We should all eat a healthy diet. Except, what is a healthy diet? Pick up a magazine or browse the local bookshop and you’ll be bombarded with possible answers to that question. Here’s my take on the subject, gleaned from reading accounts of the latest medical and scientific studies, rather than popular fads.
You’ve probably seen pictures of a “food pyramid” showing how much to eat from each food group, but these old food pyramids have been much criticised for not reflecting the latest research, for pandering to the food industry, and for dumbing down so much that they give poor advice. Various replacements have been proposed, and the US Department of Agriculture has officially adopted the MyPlate graphic, which is so uselessly dumb that it looks like it’s intended to teach five-year olds, not their parents.
Three Food Pyramids
To help explain the facts, I’ve created my own infographic. Instead of a single food pyramid, my infographic shows three pyramids – one each for carbohydrates, fats and protein. Click on the infographic to see a larger version.
Moving down the food pyramids
The strategy for improving your diet is simple – move down the three food pyramids, replacing “red” foods with “green” foods. Currently, most people in the UK and US have their pyramids inverted, getting most of their calories from refined carbohydrates, high fat dairy and processed meat – all “red” foods.
Carbohydrates and GI
In the old food pyramids, carbohydrates used to form the bulk of the recommended diet, but there was no differentiation between types of carbs. Some modern popular diets claim that all carbs are harmful, but this is wrong too. Carbs are the body’s primary source of energy, and the brain uses glucose almost exclusively for its energy.
But carbs come in many different forms. At the top of the carbohydrate pyramid – the narrowest part – are sugars and sugar-rich foods. The glucose in these foods is absorbed into the bloodstream very rapidly, raising blood glucose levels to high levels. At the bottom of the carbohydrate pyramid are vegetables, which are rich in fibre and are digested slowly. They don’t cause a spike in blood glucose levels.
In general, carbohydrates can be ranked by their Glycaemic Index (GI), which measures their effect on blood glucose levels.
High GI foods cause spikes in blood glucose levels, leading to increased cholesterol levels, insulin resistance, and ultimately to type II diabetes and an increased risk of heart disease.
Moving down the carbohydrate pyramid
My advice is to try moving slowly down the carbohydrate pyramid, reducing consumption of “red” carbs like sugary drinks, candy, cakes, etc, and adding more fruit and vegetables to your diet. Try to reduce the quantities of “bad” carbs gradually – they are addictive, and trying to move too quickly risks failure and a return to your starting point.
The substitution technique
A decade ago, I was addicted to coca-cola. I drank a can every day, and not the diet variety, but the original kind, with several teaspoons of sugar in each can. To help me give up coke, I replaced it with a cup of coffee (to get the caffeine hit and some of that delicious dark flavour), and carbonated mineral water (for the fizzy feel in my mouth.) In combination, the two drinks mimicked the feel of drinking coke, but without any sugar.
Similarly, milk chocolate (often more than 50% sugar) can be replaced with dark chocolate (as low as 15% sugar.) Because life without chocolate would be too grim to contemplate.
One of the hardest carbohydrate groups to replace is the second one – refined carbs. Bread, pizza, doughnuts, chips, fries, cookies, rice, noodles, bagels, baguettes – the list is endless and seems to include what most people eat at nearly every meal. Perhaps the easiest way to move down the pyramid from here is to replace these refined carbohydrates with their unrefined equivalents – wholemeal bread instead of white bread, brown rice instead of white rice, oats instead of wheat-based cereals.
The best technique of all is to include pulses, grains and vegetables in all your meals. They filll you up, so you don’t crave refined carbs. Many Asian or Middle Eastern diets are naturally based around these foods. They’re very tasty!
The unfairly-maligned fats
Those old food pyramids told us to eat less fat, and doctors today will still sometimes tell you to eat a low-fat diet. There’s a reason for this – fats contain a lot of calories, so eating a ton of fat will make you fat. But in reality, you’re just as likely to put on weight by eating high GI carbs.
In any case, just like with carbohydrates, there are good fats and bad fats. The good fats are highly beneficial, and a certain amount is essential. The strategy is not to give up fats, but to move down the fat pyramid.
The worst type of fat is the trans-fatty acid, or trans-fat. This is largely a modern invention, created in commercial food production techniques, such as the use of corn oils at high temperatures, or the hydrogenation of liquid oils in some margarines and processed foods.
Trans-fats are referred to as pathological fats, and their effect is to significantly increase cholesterol levels, which is a major risk factor in developing heart disease.
To avoid trans-fats, you need to avoid processed food as much as possible.
Also on the list of bad fats is saturated fat, especially from animal sources. I don’t think there is clear evidence that we should stop eating meat, but in the West, we generally consume far too much animal fat, in the form of red meat and dairy products such as cheese, butter, milk, etc.
You knew I was going to say this – you probably should consider reducing your meat consumption. Worse, you need to reduce your consumption of cheese, cream, butter and full fat milk too! Cheese is particularly high in saturated fat, calories and salt.
It’s not all bad news however. There are good fats too. Yay for good fats!
Good fats are mainly vegetable in origin, but they also include fish and eggs. But not all good fats are equally good.
In typical Western diets, we eat too much omega-6 poly-unsaturated fats. Omega 6 fats are found in most vegetable oils used for cooking. If you eat margarine, chips, fries, or anything containing vegetable oil, you’re probably eating omega-6 fats. Omega-6 fats are essential to the diet, but typically we eat too much, leading to chronic internal inflammation.
Instead of omega-6, saturated fats and trans-fats, what we should be eating is omega-3 fats and unsaturated fats. These are found in olive oil, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, chocolate, green vegetables and soy beans.
So, by replacing meat with fish, and cooking oil with olive oil, we can easily increase our consumption of healthy fats. Switch from candy to dark chocolate, and you can move from red to green on both the fat and the carb pyramids. Add nuts and green vegetables to your diet too.
But don’t eat too much – remember that fats are very high in calories.
Butter or margarine?
The age-old question – which is healthier? With my fat pyramid, we can answer it. Butter is stuffed full of saturated fat, which is bad news. Some margarines contain trans-fats, which is the ultimate no-no. They also contain omega-6 fats, which are so-so. Both butter and margarine contain a lot of salt.
So which is healthier? Sadly, neither qualifies as healthy. Whichever you prefer, it’s best to spread it thinly.
And don’t be fooled by “olive oil” spread, as this contains a mix of vegetable oils, of which olive oil is only a fraction.
Instead, why not try peanut butter or hummus spread directly on wholegrain bread? Yum, yum!
For the sake of completeness, I want to mention that some experts disagree with the mainstream opinion on fat that I have outlined. These people say that saturated fat isn’t a problem, and that eating meat & high fat dairy products is a healthy choice. Some of the data seems to support this view, although benchmark studies like the long-running Framingham heart study, which has studied generations of Americans, supports the view that saturated fat is a major contributor to heart disease.
Because of this disagreement among experts, you may want to keep meat & dairy in your diet, rather than aim to become a vegetarian. Whatever you decide, you should definitely try to include more fish, nuts and olive oil in your diet, as everyone agrees this is a healthy move.
Bad protein – meat & dairy
I’ve divided the protein pyramid into four groups. In the red group is processed meat – bacon, ham, sausages, paté, burgers. Yes, the favourite foods of millions of people are at the top of the banned list. Sorry!
Processed meat is strongly associated with cancer and heart disease. It’s packed full of saturated fats and sometimes trans-fats, and also salt. It may be convenient and tasty, but you’d be better off avoiding it completely.
Instead of processed meat, you could shift down the pyramid to unprocessed meat, like your mother used to cook. This is healthier, but is still high in saturated fats. If you enjoy your meat, you should eat it lean, removing the fatty parts.
Some red meat is leaner than other kinds. I buy lean beef with just 10% fat. A rib-eye or T-bone steak may be as high as 35% fat, of which half will be saturated fat.
Better still is chicken, which contains around 1% – 2% fat.
Dairy too is very high in fat, and often salt too, so eat less cheese! Here’s a tip – soft cheeses like camembert contain much less fat than hard cheeses like cheddar.
Greek yogurt is delicious, but contains around 10% fat, whereas low fat natural yogurt is extremely low in saturated fat – in fact it may not contain any at all.
Good protein – fish & vegetarian
At the green base of the protein pyramid we find fish and vegetable-based protein. By now it should be obvious why – these protein sources contain little in the way of high GI carbs or bad fats, and are instead rich in healthy fats.
That’s not to say that a vegetarian diet is necessarily healthy. Some vegetarians rely far too much on cheese and eggs for protein, and eat just as many bad carbs as meat-eaters. Nor is it essential to become a vegetarian to be healthy. I eat plenty of fish, chicken and some red meat, in addition to nuts, lentils, chick peas, and beans. About half of my protein intake is from animal sources, and half from vegetable. That seems like a good balance to me.
Tea or coffee?
Yes, both are excellent sources of anti-oxidants and other beneficial compounds. I prefer green to black tea, and I enjoy my coffee black, avoiding those sugar-rich syrups and other additives that coffee shops entice us with.
Water is also very good to drink.
Avoid sugary soft drinks. Smoothies can be a good way to include fruit and veg in your diet, but not fruit juice – with all the fibre removed, and the sugars released, fruit juices are just as sugary as lemonade or ginger beer.
In moderation, alcohol seems to have a beneficial effect against heart disease. But in large quantities, it has the opposite effect, and contributes to cancer too. A glass or two of red wine per day seems to be about the right amount, from a health perspective.
But remember that every glass of wine contains 100 calories, so consumption at this rate may lead to weight gain. I drink one glass of wine with a meal at weekends or special occasions only. Your mileage may vary.
I’m not persuaded by the benefits of organic food, except in one particular case – dairy. I usually buy organic milk and cheese, because of the antibiotics and hormones that are given routinely to conventionally-farmed dairy herds.
I haven’t mentioned portion sizes or calories, but obviously this is a very important factor.
As you move down the food pyramids you will be moving away from energy-dense foods, and so you are likely to feel full on fewer calories.
Don’t go hungry however, or else you’ll end up eating junk later.
Finally – food is one of life’s great pleasures. It should make you feel happy, not sad or guilty. Don’t let food become a problem, but always enjoy it to the full, whether it’s a cabbage or a cappuccino, bacon or broccoli. Don’t beat yourself up if you eat a “bad” food. Just try to do a little better next time, but don’t worry if you can’t. I sometimes drink a coke, or eat a sausage. It’s not the end of the world.
Eat foods you enjoy, and try to eat a varied diet. If possible, take your time over meals and share them with friends. Eating is too important not to enjoy it to the full. Bon appetit!