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A healthy diet is one that contains the right amount of nutrients to keep your body functioning at its best. Combined with regular physical activity, a nutritious, balanced diet can help you to have more energy and feel better throughout the day.
It’s worth remembering that your dietary needs will change as you grow from a teen into your twenties. For example, you will not need to consume as many servings of the ‘milk and alternatives’ food group in Canada’s Food Guide once you leave your teens.
In addition, sometimes the things you eat – or don’t eat – directly affect your pain. If you skip meals and are someone who gets migraines, for example, long gaps without food will sometimes trigger a headache. Or if you have nerve pain, you might find that certain foods trigger it.
If you notice this, talk to your healthcare team about how to manage your diet and get the right balance of nutrients. If you can, get personalized advice on healthy eating choices from a registered dietitian. Visit the Dietitians of Canada website for information about how to get connected to a registered dietitian in Canada.
Macronutrients: the building blocks of your diet
All the food you eat contains nutrients, the substances that help your body function. There are two main types of nutrients.
Macronutrients are the building blocks of your diet – you eat these nutrients in large quantities (why they start with “macro”, meaning large).
Micronutrients are nutrients that you eat only in small quantities. They include vitamins and minerals such as vitamins A, C and D and calcium, iron and magnesium, to name just a few.
Food contains three macronutrients: fat, protein and carbohydrates. Each of them plays an important role in your body.
Among other things, fat:
gives you energy while you are resting or doing low-intensity exercise, and also provides insulation
helps the body absorb vitamins A, D, E and K, which rely on fat to transport them around the body
provides essential fatty acids – fats that the body needs from your diet to keep the heart healthy, help the brain function, make hormones and build healthy cells and skin
Over the years, you might have heard to avoid “fatty foods”. However, not all foods that are high in fat are bad. This is because there are good fats and bad fats.
Fish such as salmon, for example, are generally a source of good fat, specifically omega-3 fatty acids. Other sources of good fats include nuts and seeds, vegetable oils and avocado.
You may hear that fish can contain high levels of mercury. It is true that larger fish can accumulate mercury over time. For example, try to avoid fish like white tuna, shark and swordfish. However the benefits of eating fish greatly outweigh the risks. Most fish are safe to eat, such as: salmon, cod, haddock, and sole.
There is evidence that omega-3 fatty acids can help ease inflammation, which can reduce pain. If you have pain from headaches, some research shows that a diet high in omega-3 and low in omega-6 (another type of fat) may lead to fewer days with a headache.
Unhealthy fats include trans fat and saturated fat. These fats should be limited because they can increase your risk of heart disease. Try to limit foods like: butter, hard margarine, lard and shortening, fatty cuts of meat and chicken with the skin on.
Be careful when you see food products that are advertised as “low fat”. Often, food manufacturers will add extra sugar, sweeteners or salt to make the food taste better. Over time, these may be worse for you than the fat that the manufacturer has removed. Talk to your healthcare team or registered dietitian about how to make healthy choices about low-fat food products.
Protein plays a range of roles in the body, including:
building and repairing muscles, organs, bones, skin, hair and nails
helping muscles work
helping to build enzymes to digest food
helping to build hormones.
The food groups richest in protein are Meat and Alternatives, such as chicken, beef, eggs, tofu, beans, peas and lentils, and milk and alternatives, such as greek yogurt and cottage cheese.
One of the benefits of protein is that it helps you feel full for longer. Starting your day with a good source of protein, such as eggs, and including protein in every meal, will help to keep hunger at bay and make you less likely to snack mindlessly. It will also help you concentrate at school or work.
Carbohydrates play two main roles in the body. They:
are the body’s main source of fuel (energy)
provide fibre to help food pass through the digestive system and help keep you fuller longer.
The food groups richest in carbohydrates are Grain Products and Vegetables and Fruit.
Some people might fear “carb-rich foods”, such as pasta, bread, or rice, believing that they lead to weight gain or bloating, but this ignores the different types of carbohydrates and how they behave in the body, and learning about how much is a healthy amount.
Simple carbohydrates (sugars) are those in foods such as fruit juice, honey, sugar and candy. These foods tend to cause blood sugar levels to “spike“ and then fall quickly, which can leave you feeling hungry soon afterwards.
Complex carbohydrates (starches) are found in grains, vegetables and legumes (beans, peas and so on), and whole fruit. These foods are filled with fibre and are digested more slowly, meaning that they keep you full for longer. They also help with lowering your cholesterol levels and heart health.
There is a place for simple and complex carbohydrates in your diet. For example, many fruits (such as strawberries, cherries, grapes and raisins) can help ease inflammation. Apples boost acetylcholine in the brain, a chemical that helps with memory, concentration and energy. In terms of vegetables, broccoli may protect the cartilage in your joints and is linked with a lower risk of osteoarthritis.
That said, it is best not to rely on simple carbohydrates for your energy. This includes juices and soft drinks, which often contain high amounts of sugar and sweeteners. And when it comes to choosing complex carbohydrates, aim for whole grains such as barley, whole wheat pasta and wholegrain bread and try to eat a wide range of vegetables.