According to the all the international studies and research carried out by the Department of Health the most important steps that you can take to improve your health are to eat healthy food, watch your portions and take some form of exercise.
To assist in deciding what is a healthy portion and what constitutes healthy eating the Department, in conjunction with the HSE last year published a very informative booklet on the Food Pyramid which is available online at www.healthpromotion.ie
If you want to maintain a healthy weight and help reduce your risk of becoming ill from high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer and other chronic diseases then it’s time to start looking at what you eat and how much exercise you take.
Eating healthy food and being physically active are two of the most important steps that you can take to improve your health. Healthy eating is about getting the correct amount of nutrients – protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals you need to maintain good health.
Foods that contain the same type of nutrients are grouped together on each of the shelves of the Food Pyramid. This gives you a choice of different foods from which to choose a healthy diet. Following the Food Pyramid as a guide will help you get the right balance of nutritious foods within your calorie range. Studies show that we take in too many calories from foods and drinks high in fat, sugar and salt, on the Top Shelf of the Food Pyramid. They provide very little of the essential vitamins and minerals your body needs. Limiting these is essential for healthy eating.
At different stages in your life you have different daily nutrient requirements. These depend on your age, whether you are male or female and how active you are. Try to pick a variety of foods from each of the bottom 4 shelves every day to get a good range of vitamins and minerals.
Watch Portion Sizes
Portion sizes are very important for all ages, but particularly for children from 5-13 years. When making food and drink choices, it is important to follow the recommended number of servings from each shelf of the Food Pyramid. A serving is a unit of measure used to describe the total amount of foods recommended daily from each of the shelves of the Food Pyramid. The actual portion that you eat may be bigger or smaller than the servings listed in the Food Pyramid and if so, you count these as half a serving or 2 servings.
Portion size servings for children
While the Food Pyramid can be used as a guide for children over 5 years, it is important that children eat according to their growth and appetite. Smaller children will need smaller servings - so start with smaller portion sizes from the Bread, Cereals, Potatoes, Pasta and Rice shelf of the Food Pyramid and increase these as the child asks for more. Children need a well balanced diet to get enough but not too many calories, and the vitamins and minerals they need to be healthy.
Foods and drinks from the Top shelf of the Food Pyramid are not essential for health. These foods provide mostly calories and are best limited to half - 1 serving a day maximum. Higher amounts of these can lead to overweight and obesity. Sugar sweetened drinks, in particular if taken regularly, can promote overweight and obesity. One in four 7 year old children is overweight or obese.The advice in this article for children is about healthy eating and not about reducing weight.
Healthy Eating Guidelines
• Limit foods and drinks from the Top Shelf of Food Pyramid. This is the most important Healthy Eating Guideline, as these are high in fat, sugar and salt
• Prepare and cook your meals using fresh ingredients. Ready meals and take-aways tend to be high in fat and salt and should not be eaten regularly.
•Always read the nutrition label - check for high levels of fat, sugar and salt.
• Eat a variety of 5 or more of different coloured fruit and vegetables every day. Choose leafy green vegetables regularly. Smoothies can count towards your fruit and vegetable intake, but try and choose only fruit and/or vegetable based smoothies. Check the label for sugar and fat.
•Wholegrain breads, high fibre cereals, especially porridge, potatoes, wholewheat pasta and brown rice satisfy hunger and are the best foods to fuel your body. These provide a slow release of energy. Be aware of the calorie difference - some types may contain more calories than others.
•Choose healthier cooking methods like steaming, grilling, baking, roasting and stir-frying instead of frying foods. Limit bought fried foods, such as chips.
•Eat more fish; it’s a good source of protein as well as containing important vitamins and minerals. Try to eat oily fish at least once a week, for example, mackerel, sardines and salmon. These are high in omega 3 fats.
•Choose lower fat milks, low fat/no added sugar yoghurts and yoghurt drinks and reduced fat cheese.
•Choose vegetable oils that are high in monounsaturated fats such as rapeseed or olive oil. Oils high in polyunsaturated fats such as sunflower or corn oil are also good fats.
• Add as little as possible or no salt to your food in cooking or at the table. Try other flavourings instead such as herbs, spices, pepper, garlic or lemon juice.
•Have fresh foods as much as possible. Look at the salt content on food labels.
• Adults need about 8-10 cups or glasses of fluid every day. 1 cup is about 200mls. You need more if you are active. Children and teenagers need to drink regularly throughout the day. Water is the best fluid.
• Take time to enjoy 3 meals a day sitting at a table. Eat slowly and chew your food properly. Eating while watching TV or the computer screen distracts you from the amount of food you eat and you may end up eating more than you need.
•Always make time to have a breakfast – people who eat breakfast are more likely to be a healthy weight.
•Alcohol contains calories, so if you drink, drink sensibly within recommended limits and preferably with meals.
•If you eat a healthy balanced diet, you should not need to take food supplements, unless you are advised to do so by your doctor. The Irish diet is low in vitamin D - talk to your pharmacist or doctor about taking a supplement.
• Healthy eating before and during pregnancy protects your child’s risk of lifestyle diseases like obesity and heart disease, later in life. Breast milk is also protective, so breastfeeding is strongly recommended.
•If you are overweight, consider the quantity of foods you eat from all shelves of the Food Pyramid, with the exception of fruits and vegetables. For weight loss advice see the safefood website www.weigh2live.eu.
•Prepare and store food safely, see the Food Safety Authority of Ireland websitewww.fsai.ie.
Use the food pyramid
The Department of Health and the Health Service Executive along with the Healthy Eating Guidelines Working Group, Food Safety Authority of Ireland with advice from the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute and the Special Action Group on Obesity, all joined forces to put together the Healthy Eating Guidelines and the Food Pyramid, sections of which are mentioned here.