Eating Healthy: What Does It Mean?

When we talk about “healthy eating” we generally mean the habit of eating in a balanced, clean and healthy way.
However, due to the influence of various schools of thought that often contrast traditional scientific-academic research, or simply attempt to modify it (in a more or less legitimate way), the concept of healthy eating is becoming increasingly blurry and difficult to frame.
For this reason, in Italy and beyond, officially recognized research bodies propose rules or principles that can be considered a “guarantee” of correctness; in the Bel Paese, this health expert's “handbook” (which should be of interest to the habits of any individual) is called: “Guidelines for a Healthy Italian Diet”.
This publication is also available online on the website of the “National Research Institute for Food and Nutrition” (since 2013 renamed the Research Center for Food and Nutrition), responsible for its creation and dissemination.
However, it should be specified that eating healthy does not only mean maintaining nutritional balance, but also using foods that can guarantee a hygienic standard. This parameter must then be contextualized both in the biological and microbiological context and in that of contamination.
Readers will already have understood that this is a vast topic and difficult to summarize, especially in a single article. However, without the presumption of fully satisfying every learning need, below I will try to summarize the main criteria for healthy eating as effectively as possible.

Nutritional balance

Nutritional balance is a determining factor in healthy eating, or rather, only by eating healthy is it possible to maintain nutritional balance.
By nutritional balance we mean a parameter that evaluates the quantities and proportions of individual nutrients and nutritional components consumed in the diet. Each of them has a very specific function, which is why over the years we have tried to determine their real needs.
An organism that does not benefit from a balanced diet has greater difficulty maintaining the so-called “homeostasis”. Obviously, being an almost perfect machine, as far as nutrition is concerned, the body benefits from excellent autonomy; this means that it is generally designed to “survive” every circumstance.
Ultimately, eating healthy guarantees the maintenance of physical balance and, sometimes, also contributes to mental balance.

Now, the question that arises spontaneously is: What principles of nutritional balance does the definition of healthy eating depend on?
It is difficult to answer clearly in a few lines, also because needs are subjective and vary (but not always as much as one might believe) based on age, sex, lifestyle and subjective components such as the size of the skeleton and of the muscles, metabolic predispositions, hereditary pathologies, etc.
Since the nutrients and nutritional components are so many and all fundamental, it is necessary to remain generic. The table below summarizes some summary notions that could be very useful to those new to the topic.
ATTENTION! The recommendations take into consideration an average adult subject, with an average physical activity coefficient and an equally ordinary job. Sports activities, special pathological or physiological conditions, childhood and old age are excluded.

Nutritional or Nutrient Component Dietary contribution
Water To be taken in quantities of approximately 1ml for each calorie of energy consumed in the diet. Usually, between that contained in foods and drinks, it is better to reach around 2 litres/day. The meals of the day should be at least 5, to correctly distribute the total energy (breakfast, snack, lunch, snack and dinner).
Energy It is the result of cellular processes that use carbohydrates, lipids and to a lesser extent amino acids. The sum of the intake of the individual three must guarantee the maintenance of all functions and normal body weight. An average adult man needs around 2000kcal/day.
Carbohydrates They are the most abundant energy macronutrients. Their share must fluctuate between approximately 40-60% of the total energy. Simple and discretionary ones (table sugar and foods containing them) should be as moderate as possible and never exceed 12% of total energy
Lipids Some are energetic and some are non-energetic. The former are mainly fatty acids, the latter sterols, phospholipids etc. The energetic ones must remain between 25-30% of the total energy; having a variable metabolic function, to guarantee the state of health, most of these must be of an unsaturated nature. Cholesterol should be introduced at a rate not exceeding 300mg/day
Proteins They have many metabolic functions, but the body requires only what is necessary to compensate for losses (the requirement increases especially with tissue growth). There are recommended percentages, but they are quite variable based on the research institutions; the same applies to the coefficient of g/kg of body weight which, on average, for adults, is estimated between 0.8 and 1.2g/kg.
Vitamins It is such a heterogeneous group that it cannot be summarized effectively. It is sufficient to keep in mind that, to introduce them all in useful quantities, the diet must be very varied and not exclude any food group. Let us remember that those most subject to deficiency are folic acid and vitamin D. B1 is very present in foods but the liver is not able to accumulate it
Mineral salts The same goes for vitamins, specifying that the elements most easily subject to deficiency are: iodine, iron and calcium; according to some also selenium. Sodium, contained in large quantities in table salt, may not even be used in a discretionary manner, as it is already present in foods in sufficient quantities
Dietary fiber To be introduced approximately 30g/day, it is essential for intestinal health and to modulate nutritional absorption
Non-vitamin antioxidants Very important to combat oxidative stress and reduce the risk of metabolic and/or metabolic diseases. They almost never have a very precise recommended ration, but rather safety levels.

Portions and Consumption Frequencies

Since it should not be necessary to rely on a nutrition professional to ensure you eat healthily and maintain nutritional balance, research bodies have translated nutritional needs into dietary advice. The most widespread system is certainly that of the food pyramid, continuously revised and updated based on the latest news.
To eat healthily it is therefore essential to choose how much and when to eat various foods.

The foods of animal origin they are those that provide proteins with high biological value, some mineral salts (especially iron and calcium) and vitamins (practically all, especially those of groups B, D and A); on the other hand, an excess of these foods can cause a surplus of: cholesterol, saturated fatty acids and proteins. Among these, meat and offal should be consumed at least in 2 portions per week (150-250g), fishery products at least 2 more (200-300g), cheeses/ricottas at least one (80-150g) and eggs no more than 3 per week. Then, as regards milk and yogurt, more than one daily portion is also allowed, although it is good to keep in mind that this depends on the portion, the composition of the diet and the level of skimming of the milk; 150-300ml of partially skimmed milk and 1 or 2 120g pots of natural yoghurt per day are normal. NB. Preserved foods, such as cured meats, canned tuna, etc. they should constitute a marginal alternative.

Taking into consideration the foods of plant origin, these must be consumed on a daily basis. The group of cereals and potatoes, together with legumes, above all guarantees the supply of the necessary complex carbohydrates. They can easily fit into all meals, but it is essential that they always fit within the useful portions. Pasta, rice and other derivatives should comply with quantities of no more than 90g; the bread should fill the remaining needs or replace the first course and, usually, oscillate between 20-30g and 100-120g. THE legumes they can be used like cereals.
Vegetables and sweet fruits help to increase satiety, provide water, potassium, some vitamins (especially A, C, E and K) and non-vitamin or saline antioxidants. They contain simple carbohydrates and sometimes affect the energy balance to such an extent that they create an excess imbalance.

NB. Some tropical fruits contain a lot of fat, such as avocado and coconut. On average, between cooked and raw, vegetables should appear at least 2-3 times in the daily diet and in 50-200g portions; the fruits approximately 2 times per 200g (variable depending on the fruit).

NB. Jams, marmalades, dehydrated fruit, fruit in syrup and candied fruit do not belong to this category, but to that of sweet foods.

I seasoning fats and oil seeds are necessary to compensate for the demand for fatty acids and vitamins related to them (especially E and A). Carefully chosen, they help satisfy the need for essential fatty acids and generally those beneficial to the body. Furthermore, they provide many non-vitamin or salt antioxidants. As far as oil is concerned, around 2-4 tablespoons per day are sufficient (depending on the fatness of the other foods); regarding oil seeds, it is possible to use them in quantities of a few grams and only once a day.

The only recommended drink is water, with a variable salt profile based on subjective needs, and in quantities of approximately 750-1000ml/day (very variable).

Of all the foods indicated above it is necessary to avoid: preserved in salt, in oil, in syrup, preserves and overly elaborate recipes. Furthermore, all sweets and junk foods must be drastically reduced.

Food hygiene is a cornerstone of healthy eating. Hygiene does not only mean biological and microbiological safety (bacteria, viruses, prions, parasites, etc.), which are certainly very important, but also protection against all forms of chemical or pharmacological contamination.
Among the various measures, first of all there is the choice between the sources of supply. It may seem disappointing but, to date, the best are the conventional ones from large retailers. Thanks to very strict hygiene controls, it is possible to find the safest foods on supermarket counters; on the contrary, backdoor purchases often prove risky. For example, for fruit and vegetables, the most frequent frauds concern the sale of fake “organic” products or others that have not respected the disposal times for pesticide treatments.
For meat and eggs, however, the greatest risk is that they come from sick animals or animals stuffed with drugs. In this last area, the slaughtering and conservation phases also play an essential role; obviously, the higher the processing methods and technologies, the better the food safety levels will be.
Food must therefore be guaranteed starting from production/breeding (diseases, environmental contamination, etc.), up to transport and for all conservation prior to sale (maintenance of temperatures, cold chain, etc.).


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