What does it mean to eat healthy? Recently, fitness and diet apps have seen a surge in popularity as we, as a society, become more health conscious. While the use of such apps may help us track the amount of calories we consume, are we really eating healthily?
We often equate “fitness” with “going on a diet” and “exercise”; If you hop onto social media, you’ll find that this sentiment rings true as fitness trends/advice tend to lean towards calorie counting couple with an exercise routine. While there is no denying that calorie counting is an effective way to trim unwanted fat, eating healthily is more than just tracking calories; the quality of the calories you consume matters in the long run and can affect your longevity.
Calories vs Nutrition
Firstly, what is a calorie? “Calorie” is a unit used to define the amount of food energy we get from consuming something. For example, if you were to consume half an avocado, you would gain 160 calories from that avocado to fuel your body. Calories are not inherently bad; the body needs energy from calories to move and function properly. Issues only arise when the caloric intake out weights the calories burned by the body. As excess energy is stored as fat, eating more than you can burn will lead to weight gain and health problems.
So, what are nutrients? Nutrients are dietary elements needed by the body for regulating metabolic processes in the cells, and for the maintenance and function of organs. Nutrients can come in the of essential nutrients and non-essential nutrients:
- Non-essential nutrients – Nutrients the body can synthesize, such as dietary fibre. Despite being called non-essential, this type of nutrients is needed by the body and does have a considerable impact on health.
- Essential nutrients – Nutrients the body cannot synthesize, such as minerals, certain vitamins, fatty acids, and indispensable amino acids. As these elements are needed for the body to function but cannot be produced by the body, they must be gained through our diet.
Foods can be high in both calories and nutrients, low in calories but high in nutrients, low in both calories and nutrients, or high in calories but low in nutrients. Circling back to our slice of avocado… Avocados are foods that are high in both calories and nutrients. Looking at the composition of 100g of avocado (160 calories), it is composed of 14.7g of fat, 8.5g of carbohydrates, 2g of protein, as well as fibre, sugars, magnesium, potassium, vitamin C, vitamin E, and vitamin K.
In contrast, 112 calories worth of generic lollipop/sugar candy (a single serving of 28g) is composed of just 27.78g of carbohydrates, with 17.83g being from sugar. Thus, while the caloric value of the lollipop is lower than the avocado, it is considered “empty calories” – low calorie does not always equal more healthy.
Does calorie quality matter if I am at a healthy weight?
The short answer is, Yes. The long answer is –
Using the Harvard’s Alternate Healthy Eating Index (AHEI)* score to measure diet quality, medical research has indicated that AHEI scores are closely linked to the hazard ratios (HRs) of total mortality (death from all causes/ life expectancy), cancer mortality, and cardiovascular disease mortality; Higher AHEI scores correlate to lower risk.
In layman’s terms, the healthier the diet, the lower the risk of developing chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease, and the longer the lifespan. Even if you are currently at a healthy weight and are consuming an appropriate amount of daily calories, your long term health may be impacted if you are not consuming the right kind of calories.
*AHEI scores are calculated using 10 components: high consumption of vegetables, fruit, nuts, whole grains, polyunsaturated fatty acids, and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids and low consumption of red/processed meats, sugar sweetened drinks, trans fat, and sodium. AHEI scores range from 0 (nonadherence) to 110 (perfect adherence).
Diets for a longer and healthier life
As mentioned above, the amount of calories you consume is important, but it is also worth being mindful of the nutritional density of the foods you eat. The basis of most of the popular and well-known healthy diets are avoiding processed carbohydrates/sugars while increasing the consumption of food that are nutrient dense. Here are some diet suggestions if you want to start eating healthy:
1. The Okinawa diet
We are starting this list with the Okinawa diet as it may be the most palatable for Singaporeans due to its use of Asian ingredients/flavours. The foundation of the Okinawa diet is nutrient-dense and high-antioxidant foods, with a majority of the calories from the diet coming from sweet potatoes (instead of rice), followed by whole grains, legumes (beans), and fibre-rich vegetables like carrots, okra, leeks, and bamboo shoots.
Soybean based foods like tofu or miso are also featured in this diet, and animal protein is consumed in moderation, mainly the form of white fish and seafood. Read meat like pork can be eaten, but only occasionally. Antioxidant-rich spices, tea, and dashi (broth) is also consumed liberally when on the Okinawa diet.
2. The Mediterranean diet
Perhaps one of the most well-known healthy diet, the Mediterranean diet revolves around consuming high-antioxidant food in addition to whole grains, legumes (beans), nuts, seeds, olive oil, herbs, and spices. Staples of the diet include quinoa, barley, buckwheat, millet, oats, whole grain breads or pasta, kale, tomatoes, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, bell peppers, artichokes, sweet potatoes and mushrooms.
Similar to the Okinawa diet, seafood (such as halibut, sea bass, or sardines) is the main type of animal protein consumed. Red meat and eggs can also be eaten, but it is advised to limit red meat to a few times per month. However, unlike the Okinawa diet, there is a heavier emphasis on consuming dairy products (yogurt, cottage cheese, feta cheese, etc.), nuts (pistachios, pine nuts, almonds, etc.), seeds (sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, etc.), and fruits (figs, pomegranate, avocados, olives, etc.) when on the Mediterranean diet.
3. Traditional plant-based diet
Also known as vegetarian diet, this diet is based on omitting meat and focusing on gaining your nutrients from fruits, vegetables, legumes (beans), grains, nuts, and seeds. Depending on how strictly you want to avoid animal products, honey, dairy, and eggs may be allowed under a plant-based diet.
A plant-based diet is generally considered broader and more flexible compared to a full vegan diet due to the reason stated above as true veganism does not allow for the consumption of meat and all animal products.
4. Free style
You don’t have to conform to a specific diet to eat healthfully; there is more than one way to eat and what’s most important is doing what works for you. Eating healthily can be as simple as eating lean meat over oilier cuts of meat, opting to eat white meat (chicken) instead of red meat (beef), or going pescetarian (plant-based diet supplemented with seafood).
A general rule of thumb for eating healthfully is reducing your consumption of ultra processed foods (liked luncheon meat), unsaturated fat/trans fats, alcohol, and sugar. You can even use the Alternate Healthy Eating Index (AHEI) as a guide for what to eat if you need help with crafting your diet.
What else can I do to improve my longevity?
Studies that compare the lifestyles of participants showed that adopting a healthy lifestyle does make a difference when it comes to longevity and long-term health. Participants who practice the following five healthy habits generally live longer lives than those who practice zero healthy habits:
- Eating a healthy diet
- Exercising regularly
- Maintaining healthy body weight
- Moderate alcohol consumption
- Avoiding smoking
If you are eager to start a new exercise routine after being inspired by browsing #fitspo or #gymlife on Instagram, you may want to consider Zone 2 training as your starting point. What is Zone 2 training? Zone 2 exercise focuses on training at a moderate intensity level based on your lactate threshold; when doing Zone 2 exercise you work your heart rate up to burn fat, but never to the point of stress and exertion, allowing you to exercise longer and recover faster between work outs.
Zone 2 training is considered one of the most accessible ways of achieving metabolic health and longevity as you don’t need to be a seasoned athlete to pull off Zone 2 training. If you are curious about Zone 2 training, please read our service page on Zone 2 training and lactate testing.