(Updated July 12, 2019)
With all of the information that is available to us, it is natural to be a little confused about nutrition and health. It may seem that every time you read something, you later read something else that contradicts what you had read previously . Just a basic search on the internet brings up a long list of tips and “facts” - some even presented by qualified experts - and much of it expressing completely opposite opinions.
However, despite this, there are some health and nutrition tips that are well supported by research. Read on to learn some science-based tips that you can start to practice today:
Eat your colours.
The old expression “eat your greens” is good advice. But it is important to eat from other colour groups as well. The phytonutrients (or natural pigments) that make fruit and vegetables so colourful have different protective qualities. Different colours have different health benefits. For example, red vegetables contain red antioxidants - anthocyanins and carotenoids - that give these vegetables their colour. Try to eat a variety of different coloured fruits and vegetable each day.
Drink More Water
We hear this advice often, and it has definitely earned a place on this list. Drinking water is vital for staying healthy, energized, and even losing weight. Research cited by the National Center for Health Statistics, dehydration has been linked to several health conditions, such as exercise-induced asthma, gastroenteritis hyperglycemia and diabetes. A common recommendation is to drink at least 8 glasses per day – but we should go beyond this common advice. Our specific needs vary according to factors such as age, gender, activity level. To find out exactly how much water you should be drinking, divide your body weight (in pounds) by two and aim to drink that many ounces of water every day. Increase this amount if you are very active. For more information on hydration, see my blog "Are You Drinking Enough Water?"
Trade in coffee for green tea
Nutritional information on coffee is particularly conflicting. Some studies tout the health benefits of coffee, where others are very anti-coffee. A study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health analyzed coffee’s overall effect on health and concluded that the drink is pretty neutral. In other words, it did not have either negative or positive effects on overall health. Studies on green tea, however, show that it does offer numerous health benefits. Tea - especially green tea - contains polyphenol compounds, a group of plant chemicals that serve as antioxidants in the body. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the US, these antioxidants help to protect the body's tissues against oxidative stress and associated pathologies such as cancers, coronary heart disease and inflammation.
If you do switch to green tea, do it slowly as you may encounter caffeine withdrawal headaches. Green tea does contain caffeine, but the amounts are smaller and the caffeine is not as accessible as it is in coffee. Not ready to quit coffee? Switching to organic can have benefits as well – coffee crops are often very heavily sprayed with pesticides. And whichever beverage you choose, try to cut the heavy cream and sugars, both of which add considerable amounts of calories to your cup.
Focus on Nutrients, Not Calories
While it is important to keep an eye on our caloric intake from time to time, it is more important to ensure that we are getting enough protein, fibre, healthy fats and nutrients. Cutting calories usually leads to short-term weight loss. However, according to the NIH, eating a low calorie diet for a long period of time can actually slow your metabolism as your body limits its energy expenditure to compensate for the reduced intake. And the result? Weight gain.
And not all calories are created equally. Eating low calorie foods that are void of nutrients will leave you hungry – and susceptible to binge-eating. Your body requires nutrients to operate – but so does your brain. And it will continue to send hunger signals until it is fed those nutrients. Finally, if you don’t exercise when you cut calories, you risk losing muscle mass as your body will break down muscle for energy. To stay slim and healthy, fill up on high-fiber, nutrient-rich fruits, vegetables, grains, and proteins.
Don’t avoid carbs, avoid refined carbs
Over the years, carbohydrates have gained a bad reputation. There are several low-carb diets which promote fast weight loss that can be very attractive to someone trying to lose weight. These diets claim that you can turn your body into a fat-burning machine if you restrict the amount of carbohydrate foods that you eat. However, when you limit carbohydrates, you deprive your body of a main source of fuel — and many essential nutrients that you need to stay healthy.
The truth behind carbs can be complex (complex carbs…get it? ok, bad joke). Carbohydrates are foods that the body converts into glucose, or sugar, during digestion. They are a primary source of fuel for our body. Carbs are particularly important for the brain, which cannot easily use other fuel sources (such as fat or protein) for energy. According to research published in The Journal of Nutrition, current scientific evidence indicates that whole grains play an important role in lowering the risk of chronic diseases, such as coronary heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
Instead of avoiding all carbs, avoid refined carbohydrates. Refined carbs include white breads, white pastas, white rice – anything that is made essentially from a processed grain (they have had their fibre and most nutrients removed). And, although it is actually a simple carb, I will add sugar to this list of “best to avoid”. Be sure to include complex, unrefined carbs such as quinoa, brown rice, and vegetables, in your diet.
Up your fibre
Tied in with a few of the points mentioned previously, fibre is a necessary component to our nutrition as well. It plays several roles, including lowering “bad cholesterol”, and helping to stabilize our blood sugar (by slowing the intake of sugar) which helps us to feel full longer after we eat it. Research has linked adequate fibre intake to healthy weight management, colonic health and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. But most of us do not get enough fibre – in fact on average, we get about half of the recommended daily intake. Increase the amount of fibre in your diet by eating whole grains, high fibre fruits like apples and berries, and vegetables.
Know your Fats
Another enemy in some weight loss strategies is fat. As with carbs, there are different types of fats – and some are very healthy. Nuts, for example, are high in fat – but they contain healthy fats and are full of nutrients such as magnesium, vitamin E, selenium and fibre. Some evidence even shows that they may boost metabolism. Some vitamins and minerals are fat-soluble, which means that they require fat to be absorbed. Aim for about 20% to 35% of your daily calories as fat – but focus on healthy essential polyunsaturated fats. Good sources of omega-3 fatty acids include fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines, flaxseeds, and walnuts. Research shows that omega-3 fatty acids may help prevent and even treat heart disease and stroke. In addition to reducing blood pressure, raising HDL, and lowering triglycerides, polyunsaturated fats may help prevent lethal heart rhythms from arising. Evidence also suggests they may help reduce the need for corticosteroid medications in people with rheumatoid arthritis.
When considering which diet to follow, choose “real food”
When Yale University researchers set out to find the answer to the question “Which diet is the best?”, the winner was real food. We have all heard the hype – the health benefits of a particular diet, or how cutting carbs or cutting fat will help with weight loss. But the one factor that all of these “diets” have in common is the elimination of an essential nutrient(s) or component(s). As described above, there are health risks when we eliminate healthy fats or complex carbs. There has been no conclusive evidence that any one particular diet is better than another. The only true theme throughout each of these “diets” is that eating real food – minimally processed foods, close to nature, predominantly plants – is conclusively proven to promote health and disease prevention.
Take time to manage stress
This tip is not truly a “nutrition” tip but its importance to nutrition and to our health earned it a place on this list. Stress affects digestion – it affects food choices – and it affects our health, quite seriously, in fact. Several studies have been conducted on the connection between chronic (ongoing) stress and disease. Stress has been linked to diseases and health conditions of all sorts – including obesity, heart disease, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, depression, gastrointestinal problems, and asthma. Neuroscientists at the University of California, Berkeley, found that chronic stress triggers long-term changes in actual brain structure (grey matter) and function. Given the impact that stress can have on our health, it is very important to learn how to manage stress. Techniques such as meditation, yoga, exercise and deep breathing have all been shown to be effective in counteracting negative effects of stress. To learn more about stress, read my blog "The impact of stress on digestion".
Does this list seem a little daunting to you? Not sure where the start? Then just choose two or three tips to incorporate into your routine, for now. Don’t stress if you are not able to achieve everything all at once – change takes time. Often after seeing the positive impact changes such as these have on our lives, it becomes easier to make the time for them.
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