Healthy Eating in Today’s World
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Healthy Eating in Today’s World
Enjoying the pleasures of the table with a clear conscience.
Our ancestors usually had just one dietary problem – not enough food. Even at the beginning of the twentieth century, many people in the Western world suffered from hunger and so were more susceptible to illness and disease, often dying in childhood. Eating too much was a problem found only among a small class of rich; a fashionable figure was curvaceous and, implicitly, well fed. Those times are long past. Today, it is not in style to be voluptuous and it is certainly no longer an indication of social success and high income. Now days, we are at pains to cope with a surplus of food, and many fight the battle of the bulge.
An Important Trio
Carbohydrate, protein, and fat form the basis of the human diet. These fundamental nutrients ensure that we have enough energy for all our bodily functions and energy for work and leisure; without them, nothing runs properly. In addition, proteins provide the building blocks for muscles and other organs, fats act as a cushion and provide basic substances for all our cells. The foods we eat are mixtures of the three basic nutrients combined in different proportions. Sugar consists almost entirely of carbohydrate, vegetable oil of fat, and lean meat primarily protein.
Our bodies need different amounts of the three basic nutrients, but scientist disagree over the exact proportions. In the 1960’s they argued the case for as much protein as possible, but we have since learned that there is no advantage in consuming excessive quantities. We know from sports medicine, in particular, that metabolism is delayed when excess protein is consumed, and that the body reacts with a reduced performance. The recommendation nowadays is approximately 0.8 gram protein per kilogram of body weight per day. For children, pregnant women and nursing mothers, this should be increased to 2-2.3 grams. More important than the quantity, however, is the quality. A source of protein is ideal for humans only if plenty of bodily protein can be created from the constituents (amino acids). Experts call this the “biological value” of the food and have assigned reference figures to individual sources of protein.
The biological value can be increased by combining animal and plant proteins. This is very important because an excess of animal products can adversely affect the metabolism because of their high content of fat and cholesterol. Perhaps this sounds rather complicated, but we put in into practice every day when we prepare a meal: potatoes with fried eggs, for example, have a biological value of 136. The value is thus higher than the egg (100) or potatoes (99) alone. The combination of potatoes with dairy products, meat or fish is nearly as good. Legumes provide a good source of protein when eaten with grains. A typical example from South American cuisine is beans and corn tortillas. In predominantly vegetarian India, lentils (dhal) with rice or bread are eaten daily providing the poor with sufficient protein to stay healthy. Dishes based on beans with bean curd and seeds are also ideal.
As with protein, researchers have only recently been able to agree on recommendation for fat consumption. Here, the argument was less about the recommended quantities than about the different types of fat. Today, almost all scientists advise us to consume more vegetable than animal fats. This is because cholesterol, known as a risk factor in cardiovascular diseases, is present mainly in animal fats. Vegetable oils, however, are usually rich in unsaturated fatty acids, which have a regulatory effect on cholesterol levels in the blood. More important for health than the type of fat is the amount consumed; in the Western world our total fat consumption is usually far too high. A reduced diet is the right idea in most cases.
Researchers have also made new discoveries about carbohydrates. Proponents of wholefood diets wrote off the most popular carbohydrate provider, sugar, as harmful. In fact, it has been proved harmful only to teeth and body weight. Nonetheless, the unequivocal opinion of nutritionists is that the complex (starch-containing) sources of carbohydrates, such as potatoes, legumes, and bread, should constitute the largest part of our consumption. Sugar passes immediately into the bloodstream, but complex or starch-containing carbohydrates stay in the stomach longer and are absorbed by the body more slowly, but also more continuously. The advantages of this are enormous: fewer fluctuations in the blood sugar level and fewer cravings for yet more sweet foods.
Our bodies need a certain amount of basic nutrients and tolerate a large range of variation from day to day. If, however, we eat exclusively too much or too little over a long period, we pay the price, even if the day of reckoning is a long way off.