When it comes to food, we usually end up following the USA’s lead even if the trends that make it across the Atlantic aren’t that healthy. Just think McDonalds, Krispy Kreme doughnuts or get-thin-quick diets such as Atkins and South Beach. There is one area of nutrition, though, where copying America might just be a good idea. Earlier this year the US Government updated its nutrition guidelines – the recommended daily amounts of staples such as sugars and fats. They based the new guidelines on the latest research from Harvard University researchers. In contrast, the guidelines British nutritionists use were set way back in 1991 – yet are only now making it on to food labels.
We’ve seen the new US guidelines and reckon they make perfect sense – especially for runners. For the first time, they emphasise physical activity, and recommend the consumption of more fruit, vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats. In fact, the old mantra of "fat is bad, carbs are good" has been turned on its head as scientists realise it has failed to halt rising levels of obesity. Now Americans are being told to eat more unsaturated fats, less saturated and trans fats, and positively discouraged from consuming refined carbs such as white bread, rice and pasta – previously regarded as runners’ staples.
To fuel performance and help fight chronic disease, the US government recommends at least three 25g servings of whole grains daily and vegetables from five different categories each week. The chances are that the UK authorities will eventually incorporate many of these recommendations into our own guidelines, but, until then, here are the five most important changes and how you can incorporate them into your healthy eating plan.
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The old rule
Eat a minimum of two servings of fruit and three servings of vegetables per day.
The new rule
Eat two 80g portions of fruit and 2 1/2 120g portions of vegetables for a 2,000kcal diet, and more for greater calorie intakes. One portion of fruit equals one apple, banana, orange, peach or pear or three plums or eight strawberries. One portion of vegetables is equivalent to three broccoli spears, two carrots, one baked potato or one large pepper. While this looks similar to our five-a-day recommendation, the US portions are bigger than traditional UK portions. The new guidelines also specify the need to eat vegetables from five different categories every week:
Why the change?
- Three portions of dark green vegetables (eg broccoli, spinach and watercress)
- Two portions of orange vegetables (eg carrots, butternut squash and sweet potatoes)
- Three portions of beans and lentils (eg kidney beans, lentils and chickpeas)
- Six and a half portions of other vegetables (eg cucumber, tomatoes and cauliflower)
Research indicates people who eat plenty of fruits and vegetables (mostly in the form of greens and orange-coloured vegetables) have lower risks of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and certain types of cancer – all leading causes of death. That’s because both vegetables and fruits come packed with an array of chemical compounds called phytochemicals, which ward off carcinogens, help keep cholesterol from damaging artery walls, and fend off age-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s. For runners, eating more fruit and veg means you’ll take more high-quality carbs for muscle fuel, vitamins such as vitamin C to help aid recovery from a tough workout, and minerals such as potassium and magnesium for healthy blood pressure and bones.
Make it happen
- Think of your plate as a clock and allot 40 "minutes" of it to salad, steamed veg and fruits.
- Stuff sliced vegetables into everything you eat: sandwiches, rolls and wraps. Stir green veg (eg broccoli florets, spinach and cabbage) into soups, curries and hotpots. Add vegetables to juices and smoothies (try a carrot in a fruit smoothie).
- Keep frozen and tinned fruits and vegetables as back up to fresh produce. Stock a variety such as tinned beans, peaches, frozen spinach, cauliflower and peas. Dried fruit also stores well and about one tablespoon of raisins or three dried apricots matches one portion of fresh fruit.
The old rule
Consume two to three servings from the dairy group daily.
The new rule
Consume three 300ml portions of low-fat or fat-free milk, or the equivalent, each day. One portion is equivalent to two small (about 125ml) pots of yoghurt; 40g (two slices) of cheese or even three scoops of ice cream. The US portion sizes are slightly bigger than UK portions – upping the total dairy intake – plus there’s the emphasis on low-fat or fat-free dairy options, unlike the old UK rules.
Why the change?
Consuming more dairy foods will help ensure healthy bones for a lifetime. Dairy calcium has been proven to build stronger, denser bones and fend off the fragile-bone disease osteoporosis. The vitamin D in milk also fortifies bone strength. Of course, runners stand to gain a lot from strong bones (think fewer fractures). The high protein content of dairy foods helps give runners the protein they need to repair the muscle damage caused by intense training sessions. If dairy is not an option because you’re lactose intolerant or a vegan, opt for calcium-fortified juices, soya milk, or breakfast cereals with added vitamin D. Check the label for a comparison to milk (listed as a per cent of the RDA for calcium).
Make it happen
- Start your day with dairy or the equivalent. A morning meal of cereal and milk, yoghurt and fruit, or a smoothie made with soya milk gives you a good jump on your daily allotment.
- Think of dairy as a food rather than a drink and include it in some form in every meal.
- Use dairy foods or the equivalent, such as yoghurt or tofu, as ingredients in soups, sauces, and casseroles, or flavour with fresh herbs and use for dipping fresh vegetables.