- Looking after your health is an investment as it can prevent common diseases in the long run.
- Consuming a nutrient-rich diet will also improve your productivity, general mood, health and life expectancy.
- If you like to braai, there are some tips you can follow to make the event healthier for everyone.
National Nutrition Week (NNW) this week is the ideal time to pause and evaluate the current state of your nutritional wellness and ask yourself: Am I giving my body the nutrients it needs to thrive?
In a tight economic climate, looking after our health is an investment that becomes even more important, as preventing or managing disease can save costs related to medication, sick leave, doctor's appointments and lower productivity.
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Optimal nutrition is vital not only in the growth, development, and maintenance of physiological functions but also in the prevention and treatment of disease. A nutrient-rich diet decreases your risk of overweight and disease such as heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and cancer and can improve a current health condition you may have.
This year’s NNW theme is “Make healthy choices easier”. Here are some practical tips on how this can be achieved to make an investment in yourself and to build your physical wealth through your health.
The importance of portions
We don’t only eat for practical reasons but also because we appreciate the flavour and sensory stimulation of various foods. Food sharing and meals are often at the heart of celebration and social activity.
However, it is important that we also receive nutrition, vitamins, minerals, and energy from the food we eat. Including all the right food groups in adequate amounts means we can enjoy a healthy balance of all foods. However, many people over-consume certain foods, such as refined starches or animal proteins, and consume inadequate amounts of vegetables, fruit, legumes and fibre-rich carbohydrates.
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Though we all have different needs at different stages of our lives, and our portion recommendations will also be dependent on our current weight and activity level, below is a rough guide of suggested portion sizes. Keep these in mind during your meals to help you achieve a balanced diet to support optimal energy, immune protection and well-being.
Opt for the inclusion of mostly unrefined carbohydrates such as whole wheat or multigrain bread, brown rice, barley, quinoa, bran cereal, and oatmeal. This category of carbohydrates offers more fibre than white or refined carbohydrates, which can prolong the feeling of fullness after meals. This can reduce your appetite between meals and between snacks, keeping us from overindulging. There is a body of research that associates higher fibre intake with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
Red meat should ideally not contribute to more than 400g per week (90g per day) of your diet. Though protein is key in the maintenance of muscle mass and forms the building blocks of all the cells in our bodies, it is common to over-consume meat products which can increase your risk for heart disease.
Try including lean and white meats like fish and chicken (without the skin to reduce its fat content), and more plant-based sources of protein such as lentils, soya, nuts and beans. A quick guide is to aim for a quarter of your plate for protein.
- Try swapping out some of the meat in your meals during the week with plant-based proteins, or try a day in the week without meat (like Meatless Monday).
- For snacks, try spreads like peanut butter, cottage cheese, and bean-based dips on wholegrain carbohydrates or with vegetables or fruit, or prepare a boiled egg to grab and go.
It's crucial to pay attention to the kinds and quantities of fat you eat. Saturated and unsaturated fats are two different forms of fat. Overconsumption of saturated fat can raise “bad” LDL cholesterol levels which raises your risk of heart disease and stroke, among other diseases of lifestyle.
Foods containing animal products like butter, cheese, chicken skin and meat contain saturated fat. Saturated fats can be identified as being solid at room temperature.
- When choosing fats, opt for unsaturated fats such as those from avocado, nuts and vegetable oils. Unsaturated fats, which are liquid at room temperature, are regarded as healthier fats, and they have a range of positive effects on health, including lower blood cholesterol levels, and less inflammation, if they replace saturated fats in the diet.
- Given the high energy content of fats, they should ideally only be consumed in moderation to control weight.
Fibre, vitamins and minerals
As mentioned previously, strong evidence suggests that diets with adequate intake of fibre are related to a lower risk of diseases such as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and bowel cancer.
Choosing foods with fibre also makes us feel fuller for longer because it slows down our digestion process. Dietary fibre softens and increases the weight and volume of your stools, which reduces the likelihood of developing constipation. Fibre absorbs water and gives stools volume, so if you have loose, watery stools, it might help to solidify them. It helps maintain good bowel health.
The creation of energy, immune response health, blood coagulation, and other processes all depend on vitamins. Meanwhile, minerals are crucial for a number of functions, including growth, bone health, fluid balance, and others.
Vegetables, fruit, whole grains and legumes are typically rich sources of fibre, vitamins and minerals.
- Try whole grain breakfast options like whole grain bread and oats for a nutritious start to the day and to stimulate your digestive system in the morning.
- Other high-fibre foods include lentils and beans. They can be a great addition to stews or mince to bulk up the fibre content.
- Aim to eat five servings of fruit and vegetables daily. Limit or avoid the intake of fruit juice as it lacks the fibre found in whole fruit and is often made with added sugars and concentrate additives. A helpful tip would be to dilute your next glass of fruit juice by filling your glass with half water and half fruit juice to cut down on your sugar intake.
Water is essential for digestion as well as many other vital bodily functions, including removing waste from the system and controlling body temperature. Water aids in maintaining regular bowel movements and preventing constipation. The amount will differ for each individual and at different life stages and levels of activity. Some recommendations refer to as little as 4-6 cups of water per day, while others 6-8 cups, and more when active or thirsty.
- Using a 500ml water bottle, try taking it wherever you go and filling it at least 3-4 times per day.
READ MORE | How much water should you really drink every day?
Let's apply balance to our Braai
It's no secret South Africans love Braai, a cultural celebration of food and social practices. So here are some tips to make it healthier for everyone:
- For snacks, try out unsalted nuts, lean biltong, popcorn, fresh vegetables and hummus.
- Choose fish, skinless chicken, fillet, game meat or lean cuts for your protein. Try making kebabs and filling the skewer with vegetable chunks and lean beef.
- Swap out potato bake for boiled baby potatoes with fresh herbs or a couscous salad.
- Use a variety of fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy like feta to make fresh, nutrient-rich salads.
- For dessert, serve fresh fruit and yoghurt, fruit skewers, or lite canned fruit salad served with low-fat custard.
- To limit the temptation of over-consuming alcohol, put out jugs or iced water flavoured with rooibos tea, fruit pieces like berries or citrus, or herbs like mint and basil.
By eating a balanced diet, stand to improve your productivity, general mood, weight, health, and life expectancy. Being confident in healthy eating takes time and practice. Starting a balanced eating pattern and changing current habits may seem overwhelming and difficult at times.
It's important to remember that even small steps can contribute to better health, and encouraging friends or family to change with you can make the challenge seem less daunting.
Uzayr Moerat and Annabel McCaig are final year BSc Dietetics students at Stellenbosch University.
This resource is for educational purposes only and cannot replace individual assessment by a healthcare professional. ADSA is the Association for Dietetics in South Africa. Visit www.adsa.org.za to find more dietitians in your area. Visit www.nutritionweek.co.za for more information and tips on how to make healthy food choices easier.