The Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) asked me to write an article for their Wellness Week on Healthy Eating. The World Health Organisation (WHO), the United Nations agency concerned with public health, defines healthy eating as “a diet that protects against malnutrition, as well as chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer.”
The aforementioned diseases are, by far, the leading cause of death in the world, accounting for 63% of annual mortality, a figure close to 36 million (WHO 2015). The main risk factors are an unhealthy diet and inactivity, as well tobacco and alcohol. If these factors were eliminated, 40% of cancer and 75% of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes would be prevented.
As part of the strategy to tackle this global problem, the WHO have put together evidence-based policies to regulate intake of salt, sugar and fat.
5% of total calorie intake (WHO 2015)
So for a 60kg female, that amounts to 20g of sugar (equivalent to five level teaspoons). For an 80kg male that would be an upper limit of 35g (nine level teaspoons). To put that into context, a can of Coca-Cola has 35g of sugar. Fruit juices can be a “Trojan Horse” for high sugar intake. Marketed as healthy, a 330ml glass of apple juice contains 30.4g of sugar. Whilst the equivalent glass of red grape juice contains a staggering 49.5g of sugar! Even a small pot of low fat red fruit yogurt contains 17.5g of sugar.
A high sugar intake is a concern because of the link to obesity, poor dietary quality and the increased risk of chronic diseases. Stating the obvious, but a high sugar diet is likely to tip the calorie balance, meaning you’ll consume more calories than you expend, leading to unwanted weight gain. Creating further problems, this increased calorie intake is likely to be at the expense of more nutritious food, threatening the quality of your diet by providing considerable calories without any beneficial nutrients.
Less than 5g of salt per day (WHO 2012)
Elevated salt intake is associated with a number of chronic diseases, including high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. Salt is found in high amounts in processed foods such as processed meats, canned fish (tuna, sardines, etc.), canned vegetables (sweetcorn, baked beans, etc.), white bread, cheese and savoury snacks. The term ‘processed food’ applies to any food that has been altered from its natural state, either to extend its shelf life or for convenience. If your diet is high in processed food and low in fresh vegetables its likely to be high in salt.
30-40% of total calorie intake
This is where it gets a bit more complicated. The WHO has recommended limiting fat intake. Yet the much-maligned macronutrient played a starring role in my dissertation for my MSc. Unsaturated fats have also been shown in multiple studies to improve heart health.
The WHO recommends restricting your fat intake to 30% of your total calories. Based on my recent study, I would suggest setting 30% as the minimum, with the percentage rising as high as 40% – depending on a number of factors such as gender, age and training goals.
For the purpose of this article I’m going to divide dietary fat into two categories: saturated and unsaturated. Examples of unsaturated fats are avocados, olives, nuts and oily fish. Add all these ingredients to your shopping list. Deficiencies in certain unsaturated fats can lead to dermatological issues. Your body cannot produce them, so care must be taken to consume unsaturated fat as part of your diet.
Saturated fat includes meat, poultry, yogurt, milk, butter, cheese and processed foods. The WHO recommends reducing saturated fat to just 10% of total calories. I’m in agreement that dairy and processed food should be restricted, but studies have demonstrated that animal proteins are superior at improving body composition and increasing strength over vegetarian diets (van Vliet et al., 2015). So rather than restriction, I would suggest choosing leaner cuts of meat, trimming the excess fat and removing the skin from chicken and turkey. Grill, steam, boil or even bake your food, rather than frying it. A convenient source of fat is whole Greek yogurt. It also has the added benefit of up to 11g of protein in a serving.
The best diet for health or fat loss, performance etc., is the one that you’ll stick with long-term. For this reason, the nutrition plan needs to be both straightforward and convenient to minimise the margin of error and/or non-compliance. A Spartan diet may be “optimal” on paper, however it is often not practical or palatable for most. In my next article I’ll cover the other two macronutrients, carbohydrate and protein.
Jason Jackson MSc(c)
van Vliet, S., Burd, N.A. and van Loon, L.J., 2015. The skeletal muscle anabolic response to plant-versus animal-based protein consumption. The Journal of nutrition, 145(9), pp.1981-1991.