A food first approach for health and performance

April 30, 2024

Understanding what to eat and what’s best for you is increasingly bewildering, not just because of misinformation in the media, and the marketing of specialist foods and supplements, but also because nutritional science is progressive. We’re continuing to learn more and more about powerful features of food and how foods interact with our body in different ways affecting our overall health and well-being.

Our nutritional guidelines for health have long evidenced the need to eat a balanced diet with fewer processed foods and plenty of starchy whole grains, fruit and vegetables. Here are a few more reasons as to why this remains very sound advice and why a ‘Food First’ approach is desirable for nourishing your body and benefitting your health and mental and physical performance.

1.   Plant foods are not simply sources of essential nutrients.

Not simply a source of essential nutrients and fibre, plant foods also contain chemicals called polyphenols. More than 8000 of these different compounds have been identified, with many secrets yet to be discovered, in this powerful group exerting health benefits associated with their flavour and colour.

Abundant in fruit, vegetables, herbs, spices, teas and coffee, polyphenols act across a broad range of brain mechanisms with positive effects on mood, mental health and higher cognition(thinking, perceiving and reasoning) but they also have a profound anti-inflammatory effect across the body.

Examples include resveratrol in berries, grapes and peanuts, chlorogenic acid in plums, apples cherries, curcumin inturmeric (curries), red/yellow onions, leaves and there are many others incloves, mint, thyme, basil, ginger.

Consistent with healthy eating advice, basing meals and snacks on eating a wide variety of seasonal, colourful fruit and vegetables and cooking meals with fresh ingredients and flavoursome herbs andspices are positive ways to capture these additional health benefits in a relatively inexpensive and enjoyable way.

2.   Foods which are naturally occurring probiotics &prebiotics nourish the whole body by cultivating the growth and development of a healthy microbiome.

Although many people think of bacteria as harmful, it is becoming more common knowledge that there are many bacteria that are good for our health. In fact, our guts host a colony of trillions of bacteria and the importance of us protecting and nurturing our colony to keep it healthy to benefit our own health, is now better understood. Put simply, a healthy colony of bacteria helps to keep our gut working smoothly, as well as the health and function of our major organs and especially our brain and mental health.

In contrast, an unhealthy colony can have powerful negative effects on our gut health, altering our bowel habits with symptoms of constipation, diarrhoea and bloating. But these bacteria are not just isolated to our gut as they can leave the gut with similarly negative consequences for our mental health and other organs.

There is a lot that currently is not known about the power of this colony known as our microbiome, but we do know that eating a diverse range of plant foods – wholegrains, fruit and vegetables - provides the best ‘fertilizer’ allowing our healthy bacteria to flourish and bloom. Conversely, eating a highly processed diet lacking in wholegrains, starchy vegetables, fruit and vegetables fosters the dominance of unhealthy and harmful bacteria. Alcohol, antibiotics and a bout of food poisoning will also destroy the growth of healthy bacteria, and what is currently unknown is the how it is affected by other medications and supplement use.

Top tips to nourish your microbiome and boost your health
✔️ Base your meals on a variety of different plant foods

·     Starchy vegetables – potatoes, sweet potatoes, swede, turnip, radish, beetroot, butternut squash

·     Wholegrains/cereals – rice, bulgarwheat, oats, couscous, pasta, quinoa, pearl barley, granary breads

·     Vegetables – as wide a range aspossible onions, leeks, broccoli, cauliflower, cucumber, spinach, peppers, carrots, aubergine, courgette, red cabbage, mushrooms, lettuce, watercress

·     Pulses – green beans, tinned beans, chickpeas (include humous), peas, lentils and dahls, soya beans – tofu and edamame beans

·     All types of nuts and seeds

✔️ Eat foods which are natural sources of healthy bacteria

·      Yoghurt and yogurt drinks

·      Fermented foods such as kimchi, kefir, sauerkraut

3.   Foods are complex sources of more than one nutrient.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that foods are good sources of only one nutrient. Foods frequently have nutrients which have complementary functions. For example, milk is known to provide all essential nutrients for bone health including protein, calcium, phosphorus and Vitamin D but also includes riboflavin (Vit B2),Vitamins A and B12, potassium, magnesium, zinc and iodine. You could consider it to be a source of multiple essential nutrients or a ‘super food’ for growth, development and recovery. Similarly, fish is not just a source of protein but rich in essential oils, Vitamins D and riboflavin, calcium, phosphorus, iron, zinc, iodine, magnesium and potassium and likewise meat provides protein but iodine, iron, zinc and other vitamins and essential fatty acids. Eaten as part of a balanced meal with starchy foods and vegetables, absorption and utilisation of nutrients such as iron is enhanced.

So, for overall good health and for a balanced intake of nutrients, foods chemicals and to nurture your microbiome, it is best to take a ‘Food First’ approach and enjoy eating a wide variety of fresher foods for health giving properties that only food provides. Bon Appetit!

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