Happy New Year. This aims to be an inclusive post as essential micronutrients apply to everyone, whatever you choose to eat and wherever you live.
I personally believe that by providing context with information, you can build a fuller picture of what healthy eating means, specifically to you. The benefits of improved diet are many, to families, individuals, governments, healthcare and industries although there have not been enough studies because we are all so genetically and geographically unique.
What are the principles of healthy eating, which apply to human beings in general? Firstly, we all need fuel, but that fuel varies according to genes, geography, climate and lifestyle in the same way that a machine needs the right fuel to run, according to its specific requirements.
It could be safe to say we live in a very different climate and environment from that of our ancestors, which means that we don’t access all the micronutrients we need naturally in our daily lives. This is becoming starkly evident with mental health and obesity, which both point to micronutrient deficiencies.
This is not just about food, but also environment, lifestyle and genetics. If you are built to be outside in hot sun most of the year and live in Iceland, careful planning would be required to maintain your health, particularly in terms of vitamin D.
Countries with a food culture stretching back over generations may not need to think about daily nutrients to the same extent as those living in countries such as the United Kingdom, which has only been successively settled since the Ice Age.
Another image, which works for any dietary preference or lifestyle, is the horse and cart. This shows how the horse, which represents nutrients, pulls the cart full of food, which represents calories. The more nutritious the food, the stronger the horse and the less effort to pull the cart. If the horse is weaker, the cart needs to contain less calories if it is going to move.
While the western diet may be considered fun to eat, the ratio of calories to nutrients means that many calories are eaten to gain few nutrients. Think of an underfed, overworked horse. This means the organs are having to work very hard to process the food and extract the nutrients. In turn, this requires more training to build up the muscles to burn the calories.
What is the solution?
Micronutrients are the key to healthy eating, which lead to optimal physical and mental health. Wellbeing can be enhanced, of course, with regular, outdoor activity, exposure to sunlight, swimming in the sea and spending time in forests.
Looking at food cultures from around the world, assortment and variety seems to be a constant theme. Think of meze, delicatessen, thali or tapas. Small quantities of many different foods can deliver a wider spectrum of micronutrients, therefore requiring a smaller overall quantity before satisfying the eater.
When people eat empty calories or ultraprocessed food, very little nutrition is received, which means hunger is not satisfied. Additionally, foods that increase production of glucose and insulin can drive hunger, even past when the person feels full. By keeping the proportion of glucose producing foods starch, sugar and lactose low in the mix allows the body to absorb both fat and water soluble vitamins and minerals into the system.
Imagine a full English breakfast, with eggs, bacon, sausage, tomato, mushrooms, beans and toast. Perhaps if you are a vegan, you may have some quinoa with fruit and nuts, a buckwheat pancake with honey and some tofu with avocado, tomato, mushrooms and toast. In this way you are getting all three macronutrients, with complete protein, essentially fatty acids and some carbohydrate.
To plan meals, organise food for a party, design a menu or to create in the kitchen, I will send you a free chart to see what micronutrients we need, foods they come from and RDAs for dietary supplements to fill the gaps. This information originates from the NHS website vitamins and minerals pages (which they tucked into their Conditions section in August 2020 and downplayed vitamin D in a country rife with deficiency in sunlight for half the year, especially during lockdowns).