What should I eat? Is there a more divisive question? Particularly these days, where food is seen as the ultimate 'medicine', choosing what foods to eat and what to shun has taken on a whole new significance.
From where I sit, as someone with a love of food, cooking and nutrition and an interest in medical matters, there have been really confusing messages to the general public about the ideal diet.
For the last 15 years, the high carb, low fat diet ruled supreme. The big drawback was that everyone loaded up on bowls of refined white pasta and low fat products laden within sugar. Coupled with an increasingly sedentary world, we can now understand why everyone got fatter, with obesity rates skyrocketing in Western countries including the United States, Australia and the U.K.
So clearly that didn't work. Now the diet fad has shifted to low carb, high protein diets like Paleo. The Paleo diet has some good features, lots of vegetables, grass fed meat, gluten and sugar free, plus it's free of all processed products. But importantly, it cuts out crucial food groups like legumes (beans, chick peas etc) and dairy, which if tolerated, can be important as a source of calcium. And if Paleo is about returning to our caveman roots, I don't think coconuts were really that prevalent despite the generous use of coconut oil in the Paleo diet. Nor coffee or wine.
So as medical reporter and presenter... 'what do I eat?' you might ask.
The biggest and most significant change I made to my diet has been cutting out foods with added sugars. I used to eat muesli bars with lots of dried fruit, fruit yogurts, sweet biscuits etc. As someone with low blood sugar, I thought I was doing the right thing. But it was causing massive up swings and crashes in my blood sugar all day. Now choosing savoury foods, with low sugar fruits such as berries as a sweetener, means my energy levels and mood stays more stable all day.
To bake sweet things, I'll use natural sweeteners like dates, raw honey, coconut sugar and maple syrup. I'm not a fan of stevia as an alternative sweetener as to me it tastes bitter.
But I keep sweet treats for occasionally after dinner and sometimes a square of 70 per cent dark chocolate is just as good.
And I am no long fat-phobic. Each day, I make sure to get enough good fats through olive oil, avocado and nuts such as almonds. I buy grass fed beef, as I prefer the taste and it has more heart healthy omega 3 fats (see The Mayo Clinic
Each week, I get a box of seasonable fruits and vegetables delivered directly from a farmers co-op and I slow roast many of the veggies with olive oil for salads, soups and side dishes.
And I make sure I'm eating enough lean quality protein with each meal, like tins of tuna and salmon, organic chicken thigh fillets and fish.
I choose to eat gluten free options as I feel it's better for my digestion, but that's just me. My husband and teens get sourdough breads, whole wheat pasta etc.
If you had to label my diet, it would probably be modified Mediterranean but without the cured (processed) meats. I aim to buy seasonal produce as much as possible. It tastes better and just makes sense.
For inspiration, follow some of my favourite food bloggers.
But food is much more than just eating for sustenance. I re-read what I wrote in my book Roadtesting Happiness (<http://www.sophiescott.com.au/store/c1/Featured_Products.html>) about diet. What you eat has an huge impact on your state of mind, affecting the production of brain hormones and whether we feel sad, happy or stressed. Your brain and stomach are linked in a number of ways. Eating is a joy which activate the reward centres, found in the prefrontal cortex in the brain. When your five senses detect food, the memory part of your brain kicks in and remind you that food is good, so you eat. When you eat, neurons in the reward centre is activated and release dopamine. This gives you a jolt of pleasure.
And food can change your mood. Foods high in the chemical tryptophan, such as red meat dairy products nuts, seeds, soy products and turkey, increased levels of a hormone called serotonin, which Bruce feelings of well-being. Getting enough serotonin helps regulate mood and pain tolerance.
Nutrition researcher Dr Judith Wurtman from Massachusetts Institute of technology, says there is a significant improvement in mood when people eat carbohydrates. She has found that women on low carbohydrate/high-protein diets have low serotonin levels and are more likely to feel depressed and be prone to regaining weight.
I developed a happiness diet in my book Roadtesting Happiness, with whole grains, root vegetables, lean proteins, fruits and vegetables, and good fats. Let me know if you want more details and I'll write about it in a future blog.
Nutrition experts in Australia have revamped the food pyramid. Gone is the prevalence of carbohydrates, replaced by vegetables and legumes, fruits and grains. It recommends 2 serves of fruit and 5 serves of vegetables or legumes each day. From the grains group, it says choose mostly whole grains (such as brown rice, oats and quinoa), and wholemeal/wholegrain varieties of bread, pasta, crisp breads and cereal foods (over highly processed, refined varieties).
The middle layer includes the milk, yoghurt, cheese & alternatives and the lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, legumes food groups.
Junk foods are out, and foods with salt and added sugar should be limited. Overall, the changes seemed to have got the thumbs up, by most nutrition experts.
But ultimately there is no perfect diet. When you are choosing what to eat, I would urge you to look closely at the scientific evidence for different diets. If you want to read a good analysis on how to critically assess nutrition studies and the claims they make, this story by Melinda Wenner Moyer is very impressive.
But most importantly, don't stress and judge yourself for what you eat. What matters is what you eat 'most' of the time, so take your time, eat mindfully and enjoy the food that keeps us happy and healthy.
What are your best tips for healthy, mindful eating? What food swaps have made the biggest difference to your health and well being?
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