Eat it all: Add variety to your diet

Eating the same kind of food is not only boring but also nutritionally unwise

woman buying vegetablesThe food pyramid divides all foods into five broad groups: cereals and pulses; fruits and vegetables; dairy; fish, poultry and meat; and nuts, seeds, fats, oils and sugar. It is important to consume all the food groups as well as maintain variety even within the food groups for you to get maximum benefits from your food. Women, especially, as having all the right nutrients helps to prevent menopausal disorders, osteoporosis and other stress-realted problems.

Recently I read a report describing the findings of a survey conducted in the 1970s. The survey involved over 10, 000 people, aged 25 to 74. Respondents were asked to track how many of the five food groups they included in their diet.

About 14 years later, researchers found that the fewer the number of different food groups in the diet, the higher was the rate of death. Those who ate the least variety—only one or two food groups—were 50 per cent more likely to have died. Clearly, if you want to live longer, eat as much variety as you can.

Include them all

colourful vegetablesBesides, no single food group can supply all the nutrients. Take milk for instance, while it provides a variety of nutrients, it lacks vitamin C and iron. You can make up for it by having citrus fruits and dark green vegetables, though. Similarly, some vegetables and fruits are good sources of vitamin C [citrus] and vitamin A [papaya], while others are high in calcium [figs] or iron [water melon]. This means that our search for the best fruits/vegetables/grains/oils/nuts is unwarranted.

Instead, attempt to choose as many different foods. A combination of multi-grain breads, brightly coloured vegetables and fruits, yogurt, cheese and milk/soy milk, variety of oils and nuts and seeds form the basics of a healthy diet. Choosing a variety of foods within each group ensures that you will get the variety of nutrients you need, besides making meals interesting.

Know the gains

You may be eating plenty of food, but your body may not be getting the nutrients it needs to be healthy. Inadequate intake of nutrient-rich foods and excesses of low nutrient calorie-dense foods can lead to deficiencies and promote weight gain.

Eating a variety of nutrient-dense and low-calorie foods along with appropriate number of servings provides fibre, vitamins and minerals. It also prevents obesity.

  • Vegetables and fruits are high in vitamins, minerals, carotenoids and fibre and low in calories. Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables helps control weight and blood pressure. These will also help women to deal with menopausal disorders and stress.
  • Unrefined wholegrain foods contain fibre that can help lower your blood cholesterol and help you feel full, which in turn, will help you manage your weight.
  • No single oil provides all the fatty acids in appropriate amounts. So, combine oils, nuts and seeds to get the recommended oil intake.
  • Eat fish at least twice a week. Recent research shows that eating oily fish containing omega-3 fatty acids [for example, salmon, black pomfret, hilsa, mackerel, trout, and herring] may help lower the risk of death from coronary artery disease. Omega-3 helps women nearing menopause in dealing with depression.

Try the plate method

food plateThe plate method helps you visualise what your meal should look like. For example, fill one half of the plate with vegetables and fruits, such as broccoli, carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, and cauliflower and the remainder with a combination of wholegrains or starchy vegetables, such as pasta or corn, pulses and low-fat protein such as lean meat, fish, poultry, tofu and low-fat dairy [curd, paneer, milk].

When selecting fruits and vegetables, include ones that are green, yellow, orange and red.

Vary the colour: Think about how your food looks together on the plate. Is everything beige?

Vary the flavours: Different ingredients and seasonings add layers of flavours. A balance of sweet, sour and salty tastes is far more appealing than a single taste. A sweet and sour soup is better appreciated than a cream tomato soup.

Vary the texture: Contrast crunchy foods with soft foods. For example, add crunchy raw vegetables to rice.

Varying colours, flavours, textures, shapes, temperatures of meals and cuisines helps to make eating more interesting and nutritious.

Eat right

Follow these simple tips to always stay healthy:

  • Balance your food choices with physical activity to achieve ideal body weight.
  • Eat smaller frequent meals; it ensures a steady stream of energy and has a calming effect on the brain.
  • Plan your activities and food in advance. Shop smart. Ensure access and availability of appropriate foods.
  • Choose adequate fresh fruits and vegetables like amla, citrus fruits, tomatoes, green peppers, green leafy vegetables, kiwi, broccoli, and strawberries to ensure good vitamin C intake.
  • Choose whole grains like oats, barley, brown rice and whole wheat; pulses, nuts and seeds, low fat dairy, seafood, lean meats, green leafy vegetables and wheat germ to ensure adequate intake of vitamin B and zinc.
  • Minimise white flour, white rice and sugar.
  • Avoid having junk food and poor quality fat [hydrogenated trans fats].
  • Include good quality fat in your diet through natural sources like nuts, seeds, fatty fish and cold-pressed oils.
  • Snack smart on fresh fruits, dry fruits, nuts, seeds, roasted whole grains, soups, salads, and yogurt.
  • Drink plenty of fluids to remain well hydrated. Green tea, jasmine tea, chamomile tea help calm the mind.
  • Take tea, coffee and alcohol in moderation.

The principle of variety makes healthy eating easy and fun. Unfortunately, the simplest things appear to be the hardest to follow.

The daily aim

Given below are the required amounts of foods you should eat on a daily basis:

  • 6 – 10 servings of cereals [50 per cent whole grains]
  • 2 – 3 servings of dairy, milk, yogurt, cheese, soy [1 serving = 200 ml milk]
  • 2 – 3 servings of fruits [1 serving=1/2 cup cut]
  • 3 – 5 servings of vegetables [dark green leafy and brightly coloured] [1 serving = 1/2 cup cut.]
  • 2 servings of pulses and dals [1 serving =1/4 cup raw beans]
  • 1 – 2 servings of meat, fish, poultry and eggs [1 serving=75-100g]
  • 1 serving nuts and seeds [1 serving= 1 tablespoon].

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Ishi Khosla
Ishi Khosla is a practicing clinical nutritionist, a writer, columnist, researcher, author and an entrepreneur. She is the founder of ‘Whole Foods’, a health foods company. She was recently listed among the 25 most powerful women in the country by the India Today Group.

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