Why Not Be Your Own Food Doctor?

This is a guest article written by Sara Kirkham author of Food For Health the Essential Guide published by Need2Know Books

An increasing number of us are now taking responsibility for our own health, and using different aspects of lifestyle medicine to improve or even cure various symptoms and diseases. Even some doctors are finally realising that prevention is better than cure, and that many people would benefit from improving key components of their lifestyle:

  • Improving or adjusting their diet
  • Exercising more, or being more active
  • Getting a good night’s sleep
  • Reducing stress

What is now being referred to as ‘lifestyle medicine’, is what nutritional therapists have been practising for many years, and the pathway to better health may be right in front of you, in the foods that you eat every day. There is so much information on what we should or shouldn’t eat, and how much we should consume, and it can be confusing to know what to eat for the best results. Health conditions require specific dietary guidance from a qualified professional, but there are some key basics that are guaranteed to improve everybody’s health.

Eat at least five portions of vegetables daily

Throughout years of research, this has never changed, apart from the number of portions thought to be therapeutic for good health keeps increasing! Vegetables are high in fibre, which has a number of benefits:

  • Low calorie content
  • Beneficial for the bowel flora and bowel health
  • Increases satiety so helps to reduce calorie intake and aids weight control

Vegetables also contain many natural anti-oxidants such as vitamins C and E, and phytonutrients (plant nutrients) such as lycopene, lutein, carotene and polyphenols, which are known to have anti-inflammatory and other health benefitting properties.

Drink plenty of fluid

Adequate hydration is crucial for good health, and critical to mental and physical health. The human body is over two-thirds water weight, and just 2% dehydration will begin to affect our brain and cognitive function. Water is involved in almost every metabolic reaction in the human body. It lubricates the eyes and joints, facilitates digestion, keeps the skin healthy and flushes out waste and toxins through the kidneys and sweat, and being dehydrated can increase the risk of having a stroke. Surveys have reported that less than 1% of people meet fluid intake recommendations, and 20% of GP visits are with symptoms such as tiredness and headaches, which can both be caused by dehydration. The best way to tell if you are adequately hydrated is by the colour or your urine, which should be a pale straw colour. Just drinking more water can seriously improve your energy levels and general health.

Eat the right fats

For many decades, it has been thought that eating a low fat diet and limiting saturated fats in particular was the key to good health and a healthy weight. However, after decades of low fat diets and reduced fat foods, the UK population has more obesity and chronic disease than ever before. More recent research indicates that there is not a connection between saturated fat intake and cardiovascular disease, or a higher mortality risk, and instead points to higher intakes of sugar and processed carbohydrate products as a causative factor. Other research, however, still states that overall fat, and saturated fats in particular, should still be limited.

Reviewing large numbers of research trials, there are some key outcomes that are repeatedly reported:

  • Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are, on the whole, good for health. These are the fats found primarily in avocado, nuts, seeds, olives and fish, and in oils such as olive oil, rapeseed and coconut oil.
  • Processed fats (hydrogenated and trans fats) are not good for us and should be avoided.
  • There are many different saturated fatty acids, and it seems that only some of these may be detrimental to health, so we cannot simply state that ‘all saturated fat is bad for us’. For example, coconut oil contains more saturated fats than butter, yet has been found to have beneficial effects upon cholesterol metabolism, similar to the effects of olive oil. However, the body uses unsaturated fats for crucial roles in the body such as cell membrane formation, and the chemical structure of a saturated fat (which is more rigid in nature), is not suitable for many of the physiological tasks in the human body. Therefore, it is still recommended that unsaturated fats are preferable over saturated fats.
  • All fats contain approximately 9 calories per gram, so even a ketogenic ‘high fat, weight loss’ diet will not enable weight loss if the number of calories ingested is more than the amount expended each day. Fats are a high calorie nutrient, and must fit within a calorie controlled diet for a healthy weight.

Balance macronutrient intake

In addition to fats, protein and carbohydrates are the macronutrients in the human diet, and there has been much speculation as to how much of these types of foods we should eat. Many diets – the Atkins diet, paleo and ketogenic diets – suggest lower carbohydrate intake, whilst the NHS and mainstream weight loss slimming clubs still recommend that around 50% of our food intake should come from carbohydrates. So which message is correct?

Once again, there are some research findings that are repeatedly corroborated, and provide clear health guidance on these nutrients and our health:

  • A high intake of sugar or refined/processed bakery goods is not beneficial for good health as they cause inflammation, poor glucose/insulin metabolism and encourage weight gain, whilst providing few essential nutrients.
  • As starchy carbohydrates (bread, rice, pasta, breakfast cereals, potatoes and even pulses) are broken down into sugars, these may also contribute to the metabolic syndromes listed above, although higher fibre and whole grain options can form part of a healthy diet. 
  • The type of carbohydrate that should not be reduced is the non-starch polysaccharides, otherwise known as fibre, or fruit and vegetables. However, sugars can be further limited by choosing vegetables over fruit for the majority of portions.  
  • Too little and too much protein is detrimental to good health. Eating a small portion (palm sized) of unprocessed protein (fresh fish, eggs, meat from grass fed animals, tofu, nuts) with most meals can aid satiety (and therefore weight control) and improve glucose metabolism.
  • Processed meats such as bacon, salami, tinned meat, smoked meat or fish can be detrimental to health and should be limited.

For general good health, these are the basic guidelines that we should all follow most of the time. However, we are all individuals, so optimum nutrition is slightly different for each person, and should take into account your genetics (familial conditions), lifestyle and current health conditions. For more specific dietary guidance, recommendations are adjusted for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, skin conditions, good bone and joint health, digestive complaints and cognitive function, and greater use made of the micronutrient content in our diet – vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, herbs and spices. The science of nutrition and how food affects our body is a specialist subject, so you are assured of the best advice from a qualified nutritionist.

Food for Health is the ultimate nutritional guide to self-sufficient health and well-being. It provides the tools to maximise health or improve specific conditions using everyday foods. If you want to take greater control of your own health and learn how to be your own ‘food doctor’, then this is the book for you.

Sara Kirkham BSc.(Hons) Nutritional Medicine, author of Food for Health – The Essential Guide.

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