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Does eating a varied diet matter?

The world we live in today is more busy, stressful, and fast-paced than ever. Yet we are told we need to sleep well, stress less, and above all else, eat better. 

Easier said than done, right? With all the nutrition misinformation out there, it can be difficult to understand if the benefits of good nutrition have been overstated, and feel impossible to master the art of optimal nutrition. 

Easier said than done, right? With all the nutrition misinformation out there, it can be difficult to understand if the benefits of good nutrition have been overstated, and feel impossible to master the art of optimal nutrition. 

 

One aspect of nutrition that cannot be stressed enough is the importance of a varied, well-balanced diet. Being the creatures of habit that we are, it is easy to fall into the same routine and dietary patterns day-in, day-out. By increasing the variety of your diet, not only can you enhance your quality of life, but you can also improve your health and significantly reduce the risk of developing several illnesses and diseases. This isn’t something to be taken lightly which is why this blog post will explain what a varied diet is, what it looks like and the myriad of benefits you will obtain by following this pattern of eating.

 

What are some of the benefits of a balanced diet?

Let’s get straight to it – how is a varied diet of benefit to you?

 

It prevents nutritional deficiencies

When you eat the same foods repeatedly, you are putting yourself at risk of missing out on a range of nutrients, potentially leading to nutritional deficiencies. The consequences of these deficiencies may not be apparent in the short-term and symptoms may be dismissed, they can go on to manifest into serious health conditions in the long-term such as osteoporosis, cognitive impairment, mood disorders, rickets and anemia, to name just a few. 

 

It improves our feelings of wellbeing

There have been several studies, notably the SMILES diet trial and the MIND diet, that have shown that dietary patterns play significant roles in influencing brain function, mood and focus. What do these diets have in common? They emphasize food variety (specifically fruit, vegetables, nuts, wholegrain, legumes and fish) and do not focus on restricting whole food groups as is prevalent in a lot of popular diets today.

 

It gives us energy

Now, who doesn’t want more energy to keep going? There is no denying that the stressful world we live in today has taken a toll on our mental and physical wellbeing. If you constantly find yourself fatigued, then you may actually be under-fuelling yourself. By nourishing yourself with the correct nutrients, you can help to reduce stress levels, regulate your mood and feel less lethargic. 

 

It improves skin health

Nutrition affects each and every one of our organs, including our skin. (Yes, skin is an organ – the largest organ in the body!) And while a balanced, varied diet will not change genetic predispositions, reverse excess sun exposure, or prevent the natural process of aging, it can definitely still play an important role in improving a number of skin conditions including but not limited to acne, eczema, psoriasis, rosacea and dry skin.

 

It makes food more enjoyable

And here we have the final reason for promoting a varied diet, and dare I say, perhaps one of the most important? It makes eating much more exciting! A varied diet allows you to experiment with new flavors and textures which subsequently excite your taste buds. Who wouldn’t want a firework of deliciousness in their mouth? You get to experiment with different food weekly and start to enjoy your meals much more. Which leads us to the next point: top tips on how to increase variety in your diet:

 

  • Challenge yourself to trying a new fruit and vegetable each week.

  • Try out new grains that you have never eaten and add them to soups/salads or as a side.

  • Bulk up your meals with more legumes and vegetables.

  • Treat your friends or family to a new meal recipe a couple of times per month.

  • Experiment with new, healthy snacks.

 

What is a varied diet?

Now that we understand the benefits of diversifying the diet, let’s get to the bottom of what a varied diet actually entails. Simply put, it is a way of eating that prioritizes including a wide range of foods in your diet in the correct proportions in order to optimize health by nourishing your body with the correct macronutrients (such as protein, healthy fats and healthy carbohydrates) and the right quantities of micronutrients (such as vitamins and minerals).

 

Nutrition science is a relatively new science, with the first vitamin being discovered barely a century ago. Therefore, the field is constantly evolving and advancing and with this, comes the change in recommendations from the USDA. 

 

Up until 2011, the food pyramid was used to help guide daily food choices, with grains being advised to be the largest contributor to a meal. With updated nutritional research, the USDA has switched to a MyPlate model to better help guide food choices and better explain why it’s important to have a varied diet. 

 

The MyPlate guidance focuses upon the importance of fruit and vegetables which should make up half of a plate, encourages for at least half of the carbohydrates in a given meal to be of the whole grain variety, and emphasizes the importance of diversity in the diet; whether that be the type of protein in your diet, or the types of fruit and vegetables that you are consuming. 

 

A small amount of healthy fats should also be included with meals to provide you with the essential fatty acids your body needs in order to help with vitamin and mineral absorption, in addition to help maintain the function of cells.

 

The five food groups

We are now going to discuss the different components of a balanced diet, as advised by the USDA and guided by the MyPlate model and first up, we have vegetables. 

 

Vegetables

We all know that vegetables are good for us but the problem is, we don’t tend to get enough of them. And even for the people that do get their minimum of 3 cups daily, they tend to not have a variety and often stick to the same types. Variety is key here which is why the MyPlate model has organized vegetables into five subgroups based on their nutrient content:

 

  1. Leafy green vegetables

  2. Red or orange vegetables

  3. Starchy vegetables (such as peas, corn, potatoes, carrots and squash)

  4. Legumes (such as beans, lentils, chickpeas)

  5. Other vegetables such as eggplant and zucchini

By including vegetables from each subgroup in your diet, in addition to vitamins, minerals and fiber, you will also be potentially getting hundreds of a range of plant compounds, called phytonutrients, that significantly contribute to good health and wellbeing. 

Some easy ways to get more vegetables in your diet:

 

  1. Buy frozen if affordability is an issue or if you find yourself often wasting fresh produce. Many people are hesitant to buy frozen because of the pervasive myth that fresh is always better. In fact, frozen vegetables are frozen at their peak ripeness which means you get the most nutrients at the point at which they are frozen.

  2. For foods which tend to be meat heavy such as bolognese or chili, try substituting half of the ground meat with some legumes such as beans, lentils or chickpeas.

  3. Play around with preparing vegetable sticks with dips as snacks.

  4. Try making home-made dips such as an aubergine dip or even a smoked pepper and hummus dip.

  5. Add vegetables to your curries for some added color and texture.

  6. Experiment with raw and cooked vegetables. Some cooking methods (notably boiling) will result in a loss of nutrients, however, some phytochemicals such as lycopene are actually better absorbed when cooked! 

Fruit

The next component of a healthy, balanced diet is fruit.  In recent years, fruit has been demonized by some groups due to the premise that they are high in sugar. Although fruits do contain natural sugars, these sugars are bound within the plant complex and so will not be released in the same way as sugar from sweets. 

 

Fruits also contain an abundance of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and fiber, all of which have been shown to protect from a range of illnesses and diseases. In danger of sounding like a broken record, again, variety is the key in order to ensure that you really are getting the whole host of benefits. So, challenge yourself to try a new fruit every week, in a different shade. Here are some other ways to increase your intake of fruits:

 

  1. Add a handful of berries to your oats in the morning.

  2. Snack on Greek yogurt and fruit.

  3. Try peanut butter with banana or apples. 

  4. Try having dried fruit stuffed with nuts.

 

If the above really doesn’t tickle your fancy, or you’re just pushed for time, then consider trying kencko’s gumdrops which contribute to one of your five-a-day, in addition to packing some fiber. 

 

Grains

Next up: Grains, the third component of a varied diet which fall into the category of starchy carbs. In recent years, carbs have been given a pretty bad rep, and not for good reason.  The reality is that carbs are our preferred form of energy and are the number one source of fuel for our cells, particularly our brain. However, the western diet tends to focus on the “wrong carbs,” and too little of the better carbs. 

 

Simply put, when we think of grains, there are two main versions with some considerable differences:

 

  1. The whole grain version

  2. The refined version

 

A whole grain consists of three layers with each layer housing different health promoting nutrients. You have the outermost layer (bran) which is rich in fiber and also consists of B vitamins, iron, magnesium, zinc, copper and some phytochemicals. You then have the inner layer (the germ) which is the seed’s core and is packed full of healthy fats, more B vitamins, antioxidants, phytochemicals and Vitamin E. Finally, you have the central layer (the endosperm), which is essentially starch and a small amount of protein, some B vitamins and some minerals.

 

In contrast, refined grains have had the bran and sperm stripped away, leaving only the starchy endosperm. By stripping away most of the fiber, protein, and fat, refined grains are more easily absorbed and digested, which can raise blood sugar rapidly. This can cause some difficulty for people that struggle with blood sugar control such as those with diabetes or PCOS. 

 

Below are some examples of healthful grains that you should be aiming to include more of in your diet:

 

  • oats

  • quinoa

  • brown rice

  • barley

  • buckwheat

  • kamut

  • Amaranth

  • Millet

  • Spelt

  • Rye

  • Bulgur

  • Corn 

  • Sorghum

  • Wild rice

 

Proteins

The fourth component of the MyPlate model is protein. Protein is a type of macronutrient that is essential in the diet. If you want to build muscle at the gym, protein is key. However, protein is not just about the *gains*; other important functions of protein include and are not limited to:

 

-Helping to support the growth, development and repair of all tissues in our body.

-Provide structure to cells and tissues, giving them strength, protection, flexibility and resilience.

- It is a component of enzymes needed to power many of the day-to-day chemical reactions that occur in our body to keep us alive.

 

Generally speaking, foods that are typically high in protein are not just a package of pure protein. They also contain different types of fat, varying amounts of sodium and sometimes even fiber! And so, this is why not all proteins are made equal. Aim to take in more lentils, beans, chickpeas, fish, seeds, nuts, poultry, fish and lean red meat occasionally, in place of processed meat and fatty cuts of animal products.

 

Dairy (or dairy alternatives!)

And last up is another contentious food group: dairy! 

 

Some folks say that we shouldn’t be having it as it is not ‘natural,’ and others say it is part of a well-balanced diet. But what does the science say? Well, we know that for many, dairy products such as milk, yogurts and cheese are their main dietary sources of calcium and iodine. 

 

The USDA still recommends that adults shift their intake to fat-free and low-fat dairy, but this appears to be coming from a weight loss perspective as opposed to what actually may be best for health. In recent years, new research has come to light that full-fat dairy may not be as big a threat to our health as once thought. A review of 20 studies found no link between cardiovascular illness and the intake of most dairy products, apart from in milk when almost a liter of it was being consumed daily. 

 

Some studies have even shown that men who eat high amounts of fermented dairy foods such as cheese and yogurt have a reduced risk of heart disease. Additionally, studies looking at women with ovulatory infertility have shown that full-fat dairy is associated with an improvement in ovulation rates! It has been hypothesized that although high fat dairy consists of the type of fat we want to have less of (saturated fat), the way it is packaged within the milk fat globule may actually change the way it behaves so it may not exert the same detrimental health effects as the saturated fat found in other foods.

 

Ultimately the jury is still out when it comes to the health benefits of dairy, but based on most recent science, if one is not looking to lose weight, then it may be a good idea to stick to full fat yogurt/cheese and have whichever type of milk you fancy. However, as is the case with anything to do with nutrition, moderation is the key. 

 

If you do not drink dairy for ethical reasons, or perhaps you just don’t like it, then it is important to consider alternatives which contain calcium and iodine. Plant milks are often marketed as a good substitute. However, it is important to be aware that the nutrient profile of plant drinks do not match the profile of dairy and tend to be much lower in iodine, calcium, and protein. Therefore, if opting for a dairy alternative, seek out calcium and iodine fortified products. Products will not be fortified with protein, but since protein is found in abundance in other foods, don’t worry as much about that.

 

What does a balanced plate actually look like?

Simply put, you are aiming for half of your plate to be filled with fruit and vegetables, a quarter of your plate to be filled with lean protein sources, and the remaining quarter to be filled with starchy carbohydrates – ideally whole grains.

 

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