Nutrition and food can be confusing – we are often told one thing but this can change rapidly with advances in research. One problem that a lot of individuals have is the concept of eating what we need versus what we think we need. Sometimes we tend to think that we need a lot of extra foods and fluids when in fact we often don’t.
What do we need?
As everyone is different we all have different needs but in general we all need to consume the right amount of total energy (calories) a day, along with a balance of macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein and fat), and a balance of minerals and vitamins. This intake needs to match our activity level, our age, our gender, our metabolic rate, and our stage of life. A petite sedentary office worker will need much less total energy and nutrients than a muscular fire fighter or professional athlete.
To ensure that you consume a balance of these fuel sources and nutrients it is recommended that all of your main meals should be based on the rule of ½ plate of fruit or vegetables (or salad), ¼ of your plate should be from a protein source (for example fish, lean white or red meat, eggs, lentils) and the remaining ¼ of your plate should be made up of wholegrain or low glycemic index carbohydrates. It can be easy to assume that everyone should fill up their plates with the same amount of food to make up the ratios – this is not what you need to do. An easy way to work out how big your ¼ of a plate of protein should be is to hold out your hand in front of you. Now open your hand and look at your palm. Your palm is the indication for how much you should be consuming. Smaller individuals will have a smaller palm, and therefore a smaller portion size. If you are having red or white meat your portion should be the size of your palm (as well as thickness) without your fingers. If you have fish as this is less dense your portion size can be your palm with fingers. Many of us eat far too much protein and grains and not enough fruits and vegetables. To measure your ¼ portion of grains you simply need to make your hand into a fist. This fist size indicates how big this portion should be. This is how much rice should be on your plate if you are having a meal with rice. It is the same with quinoa, pasta, couscous, potato and so on. It is then easy to fill up the remaining half of your plate with fruit and vegetables.
Total energy and portion size
This plate rule usually ensures that you consume enough food and total energy. If you have special needs you may need to adjust your portion sizes (talk to a registered nutritionist or dietitian if you need extra help). Most people tend to consume too much total energy. We can easily see this as we see overweight individuals all around us. If you are overweight you are consuming too much energy. Excess calories are stored as fat. One reason that so many individuals have far too many calories each day is that they don’t listen to their body signals. A lot of people are never truly hungry and often eat out of boredom or habit. A lot of individuals also eat far too many processed and refined foods, often in large portion sizes that also contain significant amounts of energy. When you next eat try to eat slower and think about how full you really are, and check your portion sizes with the hand rule.
Vitamins and minerals
A balanced diet provides you with a lot of vitamins and minerals, although many individuals believe that they need to consume even more through the use of supplements. Unless you have a medical condition you probably do not need supplements if you consume a balanced diet. Supplements should not be used to compensate for a poor diet, nor should they be needed with a balanced diet. Many of these extra vitamins simply get excreted as the body will not store an excess of them.
Water is vital for good health but it can be easy to go overboard on water as well. You need enough to stay hydrated but you can have too much. You should drink enough fluid to pass clear and plentiful urine 5 – 6 times a day. If you are consistently using the bathroom more than this you may be over hydrating yourself.
It is important to remember that we need enough nutrition from our food but we often over estimate how much we really need. If you are worried about just how much of each macronutrient you should be consuming, and your vitamin or mineral status you should check with a registered nutritionist or dietitian.