A healthy diet remains a mainstay in preserving health and preventing diseases, if only we could learn to eat to live well, and not to live to eat much
By Marianna S. Sioson, MD, DFM, DPBCN, MSCN
My medical practice focuses on the effects of food on the human body and the role it plays in disease and healing. But what intrigues me the most is its role in health and well-being, before the onslaught of illness has crept in. Food is essential to survival. You can live and die without having to touch an ounce of medicine but you cannot live at all if you do not have food and water.
Understand why you want to eat and need to eat.
Longevity is a goal of most people but it must be qualified as longevity with good function. This is what nutrition can offer depending on our choices. Studies have shown as well that inappropriate choices leading to poor nutritional status can increase healthcare costs. Therefore we all should know what to eat and how to eat to optimize health and wellness. When we eat right, we live a more fruitful life. We can stay disease-free for longer.
Ask yourself: Do I eat to live or do I live to eat? This establishes what your perspective is regarding health and well-being.
Staying at a healthy weight range is a start. Understand though that weight is a combination of all body parts– bone, muscle, water and fat, to name a few. Although all are important, the most crucial body part is our muscle mass. This is because the more toned we are, the stronger we get, and the stronger we get, the better our quality of life, in particular our immune system remains robust enough to withstand the ravages of modern-day stresses.
I have dealt with hundreds of people who share with me their dietary practices. Most follow regimens which only micromanage their health issues: cut out sugar for diabetes, go fat-free to lose weight, reduce salt for hypertension control. Although all make sense, micromanaging a complicated and intricate subject such as the human body will not help you achieve overall health. It is important to appreciate the fact that each part of the body is affected by the other. You need to think of your health more holistically.
There are so many health goals to consider: optimal weight, reduced disease risk, increased resistance, and improved functionality. With the internet flooded with so much information, you must be confused about which is relevant and which is fake news. The approach is simple: go back to the basics and move from there.
To help people grasp the basics better, I often teach concepts through the power of 3’s.
Triad of health
Think of your health in three points: behavior and lifestyle modification, exercise or physical activity, and nutrition. The first is actually the cornerstone of health; if you do not have the right mindset and the right beliefs, then you may not be successful in your journey. Smoking, excessive drinking, lack of sleep, poor coping skills – these are but a few stumbling blocks to achieving health. The key is knowing when and how to go back to sound lifestyle practices when you slip or make errors. The second – exercise – is non-negotiable. Diet and exercise, in every health journey and at any age, are complimentary. Exercise improves muscle mass and strength while food supplies the substrates to create more muscle. They go hand in hand. The third point is nutrition which is the focus of this article.
2Q’s and a T
When it comes to food and eating, it’s about quantity, quality and timing of meals. Eat in moderate amounts, choose healthier meals and eat every 3-4 hours, trying not to skip meals or to go on prolonged fasting periods that can derail your metabolic rate during the day. Studies have shown that people who skip breakfast are often fatter than those who eat sensible meals in the morning. Eating at night (when your brain and metabolism should be asleep) has been linked to increased risk for obesity and diabetes.
3 basic food groups
Let’s review the different basic food groups or macronutrients and what they do to the body.
Carbohydrates are a main source of energy. These give us the sudden burst of energy in times of stress (i.e. sports, injury). They are often classified as simple or complex. Simple carbs (table sugar, candies, honey, syrup) are those which can give you undesirable blood sugar spikes. You should try to load up more on complex carbs (vegetables, whole grains, root crops, corn, cereals) which contain fiber. Fiber has several benefits. It acts as a sponge that absorbs toxins and excess fats and sugars then flushes them all out with the stool. It can also be helpful in regularizing your bowel movements. Furthermore, fiber is food for your good gut bacteria which need to remain balanced and healthy at all times. Keeping your gut bacteria healthy helps in preventing many diseases.
Proteins are for tissue building, in particular muscle. Most proteins come from animal produce – beef, pork, chicken, fish, egg, cheese, milk. Although they provide the body with complete proteins, they do have additional cholesterol. Plant sources such as beans, legumes, nuts and soy have no cholesterol but are often not as complete as animal produce. Know that although plants do not contain cholesterol, they are not fat-free and some may carry with them a substantial amount of calories because of fat. In selecting proteins, always think low-fat.
One of the more difficult subjects to discuss is fats, because there are so many conflicting statements regarding fats and oils. The only evil fat we know is trans-fats (hydrogenated oils). These are often found in packaged goods such as crackers, cookies and pastries. It is best to try to avoid these altogether. All other types of fats (saturated, unsaturated) have good and bad points. Therefore a good practice is to vary the oils you use in your meals. Consider also cooking style – the 3 B’s – boil, broil, bake.
Limit frying since exposing oils to high heat creates more toxic free radicals.
Remember that we also need a good blend of micronutrients. You can achieve this by eating a variety of foods. Try different types of fruits and vegetables. Diets high in these foods are high in antioxidants and are good for cardiovascular health. Rotate your proteins and get a good mix of animal and plant sources. Change up your carbs on some days, skipping rice at times and eating root crops instead.
Putting this all together
In the past, we used to rely on the food pyramid. However, people had difficulty understanding what to put on their plate with just using this tool. According to the University of Idaho, Swedish dietitians in 1987 devised the Swedish Plate Method that became the forerunner of its American counterpart – Idaho Plate Method. This was later adopted by the US government – as a project of then First Lady Michelle Obama – as a tool to promote healthy eating among the general population. The Philippine Department of Health also launched its own version – Pinggang Pinoy.
The plate method is the simplest way to teach people how to eat. Let’s try to fill up our plate with healthier options in controlled portions.
Half (1/2) of your 9-inch dinner plate should be filled with vegetables, raw or cooked. That would be approximately 1 cup or your fist size.
One-fourth (1/4) of your plate will be for your carbs. Per meal, most Filipinos can subsist on about ½ cup of rice (or 1 cup noodles, 1 medium root crop, ½ cup cereal, 2-3 slices of bread). Go for whole grains and without added oils. The amounts may vary depending on one’s metabolism. Much of this depends on your activity levels. If you are an elite athlete, you will most likely need much more carbs than what is stated above.
The other one-fourth (1/4) of your plate will be for proteins.
For most Filipinos, consuming about 3 matchbox-sizes or 1 palm-size of meat, fish or chicken per meal is sufficient to meet nutritional needs for the day. Remember once again to select proteins with lower fat content and limiting intake of fried proteins. Other equivalents to 1 matchbox size protein are 1 whole egg (or 2 egg whites), ½ cup tofu and 1 piece of cheese.
End your meal with something sweet. But instead of cakes and pastries, try more natural whole fruits. A good practice is to have 1 fruit per meal. Take note that if you opt to drink fruit juice (even if freshly squeezed), it should be limited to about ½ glass only and will take the place of 1 fruit exchange.
Finally, what to drink? The best is water!
What I have presented are general guidelines. If you have any medical conditions or want to reach peak performance, it is best to consult with a professional nutrition specialist who can provide you to a program that meets your needs.
So I bid you a good health journey through food. Mr. Spock says it so well – Live long and prosper!
“The plate method is the simplest way to teach people how to eat. Let’s try to fill up our plate with healthier options in controlled portions”
January 2019 Health and Lifestyle