Having a healthy, balanced diet plays a really important role in your overall health and wellbeing. In fact, you may have noticed for yourself that eating certain types of food helps to lift your mood, increase your energy levels, and makes you feel more positive and motivated.
Conversely, other types of food can have quite the opposite effect, leaving us feeling lethargic, miserable, or else suffering from indigestion, bloating, and constipation – ouch!
As well as these more immediate effects, the food we put into our bodies plays a big part in our long-term health too. For example, our brains need lots of nutrients to stay healthy and keep our bodies working well – in fact, the brain uses up more than 20% of our total caloric needs!
Eating a well-balanced diet with plenty of vitamins and minerals also reduces the risk of physical health problems, such as heart disease, certain types of cancer, and diabetes – and it means we're healthy and well-prepared to fend off other infectious diseases such as cold and flu when necessary.
Eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, fish, olive oil, and wholegrains is also a great way to safeguard our emotional wellbeing (it's so important, in fact, that it has inspired an entire field of medicine called nutritional psychiatry). There's plenty of research out there which suggests that eating these types of foods reduces our risk of depression and depressive symptoms (e.g., anxiety).
It's perhaps safe to say, then, that what we eat really, really matters when it comes to wellbeing and that when it comes to what we put in our mouth, quality over quantity is the name of the game.
Some health benefits of eating well:
Improved physical and mental wellbeing
More energy and better mood
Thinking patterns are clearer
Enough energy to stay awake/active throughout the day
Provides nutrients for growth and cell repair
Helps to maintain a healthy weight
Reduces risk of certain diseases
Improved immune system
Improved gut health
Reduced risk of mental health disorders
Better memory and focus
Strong bones and teeth
How can food affect the body?
Food affects our bodies enormously and in multiple ways – it's not just fuel that keeps us chugging along like an old car in need of petrol. What we ingest feeds our bodies the materials and 'information' it needs to function; food delivers messages to our brains and guts, influencing hormones, performance, and what our bodies need to do or not do. If we don't eat the things our bodies require, our metabolic processes deteriorate, and our health suffers as a consequence.
Put simply, nourishment is absolutely key to wellbeing. To understand this is more detail, consider the following examples:
Starting at the *ahem* bottom, our gut is a good indicator of our general health and keeping our guts in ship shape condition is linked to less sick days, lower risk of allergies and autoimmune conditions, as well as reduced risk of mental health issues.
Indeed, scientists have long since referred to the gut-brain connection as the 'microbiome-gut-brain axis', a chemical pathway that uses neurotransmitters to send direct messages between the central nervous system and the gut. That's why so many digestive problems such as irritable bowel (IBS), Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis can be exacerbated by mental health issues such as stress and anxiety (although we are not suggesting this is the only reason one may suffer from digestive health issues).
The gut's primary function, of course, is to absorb nutrients from the food we eat and get rid of any waste product that's left over. When healthy, our gut works harmoniously with our bodies to extract vitamins, proteins, fats, and calories, extracting and feeding our bodies everything it needs to function properly.
However, if we're not eating enough gut-healthy foods (think yogurt, almonds, olive oil, and even sourdough bread) our guts can slow down, suffer bacterial imbalances, and become inflamed and malfunction. Sadly, as many as 40% of the UK population suffer from at least one symptom of bad gut-health at any one time, and this can greatly impact a person's quality of life.
Brain health and cognitive ability
According to Age UK, evidence is now accumulating that supports a link between diet and brain processes such as our thinking, or cognitive, skills. Nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids, flavonoids, vitamins B, D and E, and choline, are now linked significantly to improved cognitive function in older people and this is shown to lower the risk of dementia (since these elements affect the way our brain cells communicate).
Eating foods that contain plenty of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants is the best thing for everybody regardless of age, however, since these are the components we need to nourish our brains and protect it from oxidative stress (the waste or 'free radicals' produced when our bodies use oxygen - overproduction of this waste can damage cells and lead to chronic damage and disease).
Eating a diet high in refined sugar and processed foods does little to protect our brain from free-radicals, instead promoting inflammation and oxidative stress.
Just like our other organs, the brain requires certain amounts of complex carbohydrates, essential fatty acids, amino acids, vitamins, minerals and water to remain healthy. As above, ingesting proper nourishment is important for cognitive functioning, e.g., memory, but recent studies suggest it's equally important in terms of our mental health too.
You may have noticed from news reports on the subject that mind-body approaches to managing mental health have increased in popularly recently. Things like mindfulness, sleep, acupuncture, etc., have gained more attention in the psychological field – and for good reason.
There is also a growing body of evidence which suggests the importance of nutrition in preventing and managing mental health disorders including depression, anxiety, ADHD, schizophrenia and (as aforementioned) dementia. The evidence seems to point to a direct association between what people eat and how they feel.
For example, scientists have confirmed that people with diets high in vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains, and fish and seafood (with low amounts of lean meat and dairy and no processed food and refined sugars) have a 25-35% less chance of suffering from depression than people who consume lots of meat (particularly red meat) and processed food.
It's a complicated medical field, but the thinking is that the neurotransmitter, Serotonin – which helps to regulate things such as sleep, appetite, moods, and pain – is largely (about 95% of it) produced in our gastrointestinal tract. Meaning that, as well as digesting food, our gut also helps guide our emotions. Eating inflammatory foods such as refined sugars, e.g., is likely to disturb our mood and mental wellbeing.
Cardiovascular disease (or CVD) describes a range of diseases affecting the heart and blood vessels, including high blood pressure, stroke, atherosclerosis, peripheral artery disease, and vein diseases.
It's pretty commonly known that eating healthily reduces our risk of high cholesterol and heart disease, but did you now that cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in Western countries, accounting for more than 30% of all global deaths each year?
Whilst smoking greatly increases our risk of dying from heart disease, a diet high in refined sugar, unhealthy fats, and processed food also puts us at high risk. In fact, a large body of scientists believe that nutrition might be the most preventive factor of CVD and could even reverse heart disease. This is for two reasons: 1) a healthier diet high in fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, and healthy fats increases our synthesis of anti-inflammatory cytokines (immunoregulatory molecules) and 2) there is a significant link between excess weight and CVD death, particularly where fat is stored around the waist/tummy.
After food is absorbed by our gastrointestinal tract into the blood stream it's then carried to our liver to either be stored or changed in such a way that our bodies can make good use of it.
The liver is also where our bodies detoxify substances which may harm us, e.g., alcohol, drugs, and other waste products. However, a liver in bad health (e.g., fatty liver or cirrhosis) may not be able to carry out this job, and therefore harmful poisons get behind and our bodies can become starved of nutrients. This can lead to symptoms including loss of appetite, nausea, low energy levels, fluid retention in the legs or accumulation of fluid in the abdomen (ascites).
Poor nutrition is frequently associated with disorders of the liver, so keeping our livers healthy and functioning well means eating a balanced diet low in fat, sugar and salt, and high in fiber, vegetables and fruit. Your diet should also contain enough protein and a wide range of vitamins and minerals.
Teeth and bones
Too many of us don't ingest enough calcium, magnesium, and potassium - and this is bad news for teeth and bones all round (since they require these nutrients to grow healthy and strong). The easiest way to eat more calcium is eat and drink dairy products, e.g., yogurt and milk, or eat dark, leafy green vegetables (which are also full of folate, iron, fiber, and antioxidants – win!).
Our skeletal system and teeth are living tissues, they have blood vessels and cells that are constantly growing and repairing themselves, even if it doesn't seem like it. Now we've probably all heard before that calcium is good for our teeth (and our bones), but did you know that calcium also helps regulate heart rhythm, aids with blood clotting, and keeps muscles contracting correctly? If our bodies aren't getting enough calcium for these functions, then, it simply borrows it from our teeth and bones.
Over time, this type of deficiency will lead to weakened bones, possibly osteoporosis, tooth decay, and gum disease.
Type 2 diabetes
After we eat, our bodies change most of our food into glucose for energy. It's the job of the hormone, insulin (produced in the pancreas), to allow this glucose to enter our cells and get to work.
If a person has type 2 diabetes, however, the pancreas doesn't make enough insulin, or the body no longer makes or uses the hormone insulin correctly (insulin resistance) causing glucose to build up in our blood rather than moving into our cells to power their growth and repair.
Too much glucose in our blood can lead to serious issues, damaging our blood vessels, nerves, heart, eyes, and kidneys and resulting in shortness of breath, pain in the abdomen, vomiting, dehydration, and even coma and death.
It's perhaps well known that a diet high in fat, calories, and cholesterol increases our risk of developing type 2 diabetes (in both children and adults) since this type of diet can lead to obesity, which is the single most overarching risk factor for type 2 diabetes.
10 tips to help you eat healthily:
1. Get more fruit and vegetables
Dried, tinned, fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables all count towards your 5 a day, as do beans and pulses, which are a good source of fibre.
150ml of fruit juice, vegetable juice or smoothies also count, although should be consumed within moderation due to the sugars released inside which can damage teeth.
Sadly, chips don't count! Potatoes are a starchy food and do not count towards your 5 a day.
2. Ensure you're eating enough protein
Proteins contain amino acids which are 'the building blocks of life', essential for vital bodily processes including regulating our thoughts and feelings and the synthesis of our hormones and neurotransmitters.
Foods containing protein include lean meat, fish, eggs, cheese, peas, beans, lentils, soya products, nuts and seeds.
3. Eat good fats and less trans fats
For a long time, obesity and other health problems were blamed on eating too much fat (fat contains about twice as many calories as carbohydrate or protein per gram), however, fatty acids like omega-3 and omega-6 are essential for proper brain functioning and health professionals recommend eating at least one portion of oily fish per week (140g) as well as ingesting healthy fats such as olive oil or nuts.
Unhealthy fats such as trans fats and partially hydrogenated oils can raise 'bad' cholesterol and lower 'good' cholesterol so should be kept to a minimum or avoided where possible.
4. Eat less red and processed meat
There is evidence that eating red and processed meat increases the risk of bowel cancer and has also been shown to increase the risk of stroke, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.
Red meat refers mainly to beef, veal, pork and lamb which the UK government's scientific advisory committee recommends ingesting in amounts of no more than 70g per day.
Processed meat refers to meat that has been processed to improve its flavour (think ham or sausages) or preserved (e.g. canned meat or cured meat).
5. Eat more fish
Eating a portion of oily fish each week can help lower our risk of developing heart disease. Fish is also a great source of protein and contains many vitamins and minerals, e.g. iron, zinc, iodine, magnesium, and potassium
Oily fish examples:
Non-oily fish examples:
6. Reduce sugary foods and drinks
Regularly consuming foods and drinks high in sugar increases your risk of obesity and tooth decay. Sadly, many pre-packaged and processed foods and drinks contain a lot of sugar to make them taste appealing, and this is what we need to cut down on (rather than sugars found in fruit, e.g.).
To reduce your sugar intake, ensure to check the amounts inside or cut down on foods such as sugary fizzy drinks, sugary breakfast cereals, cakes, biscuits, pastries, sweets, alcohol, and chocolate.
7. Drink less alcohol
Drinking above the recommended amounts of alcohol can lead to serious issues such as liver damage, brain damage, stomach damage, heart disease and high blood pressure.
Men should drink no more than 14 units of per week, spread evenly over several days and with at least two alcohol-free days a week.
Women should drink no more than 14 units of alcohol per week, spread evenly over several days and with at least two alcohol-free days a week.
8. Drink more water
You need to drink plenty of fluids to stop you getting dehydrated. The government recommends drinking 6 to 8 glasses every day.
All non-alcoholic drinks count, but water, skimmed milk and low sugar drinks, including tea and coffee, are better for health than fizzy drinks.
9. Eat high fibre, complex carbohydrates
Whole plant foods such as vegetables, fruit, nuts, whole grains, and legumes provide complex carbohydrates. They're also rich in protein, vitamins, minerals, and fibre, which is great news for our brain and other organs!
The fibre present in vegetables, fruits, and whole grains slows the intestinal absorption of sugar, which lessens the insulin surge and a lowers our risk of developing diabetes and inflammation.
Natural plant fibre also helps us feel full faster and satisfied for longer, which prevents us from overeating.
10. The Mediterranean diet
The Mediterranean diet is one of the planet's healthiest lifestyles. Research has shown that it can help reduce cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and other chronic diseases, including dementia.
Key ingredients of Mediterranean cuisine include:
Plant-sourced oils such as olive, avocado, sunflower, or canola oil.
Fresh fruits and vegetables
Nuts and seeds
Fibre-rich whole grains
Modest amounts of dairy products (aged cheeses, yogurt, and low-fat milk).
Studies show that even modest adherence to a Mediterranean diet is associated with improvements in executive function and memory, and a lower rate of cognitive decline, as well as the improvements noted in cerebrovascular risk factors, diabetes, and stroke.