight gain).
Tip: fats are high in calories (9kcal/g), 1 tablespoon (15g) of olive oil contains 135 calories. Limit intake. Replace saturated fats with unsaturated fats in your diet.
Water and healthy drinks: Water is the best choice for hydration. It replenishes the body with the fluids needed without adding extra calories. The body loses fluids through metabolism, breath, sweat, and through waste. Hydration is essential to maintain proper digestion, maintain healthy skin, lubricate tissues and joints and also keep the body from overheating. Tea and coffee also count as fluids but adding sugar means extra calories. Some beverages should be avoided or consumed in moderation such as sugary drinks, fruit juice, full-fat milk, and also drinks with low-calorie sweeteners. A healthy adult should drink 2-3 liters (2000ml-3000ml) of fluids per day. Requirement depends on weight, activity levels, and also climate.
Be active: Exercise is not just for weight loss it plays a key role in both mental and physical well-being for people of all age groups. All types of exercise are beneficial. Aerobic/Cardiovascular activity such as walking, jogging, swimming, and bicycling improves the heart and lungs’ fitness. Resistance or strength training improves muscle strength and endurance. Exercises such as yoga are flexibility & balance training needed for improving flexibility, body control, and stability, and improves performance for all activities. Adults should engage in a range of physical activities for at least 150-300 minutes per week.
If there was one food item that met all our nutritional needs, life would have been very simple! But as we all know, we need to take a healthy balance from a wide variety of food items to make sure our bodies get balanced nourishment and energy.
To make the right food choices we can use a visual guide, let’s call it ‘My Healthy Platter’. ‘My Healthy Platter’ simply suggests the food groups on which you should plan your daily meals. Also, the right proportion to adopt healthy eating habits: Half a plate of vegetables, 1/4 plate of healthy proteins, and 1/4 plate of whole grains. It shows the importance of hydration, and being active as part of a healthy lifestyle.
Tazreen Mallick RD
BSc Dietetics and Nutrition (UK)
Grid (National Kidney Foundation, USA)
Clinical Dietitian, National Kidney Foundation and Research Institute
Visiting Consultant, Praava Health