Having a healthy and varied diet is the most important contributor to a healthy mind and body. Why? Because the combinations of the foods you eat and how the nutrients within them are absorbed together is just as important as having the nutrients on their own. Whatever diet you follow, it is important to understand the nutrients you're not getting when you exclude certain foods, and where you can find these nutrients in other foods or through supplements.
Legumes are an edible seed that grows in a pod. Beans, peas and lentils, baked beans, kidney beans, chickpeas, black-eyed peas and red, green, yellow or brown lentils - they're all legumes, rich in fibre and protein, folate (the natural form of Folic Acid), Iron and Magnesium, essential nutrients for your energy, digestion, heart and immunity.
Legumes contain anti-nutrients which can interfere with the digestion and absorption of other nutrients. Phytate is an antioxidant in legumes that impairs the absorption of Iron, Zinc and Calcium from other foods in your meal. Soaking, sprouting and fermenting legumes reduces the phytate content, improving their nutrient value to your body. Fortunately, legumes are often bought in cans and have been soaked and cooked so they're in an optimal form for a salad or to heat up. A typical portion of beans, peas or lentils (approximately 80g) counts towards your 5-A-Day.
Fruits & vegetables
Eating our five portions a day of fruit and veg helps protect against heart disease, reduce the risk of some cancers and type 2 diabetes, and helps us maintain a healthy weight.
Fruit and veg contain nutrients that help you feel and function well, including Vitamin C for your body to form new tissue; Vitamin A for normal vision, skin and your immune system; and Folate for creating red blood cells. They're also a great source of fibre which keeps your gut healthy and helps prevent constipation and other digestion issues.
Beware! Nutrients in vegetables are easily destroyed when boiling, so try to steam, microwave, or roast your vegetables to retain more essential vitamins and minerals. Different types and colours of fruit and veg contain different combinations of nutrients and good plant compounds such as phytonutrients (natural chemicals), so it is important to have a variety in your diet.
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Grains are high in carbohydrates that provide your body with energy. They are low in fat, contain useful protein and important nutrients including B-Vitamins that help the body use the energy from other foods.
Grains are the seeds of cereal plants such as wheat, barley, oats and rice, and form the basis of foods like breads, pasta, cereals and tortilla.
The wholegrain is made up of three parts – the fibre-rich outer layer (the bran), a nutrient-packed inner layer (the germ), and a central starchy part (the endosperm). Wholegrains contain up to 75% more nutrients than refined grain (more common) which has had the bran and endosperm removed that contain so much of the goodness.
The biggest benefit of wholegrains is the high fibre content which keeps your digestive system functioning well and can help lower your chances of developing diabetes, heart disease, and several cancers. Wholegrains also include B-vitamins, antioxidants such as Selenium and Vitamin E, and the minerals Copper and Magnesium which support your brain, skin, heart and energy.
Protein is found in every single cell in your body – it's in your DNA! So, protein is not just an essential component of your muscles and vital for growth and repair of your body, it has a major role in controlling your appetite, supporting your immune system, making hormones, carrying oxygen and maintaining a healthy kidney function. It also serves as a source of energy when there is not enough from other sources.
Proteins are made up of long chains of amino acids. There are about 20 different amino acids found in plant and animal proteins, eight of which are essential and which our bodies can't make, so you need them in your diet. Protein from animal sources (meat, fish, eggs, milk and cheese) contain all the essential amino acids, and some plant foods (soya products, quinoa, buckwheat, chia seeds and hemp seeds) also contain all the essential amino acids. Other useful sources of plant protein include nuts, seeds, pulses, mycoprotein, and seitan (wheat protein).
If you're on a vegan diet, you can obtain all the protein you need from plant sources. The key is to include a variety of plant proteins, so the combinations provide all the essential amino acids. If you're particularly active, exercising or leading a busy life, a protein supplement can be a convenient way to ensure you are getting enough protein to meet your needs.
If you're on a vegan diet it is important to be aware of the nutrients dairy foods provide.
Dairy foods (milk, yogurt and cheese) are really good sources of protein and essential nutrients such as Calcium, Iodine, Vitamin B2 and Vitamin B12. The Calcium in dairy foods is particularly useful as our bodies can easily absorb it. Although dairy contains some saturated fat (linked with raised cholesterol), dairy foods are actually associated with a reduced risk of heart disease and stroke and type 2 diabetes due to their high calcium content which binds to the saturated fat and prevents your body from absorbing it. Unsweetened and calcium-fortified dairy alternatives like soya milks, yogurts and cheeses can make good alternatives to dairy as the protein content is often similar.
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Eggs contain important nutrients such as Vitamin D, Vitamin A, Vitamin B2, Vitamin B12, Folate, Iodine and Choline, as well as being a source of protein which is essential for our bodies to grow and repair. Choline in particular is an important nutrient for your liver function and fat metabolism.
While egg whites are higher in protein than the yolks, the yolks are more nutrient dense and contain most of the vitamins and minerals. Although eggs contain some cholesterol, it is the amount of saturated fat in our diet that increases our blood cholesterol levels rather than the cholesterol we get from eating eggs. There is no recommended limit to the amount of eggs you should eat, so long as you include them as part of a healthy balanced diet.
Fish are a really good source of essential nutrients such as Iodine, Selenium and Vitamin D, Protein, and healthy fats (known as omega-3 fatty acids). Oil-rich fish, such as mackerel, salmon, trout, herring, sardines and pilchards are particularly high in long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. There is lots of evidence that these fatty acids benefit your heart health, brain function (concentration, memory and mood) and your eye health.
Different types of fish and shellfish provide different types and levels of key nutrients, so eating a variety is not only important for us but also helps communities sustain fish stocks. Try to grill, bake or steam your fish – it is healthier than frying which can increase the fat content, especially with batter. Poaching fish can lower some water-soluble vitamins (such as the B-vitamins), but the omega-3 fatty acid content is generally not affected by cooking.
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If you've removed meat from your diet it is important to understand the nutrients it provides and what you need to get from other foods or supplements.
Meats such as beef, lamb, pork and chicken are rich in high-quality protein which is essential for growth and repair in the body. Meats also contain lots of nutrients including Iron, Zinc, Selenium, Vitamin D and Vitamin B12, benefiting a range of your body's functions including your cognitive health, energy, immunity, skin and bones. Some of these nutrients are more easily absorbed by the body from meat than from non-meat food sources, so those eating a vegetarian or vegan diet should ensure they include adequate plant sources of these nutrients and may require supplements because alternative sources don't provide our bodies with sufficient levels.
Some meats can be higher in fat, especially saturated fat (which can raise cholesterol levels), so try to choose lean cuts of red meat, chicken without the skin, and trim off any visible fat, all of which can greatly reduce the saturated fat. Processed meats such as bacon, ham, salami some sausages are likely to increase your risk of bowel cancer, so try to limit your consumption of these.
Including some fats in the diet is vital as they form part of every cell membrane in the body, they are found within brain tissue, bone marrow and help cushion the eye socket. Fat provides us with energy, helps the body absorb fat-soluble vitamins (Vitamin A, Vitamin D, Vitamin E and Vitamin K) and provides the essential fatty acids that cannot be made by the body. Having too much fat, or the wrong types of fat can be unhealthy.
The two main types of fat are saturated and unsaturated. Saturated fats are found in meat, butter, lard, cheese, coconut oil and palm oil. They are generally considered to be less healthy as they can raise blood cholesterol levels and increase risk of heart disease.
Unsaturated fats include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats that are found in plant foods such as nuts and seeds, olives and avocados. There's plenty of evidence that swapping saturated fats for unsaturated fat can lower your chances of heart disease.
The two main types of polyunsaturated fats are omega-3 and omega-6. Most plant-based diets include plenty omega-6 fatty acids from vegetable oils, nuts and seeds, but you need to ensure you’re getting adequate omega-3 fatty acids, particularly if you don’t include oily fish in your diet.
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Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3s are a type of polyunsaturated fat referred to as essential fatty acids. The best sources of these are oily fish such as mackerel, salmon and trout as they contain the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids called EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). These are particularly beneficial for heart health, brain function and eye health.
There are no plant-based food sources of EPA and DHA, but the body can convert the short-chain omega-3 ALA (alpha linolenic acids) found in plant foods such as hemp, chia and pumpkin seeds, walnuts and rapeseed oil into EPA and DHA. These foods can help maintain normal cholesterol levels.
Although the body can convert ALA into EPA and DHA fatty acids, the process is not very efficient as less than 10% is converted. A vegan omega-3 supplement containing EPA and DHA can be beneficial for vegetarians, vegans or those who don't eat any oily fish.
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