Last Updated April 19th, 2020
How are diet and health inter-related?
Food is an essential component that provides us with energy and develops the body of a child to that of an adult. While eating is an absolute necessity for all humans, the choice of food depends on a variety of complex factors. This involves individual choice, cultural preferences and environmental factors. The right diet is one of the basic steps towards healthy living and it also helps in overcoming a wide variety of diseases.
There has been a lot of research that has gone into finding the healthiest diet but the answer is not simple. The huge amount of data gathered by food and nutrition researchers often generates contradictory patterns making it difficult to form the exact definition of a healthy diet.
At the same time, there are a lot of flawed ideas and misconceptions around the subject of diet that make the concept of the right diet difficult to arrive at.
How does eating unhealthy food affect you?
The wrong food consumption is one of the major reasons behind a variety of ailments and many cases of premature death around the world. The right diet can not only provide increased life expectancy but can also bring about a significant reduction in the risk of all chronic diseases.
There have been no detailed studies that directly compared multiple forms of diet in the long-term to suggest the best possible choice. But studies have pointed out some common elements that are found across diverse diet patterns and can be considered as the best possible choice of food.
In general, it has been indicated that the minimum consumption of processed food and including fresh plant-based elements in one’s diet provides better results when it comes to health promotion and disease prevention. Such diets include a range of fruits and vegetables, along with nuts, whole grains and seeds.
The importance of food in the human body
Apart from obesity in young people, an improper diet is also associated with diseases like heart diseases, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis and certain types of cancer. In addition, there are also nutritional deficiency diseases like kwashiorkor and pellagra. The food consumed is processed involving various methods depending on the physiology, biochemistry and molecular biology.
The energy obtained from food is used for the functioning of the muscles, for the multiple bodily functions and secretory processes and also in maintaining the structural integrity of the body. The cells in the body are constantly being broken down while new cells are being formed and the food intake plays a vital role in this cyclical process. While nutrition is an important choice for all, the quantity and proportions vary depending on the age and physical condition. So diet patterns for an infant, growing child, pregnant or lactating women and elderly people will be different.
Children require good amounts of carbohydrates and fats that will provide them with sufficient energy. They also need sufficient protein that will help to build the body. The nutritional requirements of a pregnant woman keep changing depending on the trimesters of pregnancy and the role of certain nutrients and minerals is vital during these periods.
For adults, a balanced diet with controlled intake of salts and healthy fats are needed, specifically for those with a sedentary lifestyle. Those who engage in high levels of physical activity will need more calories to sustain themselves. As physical activity reduces with age, the elderly need lesser calories in their diet while the amount of minerals and anti-oxidants should be sufficient to prevent many degenerative diseases.
Individuals suffering from chronic diseases should adjust their diets accordingly, in consultation with the doctor, for a speedy recovery.
Components of a healthy diet
The body also needs a variety of nutrients through the diet and these include protein, carbohydrate, fat, vitamin, mineral, fibre and water. These nutrients can be classified into two categories. The macronutrients are needed in relatively large quantities while the micronutrients are needed in relatively smaller quantities.
These can be categorised into two subgroups based on whether they provide energy to the body or not. The main energy-providing macronutrients are carbohydrates, fats and proteins. The carbohydrates consist of monosaccharides (glucose, fructose, and galactose), disaccharides, and polysaccharides (starch).
The energy delivered by carbohydrates and proteins is around 4 kilocalories per gram. Since polysaccharides take longer time to get digested and provide energy at a controlled rate, they are considered a healthy choice. Apart from energy proteins also deliver around 20 different amino acids to the body some of which are essential as the body cannot produce them.
Fats are perhaps the most misunderstood components of a daily diet. Apart from providing energy at the rate of 9 kilocalories per gram, they also help in lubricating joints, help in hormone production, assists in the absorption of certain vitamins and preserve brain health. At the same time excessive fat consumption can lead to the development of various ailments and unsaturated fats are considered as a healthier choice than saturated fats.
The macronutrients that do not provide energy are fibre and water, with both being extremely important for the body. Around 70% of the composition of the body is water and hence consuming the right volume and quality of drinking water is essential.
Water plays an important role in metabolism, transfer of various materials among cells, temperature regulation and many other functions of the body. At present, there is no universal consensus on the daily requirement of water in the human body as it depends on various complex factors.
Fibres are basically carbohydrates that are not easily absorbed by the body. They play an important role in maintaining overall health and provide fuel for the friendly gut bacteria.
Among the various micronutrients, minerals play an important role to build and maintain the body. Some of the important minerals needed are potassium, calcium, sodium, phosphorus, magnesium, iron, copper, manganese and zinc. These minerals play important roles in organ growth, enzyme activity, strengthening bones and muscles, performing energy activities, maintaining DNA structure, nervous system function, etc.
Mineral deficiencies can lead to various complications and hence in many cases, additional minerals are added in the diet. Vitamins are organic compounds that the body cannot generate and hence are to be supplied from outside. The vitamins can be water-soluble or fat-soluble. Vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat-soluble and the eight varieties of vitamin B and vitamin C are water soluble.
Since the water-soluble vitamins are not stored in the body and are easily eliminated, a balanced supply is essential. Fat-soluble vitamins tend to get stored in the body through consumed fats and an overdose of these can lead to hypervitaminosis, which can cause various ailments.
The importance of a high-quality dietMost research work is advising people to choose a high-quality diet instead of choosing food based on caloric value. This allows the body to remain healthy and also prevents unnecessary weight gain. A high-quality diet generally consists of vegetables and fruits, whole grains, healthy fats and other healthy sources of protein.
Food items like sugar-sweetened beverages, refined grains and sugar, fried foods, foods high in saturated and trans-fats and high-glycaemic foods such as potatoes constitute a low-quality diet. Research has also pointed out that the consumption of processed foods higher in starches, refined grains, fats, and sugars can lead to unhealthy weight gain. On the other hand, food items like vegetables, whole grains, fruits, nuts, and yogurt are more linked to weight loss.
The researchers have also pointed out that while one variety of diets can be effective for weight loss in a person, it may not be so effective for another. The action of a diet depends on lifestyle factors and the genetic build of an individual.
Healthy eating guidelines
Some guidelines that have been provided to keep the daily food consumption healthy are listed below.
- Consumption of less than 10 percent of calories per day from added sugars.
- Consumption of less than 10 percent of calories per day from saturated fats.
- Consumption less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium (salt) in a day
- Alcohol consumption should be in moderation by adults of the legal drinking age. The ideal range is up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men.
Processed foods are those items which have been modified for preservation or converted into ready-to-eat packages. The process may involve the addition of excess salt, sugar and fat in the food and such food can lack fibre and nutrients. For this reason they are not considered as high-quality diet and their intake is to be limited.
A few diets that are proven healthy
There are a few diets that have been considered healthy through various studies and they are listed below for reference.
Low-carb, whole-food diet
This diet is ideal for those who are trying to reduce weight and improve overall health. It consists of a lot of vegetables along with meat, fish, eggs, fruits, nuts, and selected fats. It offers a lot of flexibility and the overall carbohydrate intake can be controlled by making the necessary changes.
This is a diet that has gone through a lot of research and has been found beneficial for preventing heart diseases. It stresses on food that is consumed in the region around the Mediterranean Sea and includes vegetables, fruits, fish, poultry, whole grains, dairy products and extra virgin olive oil. It helps to keep the body agile, prevents the development of type 2 diabetes and also prevents diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s in the elderly.
The Paleo diet
This is another popular form of diet and is focussed on the consumption of unprocessed food. The name originates from the fact that it resembles the food that was available to our paleolithic ancestors. It aims to eliminate the consumption of preservatives, additives, artificial colours and flavours, hidden sugars, dairy and excess sodium. The Paleo diet lays stress on organic lean meat, veggies, fruit, healthy fats, nuts and seeds. The people following this form of a diet have reported better energy levels, good sleep, healthier skin, sustained weight loss, better mental clarity and fewer mood swings.
The Vegan diet
The vegan diet is plant-based and it eliminates all animal-based products. This diet not only provides a healthy dose of fibre but also supplies sufficient amounts of potassium, magnesium, folate and vitamins A, C and E to the body. It helps to lose weight, improves kidney function and also reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes. In addition, it can also provide protection from a wide range of cancers. A vegan diet should be properly planned or else it might result in the deficiency of essential fatty acids, vitamin B12, iron, calcium, iodine or zinc.
This is a type of diet that is favoured by those who are intolerant to gluten. Gluten is a type of protein that is found in food items like wheat, rye and barley. Some research has pointed out that this kind of a diet can bring about changes in the complex intestinal ecosystem of bacteria which can result in beneficial health effects. Research also points that that apart from the absence of gluten, such a diet also needs to be rich with sufficient amounts of dietary fibre.
The bottom line
The human body is a wonderful mechanism that can survive on a wide variety of diets but some choices are better than the others in the long run. With a wide variety of diets claiming their supremacy, it can be overwhelming when it comes to choosing the right one.
It is to be noted that some forms of diets have more scientific evidence backing them than others. Healthy eating also includes enjoying the food that is being consumed along with experimenting with different food types and preparation methods.
With numerous food options existing around the world, a natural and wholesome choice that is consumed in balanced proportions seems to be the best option. To make positive changes in your health, making the right modifications in your diet is an extremely important step that needs to be taken.
At the same time, it is important to observe your own system and ascertain what kind of diet keeps you healthy and energetic. The best diet is definitely the one that keeps your system in the best possible state, both physically and mentally.
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