Food, Diet and Nutrition
Your diet, or what you eat, has a huge impact on your general health in both mind and body. But conflicting information is everywhere about what you should eat, and it is hard to work out what’s best for you.
Our pages on food, diet and nutrition explain some of the advice, and also suggest how you can adopt a healthy, balanced diet that will help you to feel good.
A Healthy, Balanced Diet Contains...
Protein supplies essential amino acids, the body’s building blocks.
All the organs, including the skin, are made from protein. Without adequate protein in our diet, we cannot build and replace muscle and repair any damage. We also need protein for our immune systems to work properly.
The amount of protein you need varies by activity level and your stage of life.
Children and pregnant women need more protein to support growth, as do those who are very active such as those doing a lot of sport, or working in active jobs.
Good sources of protein include animal products (meat, eggs, fish, dairy products) and beans, especially soya.
See our page What is Protein? for more.
A Source of Fuel, usually fat or carbohydrate.
Fats have often been cast as the villains of diet, but it is now clear that some fat is essential in the diet. Many vitamins are fat-soluble, which means that you need to eat fats to obtain them, and you also need fats to provide essential fatty acids. These are used to provide insulation, and protect organs from damage, as well as helping the heart and immune system to function effectively.
Fats are a much more efficient source of fuel than carbohydrate, so you need much less for the same number of calories. The current recommended balance is that fats should supply around 30 to 35% of total calories.
See our page What is Fat? for more information.
You may also find our datasheet on cooking oils and fats helpful.
Carbohydrates are not essential for life. They provide a quick and easy boost of energy for the body, but can be manufactured by the body from fats or proteins.
Eating sugars, or simple carbohydrates, provides much faster energy release, but can cause problems with mood swings, energy spikes, and sugar ‘rushes’. It is better to eat complex carbohydrates, such as grains and potatoes, as the energy release is more gradual.
Fibre, usually plant material, helps our guts to work properly. It is not digested, but passes through almost unchanged. Fibre is obtained from eating fruit and vegetables, and is one of the key reasons why we are encouraged to eat ’five a day’.
See our page What is Fibre? for more.
Vitamins and Minerals
Vitamins and Minerals are trace substances found in various foods. There are 13 vitamins which are essential to human life, and they are used to support multiple functions of the body. For example, Vitamin C is essential for producing and maintaining connective tissue, which holds the body together. Shortages of vitamins cause some really horrible diseases, such as scurvy (Vitamin C), rickets (Vitamin D) and spina bifida in newborn babies (folic acid, otherwise known as Vitamin B9).
If you are eating a reasonably balanced diet, with protein, fat, complex carbohydrates and fibre, especially from fresh fruit and vegetables, you will almost certainly obtain all the vitamins and minerals that you need.
Diet, Excess Weight and Obesity
There has been considerable discussion over many years about diet, and whether particular diets make you more likely to become overweight or obese.
Scientists have, however, more recently concluded that the big issue is most likely to be the amount of food that we eat.
Energy is measured in calories; that includes both the energy that we use for exercise and for staying alive, and the energy stored in food.
Put simply, if the number of calories that you take in is greater than the number that you use, you will put on weight.
There are various measures of overweight and obesity, the best-known of which is probably Body Mass Index, or BMI. This is a fairly arbitrary measure that says that your weight should be related to your height.
There are problems with this as a measure, of course, because muscle weighs more than fat. This means that athletes tend to show up as obese on the scale. But it is a reasonable guide for most normal people.
For more about this, see our page on Body Mass Index (BMI).
Although the word ‘diet’ describes everything that we eat, it is most often used for particular choices of food, such as a gluten- or dairy-free diet, or a diet for weight loss.
Following these diets is generally a specific lifestyle choice, and often related to a health issue, such as a feeling of bloating after eating certain foods, or being overweight.
As a general principle, most people need to eat a reasonably well-balanced diet for health. Specific diets, which cut out whole food groups such as dairy, or anything containing gluten, should only be followed over the long-term on the advice of a healthcare professional such as a nutritionist or doctor.
If you suspect that you or your child has a food intolerance, and may need a special diet, it’s a good idea to discuss it with a healthcare professional before taking action.
Dieting for weight loss is often seen as being a case of ‘follow these instructions for a set period’ and then get back to normal. This generally results in successful weight loss, followed by regaining all the weight within a fairly short time.
Instead, dieting for weight loss should be seen as a matter of changing your lifestyle, whether that’s reducing the amount you eat, changing the types of food you eat, taking more exercise, or all of these.
For more information, see our page on Dieting for Weight Loss.
Diet and Mental Health
The links between diet and mental health are still not entirely clear. But there is certainly enough evidence to suggest that diet has a strong impact on your mental well-being.
The overall effect is clear enough for the Mental Health Foundation to say that diet plays a part in maintaining overall mental health and in the treatment of certain conditions.
For more about this, see our page on Keeping Your Mind Healthy.
Poor diet and dietary problems have also been related to stress.
Stress hormones cause the body to reduce blood flow to the digestive system, as digestion is less essential than, for example, running away from a tiger. While this is good if you’re being chased by a tiger, it’s less good if you’re under stress over a long period because of being busy at work, or moving house. Under those circumstances, you may find that your digestive system suffers.
The good news is that there are various things that you can do to help.
- When you’re feeling under stress, eat smaller meals and, if necessary, eat more often to make up for it. This will be easier for your body to manage.
- Eat foods containing more B vitamins as this can help your digestion (see our page on Vitamins for more).
- Reduce your caffeine intake, as caffeine, like adrenaline, is a stimulant. It can also irritate your gut and make digestion harder.
For more about the links between diet and stress, and how to reduce stress through diet, see our page on Diet, Nutrition and Stress.
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