It is beginning to worry me that many of us have forgotten why we eat, and why we’re meant to eat what we’re meant to eat. Eating brings us so many pleasures: the art of cooking and creating something from scratch; sharing meals with family and friends; the joy of experiencing new flavours and textures. There are many different reasons why we eat, but the fundamental biological reason is to fuel our body with all the key nutrients it needs to function and grow. The UK, along with much of the world, is stuck in an obesity crisis and we are so focused on making sure we lose weight or don’t put on weight, that I fear we may have lost sight of the importance of good healthy food. While I am fully supportive of the drive to watch our weight, I am concerned that for many of us, the overall aim of eating is to be able to eat whatever we like, so long as we do not gain weight.
All too frequently I hear people say things like:
‘…it’s great because I don’t have breakfast, I can get by without having lunch, so I can eat whatever I like in the evening and not put on weight!’
Or ‘I’m too busy for breakfast, I have something small for lunch, and I’m starving by the time I’m cooking kids’ tea so I pig out on their fish fingers and chips, so I don’t really eat much for an evening meal.’
Or ‘There’s a pill you can take before eating so you don’t absorb any fat, and you lose weight. It sounds amazing’.
Is this really what we are aspiring to? Have we become too focused on weight and lost sight of the enjoyment of eating good, wholesome food?
What’s wrong with eating whatever I like?
The types of eating behaviours described above could lead to nutritional deficiencies. By missing meals, it is unlikely we will meet our body’s daily nutritional needs, and weight loss supplements should be a final option for obese individuals who have tried everything else to lose weight, not for long-term weight maintenance. National dietary surveys tell us that in the UK we generally eat too much saturated fat, sugar and salt and not enough oily fish, fibre and fruit and vegetables and that all population groups have low blood levels for iron and vitamin D. With over two thirds of the population overweight or obese we are therefore overweight, yet undernourished.
I am a firm believer that because we have evolved as omnivores, and historically consumed a wide range of different foods, our bodies have adapted to make everything we need to function, from the wide range of key nutrients that we obtain from an omnivorous diet. For example, most mammals other than humans make vitamin C and do not need to obtain it in their diet. Although the reason for this has not yet been definitively answered, it makes sense that if we have easy access to vitamin C containing foods in our diet, we could have evolved to require it from our diet rather than wasting energy and resources to make it. Until we have evolved further to be able to live a healthy, long life on a diet of crisps and chocolate, it is important we get everything we need from an omnivorous diet, or as close to it as we can get.
We need protein to grow and renew the cells in our body; we need carbohydrate for energy, to help fuel our muscles; we need fats to provide essential fatty acids omega-3 (key component in brain function) and omega-6, and to absorb fat-soluble vitamins; we need a range of essential vitamins and minerals to play a whole host of roles within the body to make it work properly. To get all these vital components we need to make sure we eat a wide variety of foods. If we choose, or need for allergy or intolerance reasons, to cut out large food groups from our diet, such as meat or dairy, we have to work hard to make sure that the foods we do eat provide enough nutrients to replace those missing by those food groups we are excluding.
If we do not get enough of a particular nutrient, we might notice our body not working properly. Similarly, by cutting back on a nutrient, such as carbohydrates, we may consequently be consuming too much of another nutrient, say protein or saturated fat, so not only are we not getting the benefit of one key nutrient, we might be suffering from consuming excess of another. For example, if you find you are constantly tired; your hair/nails/skin lack lustre; you have too in/frequent bowel movements; your blood pressure goes up/down, you experience kidney problems or you put on/lose too much weight, these (and many more) could be signs of a deficiency or nutrient imbalance.
How do I achieve a balanced diet?
In theory it should not be difficult to achieve a healthy balanced diet; just think at the end of the day, have I eaten a source of lean protein (such as fish, meat, pulses, beans and dairy or dairy alternative); a source of high fibre carbohydrate (such as whole grain bread, pasta, rice, potatoes or other grains); some unsaturated fat (such as olive oil, rapeseed vegetable oil, oily fish, nuts or seeds) and have I had at least five portions of fruit and vegetables? The Eatwell Guide is a useful reminder of the proportions we should be aiming for in a healthy diet. In terms of how many meals to have each day, we should be aiming for three meals a day to ensure we have enough opportunities to get all those essential nutrients. Eat less frequently and it is likely hunger gets the better of us at some point in the day and we might rely on less healthy convenience foods. Evidence shows that people who eat breakfast are less likely to be overweight. Eating more than three meals a day introduces additional opportunities for excessive calorie intake, but if you can’t wait until the next meal, use it as an opportunity to up your fibre intake with fruit and vegetables or other high fibre snacks.
Surely if I can’t resist the temptations, the key thing is not to put on weight?
We do have to battle against a food environment that makes healthy eating hard, forcing us to think about sweets and treats at every turn and effort should, and is, being made to try to change this environment to make healthy choices easier, but any change is going to take time. In the meantime, we have to help ourselves by making better food choices, to ensure we don’t gain weight, but also so we don’t risk becoming malnourished. Skipping a nutritious lower calorie breakfast to make allowances for a less nutritious, higher calorie pastry mid-morning, neither helps your waistline nor your nutrient intake. We need to start enjoying food that is good for us, and not be depressed by the fact that everything we love is high in sugar or saturated fat. As someone who has a sweet tooth and a weakness for chocolate and crisps, I do find myself constantly having to resist the temptation of these foods everywhere I go, but I also consider myself really lucky in fact that I love healthy food. We therefore need to try our best to get the balance right. We need to get organised and make our own breakfast to remove the temptation of treats later in the day; try simply switching off from the temptations when out and about and if we do need to buy something, let the default be the healthier choice and savour it. Very occasionally we can then have the odd pastry, ice cream or cake as a treat and it is not going to mean losing a tooth, going up a dress size nor sacrificing more nutritious food to allow for the extra calories. We only get one body and if we want to make sure it is still functioning for years to come, we have to take responsibility and pay attention to what we are putting in it and focusing on the nutrient quality of the food, as well as the calories. If we make sure we eat a range of healthy, wholesome foods our body will get all the right nutrients in the right proportions, so it can do its job properly, and we can get on and do ours!