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The importance of food variety for optimal health and diet success

Getting stuck in a food rut does not do a body good.

We explore the importance of eating a variety of foods and what to include in your diet for optimal nutrition…

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Food has a function

You may tend to stick to the same foods in a bid to tightly control what you eat or merely for convenience sake. Yet, did you know that you are actually doing your body a disservice by munching monotonously?

In fact, in a study published by the Journal of Nutrition, researchers found that people who continually eat the same things tend to be less healthy than those who consume a broad spectrum of nutritious foods and are also less likely to get adequate nutrients and fibre.

The study further revealed that participants who consumed a wide range of foods were 21% less likely to develop metabolic syndrome (a cluster of conditions that includes high blood pressure, high blood sugar and increased body fat, that greatly increase a person’s risk for heart disease and diabetes) when compared to those participants who ate the same foods over again. Study participants with a varied diet were also less likely to have high blood pressure and more likely to have a healthy waist circumference.

Eating a one-dimensional diet can also have a negative effect on the metabolism by depriving the body of nutrients needed to function optimally”, adds Jenna Bowes, a clinical dietitian at MME Dietitians & Associates, based in Johannesburg.

For example, certain nutritional compounds act as co-factors to aid the absorption of other nutrients,” she says.

Other negative consequences are flavour fatigue and boredom, which ultimately lead to one falling off the proverbial health train”. Jenna also emphasises that a lack of food variety leads to inadequate fibre intake.

Different whole grains, wholesome starches, fruit and vegetables vary in their fibre content”, she elaborates.

“Someone might think that they are getting enough fibre by eating instant oats for breakfast and a salad every evening with supper but other foods, such as rolled oats, high fibre bran, legumes and fruits, may be more fibre-rich.”

According to Bowes, “each food group essentially has a different function in the body and individual foods within the food groups contain a unique type and combination of nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. There is simply no one ‘magic’ food or ‘superfood’ that contains everything your body needs”, she adds.

By achieving variety in your diet you are giving yourself the best chance of meeting your body’s nutritional requirements.” So what foods should you consume to achieve this diet balance and variety?

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The key components of a healthy diet

Cape Town-based nutritional therapist and co-owner of nutritional snack manufacturer Native South Africa, Andrea Jenkins, asserts that a healthy, varied diet should essentially comprise the following key elements:

  • Complex carbohydrates, which contain fibre, that releasing energy slowly,
  • Good quality proteins to build and repair the body,
  • Essential fats which lubricate the skin, are vital for the brain, help regulate hormones, fuel activity, and lubricate the joints,
  • Antioxidants to repair and prevent cell damage and degradation,
  • Vitamins and minerals to drive and maintain body structure and function.

Examples of wholesome, complex carbohydrates include: oats, corn, brown and wild rice, quinoa, bulgur wheat, millet and baby or sweet potato, says Bowes. “These are minimally processed foods that are as close to their natural form as possible and are high in fibre and phytonutrients, which can help to sustain energy levels and provide valuable health benefits”, she explains.

Bowes also recommends suitable protein sources such as dairy, meat, chicken, fish, eggs and legumes for cell growth and repair. “These proteins not only have a high satiety value but also provide valuable nutrients”, she says.

Healthy sources of fats such as nuts, seeds, olives, avocado and plant-based oils, are a vital component of cell membranes and contribute to satiety, adds Jenna. “They also play a key role in the absorption of certain vitamins and minerals.”

Loading up on fruits and vegetables will also provide your body with many of the antioxidants, minerals and vitamins which are important components of a varied diet.

“The nutrients and fibre in fruit and vegetables reduce the effects of ‘oxidative stress’, caused by pollution, bad diets, cigarettes, UV radiation and alcohol and, through this protective effect, our cells are able to repair”, explains Jenna.

She argues that there are no ‘bad’ fruits or vegetables when eaten in their natural form and in healthy portions. “The more variety of fruit and vegetable colours in your diet, the better”, adds Fiona Greggor, a nutritional therapist from Johannesburg.

“This will ensure that you get a wide range of flavonoids, which contain the phytonutrients that are rich in antioxidants, prevent inflammation and support the immune system”.

Fiona recommends juicing or blending fruit and vegetables as a quick and easy way to enjoy the benefits of a variety of produce in one drink.

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Guarantee a good gut

Eating a variety of foods also ensures that you maintain good gut health, which can lead to a myriad other health benefits. Our digestive tracts play host to trillions of bacteria called gut microbiota and these help the body break food down and absorb nutrients.

However, researchers have discovered that these bacteria impact more than just your digestive health and can actually affect everything else, from insulin sensitivity and inflammation levels to our susceptibility to depression and anxiety.

The truth is that a lack of gut bacteria diversity can lead to poor insulin sensitivity and negatively impact how effectively you burn carbohydrates.

Multiple studies in humans have also revealed that poor gut bacteria diversity can lead to more fat storage, unhealthy food cravings and inflammation, which is linked to obesity, heart disease, arthritis, and even depression.

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So, what variety of foods should you eat to improve your gut health?

There are numerous foods that help to increase the healthy bacteria in the gut, such as yoghurt and fermented foods like sauerkraut, kefir and kombucha”, shares Fiona.

These foods contain live strains of different bacteria through a process called lactofermentation,” she adds.

Fiona explains that there are also foods that contain prebiotics, which stimulate the growth and maintenance of good bacteria in the gut. “Raw garlic, raw onions, raw leeks, artichokes and asparagus are examples of some of the foods that have prebiotics,” she says.

Dr. Shekhar K. Challa, a US-based gastroenterologist and the author of “Probiotics for Dummies” (Wiley, 2012), also recommends eating unpasteurised, probiotic-rich foods such as miso, pickles, tempeh and kimchi, for good gut health.

“It’s also important to keep in mind that fibre is the main source of fuel for the natural, ‘friendly’ bacteria living in the gut and this means that a diet high in fibre is likely to promote the growth of good bacteria,” reiterates Jenna.

She goes on to warn that the balance of gut bacteria may be compromised in individuals either limiting carbohydrates (through very high protein or high fat diets) or by not giving preference to wholesome, fibre-rich carbohydrates.

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Focus on fresh, unrefined foods

Processed products, refined sugars and convenience foods are often ‘dead’ with very little living sources of nutrition and are loaded with poor quality ingredients that give minimal vitality to the body,” explains Andrea.

Selection of whole grains in white bowls – rice, oats, buckwheat, bulgur, porridge, barley, quinoa, amaranth, on white wood background

Processed foods are also usually high in bad fats, sodium and trans-fats, all of which will encourage chronic illnesses and nutrient deficiencies”, adds Fiona.

Thus, it is important to focus on eating fresh, whole, organic and free-range foods to ensure optimal absorption of nutrients and to avoid the toxic chemicals, carcinogens and pesticides that are so prevalent in today’s produce.

Joining an organic food delivery service is well worth investing in, as this will help you to eat a variety of fresh foods and be forced to be creative with your meals,” suggests Antonia De Luca, the director of popular organic, plant-based café and shop, Leafy Greens Café.

Antonia also highlights the importance of eating more freshly gown produce because plant foods are full of all the essential vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and enzymes essential for a healthy digestive system, strong heart, good eyesight and overall physical health.

Aim to eat according to the season, shop at seasonal and organic farmer’s markets, and plant your own garden”, recommends Antonia.

There are also so many unusual and very nutritious foods such as grasses, sprouts, nuts, seeds, grains, fruits, vegetables, seaweed and leafy greens that people have yet to explore”.

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It is amazing that we have never had greater access to as huge a variety of foods and yet our human habit is to stick with what we know and eat the same foods day in and out,” laments Matthew Ballenden, a Johannesburg-based nutritional chef and owner and founder of Fresh Earth Food Store & Fresh Earth Bake House.

He argues that this is problematic because our body uses what we eat to build itself and we essentially limit ourselves health-wise by limiting our food choices. He further points out that this nutritional gap can be significantly connected to the prevalence of diseases in today’s society.

We should expose our bodies to as many nutrients as possible and the more variety of whole foods we eat, the less likely we are to be deficient… and deficiency equals disease,” says Matthew.

As clichéd as it sounds, variety is quite literally the spice of life and your body will really thank you for not limiting yourself nutritionally.”

Written by Julia Lamberti

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.

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