When athletes consult me on their diet they are often looking for a specific diet, supplement or sports nutrition strategy. Whether it’s losing body fat for a bodybuilding competition or improving energy during a marathon, many people tend to look at supplements and fancy diets first and neglect the basics of healthy eating. However, in most cases simply eating a healthier diet overall is far more effective. So what makes a healthy diet?
A healthy diet is high in fruits and vegetables
We all need to be getting a minimum of two portions of fruit and three portions of vegetables a day. They can be fresh, frozen or dried and served in all manner of ways. Fundamentally, the more vegetables you eat the better you will feel and the lower your risk of most diseases.
What’s more, many athletes actually need more than five a day to meet their increased vitamin and mineral needs. Sadly I have yet to analyse a single diet diary where the athlete was getting their five a day, every day. This is one of those simple things that can make a huge difference to everything from energy levels to recovery time.
A healthy diet is high in whole grains and pulses
Whole grains and pulses (like beans and lentils) are higher in vitamins, minerals and fibre than refined grains. Fibre is the part of plants we can’t digest, so it passes through our system, cleaning out the intestines as it goes. Fibre also feeds the good bacteria in our gut, which in turn produce certain vitamins we can’t make on our own and various feel good hormones and neurotransmitters. A diet high in fibre has been shown to reduce the incidence of everything from bowel cancer to depression to obesity.
Most people can easily get more whole grains with some simple swaps. For example, switch from white rice to brown and change white pasta and white bread to whole wheat.
A healthy diet is high in vegetable protein, fish and lean animal protein
The longest living populations in the world eat very little red meat. Instead their diets tend to be high in fish, shellfish and vegetarian sources of protein, like tofu and lentils. When they do eat meat, it tends to be poultry or small portions of very lean cuts of beef, pork or lamb. As I’ve discussed above, pulses are high in vitamins, minerals and fibre, as well as protein. Fish and shellfish are high in Omega 3 fatty acids, which help reduce inflammation, the root cause of many diseases.
We have known for many years that a diet high in red and processed meats raises the risk of heart disease and certain cancers. Processed meats are foods like bacon, sausages, ham, pate, and lunch meats. Anything that has been smoked, cured, salted or has added preservatives. While this makes it taste great, all the extra salt and chemicals are really bad for us. It is now recommended we get no more than two servings of processed meats per week.
A healthy diet is low in processed foods
Fundamentally, most of us eat foods that our ancestors would not recognise. We all do better if we eat things as nature intended, with no colourings, preservatives, artificial sweeteners or other additives. You can tell how processed a food is by checking the label. Generally speaking, processed foods have a long list of ingredients, while unprocessed foods only have one ingredient. In other words, unprocessed foods don’t have ingredients, they are ingredients!
In practice, avoiding processed foods means ditching junk foods like chocolate bars, crisps, biscuits and so on. It also means doing more of your own cooking from scratch, rather than relying on ready meals, sauces in jars or seasoning mixes. This can be a struggle, which is why a healthy diet is low in processed foods, rather than having none!