How too much of a good thing can sometimes be harmful while ‘naughty’ can be beneficial, says Michele O'Connor

Balanced diet

Do you try to eat a balanced diet? © iStock

Red and processed meat

The good news:

Red meat is a ‘complete’ protein (containing all the amino acids that the body can’t make on its own).

It’s also a great source of essential nutrients including riboflavin, vitamin A and B12, iron, selenium, potassium, phosphorus and zinc.

However… ‘Processed meat contains high levels of saturated fat and salt and very little nutrients,’ explains Emer Delaney, a British DieteticAssociation dietician (bda.uk.com).

‘And recent studies have found that eating too much red and processed meat increases bowel-cancer risk.’

Get the balance right:

Eat no more than 70g of red or processed meat a day (cooked weight) or 500g a week – a 5oz minute steak is roughly 80g, one sausage is 50g and two slices of roast beef is 60g.

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The best-quality meat comes from grass-fed, free-range animals. Buy from a butcher if possible.

Milk

The good news:

Milk is full of protein and calcium – vital for healthy muscles, bones and teeth – as well as vitamins and minerals. Emer says, ‘It can help maintain bone density during the menopause.’

However… Some people suffer bloating and digestive disorders because they are intolerant to lactose, and calcium from plant foods (like dark green leafy veg) is better absorbed than calcium in milk.

Get the balance right:

700mg of calcium is recommended daily for adults over 19 – that’s the equivalent of a glass of milk, a small pot of yogurt and 20-30g of cheese.

‘Semi-skimmed milk contains the same amount of calcium as full-fat,’ says Emer. ‘Soya and lactose-free milk are as rich in calcium as animal milk. Almond, rice and oat milk are supplemented with calcium.’

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Soya, tofu and tinned salmon are also great sources of calcium if you don’t like milk.

Sugar

The good news:

While sugar offers no nutritional benefits, it lifts the mood and provides a quick energy boost.

However… Research suggests that sugar could be as deadly as tobacco, leading to overeating and obesity. It also changes the body’s metabolism, raises blood pressure and throws hormones
off balance – which contributes to type 2 diabetes and Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS).

It also causes tooth decay and can harm the liver.

Get the balance right:

We should be eating no more than 50g (10tsp) of sugar a day. ‘Try to avoid any added sugar,’ says Emer. ‘And you need to check the packaging.’ Anything with less than 5g sugar per 100g is low sugar, while anything above 15g is high.

And make shrewd food swaps. For instance, have porridge instead of cereal for breakfast and sweeten with berries not syrup.

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Check traffic-light guidelines on packaging. If it’s red for sugar, put it back!

Fats

The good news: Fats provide us with energy and essential fatty acids. Some make up cell membranes, while others are transformed into biologically active substances such as vitamin D.

We also need fat for the absorption of some vitamins.

However… Some fats are better for us than others.

Avoid trans fats and limit saturated fats, which are linked to raised cholesterol, heart disease and obesity.

Eat more mono and polyunsaturated fats for heart-health benefits.

Get the right balance:

Total fat intake for women should be no more than 70g a day. Less than 3g/100g fat and 1.5g/100g saturated fat is low in fat while more than 20g/100g fat and 5g/100g saturated fat means the food is high in fat.

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Many low-fat foods are higher in sugar. Instead, eat olive oil, wholegrain cereals, nuts, fruit and vegetables, beans, moderate intakes of fish and lean meat.

Fruit

The good news:

Fruit contains vitamins, minerals and fibre that can help protect against stroke, heart disease, high blood pressure and certain cancers. And studies show that, for maximum health benefits, we should actually be eating seven to 10 portions a day – not five.

However… Although fruit is high in nutrients, it’s also high in fructose, which can disrupt blood-sugar balance.

Get the right balance:

Aim for a variety of colourful fruit. ‘Eat the fruit rather than juicing,’ says Emer. ‘The fibre and pulp balances the natural sugar content.’

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Home-grown fruits (apples, pears, berries and plums) tend to have a lower glycaemic load than tropical fruits, so their sugars are released into the bloodstream slower.

Salt

The good news:

Salt adds flavour and a certain amount is essential. It regulates the exchange of water between our cells and their surrounding fluids and one component of salt – sodium – is involved in muscle contraction, including heartbeat, nerve impulses and the digestion of protein.

However… Too much risks high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.

Get the balance right:

The recommended guideline is no more than 6g of salt a day. But 75% of the salt we eat is in the food we buy, usually listed as sodium. To work it out, multiply the sodium content in grams by 2.5. Try to cut down processed food intake.

Oily Fish

The good news:

Oily fish is a great source of easily digestible protein, healthy fats and vitamin D. The omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids can help reduce heart disease and cancer risk and provide brain benefits.

However… Oily fish can contain pollutants called dioxins and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl). There are also ethical concerns about farmed fish.

Get the balance right:

A healthy diet should include at least two portions of fish a week, including one of oily fish. Girls and women of child-bearing age should eat no more than two portions of oily fish a week because pollutants can affect the future development of the foetus.

Grains

The good news:

Research says heart disease and type 2 diabetes may be 30% lower in people who eat whole grains as part of a low-fat diet and healthy lifestyle.

However… Not everyone can tolerate whole grains – particularly IBS sufferers.

Get the right balance:

Unless you have IBS or a similar digestive disorder, aim to have 18g of fibre – or three servings of whole grains – a day.

A serving counts as 3tbsp of wholegrain cereal or pasta.

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Vary your choice of grains to include spelt, oats, millet, rye and brown rice as well as wheat products.