The word "diet" conjures up negative memories and emotions for many of us. Hunger pangs, unhappiness, hard work, and the thought of limiting or losing entirely favourite food choices are just a few of the negative connotations this word stirs within us. Isn't it time we stripped this word of such power?
There's another positive, empowering definition for "diet" that we can adopt.
According to the dictionary, a diet is simply "the food and drink usually taken by a person or group daily." A diet with a particular focus might be paleo, vegan, vegetarian, low carbohydrate, high protein etc.
This definition, as opposed to our negative fears and perceptions, is positive and empowering, and it puts us in full control. We understand that our food choices are the determining factors, and that's something we can control.
A healthy diet provides the body with all the nutrients necessary in order to nourish it and assure that it both grows and functions properly. It is a major player when it comes to influencing health.
Nutrients are considered either essential or nonessential. An essential nutrient cannot be synthesized in adequate amounts by the body and must be obtained by diet, while a nonessential nutrient can be produced in adequate amounts within the body or be obtained from food and beverage choices.
All nutrients are mandatory. If one or more is lacking, the result is a nutritional deficiency. This often occurs when the same food choices are repeated, resulting in an excess of certain nutrients and a lack of others.
Carbohydrates, fats, minerals, proteins, vitamins and water are essential nutrients. Essential nutrients are divided into two categories by the World Health Organization – micro and macronutrients.
Micronutrients are needed in smaller amounts than macronutrients. They consist of vitamins and minerals essential to growth, disease prevention and overall wellbeing. Included are sodium, selenium, fluoride, copper, iodine, zinc, and vitamins such as A, B, C, D, E, and K.
Vitamins – Vitamins offer many benefits, from preventing or delaying certain cancers and strengthening bones to boosting brain and nervous system functioning. Essential vitamins include A, B, C, D, and E. No one food provides all vitamins, but fruits and vegetables are rich in them and provide adequate amounts.
Minerals – Minerals the body requires include sodium, iron, potassium, magnesium, calcium, phosphorus, and zinc. They help cells function normally. Potassium helps maintain healthy fluid levels inside and outside the cells. Calcium helps build strong teeth and bones. Sodium, although important, needs to be consumed in moderation. Sources include potatoes, tomatoes, and bananas.
Water – The body is over 60 per cent water and cannot last long without water. An essential element of every cell, it is critical for hydration, waste removal and temperature regulation. Water can be sourced from foods such as fruits and vegetables, but drink plenty of the best water you can daily.
Macronutrients are required by the body in significant amounts. They consist of carbohydrates, proteins and fats.
Carbohydrates - Carbs are the main source of energy and the macronutrient the body needs most. Divided into two categories: simple and complex, they make up about 45-65 per cent of our diet (unless specialised). Healthy sources include leafy greens, whole grains and root veggies.
Proteins - Proteins are considered building blocks and make up between 20-35 per cent of our diets. They are composed of 20 combinations of amino acids used in three different ways: as an energy source and building material, and to produce new proteins for cellular functioning. Healthy sources are dairy, nuts, meat, legumes, and seeds.
Healthy fats - Healthy fats boost energy levels, protect organs, and produce hormones. They help build cells, absorb fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K, and keep our bodies warm. Containing nine calories a gram, they should be monitored but never banned. They are as important to one's diet as carbohydrates and proteins, adding lots of flavour and texture. Sourced mainly from vegetables, nuts, seeds and fish.
There are three primary types of dietary fat: saturated, unsaturated and trans-fat, each with a different impact on our health - some advantageous, others pernicious.
Saturated Fats - Saturated fats are found in whole-dairy products/butter, red meat and other high-fat animal sources. Although not "bad," they should be consumed sparingly. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 5-6 per cent of daily calories from saturated fat.
Unsaturated fats - Fat types such as polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature. Found in both plant and animal foods, they improve blood cholesterol levels, stabilise heartbeats/rhythms and ease inflammation. Polyunsaturated fat sources include sunflower, sesame and pumpkin seeds, fatty fish such as tuna and salmon, and walnuts. Monounsaturated fats can be found in peanut/almond butter and other nuts, avocados and vegetable oils.
Trans-fats - Trans-fats are solid at room temperature. They're the bad guys, and carry the earned reputation of being the worst type of dietary fat. The huge variety of processed snack foods found on grocery shelves are examples. These fats contribute to weight gain and insulin resistance, increase the risk of obesity, Type 2 diabetes, clogged arteries and heart disease. No level is considered safe.
Fatty acids - Omega-3 fats are polyunsaturated essential fats. Benefits include fighting inflammation and promoting bone, heart and mental health. Sourced in nuts such as walnuts and a variety of seeds, avocados, fish (salmon especially) and vegetable-based oils.
Omega-6 fats are essential polyunsaturated fats. They are an important source of energy. Other benefits include protection against heart disease. Healthy sources include vegetable oils, walnuts, safflower, sunflower and corn oils.
Omega-9 fatty acids are monounsaturated and the most abundant fat in our cells. They are not considered strictly "essential" because, unlike the other two acids, they can be produced inside the body.
Overall, some of the best sources of healthy fats include almonds, coconut oil and coconut products, avocados, grass-fed beef, seeds and nuts.
A balanced diet includes all these building blocks, and consists of foods which are high in healthy carbs, fats and proteins, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients, and low in unnecessary fats and sugars. Paired with proper fitness, it's the ideal equation for living a life filled with youthful vitality and healthy longevity.
Carolyn Hansen is co-owner of Anytime Fitness.