What is healthy diet / healthy eating?

This article was originally written by our doctor on Quora.com

Expert opinion on healthy eating continues to change, almost every month. There is no ideal answer but there are general consensus across several broad topics.

Besides what is near-ideal, compliance is also an important factor to healthy eating. It would not make sense to force yourself to overhaul your diet overnight if you are simple not able to stick to it. Make small steps towards a healthier lifestyle and never rush. Always remember that being happy and mentally nourished is also quintessential to a good healthy life!

Macronutrition:

Simply put, these are the bulk nutrients we absorb in large amounts every time we eat.

  1. Fats: I believe fats is indeed the misunderstood cousin of dietary science. Years of misleading and suspect research have maligned fats as the root cause for cardiovascular diseases. A human being overweight indeed does predispose a person to innumerable health risks but eating dietary fats is not a direct link to making a person overweight, in fact, it can be true for the opposite.
    – that being said however, one must steer clear from artificial trans fatty acids; these are fats used in the processing or production of food (such as in some fast food establishments, used for baking cakes or making snacks). I would avoid all these food items.
  2. Carbohydrates: Commonly know as ‘Carbs’, they can either be complex or simple (ie, Sugar), all of which are processed in our body by enzymes. Our body (primarily in the small intestines) can only absorb simple carbs or sugar. Consequently, Complex Carbs (think rough oats) are harder to digest enzymatically, harder to absorb and hence gives a lower ‘blood sugar rise’ after a meal. The pancreas (an organ required to suppress a rise in blood sugar level) is thus less exhausted when processing complex carbs. In other words, eating sweet food (they taste sweet because they contain a large portion of simple carbs — hence easy to digest/absorb = sweet taste in mouth!) is bad because it gives a large ‘blood sugar rise’ after a meal, also know as high Glycemic Index (GI).
  3. Proteins: proteins are the components required to build healthy muscles. There is not much attention to this family except some doctors recommend avoiding red meat (beef, pork, lamb, goat, venison and veal) due to increased cardiovascular and cancer risks.
  4. Fibre: these are compounds derived from plants which cannot be completely digested by our gut enzymes. Consequently they do not contribute much energy but they are important components of a healthy diet:
    – they increase the speed and regulate the frequency of food moving through the gut → hence they can prevent constipation and also reduce the total amount of absorption/digestion time per unit of ingested food
    – they can reduce the absorption of certain nutrients
    – they add bulk (and hence the feeling of fullness/satiety of eating) without increasing overall caloric content

It now becomes clearer that a healthy diet should ideally be:
– Moderate/high in Fibre, Complex Carbohydrates
– Moderate in Fats
– Low in Simplex Carbohydrates (sugar), hence food must be low in GI
– Zero Trans fatty acid

This should be built on top of the general understanding to avoid chemically or heavily processed food (due to the addition of chemical preservatives or taste modulators such as high sodium / simple carbs). We must also be cognizant that not all processed food are bad (frozen food are a form of processing, but it is completely wholesome and healthy if freezing is the only process without adding chemical preservatives).

Finally, always combine healthy diet with an active lifestyle: aim for 150 mins of moderate aerobic exercise (eg briskwalking, hikking) a week or 50mins every 2–3 days.

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