Keeping a healthy,balanced diet is actually fairly simple, writes Rory Fitzgerald
We are what we eat. That can be a curse or a blessing — depending on what you eat.
The greatest health problem facing us in Ireland today is not the lack of food, but a surfeit of it.
In a race to attract ever more consumers, large food corporations have hired some very clever people to concoct foods that are quick to make and all-too tasty.
The days of meat and two veg are gone, and we are nowadays assailed by a bewildering array of foods from all over the world: Italian, Chinese, Indian, and Thai.
Once upon a time, we thought Parmesan and Gnocchi were Italian football players, but such once-exotic foods are staples in most Irish supermarkets.
Food has moved from being a means to fill your belly, to becoming a hobby and an enthusiasm for many.
Chefs have become celebrities and cookery programmes proliferate — there are now whole television channels devoted to food.
We no longer eat merely for sustenance, but often go to considerable trouble and expense to obtain the maximum amount of pleasure from our food.
The 1914 Catholic Encyclopaedia condemns us with the voice of a more austere age, saying: ”It is incontrovertible that to eat or drink for the mere pleasure of the experience, and for that exclusively, is likewise to commit the sin of gluttony.”
Sloth, perhaps, can also be a factor: it’s far easier to buy a takeaway, oven chips or a frozen pizza instead of preparing a nutritious meal.
Benjamin Franklin wrote: ”In general, mankind, since the improvement in cookery, eats twice as much as nature requires.”
Food has improved a lot more since Franklin’s time and we are eating more than ever, to the point that a majority of Irish adults are overweight or obese.
The lowdown on healthy eating is fairly simple: we should eat such an amount of food to keep us a healthy weight. No more, no less.
We also need the right mix of foods, so that we get all the vitamins and minerals we need.
To do this, we must eat the right proportions of food from the major food groups. Such a balanced diet reduces the risk of diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis and some cancers.
The Irish website little steps.eu offers some practical advice on getting the balance right.
It says: ”You don’t have to get the balance right at every meal, but try to get it right over a whole day or the week. Go for options that are lower in fat, salt and sugar whenever you can.”
The advice is to eat:
plenty of bread, rice, potatoes, pasta and cereals — choosing wholegrain varieties whenever possible
plenty of fruit and vegetables
some milk, cheese and yogurt
some meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non-dairy sources of protein
just a small amount of foods and drinks that are high in fat or sugar.
The food pyramid (see diagram) gives a visible representation of the proportions of food that work best.
Those foods on the same level are interchangeable. So, if your family aren’t keen on pasta, you can give them rice or potatoes instead.
Here is a rundown of the major food groups:
Starchy foods are bread, cereals, pasta, rice potatoes and maize. These are great sources of energy and nutrients. About a third of all we eat should be starchy foods.
Fruit & veg
Comedian P.J. O’Rourke said: ”Fruit is a vegetable with looks and money. Plus, if you let fruit rot, it turns into wine, something Brussels sprouts never do.”
Important advice is that we should eat five portions of fruit and vegetables per day. A glass of orange juice counts as one portion. But five glasses of orange juice won’t cut it.
Evidence shows that people who eat at least five portions a day are at lower risk of heart disease, stroke and even some cancers. A single banana, apple or pear is one portion. Three large tablespoons of vegetables counts as another portion.
Meat, fish, eggs
These are great sources of protein, vitamins and minerals. Oily fish is a great source of protein, as well as omega-3 fatty acids.
Meat is a good source of protein, vitamins and minerals such as iron, zinc and B vitamins, including the all-important B12. It’s best to go for leaner cuts of meat.
Many advise at least two portions of fish a week. The tradition of eating fish on Fridays helps provide at least one.
Milk & dairy
Milk and dairy foods such as cheese and yogurt are important sources of protein and calcium.
The danger with dairy products is that many contain a good deal of fat, so it’s best to use light or skimmed milk, as well as low fat cheese and yogurt.
Fat & sugar
Fat and sugar are the bad guys, but we need a certain amount of them to give us energy. However, most of us eat too much of these foods. This is understandable as they often come in the delicious forms of chocolate and cake.
However, when we eat too much of these, we begin to put on weight which can increase our risk of diabetes, heart disease and stroke.
There are two different types of fat. Saturated fat, which is found in butter, cheese, sausages, biscuits and cake. This is dangerous because it raises your cholesterol level and with it your risk of heart disease.
Unsaturated fats, on the other hand, can help to lower your cholesterol, while giving us essential fatty acids.
Oily fish, vegetable oil, avocados, olive oil and nuts are common sources of unsaturated fat.
So, the advice is to reduce your intake of saturated fat and replace it with foods containing unsaturated fats instead.
As to the tricky art of getting the quantities right, St Frances de Sales offers sage advice from the 16th Century: ”The spirit cannot endure the body when overfed, but, if underfed, the body cannot endure the spirit.”