The Importance of a Varied Diet – Dietary Diversity
We hear it all the time from doctors and diet gurus alike. “Eat a healthy diet”… “Eat a balanced diet”.
We hear it so often that it’s easy to tune it out or forget how profoundly important this advice is, especially in a culture where there are so many messages about how easy it is to take pills to balance out the chronic health problems that result from a poor diet.
Nutritional science has identified around 50 essential vitamins, amino acids, minerals and essential fatty acids that the human body needs but cannot make itself. These nutrients must be supplied by the food we eat.
In addition, scientists have also discovered more than 1200 phytochemicals, present in fruits, vegetables, beans and grains and animal products. Although not essential, many of these do appear to have positive impact on health and wellness.
No single food or food group supplies all that we need, hence the continued emphasis on a ‘healthy diet ‘ and the importance of dietary diversity in preventing chronic disease.
Does dietary diversity help?
It’s taken science – which is so often funded by pharmaceutical companies and other vested interests – a long time to start looking at the benefits of a varied diet. Instead studies tend to look at single ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods, or the use of single supplements as ’emergency interventions’ in people who are already sick.
Evidence, however, shows that consuming a variety of foods improves a range of health outcomes and assures that we get adequate nutrients on a regular basis. Indeed human beings evolved to eat a wide variety of foods, say experts.
Years ago, findings from the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) study found that a more diverse diet protected from premature death from all causes.
Specific studies show that a varied diet:
- Protects against onset of type-2 diabetes, evens out blood sugar levels and lowers the risk of degenerative changes in our blood vessels.
- Protects the heart. Eating a varied diet reduces our consumption of sugar, salt and saturated fats – all risk factors for heart disease
- Lowers our total risk of cancer and has been shown to protect against some very specific cancers of the digestive tract including bowel cancer.
- Eating a variety of nutrient rich, low energy foods, like vegetables and fruit, also helps with weight control.
- Choose quality and variety over quantity
- A varied diet will include a broad selection of foods across the whole range of the traditional food groups such as vegetables, fruits, cereals, meat, fish and dairy products.
- A varied diet will also include a good mix of foods within each of these groups.
- Eating the same breakfast cereal day in and day out, or eating two apples three sticks of celery each and everyday is not just a joyless way to meet your healthy eating targets; getting stuck in a dietary rut means you only ever get a limited range of the nutrients.
- In addition you can try the following:
- How to increase dietary diversity
- Research suggests that an intake of 30 or more different foods per week, or more than 12 foods in one day, characterises a diet that is giving us an adequate level of essential nutrients. In Japan, dietary guidelines suggest aiming for 30 different foodstuffs a day!
- Choose foods that have variety ‘built-in’, like multigrain breads and mueslies.
- Make use of side-dishes and condiments like fruit/vegetable salads, sprouted pulses, and fresh salsas, pickles and chutneys.
- Stir fries, casseroles, soups and salads are an easy way to increase vegetable variety because they make use of several different ingredients.
- Experiment when grocery shopping. Regularly try a fruit or vegetable that is not familiar to you.
- Try foods from cultural traditions other than your own.
Remember, also just because you haven’t tried it, doesn’t mean you won’t like it. Likewise, even if you don’t like it the first time it’s worth trying again (and how often do we say this to our children?!).
Experts say that it can take humans up to nine attempts at a new food to adjust to and appreciate its flavour.
Happy [ and healthy ]eating !