By Bolatito Fatusin
In recent years, unhealthy eating habits have been on the rise. The reasons are not hard to pin down – people have become too busy, stressed and yet, they want to ‘cut down’ on calories. These often lead to people downing anything filling or appealing to their taste buds, but less than nutritious. Healthy eating involves a lot of commitment but it is doable. A secondary school boarding student recently related how her room-mate never failed to resume school with a full but fresh stock of fruits and vegetables which lasted several days. Why? It had become a priority for her whether related to a health condition or not.
A healthy diet is one that helps to maintain or restore health by providing the body with essential nutrition: fluid, macronutrients and micronutrients. Healthy eating is a major pathway to longevity and to reducing the risk of many chronic illnesses. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 80% of heart diseases, stroke, T2DM and 40% of cancers could be prevented, primarily with improvements to diet and lifestyle. The father of medicine, Hippocrates, said: “Let food be thy medicine…” With the global shift in disease pattern towards non-communicable disease, this aphorism is even more relevant today.
Dietary practices are learned behaviours
Healthy dietary practices should start early in life. Breastfeeding fosters healthy growth and improves cognitive development. In addition, breastfeeding may have long term health benefits such as reducing the risk of becoming overweight or obese and developing NCDs later in life. In the first two years of a child’s life, optimal nutrition fosters healthy growth and improves cognitive development. Eating habits develop from learned behaviours from childhood in regards to etiquette, meal and snack patterns, acceptable foods, food combinations and portion sizes, parents need to groom their children and teenagers toward adopting a healthy eating habit. Below, I will highlight what a healthy diet is and how to eat healthily.
The Healthy Eating Pyramid
Go for fruit, vegetables, legumes (e.g. lentils and beans), nuts and whole grains (e.g. unprocessed maize, millet, oats, wheat and brown rice). At least 400 g or five portions of fruit and vegetables per day should be included in our diet to keep healthy. This is exclusive of potatoes, sweet potatoes, cassava and other starchy roots. Consistent practice in this regard reduces the risk of NCDs, also ensuring an adequate daily intake of dietary fibre.
Fruit and vegetable intake can be improved by deliberately and consistently including vegetables in meals; eating fresh fruit and raw vegetables as snacks; eating fresh fruit and vegetables that are in season; and eating a variety of fruit and vegetables.
Ensure you have less than 10% of total energy intake from free sugars, which is equivalent to 50 g (or about 12 level teaspoons) for a person of healthy body weight consuming about 2000 calories per day, but ideally is less than 5% of total energy intake for additional health benefits. Free sugars are all sugars added to foods or drinks by the manufacturer, a cook or consumer, as well as sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, processed fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates.
Get less than 30% of total energy intake from fats. Unsaturated fats also referred to as ‘good fat’ are found in fish, avocado and nuts and in sunflower, soybean, canola and olive oils. These sources of good fat are preferable to saturated fat, also referred to as unhealthy fat or ‘bad fat’. Sources of unhealthy fat include red meat, butter, palm and coconut oil, cream, cheese, ghee and lard.
Trans-fats of all kinds such as industrially-produced, baked and fried foods and pre-packaged snacks are to be avoided in healthy eating. Foods such as pizza, pies, cookies, biscuits, wafers, cooking oils and spreads are additional sources of ‘bad fat’ to be avoided.
Meat and dairy foods from ruminant animals, such as cows, sheep, goats and camels are called ruminant trans-fats, another source of unhealthy fat. It is suggested that the intake of saturated fats be reduced to less than 10% of total energy intake and trans-fats to less than 1% of total energy intake. In particular, industrially-produced trans-fats are not part of a healthy diet and should be avoided.
Alternate cooking options that help to reduce unhealthy fat intake include steaming or boiling instead of frying. You can also replace butter, lard and ghee with oils that are rich in polyunsaturated fats (good fat) such as soybean, canola (rapeseed), corn, safflower and sunflower oils.
To limit unhealthy fats, go for dairy foods with less fat content and for lean meats such as poultry and limit the consumption of baked and fried foods, and pre-packaged snacks e.g. doughnuts, cakes, pies, cookies, biscuits and wafers.
How about salt (sodium)?: most people consume too much sodium through salt (corresponding to consuming an average of 9–12 g of salt per day) and not enough potassium (less than 3.5 g). High sodium intake and insufficient potassium intake contribute to high blood pressure, which in turn increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. People are often unaware of the amount of salt they consume.
In many countries, most salt comes from processed foods e.g. ready-made meals; processed meats such as bacon, ham, salami and cheese. It also comes from salty snacks or from foods consumed frequently in large amounts such as bread. Salt is also added to foods during cooking (e.g. bouillon, stock cubes, soy sauce and fish sauce) or at the point of consumption (e.g. table salt).
Salt intake should be limited to less than 5 g of salt which is equivalent to about one teaspoon per day. Salt intake can be reduced by limiting the amount of salt and high-sodium condiments e.g. soy sauce, fish sauce and bouillon when cooking; not having salt or high-sodium sauces on the table; limiting the consumption of salty snacks; and choosing products with lower sodium content. In addition, salt should be iodised.
Potassium can mitigate the negative effects of elevated sodium consumption on blood pressure. Intake of potassium can be increased by consuming fresh fruit and vegetables.
How about our children?
For infants and young children, advice on a healthy diet for infants and children is quite similar to that for adults, but in addition, the following elements are important:
- Infants should be breastfed exclusively during the first 6 months of life.
- Infants should be breastfed continuously until 2 years of age and beyond.
- From 6 months of age, breast milk should be complemented with a variety of adequate, safe and nutrient-dense foods. Salt and sugars should not be added to complementary foods.
In conclusion, cultivating healthy eating habits may seem to be a challenge. However, the next time you are rooting for a pet drink or pastry, consider its health benefit and compare its cost to that of a piece of cucumber or slice of watermelon. At the end of the day, you would realise that healthy eating is far different from diets that back-fire, rather it is all about daily, sustainable food choices.
Dr Bolatito Fatusin is a Consultant Family Physician who is passionate about lifestyle medicine as the bedrock for health and wellness. She is an associate at Lifestyle Champions International.
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