We are what we eat, and good nutrition is undoubtedly of importance in order to maintain optimum health. In recent decades, the nutritional sciences have provided huge quantities of research material that is now readily available through the internet. Discussing scientific theory derived from this research can be interesting, but it is important that findings are implemented in the form of practical changes to our diets. By accepting change is necessary, and implementing recommendations from research, we can improve our physical and mental health. Although at first sight these changes can appear daunting, I believe that the thought of change is often worse than the change itself. Because even the longest journey must begin with a single step, I have put together a list of ten changes that will help on your journey towards optimum health. Some changes require obtaining more of a particular food, some less, and some require moderation.
Good foods are foods that have been researched and found to be beneficial to the health and therefore should be included in the diet. Studies have found many foods, particularly those derived from plants, to contain compounds that may have beneficial properties in human nutrition. Some of these foods have been researched for decades and the amount of studies showing beneficial effects puts their health promoting effects beyond reasonable doubt. In reality, there are many foods that could be incorporated into a diet to improve health. However, I have included three foods that should provide an instant and measurable benefit to the large majority of individuals. Implementing each of these alone, even in the absence of other changes, should provide tangible health benefits. However, adding all three will provide a synergistic effect, and this approach is therefore recommended.
A multi-vitamin and multi-mineral supplement
The first good food is not really a food at all, but a dietary supplement. Studies have consistently shown that our foods are devoid of vitamins and minerals and so acquiring sufficient micronutrients from a supplement seems a sensible policy. For example, evidence suggests that the selenium and zinc intakes of most individuals are inadequate. In addition new evidence is showing that the recommended levels for some vitamins is set far too low, and that benefits are seen at higher intakes not available in foods. For example, high intakes of vitamin B6, B12 and folic acid can lower homocysteine levels and protect from cardiovascular disease and dementia. Vitamin D is also needed at higher intakes than was previously thought necessary by the mainstream medical etsablishment. Care should therefore be taken to select a suitable multivitamin and mineral formula that provides all the necessary micronutrients.
Tea is a drink created from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant, and is historically recorded to have been consumed by man for thousands of years. Green tea is perhaps one of the most heavily researched foods with regard its beneficial health effects. Green tea contains flavonoids, such as catechin and epicatechin, that have been shown to benefit the health in a number of ways. Research links green tea drinking to weight loss and to protection from cancers of the gut. Although probably not as beneficial as green tea, black tea consumption has been shown to lower mortality in epidemiological studies. The caffeine in tea is also beneficial to the brain and tea drinkers for this reason have a reduced risk of developing dementia and Parkinson’s disease. Both green and black may also be able to lower the risk of developing cardiovascular disease because they contain antioxidants.
Omega 3 fatty acids
The list of benefits attributed to omega 3 fatty acids is growing rapidly. Cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes have all been linked to deficiencies of the omega 3 essential fatty acid alpha linolenic acid, present in green leafy vegetables, flax seeds and walnuts. Alpha linolenic acid is a plant metabolite that is required by humans because it is converted to other fatty acids such as eicosapentanoic acid and docosahexanoic acid, and these have beneficial cellular effects. However, alpha linolenic acid is poorly utilised by humans. For this reason the omega 3 fatty acids eicosapentanoic acid and docosahexanoic acid should be obtained from the diet directly. Fatty fish and fish oil supplements contain eicosapentanoic acid and docosahexanoic acid, consumption of which is now recommended for prevention of cardiovascular disease. Vegetarians can attain adequate levels of the docosahexanoic acid from marine algae, available in supplement form.
Bad foods are foods that are a double edged sword because their consumption is controversial. Their use fits well with the classic ‘J’-shaped curve. At low intakes, they show no health benefits compared to non-consumption. As intakes increase, their health promoting effects rise, whereby at moderate levels they have distinct and well researched health benefits. However, as intakes rise further, their over consumption is known to cause the development of disease and chronic ill-health and can therefore be considered bad. While in reality all foods are poisonous or toxic at very high concentrations the following three foods have been selected because they are common to the diets and they are known for their addictive properties, and this can make moderating their intake difficult. It is recommended that the following foods are eaten in moderation, in order to maintain consumption within the window that provides health benefits.
Research published in the lancet listed alcohol as one of the most damaging illegal or legal drugs, and ranked it fifth behind only heroin, cocaine, barbiturates and methadone. However, studies have shown that the ethanol content of most beverages when moderated, does provide considerable health effects. Studies comparing wine with other grape drinks show health benefits for de-alcoholised wine and grape juice, probably because of their high concentrations of antioxidants. However, wine has been shown to be more beneficial because in addition to the antioxidants it also contains ethanol. Ethanol is thought to be beneficial in human nutrition because it can increase membrane fluidity and help decrease platelet aggregation, which in turn can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. It would appear that one or two drinks a day with food is likely to be beneficial, and of the alcoholic drinks red wine is the most beneficial because of its flavonoid content.
Some studies have linked coffee drinking with sharper mental function and a reduction in the risk of mental illness. This is likely due to the caffeine within coffee that is thought to provide some nutritional benefits. As with tea, coffee consumption may therefore decrease the risk of developing dementia and Parkinson’s disease. In addition, coffee also contains a number of compounds that can act as antioxidants and may therefore show some beneficial effects against degenerative disease. However, drinking too much coffee can cause a sustained release of the stress hormone adrenaline and cortisol, which can lead to chronic illness. Some evidence also suggests that instant and non-filtered ground coffee can detrimentally affect blood lipid levels by raising low density lipoprotein. Coffee can therefore be a healthy drink if it is made from fresh filtered beans, moderated in its quantity and sugar is not used to sweeten its taste.
Chocolate should really be categorised into milk, white and dark chocolate. Milk and white chocolate contain high levels of sugar and should be avoided because of the detrimental effects of refined carbohydrates to the health. Many chocolate bars made with milk chocolate contain very high levels of sugar and should also be avoided where possible. However, dark chocolate contain considerably less sugar, and research suggests that the high concentration of cocoa it possesses may be beneficial to the health. Cocoa contains flavonoids called procyanidins, which are polymers of the same flavonoids found in green tea. These flavonoids have been extensively researched and have consistently been shown to be beneficial in preventing platelet aggregation. Cocoa consumption may therefore reduce the risk of myocardial infarction. However, dark chocolate can still contain some sugar and as such, should be eaten only in moderate quantities.
Ugly foods are foods that are grotesque distortions, many of which have been synthesised by man and used to poison the food supply. Research continues to identify ugly foods and nutrient factors that may be involved in the aetiology of certain disease. Many of these processed, manufactured or artificial nutrients have only been introduced recently to human nutrition. That many of these foods are still present in the food supply is testament to the power of the corporatist food industry and its sycophantic lobbyists who pull the strings of the puppet politicians. Many of these foods have been introduced for political reasons or remain through illogical historical argument. These food have no place in a healthy diet and should be avoided completely. The elimination of each of these foods would benefit the health, but avoidance of all four should be a priority in any nutritional regimen.
Supermarket oils and vegetable spreads
Of all the substances that you could put into your body, these have to be some of the worst. Often incorporated into diets because of the perceive health benefits of polyunsaturated fatty acids, their place in most kitchen cupboards is more a result of slick marketing than nutritional value. Supermarket oils are generally refined, deodorised and heated oils that are chemically altered from their original plant oil form to increase their shelf life. These alterations produce a raft of atherogenic and carcinogenic compounds that increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer, respectively. Vegetable spreads are oils that should be liquid, but are solid. This is because the original oil is hydrogenated, a process that chemically alters the oil. Only unrefined, cold pressed oils, as found in the original plant material should be consumed. Butter should be used in place of vegetable spreads.
Fluoride is added to drinking water supposedly to improve the teeth of children. However, this politically motivated decision to mass medicate the entire population of many countries is based on no logical science. Fluoride is toxic in the amounts added to both water and toothpaste, and is known to cause bone deformities, increase fracture rates, accumulate in brain tissue and induce bone pain. While, fluoride may be an essential mineral in man, it is needed in minute amounts. So many foods contain fluoride naturally that even the most meagre diet would provide adequate fluoride for human health. In addition fluoride is present in nature predominately as calcium fluoride which is very poorly absorbed. Fluoride medicated water and fluoride products should be avoided where possible, and high calcium diets should be followed as calcium can limit the absorption of fluoride in the gut.
Many of the common Western diseases of degeneration are not recorded in civilisations that do not have access to white, refined cane sugar. Once sugar in introduced to previously healthy aboriginal natives, diseases such as obesity, cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes increase in prevalence. Of particular concern is the sugar fructose, which is found naturally in fruits in low amounts. When fructose intakes increase considerably, usually through consumption of soft drinks, the insulin receptor becomes dysfunctional and the risk of developing metabolic syndrome rises. Fructose and high fructose corn syrup is known to cause obesity and diabetes in animal models, and may be equally detrimental to humans. Sucrose also contains a molecule of fructose. Check the ingredients of food carefully and avoid foods with high quantities of added sucrose, fructose, high fructose corn syrup or glucose. Honey should be used as the sweetener of choice, but moderate its intake.
Evidence is growing that the sweetener aspartame has seriously deleterious health effects. Aspartame is increasingly being implicated in unexplained neurological dysfunction and degenerative disease, although these effects are strongly denied by the powerful food industry. Some individuals are particularly sensitive to the effects of aspartame, but it is unknown as to why. Available under many different brand names, sweeteners are commonly found in products advertised as sugar free such as gum and soft drinks, but are increasingly being used in addition to sugar and are sometimes not listed on labels. Because the long-term health effects of such compounds have not been effectively researched, and because of their known detrimental short-term effects, all sweeteners should be avoided where possible. Some evidence shows that sweeteners can modify the satiety response, which ironically results in diet drink consumers ingesting greater amounts of energy than those who drink normal sugar sweetened drinks.