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What makes a diet healthy?

One of the most common questions most dietitians face when meeting a new person is what they have to eat to be healthy (with all honesty this question comes only second to the usual suspect “how many calories does this meal/drink contain”).

Most of the times ,the short answer is that it depends. There is not a gold standard for a healthy and balanced diet, however, there are a few key elements that seem to play a role.

Let’s focus on two of the healthiest populations in the world in 2017, as these were published in Bloomberg in March 2017:

  • The dietary habits of the people living around the Mediterranean Sea, including Italy, Spain, France and Greece, has been linked with a healthier heart and body composition

(research suggests that over 70% of heart conditions and strokes and 90% of Type 2 diabetes can be avoided when following the "Mediterranean diet")

  • The Asian cuisine and particularly the diet of the people living in Japan is related to great level of life quality and a longer life expectancy

(Japan's average life expectancy is the highest in the world, with 83.7 years).

The Mediterranean Diet (based on the "Mediterranean Diet Pyramid"):

The base of the specific diet is the extra virgin olive oil as the main dietary lipid source, wholegrain cereals and grains like rice,bread and couscous, as well as vegetables (including green leafy vegetables). These should be consumed daily in almost every main meal and 1 or 2 servings of fruit can be included as healthy snacks. Nuts and low fat dairy can be consumed daily as a great source of protein, and foods like fish, eggs and poultry can be consumed with moderation in the week to top up the protein intake. Red meat should only be consumed once or twice per week, similar to starchy vegetables like potatoes, and processed products. Part of the Mediterranean lifestyle includes regular physical activity and allows moderate consumption of red wine as this can be beneficial for a healthy heart.

The Japanese diet (based on the "Spinning top"- a popular Japanese toy) :

The specific guideline focuses on servings of foods that should be consumed every day. The base of the Japanese reverse pyramid contains grains (rice, pasta, noodles) and vegetables. These should be included in every meal of the day. The main protein sources of the specific diet comes from fish and meat, as well as eggs and soy-beans. These can be included in small amounts in one or two of the daily meals. Dairy products and fruit are only found in small amounts as snack options within the day. Hydration through water or tea is very important in this diet and is represented at the top of the toy, in addition to regular physical activity as part of a healthy lifestyle.

Take away message - what makes a diet healthy and balanced:

  • Aim to include fruit and vegetables (fresh or cooked) in almost every meal of the day. Adding one fruit in your breakfast and ensuring you always have a small salad or some cooked vegetables to fill half of your dishes is an easy way to reach the desirable intake. This can provide a good amount of fibre to support your digestive health, as well as a variety of vitamins and nutrients that support a general well-being.

  • Keep a good source of lean protein in your meals. Prefer fish or white meat or eggs and try to keep the consumption of red meat and processed food to once or twice per week. For vegetarian or vegan options, your protein needs can be covered by milk and dairy products (however try to choose low fat alternatives when possible), soy beans, nuts and seeds.

  • Don't forget including healthy fats in the diet, to support your heart function, cell repair and regeneration, as well as to boost your immune system. These can be found in oily fish, olive oil, nuts, seeds and avocados .

  • Ensure that you maintain a small serving of grains or cereals in your meals, like oats, rice, pasta or bread, preferably whole grains. These can be used for energy based on the carbohydrates they contain, as well as for providing nutrients that support the function of the nervous system and the brain function.

  • Try to include regular exercise in your routine- this can be a structured 15 minute walk per day. Have you tried stepping off one stop earlier from the bus on your way home or taking the dog for a longer walk? Even choosing the staircases instead of the lifts can top up your activity level.

  • Processed food and sweets can also be included in a balanced diet- as long as their consumption remains within moderate levels and not too frequent.

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