Rapid flip-flops on nutritional advice make it impossible to plan a healthy breakfast, let alone a nutritious meal. Is butter better than toast? Should eggs be replaced with flavoured yoghurt? Are fresh juices healthier than milk? The questions are many and a simple online research does not throw up any certain answers.
A study saying it is carbohydrates, not fats, that kill you muddied the waters further this week. The Lancet study of more than 135,000 people across 18 countries found that processed and refined carbohydrates – in polished rice, refined flour, bread, pasta, etc – are more deadly than the worst kind of fat.
All healthy foods must have three macronutrients – fat, carbohydrate and protein. Current global nutritional guidelines recommend that 50 per cent to 65 per cent of a person’s daily calories come from carbohydrates, and less than 10 per cent from saturated fats found in meats and dairy.
The Lancet study recommends 50 per cent to 55 per cent from carbohydrates and about 35 per cent from total fat, including both saturated and unsaturated fats.
So are fats good and carbs bad? Yes, but only when the carbs are refined and highly processed.
Much has been said about fats, so we’ll focus on how eating home-cooked meals with whole grains and low salt and sugar content can help keep weight, blood sugar and blood pressure at healthy levels.
Why carbs are refined
Refined carbs don’t exist in nature and are formed when natural whole foods are refined through processing – polishing, extrusion puffing, high-heat treatment – to get rid of the bran (outer coating) and kernel (seed).
By rule of the thumb, avoid powdery grains because the small particle size that makes them easier to cook and digest leads to sudden spikes in glucose levels and warps the body’s insulin response, raising the risk of diabetes over time.
Traditional stone-ground grains, cracked-kernel grains and whole legumes are the least refined, have most nutrients and take longer to digest, making them the healthiest source of carbohydrates.
Watch the salt
Eating too much salt raises your odds of developing high blood pressure and heart disease, which in turn ups risk of heart attack, stroke and heart failure. Apart from its most common use as a seasoning, salt can be found in several hidden sources as it is used widely to enhance taste, add texture and add bulk to processed food products, including bread, processed meat, cheese, biscuit, cookies, cakes, chips and savoury mixes.
The recommended daily amount of salt is less than 5 gm (one teaspoon), but most people consume close to double that amount. An average Indian consumes about 9 gm of salt a day.
The World Health Organization estimates that about 2.5 million deaths could be prevented each year if global salt consumption were reduced to the recommended level.
Nutritional labels usually mislead by listing the amount of sodium, because the salt content is typically two and a half times the sodium value. So to know how much salt is really in the crisps, multiply sodium value by 2.5.
Low-sodium options are no easy way out either. These are often high in potassium and can cause severe electrolyte imbalances in people with kidney disease or in those taking potassium conserving prescription drugs (certain diuretics, ACE inhibitors and angiotensin II-receptor blockers) prescribed for conditions such as high blood pressure, kidney damage and heart failure.
Just shun sugar
Sugar is terrible for you, not just because it adds to weight and cavities but also because, much like refined carbohydrates, it plays havoc with blood glucose levels and overworks pancreas to lead to a raised risk of diabetes.
It also fills you up with empty calories that do not contain healthy fibre, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients needed for optimal physical and mental function.
A Harvard School of Public Health study linked high sugar intake with heart disease, irrespective of how healthy the rest of the diet was.
To put the spotlight on the health risks, nutrition labels in the US will be required to list the total sugars and added sugars in packaged foods from 2018, with the daily recommended limit for added sugars being 50 gm or 12 teaspoons. The American Heart Association recommends less than 100 calories of added sugar per day (about 6 teaspoons) for women and 150 calories per day (about 9 teaspoons) for men.
A 350 ml can of an aerated drink has 140 calories and 39 gm of sugar, so just one sweetened drink can put all women and most men over their daily sugar limit.