What is a healthy diet?
In 1994, the UK government established the Balance of Good Health model to help us understand what a healthy daily diet should entail. Essentially, it suggests we should eat a balance of fruit and vegetables, milk and dairy products, bread, cereals and potatoes, meats, fish and alternatives, and a small amount of fats and processed sugars every day. Whilst it’s served as a helpful guide, modern food processing and farming techniques and growing demand for special diets means it’s time to go beyond this model to ensure we are still reaching our recommended intake of nutrients.
Before we can understand what a healthy diet today looks like, a little background is needed. In 1947, the Agriculture Act granted farming subsidies to encourage greater output via new technologies and improved management of animals and crops. Whilst it has allowed us to feed a growing population, it has also fostered an intensive style of farming that has depleted soil nutrients and therefore also reduced the nutritional value of our food. Organically farmed produce, on the other hand, is grown in mineral-rich soil and so contains more nutrients. One study found organic crops are up to 60% higher in antioxidants than conventionally-grown ones, whilst organic milk and meat may contain 50% more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids.It’s no wonder, therefore, that organic produce has seen a surge in popularity over the past 10 years.
How food gets from farm to fork can also alter its nutritional value. Much of our produce now travels considerable distances to reach us. On average, berries are shipped 907 miles and bananas flown 5523 miles before they land on supermarket shelves; for example. These food miles are not only detrimental to the environment, but also to the nutritional value of our food due to natural degradation of nutrients via exposure to light, temperature and heat. Freezing and canning, on the other hand, prevents this from happening and is a handy way of getting the most out of exotic foods. Even better; opting for home-grown and local produce as much as possible can minimise miles and maximise the nutritional value of the foods we eat.
Cooking up a storm
Different food preparation techniques can also change how nutritious our food is. For example, cooking vegetables as little as possible helps retain water-soluble B vitamins and vitamin C. However, light cooking is beneficial for enhancing nutrients like beta-carotene. Find the perfect compromise by steaming vegetables as opposed to boiling them.
With the above in mind, experts are starting to re-think recommendations for the number of portions of each food group we should be consuming. For example, the conventional Balance of Good Health model says we should be aiming for five portions of fruit and vegetables per day. However, it’s widely believed this should be a minimum goal and that instead we should all be reaching for between 8-10 portions of fibre and vitamin-rich fruits and veggies per day.
Special dietary requirements are also causing us to rethink recommendations; for example, food allergies and intolerances are on the rise. These mean consuming adequate amounts of some food groups (and therefore nutrients) is more difficult. For example, those who are allergic or intolerant to gluten may miss out on important B vitamins found in gluten-containing bread and other cereal products. Indeed, any diet that restricts or eliminates a food group from the Balance of Good Health model may put individuals at risk of becoming deficient in certain nutrients if their diets are not carefully planned. For example, animal products are the easiest way for our bodies to obtain iron, essential omega-3s and vitamin B12 and therefore vegans are at risk of falling short of their recommended daily intake. The solution? Always consult a registered nutritionist when beginning a special diet; together you can develop a plan that works for you and provides everything your body needs.
Just as the original Balance of Good Health model suggests, the key to a healthy daily diet is nourishing your body with adequate quantities of nutrients. This can be achieved by consuming a balance of all the five food groups in the correct proportions and ensuring that energy intake is balanced with energy expenditure. Whilst our modern environment makes achieving this somewhat more difficult than 25 years ago, making small tweaks to what and how you eat your food can make a huge difference.