Faced with the growing prominence of obesity and the prevalence of lifestyle-related diseases, many people are choosing to transition to a natural diet.
It was a key trend highlighted in a PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) report, where consumers in the 18 to 34 age bracket – collectively identified as Millennials – were leading the shift to “healthy eating” thanks to increased media exposure, as well as social media, blogs and mobile apps.
According to the report, almost half of respondents (47%) have shifted their eating habits towards a ‘healthier diet’, as compared to just 23% of those aged over 55, with 53% of those surveyed expected to change their eating habits in the next year.
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Natural whole foods
But what exactly constitutes a ‘healthful diet’? Google the term and you’ll find a broad range of diet definitions and approaches. However, one element of healthful eating that holds true across most of the definitions is the inclusion of more natural whole foods.
The rationale behind following a diet devoid of processed and manufactured foods is that natural variants are packed full of all the important vitamins and minerals our bodies need to repair and grow.
Natural foods also contain fibre, enzymes, and all the important nutrients that give us the energy and vitality needed to improve our health, and enhance our performance and our physiques.
Unadulterated natural whole foods also contain certain nutrients in the exact ratios our bodies need to create and maintain balance and optimal function.
Take the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 essential fatty acids as an example. Nowhere in nature does a foodstuff contain a ratio greater than 3:1. Also, scientific research has shown that human beings evolved on a diet that contained a ratio closer to 1:1.
However, today’s Westernised diet delivers an average ratio of 15-16:1, with many manufactured oils containing a ratio as high as 18-20:1.
Excessive amounts of omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) and a very high omega-6:omega-3 ratio have been linked to many diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and inflammatory and autoimmune disorders.
On the other hand, increased intakes of omega-3 PUFAs, which helps to balance out slanted omega-6:omega-3 ratios, offers many health-promoting benefits.
For instance, studies show that a ratio of 4:1 was associated with a 70% decrease in total mortality from cardiovascular disease, while a ratio of 2.5:1 was associated with a decreased risk of cancer. A ratio of 2-3:1 was also shown to suppress inflammation in patients with rheumatoid arthritis.
It is therefore more than just the nutrient density of natural whole foods that make their inclusion in a wholesome and healthful diet so important.
To help you construct the perfect dietary guidelines for a healthier approach to eating, we spoke to five of the country’s most prolific proponents of natural eating to get their top tips:
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Antonia De Luca, a raw food chef and the founder and owner of raw and organic food cafe, Leafy Greens in Muldersdrift, Johannesburg, suggests:
- Source organic foods grown without the use of pesticides and herbicides. These can be up to 35% more nutritious than commercially available ‘fresh’ food bought from supermarkets.
- Buy fresh, unfrozen produce as often as possible because when food is picked the enzymes it contains start to denature. Freezing slows this process down, but it doesn’t stop it.
- Try to buy food as close to its natural source as possible – what is generally termed farm-to-table dining. If you don’t have access to local farmers’ markets, start a small garden or grow some sprouts on your windowsill. Add these fresh ingredients to your daily meals to boost the nutrient density of your diet.
- Add superfoods to meals and recipes, such as hemp seeds or goji berries for example, to make up for the shortfall in our daily nutrient intake, without the need to physically eat all the extra food required to achieve the same levels.
- Eat seasonal food as this means it has ripened naturally.
- Add plant-based organic and raw natural supplements that deliver a concentrated form of nutrients to your diet, such as blue green algae, camu camu powder and baobab powder, which are packed with various vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and/or antioxidants.
- Juice, predominantly with fresh, organic veg, some fruit, and wild flowers like stinging nettles, dandelions and purslane. You can then add in things like aloe, a southern African superfood that is great for combating ailments such as arthritis and acid build up. The process of juicing makes the nutrients in fresh organic food more bioavailable.
- For a nutritional boost, eat the stems, stalks and leaves of root vegetables and fruits, rather than discarding them, as they contain most of the nutritional value of the food. Carrot tops, for example, have more nutritional value than the orange root. The same applies to beetroot tops and leaves, and the stalks of cauliflower and broccoli, as examples.
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Rachel Jesson, a health food specialist, sports scientist and co-author of the book Wholesome Nutrition For You, suggests:
- A healthful diet should consist mainly of vegetables, with smaller amounts of fruit and protein.
- Always aim to eat the best quality food that you can afford and source, as often as you can. Never compromise on the quality of the food you buy.
- When you shop at any one of the many organic markets popping up across the country, ask when the food was picked and how far it had to travel to get there, to determine if it has retained enough of its nutritional value.
- Use your instinct when buying ‘fresh’ food. The freshest, best quality foods will generally taste richer and/or sweeter.
- Rather than focus on the macronutrient ratios of your diet, which is a common trend in fad dieting, ensure you’re getting the right amount of micronutrients to create optimal health.
- With the right selection of seeds and a few pre-sprouting techniques, you can have a small- to medium-sized organic garden at home full of things like tomatoes, carrots, pumpkins, and loads of leafy greens.
- Eat more foods that combat inflammation because most of us live with excessive amounts of inflammation and overly acidic internal environments.
- One of the most important roles of your diet is to balance blood sugar. This is best achieved by mixing foods to manage the glycaemic load (GL) of the meals you eat.
- Include more fermented foods in your diet to repopulate the gut and colon with the ‘healthy bacteria’ known as probiotics.
- Don’t become reliant on supplements. Take a food-first approach to healthful eating, with the aid of superfoods and supported with supplements to compensate for any shortfall. Supplement use should also be strategic rather than a shotgun approach to ensure it’s delivering benefits.
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Hannah Kaye, a nutritional therapist based in Cape Town, suggests:
- Buy only fresh fruits and veggies. Shop at least once a week. Keep the purchase of frozen, canned or baked goods to a minimum, if at all.
- Opt for dairy and meat products derived from animals reared using organic farming practices, as commercially farmed meat is generally fattier and dairy products are extremely high in oestrogens and growth hormones.
- Aim to include a variety of colours in the fruit and veg you buy and eat.
- Consume more good fats from avocado, olive oil, coconut, wild caught fish, nuts and seeds as these foods are anti-inflammatory in nature.
- Buy organically grown fruits and vegetables that have not been sprayed with toxic chemicals. This is essential as these toxins enter the soil and make their way into the food we eat, which our liver then needs to process.
- Eat at least one overflowing cup per day of cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cabbage and Brussels sprouts to support phase-two liver detoxification.
- Avoid foods that contain preservatives as these disrupt our endocrine system.
- Combine natural foods in ways that boost nutrient density. For example, lean proteins with green and yellow veg, and colourful salads with avocado and seeds. With this approach you can ensure you take in a range of nutrients.
- Supplement with a quality fish oil product, live strain probiotic, and a comprehensive multivitamin and mineral complex that contains adequate levels of B vitamins.
- Avoid higher risk ‘natural’ foods such as non free-range chicken, dairy and farmed fish.
- Wash all fruits and vegetables if you aren’t buying organic.
Heidi du Preez, Pr. Sci. Nat. M.Sc., a nutritional scientist at Natural Nutrition suggests:
- Eat food as close to it’s source of origin because natural food is living material. When it is picked or slaughtered it begins to degrade. The picking, freezing and transport of ‘fresh’ food causes a decline in the nutritional value of the food, even if the utmost care is taken.
- Supplement the nutrient content of your diet with well-formulated, comprehensive commercially available products. Opt for products derived from whole food sources, not from extracts or synthetic substances.
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Vanessa de Ascencao, functional medicine practitioner and nutritional expert, suggests:
- Limit or eliminate your consumption of overly processed and refined foods and sugar, which are devoid of nutrients and are full of artificial colourants, additives, flavourants, synthetic compounds and chemically-altered fats and sweeteners. An overconsumption of these foods leads to nutritional deficiencies and high rates of free radical damage. These foods also have deleterious effects on our hormonal system and organs, which leads to disease and obesity.
- Hydrate with purified water with added fresh lemon or lime and Himalayan rock salt.
- Use fresh herbs and natural spices to flavour your food.
- Eat food in season to ensure more variety and nutrients in your diet.
- Avoid cured, dried, preserved, or smoked meats.
- Don’t eat food that won’t rot. Real food is alive, so it will eventually rot and die.
- Eat at least some raw fruits and vegetables. These have the highest amounts of vitamins and minerals. However, cooking some vegetables can make the vitamins more bioavailable, which makes it easier for our bodies to use.
- Avoid sugar and artificial sweeteners, low-fat and fat-free products, table salt, processed fats and hydrogenated oils, and chemicals and artificial food additives, flavourants and preservatives.
Author: Pedro van Gaalen
When he’s not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He’s worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.