A healthy balanced diet for weight loss and living longer – The Telegraph

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Low-fat, high-protein, paleo, keto; diet fads come and go but as any credible nutritionist will tell you, the truth about food remains the same, the key to a long and healthy life is a balanced diet. Sounds simple enough, but the latest stats reveal a shocking truth. According to the Food Standards Agency, unhealthy diets account for an astonishing 13 per cent of all deaths in the UK. 

A poor diet causes obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and Type 2 diabetes, all of which are risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Obesity is also linked to 13 different cancers including post-menopausal breast cancer and bowel cancer. And it’s not just costing us our health – excess weight also costs the UK approximately £74 billion every year in direct NHS costs, lost workforce productivity and reduced life expectancy.

The impact of a poor diet

Beyond obesity there is a range of other issues that can result from an unhealthy diet. Skin conditions such as psoriasis are exacerbated by a high intake of sugar and saturated fat, nutritional deficiencies can affect hair health, and there is growing evidence that a balanced diet is important for sleep. One large study found a lack of key nutrients, such as calcium, magnesium and vitamins A, C, D, E and K to be associated with sleep problems.

And then there’s our mental health. According to findings in the British Medical Journal, healthy eating patterns, such as the Mediterranean Diet which includes plenty of whole foods, healthy fats, fibre and lean protein, are associated with better mental health than unhealthy eating patterns, such as the typical Western diet, which includes lots of processed foods, sugar and saturated fat. Indeed, a number of Australian studies have found significant reductions in depressive symptoms among participants when diet quality was improved.

What needs to change

So how bad is our diet? In the UK we eat, on average, double the recommended amount of added sugar (it should be no more than 5 per cent of calorie intake), only three of our 5-a-day for fruit and vegetables, just 19g of fibre a day (the recommendation is 30g/day) and a little over a third of the recommended 280g/week of fish. The blame for this could be laid at any number of doors – the lack of access to healthy and affordable food, the need for stronger legislation on processed foods – but ultimately we have a responsibility to ourselves and those we feed to eat a healthy, balanced diet.

And it’s well worth the effort. A 2022 study found that switching from a typical Western diet to one with a higher intake of wholegrains, legumes, fish, fruits, vegetables and nuts while reducing red and processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages and refined grains could increase life expectancy by 10.7 years for women and 13 years for men. 

Thankfully, some basic nutritional knowledge, a well-stocked store-cupboard and a little time spent planning and preparing meals is all it takes to turn things around. Your pathway to a healthier, balanced diet starts here.

What is a balanced diet?

A balanced diet is one that fulfils all of a person’s nutritional needs, with the right mix of macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein and fat) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). According to nutritionist and author Dale Pinnock, aka “the medicinal chef” and creator of the new online weight management programme The Metabolic Fix. it simply means a return to basics. 

“Focus on building your diet around whole foods, the kind of things your great grandparents would have eaten. Fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, wholegrains, high-quality lean and plant proteins and healthy fats. Get that right and it’s 95 per cent of the battle won.”

This sounds like good old-fashioned common sense, so how are we getting it so wrong? According to a recent government report, to get the nation’s diet back on track, fruit and vegetable consumption would have to increase by 30 per cent, fibre consumption by 50 per cent, while food high in saturated fat, salt and sugar would have to go down by 25 per cent, and meat consumption reduce by 30 per cent. It’s worth considering this information in the context of your own diet to see where improvements could be made.

Why is a balanced diet important?

A balanced diet is the cornerstone of good health. In the short term, you’ll sleep better, feel more alert and positive and have sustained energy throughout the day. Over the longer term, eating well improves gut health, supports immunity and protects against many chronic diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. But it’s not just the obvious health gains that a balanced diet brings, there are wider lifestyle benefits to be had. 

“You may be more inclined to exercise or hydrate properly if you are taking time to consider your dietary choices,” says registered dietitian Ro Huntriss. “Taking more time over your meals and what you eat can also make cooking or eating a more social time and can improve relationships, if this is something you enjoy doing together with a partner, family or friends.”

The importance of the calorie/energy balance

Traditional thinking goes that our weight is simply a function of the calories we eat versus the calories we burn, also known as the energy/balance equation, but as Huntriss points out, the picture is more complex than this and what we eat needs to be considered alongside how much we eat.

“Fruit and vegetables are high in nutrients but low in calories so they can be eaten in relatively large amounts. Whole grain carbohydrates provide slow-release energy throughout the day, reducing cravings. Consuming enough lean and plant-based protein helps you to stay full and supports muscle mass which in turn supports your metabolic rate, meaning you can burn energy while at rest. Healthy fats are important nutritionally but should be consumed in smaller amounts as they are calorie dense.”

A balanced diet can help you lose weight

Focusing on the quality of our diet rather than traditional calorie restriction is an idea gaining traction for weight loss. 

“The food choices we make influence all the important factors of weight management”, says Pinnock, “from the hormones used in food metabolism, such as insulin, leptin and ghrelin, to how effectively we can exercise and recover, to how well we sleep and manage stress”.

Another crucial element when it comes to weight loss is satiety or how full we feel after eating. Restrictive or very low-calorie diets can leave us feeling hungry all the time. Conversely, by eating lean protein at every meal and including fibre and healthy fats our appetite is far better regulated and we are less likely to experience cravings and subsequently to overeat. For example, a slice of wholegrain toast topped with tinned sardines and served with a mixed salad provides fabulous nutrition, is very filling and clocks up only 350 calories. 

The importance of portion control

Overeating any one food will compromise the variety in your diet, as you won’t be as hungry for other foods, and it can have other negative consequences.

“Portion control is an integral part of a balanced meal,” advises Pinnock. “Overeating any food, healthy or otherwise, can lead to weight gain.”  

Indeed there are some healthy foods that are extremely calorific, so it’s important to watch portion sizes when you’re watching your weight. For instance, nuts contain 180 calories per 30g and a medium-sized avocado comes in at 320 calories.

An easy way to approach portion control when trying to lose weight, is to use the 20 per cent rule. Try taking 20 per cent less food than you usually do, wait, and then only have more if you are genuinely still feeling hungry. 

What are the components of a balanced diet?

The best practical way to ensure you are eating a balanced diet is to think about the relative proportions of the various food groups that comprise your meal. Pinnock has a foolproof method for this called the perfect plate system.

“Fill half your plate with non-starchy veg, such as leafy greens, broccoli and cauliflower. Fill a quarter of your plate with high-fibre, slow-burning carbs like brown rice, quinoa or root vegetables. In the remaining quarter, have a portion of high-quality protein – meat, fish, eggs, tofu or tempeh. Composing meals in this way will increase your satiety hormones, stabilise your blood sugar, and give you a high level of variety in your diet.”

How to follow a balanced diet when life gets hectic

A lack of time is often cited as the main obstacle to eating a balanced diet; indeed our best intentions can go out the window when we are busy. Don’t worry, our experts’ have a few top tips for staying on track when you’re time poor.

“I am a fan of batch cooking as organisation is the key,” says Pinnock. “When you do have a bit of time at the weekend, cook your favourite meals in three, four or even five times the normal amount, then freeze individual portions. You’ll soon stockpile your freezer with healthy home-cooked food.”

Huntriss swears by planning and buying ahead every week and eliminating unhealthy snacking. “Plan your meals and snacks for the week and buy the ingredients you need in advance so you will stick to it. This avoids the temptation of takeaways and ready meals. Choose healthy snacks like Greek yogurt, fruit, vegetables with hummus, or a handful of nuts. It is too easy to focus on balanced meals but still continue with mindless snacking, which can sabotage your diet.”

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