By Pritha Banerjee, L&T MHPS
We just took a leap into the New Year with new hopes and resolutions. It may be no big deal for some. Hey, these are just another three sixty five days! Yet, it may present a life changing opportunity for those who are ready to embrace a change and are just waiting for the right moment to give it a head-start. Adopting a healthy and balanced diet is one such challenge which is on everyone’s to-do list but still eludes most of us. The article intends to cover the basic aspects of diet required to develop a successful program for achieving health and happiness.
Life is fast and there’s little time to care about what we put inside of us every day every time. The only aim we tend to have is to satisfy our taste buds and douse our hunger in the most convenient way. The problem inevitably arises when this approach leads to deficiency or oversupply of certain nutrients from the food. A little information and scientific knowledge about the functions and importance of various food groups, micro and macro nutrients will go a long way in helping to maintain the required balanced diet.
Food is not a reward or therapy. Eat to live, not live to eat.
Food is our source of energy, the fuel to get us going. What petrol is to car, food is to us. Latest research proves that to attain a level of health and fitness, diet is the most important variable. In fact, it assumes greater importance than exercise any given day. So, don’t be surprised when you hear – ‘You cannot outrun a bad diet’.
The food we consume comes majorly from plants and animal sources and contains different nutrients in varying ratios. Our bodies need all these nutrients in order to function optimally and remain disease free. A balanced diet encompasses all these nutrients from different food groups in a proper ratio. Nutrients are majorly categorized as Macro and Micro nutrients.
These nutrients are required by the body in large amounts for sustaining daily energy needs, carrying out metabolic processes and the routine repair work. There are three main types of macro-nutrients.
Proteins are the building blocks of our body. All muscle tissues, cells, cartilages and organs are made from some type of protein. It’s also required for regular repair and maintenance of muscles, skin, nails and hair. Dietary protein is required every day to provide the required amino acids to build and maintain muscle mass.
There is debate on the amount of protein that should be consumed but dietitians generally suggest to consume it in proportion to the body weight. Activity level and gender of the person is also taken into account. General rule of thumb is as below:
Weight in kg x (0.8-1.8) = Protein amount in grams / day (The factor (1-1.8) applied based upon the activity level, gender and body weight and nearly 25% of daily calories should be derived from protein). 1 gram of protein has 4 calories.
Common Food Sources are Eggs, Meat, Fish, Dairy, Pulses and Nuts
Carbohydrates are easily digestible and body’s preferred source of energy. They are directly absorbed in the bloodstream as glucose and thus provide energy in abundance and quickly. That’s why all sports drinks have carbs as their major constituent and used by athletes during intense activity.
Carbohydrates are generally made a villain in the dieting world and are said to result in weight gain. It’s generally not true unless you eat more amount of total calories in a day than you burn. 1 gram of carbs has 4 calories and generally, only 45% of your total calories should come from carbohydrates. The problem with carbs is that it’s very easy to eat plenty of them. In our culture, most of the common foods (sugar, candy, soda, sweetened beverages etc.) are high in simple carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates (whole grains, sweet potatoes) are superior to the simple carbohydrates (table sugar, refined flour) due to slow digestion and better insulin response.
Common food sources: Grains, Fruits, Vegetables like potatoes, milk and dairy products, legumes and lentils.
Fat is of no less nutritional value as a macro-nutrient for the body. Its main function is to act as a backup source of energy when carbs are not available. It facilitates the absorption of certain vitamins and regulates various important hormones like testosterone and estrogen. Extra fat is stored below the skin to be used by the body during times of starvation and to keep us warm.
Major types of fats are saturated fat, monounsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fat and trans-fat. Among these, monounsaturated fats (olive oil, peanut butter) are generally considered the healthiest type. But, latest research points that saturated fats like coconut oil and clarified butter consumed in moderate amounts are beneficial as well. Tran-fats are normally found in processed food as these are byproducts of hydrogenation process. These are bad fats and should be avoided.
1 gram of fat is 9 calories and generally 30 % of your daily calories should come from fats. Again, like carbs, fats do not cause weight gain directly unless the total number of calories consumed are more than the calorie expenditure. Common food sources: Butter, Refined oil, Coconut oil, certain fruits like Avocado, Egg yolk, dairy, red meat
Other Macronutrients: Apart from proteins, carbohydrates and fats which are sources of energy for the body, there are macronutrients which do not directly provide energy but still vital for the overall health.
Two most important ones are Water and Fiber. Water have zero calorific value but it constitutes 70% of our body’s weight and it provides the medium for all metabolic processes. It also carry many minerals and transports them to our body to carry out important functions.
Fiber on the other hand, is the indigestible portion of the food containing soluble and insoluble types of fiber. Fiber helps in creating a feeling of fullness and also eases defecation. Common food sources of fiber are whole grains, legumes, leafy greens, nuts like flax and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli.
True to their name, these nutrients are required by organisms in small amounts but nonetheless these are vital for various bodily functions. Two types of micronutrients are
Vitamins: These are compounds which all organisms require in limited amounts to support the absorption of macronutrients and other vital functions. These are classified in alphabetical codes like A, B, C and so on and every vitamin has a different function. Supplementation of vitamins is a hotly debated subject in medical world with latest research indicating that – Although vitamin supplementation through synthetic pills or other form of ingestion is important for treatment of certain diseases but otherwise healthy individuals do not benefit from consuming supplements.
Foods rich in vitamins: Milk, Eggs, liver, Fruits (Apple, Apricot, Peach, Papaya, Mangoes etc), Vegetable (Carrots, Sweet Potatos, pumpkin, Kale etc)
Minerals: These are chemical elements that are present in our body for performing several functions important for life. These minerals originate from the earth and added to our food chain through plants. Our body cannot make these of our own and must get them from the diet in trace amounts. Examples of minerals are sodium, potassium, calcium, iron, zinc etc.
Foods rich in minerals: Dairy, Eggs, Red Meat, Leafy greens, Legumes, nut and seeds
How much to eat:
After knowing about the macro and micro nutrients and their role, next major piece of puzzle is to ascertain how much of each nutrient should be eaten. In other terms, what should be the portion size of each food group?
It seems complex on the surface but ultimately boils down to the simple science of thermodynamics and energy balance. A simple equation of calories in minus calories out is to be balanced to maintain body weight. If the metabolic process is running fine and the energy intake is exceeded compared to energy expenditure, body weight will increase and vice versa. So, to maintain weight, energy expenditure should be equal to energy intake.
Calculation of daily energy requirement:
BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate): It is the rate of energy used by the body to carry out basic tasks like respiration, heartbeat, metabolic processes and staying warm. BMR varies with individuals depending upon age, sex, height etc
Calculation of BMR (Harris-Benedict formula):
Men BMR = 66 + (13.7 x wt in kg) + (5 x ht in cm) – (6.8 x age in years)
Women BMR = 655 + (9.6 x wt in kg) + (1.8 x ht in cm) – (4.7 x age in years)
Example: You are a 35 year old female. You are 5’3″ tall (160 cm) and weigh 127.6 pounds (58 kg). Your BMR = 655 + 556.8 + 288 – 164.5 = 1335 calories/day.
Now that you have your BMR, you can find out your daily energy requirement based upon your activity level. Because, energy requirement = BMR + Energy consumed in daily activity
Sedentary = BMR x 1.2 (little or no exercise, desk job)
Lightly active = BMR x 1.375 (light exercise/ sports 1-3 days/week)
Moderately active = BMR x 1.55 (moderate exercise/ sports 6-7 days/week)
Very active = BMR x 1.725 (hard exercise every day, or exercising 2 xs/day)
Extra active = BMR x 1.9 (hard exercise 2 or more times per day, or training for marathon, or triathlon, etc.
For example, a person with BMR of 1335 Cal with lightly active lifestyle will need 1335*1.375 = 1836 Calories / day to meet energy requirement. If that person eats more than 1836 calories, she will gain weight and if below that, she will lose weight, as simple as that.
Now coming to the ratios of nutrients that should be consumed –
1 gram of Protein = 4 Calories
1 gram of Carbohydrate = 4 Calories
1 gram of fat = 9 Calories
The optimum ratio as described in above section on macronutrients is
Proteins 25 %, Carbohydrate 45 % and fats 30 %
So, for an 1836 calories diet, one need to consume 114 grams of protein, 206 grams of carbs and 61 grams of fat.
These ratios only provide a framework and are not something hard and fast. One should consult a registered dietitian for customized diet plan and accurate ratios of nutrients based upon individual needs.
Now last but not the least, below are some general tips which will help you in maintaining a healthy diet:
- Stay hydrated, drink sufficient water
- Breakfast is a key meal – have it wholesome and don’t skip it ever
- Stay away from processed food as much as you can
- Go gung-ho on fruits and veggies – They are nutritional powerhouse
- Eat small regular meals rather than 2 big meals
- Eat from all food groups – Don’t fall for the fad diets to ban a particular food group completely
- Have it fresh – Remember, food is perishable
- Cut-back on alcohol – It’s fun but it plays havoc with the metabolism. Remember, WHO guideline is 14 units a week. So pardon your little buddy – liver 🙂
- Healing your metabolism – Book by Ms. Kate Deering (Available on Amazon)
- Bigger, leaner, stronger – Book by Mr. Michael Matthews