Exactly what you need to eat to lose weight and live longer

Beyond obesity, our diet can lead to a wide range of health problems

Low fat, high protein, paleo, keto; Diet fads come and go, but as any credible nutritionist will tell you, the truth about diet remains the same: the key to a long, healthy life is a balanced diet. It sounds simple enough, but the latest statistics reveal a shocking truth. According to the Food Standards Agency, unhealthy diets account for a staggering 13 per cent of all deaths in the UK.

A poor diet causes obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes, all risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Obesity is also linked to 13 different types of cancer, including postmenopausal breast cancer and bowel cancer. And it’s not just costing us our health: excess weight also costs the UK approximately £74 billion each year in direct NHS costs, lost workforce productivity and reduced life expectancy.

The impact of poor diet

Beyond obesity, there are a variety of other problems that can result from an unhealthy diet. Skin conditions such as psoriasis are exacerbated by high intakes of sugar and saturated fat, nutritional deficiencies can affect hair health, and there is growing evidence that a balanced diet is important for sleep. A large study found that a lack of key nutrients, such as calcium, magnesium, and vitamins A, C, D, E, and K, is associated with sleep problems.

And then there is our mental health. According to findings in the British Medical Journal, healthy eating patterns, such as the Mediterranean Diet, which includes many whole foods, healthy fats, fiber and lean protein, are associated with better mental health than unhealthy eating patterns, such as typical western diet. , which includes many processed foods, sugar and saturated fats. In fact, several Australian studies have found significant reductions in depressive symptoms among participants when diet quality was improved.

What needs to change?

So how bad is our diet? In the UK we consume, on average, twice the recommended amount of added sugar (it should be no more than 5 per cent of caloric intake), just three of our five daily intakes of fruit and vegetables, just 19g of fiber up to date. day (the recommendation is 30g/day) and just over a third of the recommended 280g/week of fish. The blame for this could be laid at many doors – the lack of access to healthy, affordable food, the need for stricter legislation on processed foods – but ultimately we have a responsibility to ourselves and to those we feed to eat a healthy and balanced diet. diet.

And it is well worth the effort. A 2022 study found that switching from a typical Western diet to one with a higher intake of whole grains, legumes, fish, fruits, vegetables and nuts while reducing red and processed meats, sugary drinks and refined grains could increase life expectancy by 10.7 years. for women and 13 years for men.

Fortunately, all it takes to turn things around is some basic nutritional knowledge, a well-stocked pantry, and a little time spent planning and preparing meals. Your path to a healthier, more balanced diet starts here.

What is a balanced diet?

A balanced diet is one that meets all of a person’s nutritional needs, with the appropriate combination of macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins and fats) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). According to nutritionist and author Dale Pinnock, also known as “the medicinal chef” and creator of the new online weight management program The Metabolic Fix. It simply means a return to basics.

“Focus on building your diet around whole foods, the kind of things your great-grandparents would have eaten. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, lean proteins and high-quality vegetables and healthy fats. If you do it right, you will win 95 percent of the battle.”

This sounds like good old-fashioned common sense, so how are we getting it so wrong? According to a recent government report, to get the country’s diet back on track, fruit and vegetable consumption would have to increase by 30 percent, fiber consumption by 50 percent, while foods high in saturated fat, salt and sugar would have to be eliminated. decreased by 25 percent and meat consumption fell by 30 percent. It is worth considering this information in the context of your own diet to see where improvements can be made.

Why is a balanced diet important?

A balanced diet is the cornerstone of good health. In the short term, you will sleep better, feel more alert and positive, and have sustained energy throughout the day. In the long term, eating well improves gut health, supports immunity, and protects against many chronic diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. But it’s not just about the obvious health benefits of a balanced diet, there are also wider lifestyle benefits to be had.

“You may be more inclined to exercise or hydrate properly if you take the time to consider your dietary options,” says registered dietitian Ro Huntriss. “Spending more time on meals and what you eat can also make cooking or eating a more social time and can improve relationships, if this is something you enjoy doing together with your partner, family or friends.”

The importance of calorie/energy balance

Traditional thinking holds that our weight is simply a function of the calories we eat versus the calories we burn, also known as the energy/balance equation, but as Huntriss points out, the picture is more complex than this and what we eat must be considered. along with the amount we eat.

“Fruits and vegetables are rich in nutrients but low in calories, so they can be consumed in relatively large quantities. Whole grain carbohydrates provide slow-release energy throughout the day, reducing cravings. Eating enough lean, plant-based protein helps keep you full and supports muscle mass, which in turn supports your metabolic rate, meaning you can burn energy while you’re at rest. “Healthy fats are nutritionally important, but they should be consumed in smaller quantities as they are high in calories.”

A balanced diet can help you lose weight

Focusing on the quality of our diet instead of traditional calorie restriction is an idea that is gaining ground for weight loss.

“The food choices we make influence all the important factors of weight control,” says Pinnock, “from the hormones used in food metabolism, such as insulin, leptin and ghrelin, to how effectively we we can exercise and recover, and how well we sleep. and manage stress.”

Another crucial element when it comes to losing weight is satiety or how full we feel after eating. Restrictive or very low-calorie diets can make us feel hungry all the time. On the contrary, by consuming lean protein at every meal and including fiber and healthy fats, our appetite is much better regulated and we are less likely to experience cravings and subsequently overeat. For example, a slice of whole wheat toast topped with canned sardines and served with a tossed salad provides fabulous nutrition, is very filling, and provides only 350 calories.

The importance of portion control

Overeating any food will jeopardize the variety of your diet since you won’t be as hungry for other foods and may have other negative consequences.

“Portion control is an integral part of a balanced meal,” advises Pinnock. “Overeating any food, healthy or not, can lead to weight gain.”

In fact, there are some healthy foods that are extremely caloric, so it’s important to watch portion sizes when monitoring your weight. For example, walnuts contain 180 calories per 30g and a medium-sized avocado has 320 calories.

An easy way to control portions when trying to lose weight is to use the 20 percent rule. Try eating 20 percent less food than usual, wait, and then eat more only if you’re really still hungry.

What are the components of a balanced diet?

The best practical way to ensure you are eating a balanced diet is to think about the relative proportions of the different food groups that make up your meal. Pinnock has a foolproof method for this called the perfect plate system.

“Fill half your plate with non-starchy vegetables, such as leafy greens, broccoli, and cauliflower. Fill a quarter of your plate with high-fiber, slow-burning carbohydrates, such as brown rice, quinoa, or root vegetables. In the remaining quarter, have a serving of high-quality protein: meat, fish, eggs, tofu or tempeh. Composing meals this way will increase satiety hormones, stabilize blood sugar, and provide a high level of variety in your diet.”

How to Eat a Balanced Diet When Life Gets Hectic

Lack of time is often cited as the main obstacle to eating a balanced diet; In fact, our best intentions can go out the window when we’re busy. Don’t worry, our experts have some top tips to stay on track when you’re short on time.

“I’m a fan of batch cooking, as organization is key,” says Pinnock. “When you have a little time on the weekend, cook your favorite meals in three, four, or even five times the normal amount and then freeze individual portions. You will soon fill your freezer with healthy homemade food.”

Huntriss swears by planning and shopping ahead each week and eliminating unhealthy snacks. “Plan your meals and snacks for the week and buy the ingredients you need in advance to meet them. This avoids the temptation of takeout and ready meals. Choose healthy snacks such as Greek yogurt, fruit, vegetables with hummus or a handful of nuts. “It’s very easy to focus on balanced meals and continue mindless snacking, which can sabotage your diet.”


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