Every day we decide what to eat, what we drink and what we will do to remain active. There comes a time when, for whatever reason, we feel we must make a change. So, we set a personal goal, and we sign up for Yoga or start walking and maybe go on a diet.
Like many, we have good intentions for ourselves. Yet, we often do not know the expected outcome for our choices or the best course of action to reach our goal. And the media is full of information that is often poorly researched or poorly understood.
To help our students and friends, we will create a series of articles that collect the best and most up to date information we can find. Then simplify them to make food, nutrition and exercise easy to understand.
This article covers the absolute basics of nutrition and exercise. You may still find some surprises in this concise summary!
There are five essential components to be aware of:
Energy: How much energy you consume and how much energy you expend in a day or week. (1)
If you take more in than you consume, you are likely to gain weight in muscle or fat.
If you use more than you consume, you are likely to lose weight.
The most effective weight control is to control portion sizes over the long term.
Take in the right amount of fluids every day. Water is best and should be 50% of what you consume, but almost all fluids count. (7)
Drink 2.2l (10 cups) for women
and 2.9l (13 cups) for men*
Nutrition: The nutrients that you take in that supports your body's normal functions. Eating varied and colourful is best. (2)
Exercise: The most straightforward wonder drug. Exercise makes you healthier, helps you live longer and makes you happier. (3,6) Do the exercise you enjoy most and keep doing it over long periods.
Healthy human relationships: Shown to be one of the most vital indicators for longer life. (4) Take the time to have healthy relationships.
* Values are adjusted to account for 20% of fluids from food
What should I eat:
Unless you have a verified medical condition, eat as varied as possible.
Shortcuts for a diverse and healthy diet:
Eat food that has as many colours as possible.
Eat whole grains and whole foods as far as possible.
Avoid trans fats: There is a strong link to cardiovascular disease.
Control your portion sizes
Your body and brain need sugar, but too much sugar is unhealthy. Limit your sugar intake regardless of what type of sugar it is.
Be wary of diets
The last two points may sound very controversial, so consider the following:
Diets often aim to remove food sources, which means you need to compensate for the missing nutrition in some way, often leading to new problems or a need to use supplements.
As mentioned earlier, unless you have a verified medical condition, eat varied.
Lastly, diets that reduce your weight in the short term often do not lead to lasting changes over longer periods. If you cannot sustain your new eating habits, you will likely gain again when you go back to your normal diet.
Also, do not fall for advertising that tells you that refined sugar from this source or that source is better for you. There is a link between too much sugar and negative impacts on your brain. (5) Sugar is why fruit has a reduced portion suggestion against vegetables. Control your sugar intake, but there is no need to avoid it altogether. After all, it tastes great! And we need it to survive.
A quick note on whole foods: When we talk about whole foods, we are not talking about farming methods like Organic or Free-range, nor do we talk about GMO. Whole foods refer to eating as much of the original food as possible. The leaves and plants you find in the salad, vegetable and fruit stands in a supermarket are all whole foods. Unprocessed dried beans are whole foods. A steak is a whole food. Essentially the more of the original food you eat, the more complete the nutritional profile. The more refined the food, the more parts have been removed, which in turn removes some of the nutritional benefits.
What is the right amount of fluid?
Your fluid requirements change depending on gender, activity and environment. For example, living in the hot climate of the UAE, you should drink more than the guideline.
The National Academies of Medicine provided a guideline to help us understand our daily requirements: (7)
2.7ltr (11 cups) for women
and 3.7l (16 cups) for men
The guideline suggests that at least 50% of your fluid intake should come from water, leaving the rest mainly up to you, and 20% will come from the food you eat.
Coffee, tea, milk, fruit juices and sodas all count towards fluid intake, but they have sugar, fat or caffeine mixed in, which you want to limit. Remember that fruit juices can have as much or more sugar as soda. They indeed count to fluid intake, but they also count to total sugar intake.
We will expand on more detailed fluid intake and the effect of water on your body in a future article.
What should I do about exercise?
Want to know what the best exercise would be for you?
The simplest answer is: Whatever exercise you enjoy enough to keep doing for years. Essentially, all exercise is good for you.
If it helps you build good social relationships, that is even better!
Whatever your chosen activity is, you will get the best results when you pair the exercise with portion control on a varied diet.
Ever notice that you feel hungrier after heavy exercise? Your body will want to replenish your energy, and you may want to eat more at first. Most of us may even want to reward ourselves with foods high in fat and sugar. These responses are entirely normal.
If you pay attention to your portions and what you eat, you will still create an energy deficit, which will help you lower body fat over time.
Furthermore, as you continue to exercise, your muscle mass increases. Increased muscle mass, in turn, helps to burn more energy after you exercise and while resting.
Exercise has many benefits:
Strengthened immune system
Improved cardiovascular health
Improved neurogenesis (new neurons for the brain)
Improved memory and resistance to cognitive disease
Reduces your risk of falling for the aged
It helps you control your weight
Lowers your risk of diabetes
Boosts your energy during the day
Calming effect on the mind
Improved social confidence
Supports a healthier sex life for both men and women
Be aware that while exercise is incredibly good for you, miracles do not happen overnight. Miracles happen over years of commitment to your goals.
What do my relationships have to do with well-being?
The effect of healthy social relationships has been proven to have a solid connection with a longer life expectancy.
Have you ever heard that laughter is the best medicine? Well, laughing with friends and family is proving to be an essential ingredient for our well-being, as is kindness.
Since good relationships make us happier, that means we likely have not only a longer life but a better quality of life.
Being kind, helping others, simple hugs, and eye contact helps to fight the effects of stress and loneliness. So much so that it is similar to the benefits seen when eating plenty of vegetables throughout your life.
Good social interactions increase your oxytocin levels, reduce inflammation markers, and even impact the expression of genes for the immune system.
Considering all these benefits, it is worth your time to think about improving your social life. Not only will it make you happier and healthier, but it is also likely to make you more productive.
Why is advice on food and exercise so confusing?
A side-effect of the Information Age is the ease with which information can spread. That includes good information, but also opinions, imperfect information and people who want to sell you something mostly for their own benefit.
Additionally, the effects of diets, nutrition and exercise have a lot in common that can make it harder for us to research.
Firstly, the interactions between exercise, mental states, nutrition, weight gain and general well-being is complex! The way our bodies react to each element is different between people. So we need to study the effect on many people. Finding willing participants that represent a broad group is expensive and not always easy.
Secondly, the effect of a change takes time to impact the body. Does studying the possible impact for one week, one month, one year or through one lifetime give the best result? Often the answer is through many years. So whatever the research is, it takes many years for a single study, and to be confident, we need to do many studies to ensure we get the right results.
Thirdly we need surety. Understandably, very few humans want to sit in a lab and have their diets and activities controlled for years. So we rely on self-reported information or very short controlled studies. How many people do you know that will record their information accurately over long periods. And be truthful when they cheat on the prescribed program?
So now we have complicated interactions that we must study over very long periods, with many many people that do not give accurate information and do not always follow the prescribed programs. It makes it very hard to work out what is going on in our bodies.
As a result, we have to use the best information available today. The best information sits in research articles. Meanwhile, to make matters worse, we have all the uninformed stories we tell each other and all the people that want to sell us miracles. So it is easy to find bad advice disguised as good advice and hard to find the best current good advice.
The good news is that we, human, have been steadily improving our knowledge, and we have a much better understanding of what seems to have a positive impact on our health over long periods.
It is by no means perfect, but there is enough to help us make much better decisions than we have ever been able to make.
So what must I do to make the best decisions?
Be cautious of popular opinion, miracle diets or miracle exercises. It takes us a long time to understand all the interactions of different chemicals, vitamins and exercise in and on our body.
At the same time, it takes long periods for our bodies to show the impact of positive changes in diet or activity. Some of us can make drastic changes and keep those changes for long periods, but for most, small changes that we can maintain for years is better.
If you hear something interesting, go online and find a medical journal to read more about it or fall back to the basics we described here.
If you know of any new data that we must use to update the information we have collected here, please let us know.
Thank you for reading
You made it to the bottom of the article! Showing such interest suggests you may find benefit in our future articles. We aim to compile and distil as much recent research as possible on different topics. We will do our best, but in the end, what we provide are general guidelines based on the research we can find and must not go against medical advice given by your medical advisor.
Some of our References and further reading:
(4): Energy balance