We are what we eat. While trends and fads about diet and food choices keeping changing, there is one fact that remains universally acknowledged and unassailable – diet affects our health in a pretty substantial manner. For a person to be healthy, two things are most important: exercise or physical fitness, and diet or healthy eating. Out of the two, you could say that the larger share of impact (about 70-80%) comes from diet.
The food we eat can either fuel and energise us for an active day, or leave us bloated, lethargic and unable to concentrate. Diet affects our health by impacting not just our weight but also our energy levels, our moods, our ability to focus, our overall physical appearance including our skin and hair, and so on.
Impact of types of diet
The food or food groups that we include in our diet can impact our chances of developing cardiovascular disease and various chronic conditions. For instance, the typical American or Western diet is high in refined carbohydrates, salt, saturated fats (red meat, butter) and very low in fibre. This diet is considered to lead to high rates of obesity, hypertension, stroke, breast and colorectal cancer. The South Asian diet i.e. the diet we typically see followed in an Indian household has a high dietary fat content due to a typically high usage of oil and the popularity of fried snacks. This diet has been linked to a high risk of cardiovascular disease and Type 2 Diabetes.
On the other hand, take the Mediterranean diet. This diet involves consumption of large quantities of vegetables, fruits, legumes and cereals; moderate amounts of milk and dairy products; small amounts of meat. The cooking medium tends to be olive oil or similar monounsaturated oil (i.e.healthier oil). People across the Mediterranean region enjoy a low incidence of chronic disease and high life expectancy, and this is largely ascribed to their dietary choices. So we see how pervasive the effect of diet on our health can be.
Benefits of adopting a healthy diet
A balanced diet affects our health in many ways. Eating healthy not only keeps weight in check but also decreases our risk for diet-related diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer etc.
Food is fuel for the body and the energy source for our daily activities. Our choice of food will decide whether we spend the day in an active, energised state or in a stressed out state marked by energy spikes and lows. Highly processed food, sugars, sodas, and junk food will put us in the latter state.
Diet and mental health
Research has shown that dietary choices also have a significant impact on a person’s mental health. A diet that is high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish and eggs and cuts out processed foods can not only prevent depression but even help deal with existing symptoms of depression (as a supplement to other forms of treatment). A reduced-calorie diet that includes lots of colourful fruits and vegetables and fish like salmon (high in omega 3 fatty acids) can help patients of Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and similar conditions.
A study has shown that teenagers on a healthy diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables showed a markedly lower incidence of aggression, depression and delinquency when compared to a similar group of teens on a typical Western diet of refined carbs, red meat and sugary food.
Simple fixes to start with
We all lead busy lives and sometimes don’t have the time to do a lot, in terms of healthy meal planning. I know I face that challenge all the time. Try a few simple things and see if any of them work for you.
- Snacking – Instead of snacking on processed snacks, try fruit, or carrot/cucumber sticks, or roasted makhanas, or a handful of nuts (good fat!).
- Ensure you are getting enough protein – this is important especially if you find yourself experiencing mood swings
- Replace fruit juice with seasonal fruits
- Include salads in every lunch – but avoid salad at dinner
- If you must have bread, then switch from white bread to whole grain
- Don’t forget the liquids that are great for you – milk, buttermilk, coconut water, lemon water, herbal teas, are all great especially in summer. Ditch the carbonated drinks. Your body will thank you.
How do you ensure that you eat healthy? Do you have any tips you’d like to share? I’d love to hear and learn from you in the comments below!