Health and nutrition experts developed sets of guidelines to help people make healthy food choices to prevent food-related diseases and maintain good health. They are very simple and easy to follow.
Food-based dietary guidelines are usually country-specific due to differences in food types, culture, food practices and other issues. With insights from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), I herewith discuss the guidelines which integrate simple ways to make the best of healthy eating.
1. Enjoy different types of foods
A healthy diet should consist of a combination of different foods namely starchy foods (e.g. cereals which include wheat, barley, rye, maize, rice, potato, yam, taro, cassava), legumes (e.g. lentils, split peas, beans, soybeans), foods from animals sources (e.g. meat, fish, eggs, milk), fruits and vegetables. Beans have less fat and more fiber than most foods. It is a good eating habit to eat foods from this group frequently. A daily intake of 250ml of milk (1 cup) of milk is suggested for an adult per day. The best choices are the low fat or fat-free (skim) types.
How to perform this recommendation
You can enjoy a variety in your diet by
- Including a variety of foods from different food groups in your meal plans,
- Using different foods from within a group in meals,
- Including foods from two or more food groups in a meal,
- Preparing one type of food in different ways.
Reasons your food should be varied
Eating a variety of whole (i.e. unprocessed) and fresh foods every day helps the body to obtain the right quantities of essential nutrients because no single food provides all the nutrients that the body needs in the right amount.
Starchy foods are important sources of energy for the body. Unrefined starchy foods such as whole wheat and oats supply fiber to the diets. In some countries, starchy foods such as bread and wheat flour are fortified to help people increase the intake of essential vitamins and minerals.
Fish, chicken, lean meat or eggs supply proteins in our diets. They also supply vitamins and minerals. People who are vegetarians i.e. do not eat foods from animal sources can eat healthy by choosing from plant foods (such as beans, peas, and lentils) that have nutrients similar to that of meat, fish, chicken, and eggs.
Beans and foods in this beans group help to increase the nutrient content of the meals because they are rich and economical dietary sources of good quality plant protein. They are also good sources of carbohydrates, minerals, vitamins, and phytonutrients, as well as soluble and insoluble dietary fiber. Eating foods from the beans group can reduce the risk of diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer. Eating these foods can help in controlling overweight and obesity because they give the feeling of fullness. They contain low glycaemic index starch, so they help to maintain healthy blood sugar levels.
Milk or yogurt supply proteins and they are major sources of calcium which helps to prevent softening of the bones or osteoporosis.
2. Eat plenty of vegetables and fruit
This recommendation is equivalent to one or two fruits and three servings of vegetables a day. This means eating at least 400g of a wide variety of vegetables and fruit a day, this will provide a variety of nutrients, including fiber, vitamins and non-nutritive beneficial compounds. To meet this recommendation, include vegetables in every meal and eat vegetables such as carrots and cucumber as snacks taking advantage of when these foods are in season. It should be noted that the emphasis here is on vegetables. The recommended portion is about 150g for fruits and 250g for vegetables. Since fruits contain a high amount of sugar, too much intake can contribute to unhealthy weight gain.
Reasons for plenty of vegetables and fruit
- Vegetables and fruits are important sources of vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber, plant protein, and antioxidants,
- People who eat enough vegetables and fruit regularly have a lower risk of obesity, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, constipation, and certain types of cancer,
- Vegetables are filling, but low in energy; so they help to control the total energy intake from meals.
3. Eat fats sparingly
It is recommended to use vegetable oils (e.g. sunflower oil, olive oil, soy oil or corn oil) instead of animal fats or oils which are high in saturated fats (e.g. butter, ghee, and lard). You can reduce fat intake by making an adjustment to how you cook. Remove visible fat from meat, and boil, braise or bake instead of deep frying. Minimize the intake of foods high in saturated fats such as cheese, ice cream, fatty meat, and processed, baked or fried foods high in industrially produced trans-fats. Where possible, choose low-fat or reduced-fat versions of milk and dairy products. Fat intake is recommended not to be more than 30% of total energy intake and saturated fats should be less than 10 % of total energy intake.
Reasons to limit fat intake
- Fats and oils are concentrated sources of energy, and eating too much fat, particularly the wrong types of fat, is harmful to health,
- People who eat a high amount of saturated fat and trans-fat have a high risk of heart disease and stroke.
Trans-fat may occur naturally in certain meat and milk products, but the industrially produced trans-fat such as partially hydrogenated oils that are present in various processed foods is the main source.
4. Eat less sugar
A moderate amount of sugar may be added to foods and drinks like oats porridge, breakfast cereals or tea, coffee and chocolate beverage to improve the taste. Foods made with sugar, like jam and marmalade may be used in healthy mixed meals or snacks. Foods high in sugar such as cakes, fizzy drinks, sweets ice cream may be eaten occasionally but not to replace healthy mixed meals. Sugar provides energy but has no other nutrients; it can be enjoyed as part of a healthy eating plan. Sugar should be used in moderation.
To achieve this recommendation:
- Limit the intake of free sugars to less than 10% (about12 level teaspoons) of total energy intake,
- For additional health benefits, further, reduce free sugars to less than 5% of total energy intake. Free sugars are sugars added to foods or drinks during processing, cooking or at the table by the consumer.
Reasons to limit the intake of sugar
People whose diets are high in sugars are at risk of becoming overweight or obese, and an increased risk of tooth decay. Consequently, people who minimize their intake of sugars may also reduce their risk of NCD such as heart disease and stroke.
5. Eat less salt
Salt should be used in foods in moderation. The total daily intake of salt should be less than 5g (about 1 teaspoon level) of salt (sodium chloride). This is equivalent to a recommended maximum intake of 2500mg of sodium.
To meet this recommendation:
- Avoid adding salt or salty sauce to meals at the table,
- Limit the consumption of salty snacks,
- Choose products with lower sodium content by reading food labels.
Reasons to limit the intake of salt
People whose diets are high in salt are at risk of high blood pressure, which can increase their risk of heart disease and stroke.
6. Be Active
Being active means moving the parts of the body and using the muscles. Your physical can form part of the daily living such as gardening, walking to the shops or to work instead of a car ride. This way, you are more likely to sustain it and make it your lifestyle. You can be active by engaging in sports such as football, handball, table tennis etc. You can also engage in exercises such as jogging, squatting, swimming etc.
Reasons to be active
Physical activity helps you to use energy
- It helps to increase blood supply to all parts of the body,
- It helps to strengthen the bones thereby keeping the body in good shape,
- Regular physical activity helps to control body weight and maintains heart and lung health,
- It reduces the risk of heart disease, heart blood pressure, and diabetes,
- It aids relaxation, sleeping patterns and relieves anxiety, and improves mood,
- It helps to regulate appetite.
Physical activity complements healthy eating to prevent food-related diseases.
7. Drink lots of safe water
Water is vital for life. Children and adults need about 6 – 8 glasses of clean water. You can achieve this recommendation by taking 2 to 3 glasses of water on an empty stomach in the morning, repeat this intake during the day, and take the remaining 2 to 4 glasses at meal times.
Reasons to drink lots of water
Water is lost through the kidneys, the bowels, the skin, and the lungs without our conscious knowledge. Therefore, water that is lost must be replaced. Our body uses water to regulate body temperature, carry nutrients to cells, remove waste, and cushion the organs and joints.
The guidelines discussed here are simple and within reach for all. Diversity in food intake is the way to go. Since no single food has it all, it is wise to source your foods from diverse sources. Not only will you access more nutrients to meet your daily requirements, you will as well enjoy the diverse array of tastes, textures, colors and aromas that come with the different foods. You sure want to connect with these simple ways to make the best of healthy eating.
Please note that general nutrition recommendations may not be applicable to all. In case of a disease condition, it is advisable to consult a dietitian.