The Making Of A Healthy Diet

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.


Veg In

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:

  • 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)
Why the change?
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.

Milk It

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.

Fats and Figures

The old rule
Aim for less than 30 per cent of total calories from fat.

The new rule
Eat mostly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (nuts, fish, and vegetable oils). Aim for 20 to 35 per cent of calories from fat while keeping saturated fats to less than 10 per cent and trans fats as low as possible. Include six teaspoons of oils in a 2,000kcal diet. One teaspoon of olive or other vegetable oil or just under one teaspoon of margarine or eight olives count as one teaspoon of oil. Half an avocado or 25g nuts count as three teaspoons of oil.

Why the change?
By controlling your intake of specific types of fat, especially limiting saturated fats and cutting out trans fats, you can significantly lower your risk of heart disease. Watching your overall fat intake helps you control calories and avoid excess weight gain. New to the 2005 guidelines is specific advice on which "fatty" foods to eat and which to avoid. For instance, since 80 per cent of unhealthy trans fats come from processed foods, the guidelines emphasise choosing whole foods (vegetables, fruits, and whole grains) over processed foods. Foods that are rich in omega-3 fats, such as seafood, are specifically recommended for anyone not pregnant. For runners, eating more good fats, such as the omega-3s, can help aid recovery and boost the immune system.

Make it happen

  • To limit your intake of the added fats often found in packaged foods, you must read labels. Unfortunately, there is no legal requirement to list trans fat content on food labels in the UK but look for the words "hydrogenated oil", "partially hydrogenated oil" and "vegetable fat" in the ingredients list. The higher up the list it comes, the more there is in the product.
  • Choose lean meats, and low-fat, reduced-fat, or fat-free versions of your favourite foods to keep saturated fat at a minimum.
  • Substitute healthy fats for unhealthy fats. Swap full-fat cheese for nuts as a snack, or use peanut butter or avocado instead of butter or margarine as a spread.

Sweeten Sparingly

The old rule
Choose and prepare foods and drinks with little added sugar.

The new rule
Limit intake of drinks and foods with added sugars to your specific allotment of "discretionary" calories, which is based on age, gender, and activity level.

Why the change?
Many high-sugar foods have very few nutrients, yet they’re loaded with calories. That’s why the concept of "discretionary" calories was introduced in the new dietary guidelines. If you log on to www.mypyramid.gov and link to your personalised pyramid eating plan based on your age, gender, and activity level, you will be given an allotment of discretionary calories. These are the calories that you have left after you eat all the fruits, vegetables, grains, meats or beans, dairy, and healthy fats recommended for the day. The good news for runners is that the more active you are, the more discretionary calories you’re likely to be allowed. For many runners, this allotment will be in the 200-300kcal range. That means, after you eat all the good-for-you stuff outlined in the guidelines, you can have 200 to 300 calories worth of treats such as biscuits, cake, or wine. Keep in mind that those extra calories also need to account for any added sugar in the yoghurt, sports drinks or energy bars you eat, or the sugar you put in your coffee or tea or sprinkle on your cereal.

Make it happen

  • Limit sugars to your favourite treats, then select one each day. So forgo the sugar in your morning and afternoon coffee in favour of your after-dinner ice cream.
  • Fruit’s sweet taste can satisfy a sweet tooth. Pick your favourite fruits for dessert.
  • Take advantage of sugar-free foods and drinks as they can satisfy your need for sweets. Check the label, as many of these foods are not calorie-free.

Get Moving

The old rule
Half an hour of moderate physical activity most days of the week.

The new rule
An hour to 90 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity daily to lose weight, prevent weight gain, or maintain weight loss.

Why the change?
Boosting your daily activity levels is the most important step you can take towards improving your health. Physical activity has become a central component to the new guidelines and the pyramid. Upping your calorie burn through walking, running, or playing Frisbee allows you to eat more and meet your nutrient needs more easily, and regular physical activity helps prevent virtually all ailments from heart disease and certain cancers to weak bones and an expanding waistline. Most runners are probably well on their way to meeting these more demanding physical activity guidelines, but if your 30-minute jog doesn’t cut it anymore, remember that short bursts of activity – just 10 minutes here and 10 minutes there – all tally up for the daily minute count. Moderate physical activity includes brisk walking or easy bike riding, while vigorous activity is jogging or playing a physical game such as basketball or football.

Make it happen

  • Specify a time for physical activity every day – just like you do for other activities that are central to your life, such as sleep, work, and eating.
  • Choose active leisure hobbies such as walking or playing outdoor games instead of playing computer games or going to the cinema.
  • Make fitness a fun activity enjoyed by the whole family by planning active weekend outings such as long bike rides and walks.