Most of the time it is true that one can perform better if he or she understands the logic behind how things work. This can apply to hobbies, sciences, indeed almost all areas of life, and cooking is no exception. A better understanding of how the basic nutrients effect our bodies can offer a healthier perspective on the way we cook.
Healthy cooking can be influenced heavily by the cooking method
Example: If you use deep frying oil multiple times you’ll get the same tasty food every time, but, it will be healthy the first time and somewhat unhealthy subsequent times. That’s because when the oil exposed to high temperatures changes occur to its chemical composition, and the newly-formed compounds are detrimental to health. Do you see how easy it is to get things wrong? This website contains a variety of healthy recipes that will hopefully help you eat better. We cover the basics of healthy cooking and you can browse through our healthy eating recipes and try a different one every day. Don’t forget to share your thoughts in the comments and feel free to send your healthy recipes, or recipe adaptions, to us.
Healthy Eating And The Food Pyramid
If you have the curiosity to ask people if they are concerned with living a healthy life, probably most of them would say they do. However, when entering in deeper detail, it becomes obvious that healthy living can have multiple definitions. Eventually, the medical community of professionals came to the conclusion that a healthy eating guide could be used by people who are concerned with their well-being, but have no idea about what’s good for them and what should be avoided. This is how, in 1992, the Food Guide Pyramid was made available to the public by the Center for Nutrition Policy & Promotion of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). As you can see, the idea was to educate people to keep the use of fats, oils and sweets in their diet at a minimum, while emphasizing more on other foods such as fruit and vegetables, meat, bread, cereal, rice or pasta. For a better understanding, foods were split in groups, and for each group, there was an indication about how many servings one needed to have in order to make sure she has a healthy diet. However, “servings” is a relative notion. People understood it in their own way, some of them serving bigger portions than others, therefore getting overweight despite their belief that they were eating healthily and cooked only healthy recipes. Moreover, the food pyramid didn’t teach people that they needed to combine a balanced nutrition with some physical activity, in order to stay fit.
In 2005, only 13 years after the first version of the Food Pyramid was developed, a new, improved version was released, called “My Pyramid – steps to a healthier you”, which retains all food groups and their weight in the daily diet as the previous pyramid, but includes additionally a silhouette climbing stairs, a graphic depiction of physical activity. While the guiding principles remained unchanged, My Pyramid brings in the idea that an overall healthy diet is not only balanced in essential nutrients, but also puts limits on other food components consumption, thus limiting the intake of fats, cholesterol and calories. Food guides developed before 1992 were offering only guidelines on the daily nutrients intake, so people were free to add as much sugar or fat on top of those, without any restriction. As modern science and research proved that bad cholesterol, fats and sugars increase the risk of developing such and such conditions, all these findings were incorporated into the new food guides. USDA has a long history in food guidance. Here are the main guides to a healthy nutrition they’ve developed since 1916, guides which were addressing the main health concerns of their time:
- 1916: Food for Young Children
- 1946: National Food Guide (also known as “The Basic Seven”)
- 1956: Food for Fitness - A Daily Food Guide (commonly called “The Basic Four”)
- 1979: Hassle-Free Guide to a Better Diet
- 1992: Food Guide Pyramid
- 2005: MyPyramid
The 1992 Food Guide Pyramid and MyPyramid are based on the Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs) established by the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine. The latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans were published in January 2005, just a few months before MyPyramid.
The Five Food Groups
This is represented by the largest stripe on the pyramid and it includes breakfast cereals, bread, rice, crackers, grits, tortillas, pasta and any other food made from cereals. Grains can be whole or refined. Whole grains are the ones that contain all parts of the grain kernel, while refined grains are those who were subject to the milling process which removes the germ and the bran, thus making the foods poorer in dietary fiber, B vitamins and iron. The Dietary Guidelines advise that half of the daily intake of grains is represented by whole grains. All you have to do it look for the word “whole” on the pack when you buy it. As a quick example, brown rice is whole grain, while white rice is refined grain.
Not all vegetables are alike. They may contain different amounts of nutrients. This fact led to splitting them into five subgroups: dark green vegetables (e.g. broccoli, romaine lettuce, spinach, turnip greens), orange vegetables (e.g. carrots, pumpkins, sweet potatoes), dry beans and peas (e.g. kidney beans, black beans, white beans, tofu, lentils, soy beans), starchy vegetables (e.g. corn, potatoes, green peas) and others (mushrooms, tomatoes, onions, cauliflower, cabbage, cucumbers, eggplants, asparagus, zucchini and many others that are not included in the first four subgroups).
Like veggies, fruits are also very different in terms of nutrients content, so it’s a good idea to mix them. Berries, apples, avocado, oranges, pineapple, papaya, melons, plums or pears, all of them are great for health and they should be part of the daily diet, be them fresh or canned, dried or frozen. Fruit juices are also included here, but you should be aware that we are talking about freshly squeezed juice with no added sugar content. Carbonated fruit juices which are available on the market aren't that healthy, therefore their consumption should be limited. Such drinks are also high in calories, so they'd represent too much out of the total calorie intake needed for a healthy living.
Meat & Beans Group
This group includes all meats (like beef, lamb, veal or pork), game meats (rabbit, or venison), organ meats (liver, tongues, hearts, gizzards, kidneys), poultry (chicken, turkey, duck, goose), fish, shellfish (mussels, calamari, octopus, shrimps, oysters, crayfish and other sea food), eggs, dry beans and peas (including soy products such as tofu or veggie burgers), nuts and seeds (sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, pistachio, pecans, almonds, peanuts, peanut butter, walnuts). What is interesting here is that vegetarians need to make sure they eat enough foods from this group, in order to preserve their good health and enjoy the benefits of a balanced nutrition.
Milk is just the generic term for this food group. It includes all liquid milk (whole, fat-free, low fat), cheese (be it hard, soft or processed cheese), yogurt and milk-based desserts such as ice cream or milk puddings. As a basic rule, all milk-based products that are rich in calcium belong in here. Cream and butter, for instance, have barely any calcium content, so they don’t belong in here.
Oils are also represented on the pyramid as a narrow yellow stripe, but they are not considered a group of foods in itself. Oils can be used for cooking (sunflower oil, corn oil, olive oil), for flavorings (sesame oil), or they can be found in mayonnaise and salad dressings. Solid fats like butter, margarine, lard or chicken fat are also included in this group. The idea of the stripes getting narrower to the top of the pyramid is this: the higher the fats and added sugars content of a food is, the higher it sits on the pyramid, which means the less you must eat of it. However, the more active you get, the more you are allowed to increase your consumption of such foods.
Food Nutrients And Health Benefits Of Various Foods
There are five types of food nutrients: proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals. We are going to take a look at each of them, emphasizing their impact on the human body and indicating the foods which contain them, so you can create your very own healthy recipes for you and your family.
Proteins are large molecules, polymers of amino acids, which compose living cells that form our muscles, bones, blood and organs. They play an active role in preserving the health and proper functioning of the immune system, they contribute to the formation of antibodies that help the body fight against intruders, they supply the energy needed for our vital functions, they regulate the processes that take place in the body and they contribute to the growth and repair of body tissues. Proteins are also responsible for keeping the pH balance in the body and for helping blood clot. We aren’t going to enter into chemistry-related details here. All you need to know is that there are 20 such amino acids, 11 non-essential (which means that they can be produced by the body itself, so they don’t need to be taken from the diet) and 9 essential ones (essential means that they can’t be produced by the body, therefore they need to be supplied via the food intake). Meat, poultry, fish, eggs, cheese and milk are sources of complete proteins. They are called like this because they include all nine essential amino acids. Proteins can be also found in plants, but they are low-quality proteins because they are usually missing at least one of the essential amino acids. This is why vegetarian people need to be careful how to combine their foods in order to make sure they get the needed intake of all nine essential amino acids, so they can benefit from a complete diet just like meat eaters. Plants that contain proteins include nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables, beans and grains.
Carbohydrates are another class of bio-molecules that play a major role in the storage and transport of the energy in the human body, as well as in the seamless functioning of the immune system. Also, other vital functions are supported by carbohydrates, or carbs, as many people prefer to call them. Carbohydrates can be simple and complex. The simple ones are sugars, which can be monosaccharides (glucose, fructose and galactose) or disaccharides (sucrose, lactose and maltose). Complex carbohydrates are polysaccharides, which can be totally digestible, partially digestible or indigestible (dietary fibers). Basically, after a series of transformations suffered in the digestion process, digestible carbohydrates end up as glucose, which is the basic unit that gets assimilated into our cells, thus providing the body with energy for functioning. While it’s true that the body can also take this energy from proteins and fats, the body and especially the brain would rather base their functioning on glucose instead of trying to manufacture it from proteins. So, you see that carbohydrates aren’t bad for the body and that they can be found in more foods than bread, pasta, potatoes or rice, as many people think. They are also found in vegetables, beans, grains fruits and milk. From a consumer’s point of view, the main criterion in choosing carbohydrate-rich foods is the glycemic index. The glycemic index indicates how quickly the glucose in foods is absorbed into the body. For a healthy nutrition, it’s best to choose more whole grains, vegetables and fruits to get your carbs from, rather than sweets or refined cereals.
Fats are the third major nutrient class that contributes to a balanced, healthy diet. Fats are important because they provide the body with the essential unsaturated fatty acids which have so many benefits for health. Nonetheless, not all fats are alike, some of them being good, while others being harmful. According to their saturation degree, fats can be monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and saturated. Saturation defines the degree in which the molecules are covered with hydrogen atoms. However, these are details. What’s important to know is that saturated fats are bad, because they increase the risk of developing medical conditions such as heart diseases. This happens because the ingestion of saturated fats leads to increasing the amount of bad cholesterol in the blood.
Saturated fats are usually those that are solid at the room temperature. Red meat, hard cheese, dairy products, palm oils, all these contain saturated fats, so their consumption should be limited.
Polyunsaturated fats are the good ones and they can be found in some fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines or halibut (omega-3 fatty acids), in grain products and in sunflower oil or safflower oil (omega-6 fatty acids).
Monounsaturated fats can be found in olive oil, avocado and nuts, and it’s not very clear to the scientific community if they are good for health or just neutral. Regardless their saturation status, fats are basically triglycerides and cholesterol. Triglycerides are fatty acid molecules bound to a glycerol molecule. They supply the body with energy and the excess is stored in what we know as the adipose tissue or body fat. Cholesterol is a non-essential compound, being also produced by the liver. This explains why some people who are careful to stay on a low-cholesterol diet still have elevated cholesterol levels in their blood.
There’s another category of unsaturated fats which is not so good for health: the so-called trans fats. They are obtained through a process called hydrogenation, which results in raising the melting point of these fats, therefore making them a good ingredient for chocolate, pastry, cookies, crackers, potato chips, doughnuts or other processed foods. Margarine is also a trans fat, so you should never use it instead of butter, like many people are tempted to do. It’s true that margarine just spreads much better than butter, but you’re having this small convenience at the price of your health. So, we could say that margarine impersonates another shattered myth in nutrition: if it’s vegetal, then it must be healthy. Not necessarily. Poisonous mushrooms are also vegetal, but you wouldn’t wish you ate one, would you?
Vitamins are organic compounds that the human body needs in tiny amounts for its normal metabolism and for other vital functions support. Generally, these nutrients are essential, meaning that they can’t be produced by the body itself, so they need to be taken either from foods or from nutritional supplements. There are two types of vitamins: water soluble (8 B vitamins and vitamin C) and oil soluble (vitamins A, D, E and K). Vitamins are not stored by the body, therefore regular consumption is needed in order to avoid deficiencies. Water soluble vitamins are the first ones to be eliminated. Fat soluble ones may accumulate in the body, therefore sometimes hypervitaminosis may occur. Here’s a list of vitamins with their roles in the body and with the foods where they can be found:
Vitamin A (retinol)
- Good for: vision, immune system, skin, bones
- Found in: broccoli, beef liver, egg yolk, carrots, mango, pumpkin, tomatoes, spinach, apricots, sweet potatoes
Vitamin B1 (thiamin)
- Good for: blood sugar metabolism into energy, muscular function, nervous and cardiovascular systems
- Found in: pork meat, kidney beans, navy beans, whole wheat flour, whole cereals
Vitamin B2 (riboflavin)
- Good for: red cells production, skin, vision
- Found in: red meat, green vegetables, dairy products
Vitamin B3 (niacin)
- Good for: converting calories into energy, digestive function, skin, nerves
- Found in: meat, fish, poultry, yeast, peanuts
Vitamin B5 (panthothenic acid)
- Good for: immune system, nervous system, red blood cells, metabolism of foods into energy, lowering high cholesterol
- Found in: eggs, liver, meat, poultry, yeast, whole cereals, milk.
Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine)
- Good for: hemoglobin forming, energy storage
- Found in: meat, poultry, whole cereals, potatoes, milk, soya, eggs, peanuts, beans
Vitamin B9 (folic acid, folate)
- Good for: in incipient pregnancy, it prevents baby’s neural tube defects such as spina bifida and anencephaly. Women who intend to get pregnant should take care to have 180 micrograms of folate per day.
- Found in: broccoli, spinach, mushrooms, dry beans
Vitamin B12 (cobalamin)
- Good for: converting calories into energy, skin, hair, genetic material production, blood cells, nerves
- Found in: meat, poultry, eggs, fish, milk
- Good for: glucose formation
- Found in: cereals, bananas, carrots, cauliflower, liver, salmon, eggs, dried fruits
Vitamin C (ascorbic acid)
- Good for: gums, teeth, immune system strengthening, free radicals destruction
- Found in: citrus fruits, berries, broccoli, spinach, tomatoes
- Good for: helping calcium absorption in the body, bone formation, osteoporosis prevention
- Found in: eggs, tuna fish, fish liver oils
- Good for: free radicals neutralization, circulatory system, alleviation of premenstrual syndrome symptoms
- Found in: whole cereals, egg yolk, liver, nuts, avocado, vegetable oils, peanut butter
- Good for: blood clotting, bone growth
- Found in: green tea, cheese, beef liver, spinach
Minerals are inorganic elements that can be found pretty much everywhere in nature, which have a definite chemical composition. Some of them are essential for the proper functioning of the living organisms. They can’t be produced by the body, so they need to be taken from nutrition. Here are the main minerals we need to stay healthy, with their benefits and with the list of foods where you can find them:
- Good for: bone and teeth building during childhood, osteoporosis prevention
- Found in: milk, dairy products, broccoli, soy, oranges
- Good for: red blood cells production and functioning. Lack of iron generates anemia, which is a condition that generates life impairing symptoms such as weakness, fatigue, immune function troubles.
- Found in: red meat, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, soy, green leaves vegetables like spinach
- Good for: bones and teeth
- Found in: fish, meat, milk, dairy products
- Good for: muscles, nerves
- Found in: broccoli, bananas, dried fruits, citrus fruits
- Good for: body hormones. Iodine deficiency may lead to goitre. In areas where natural resources are scarce in iodine, it’s usually included in the salt, so all population can get their needed daily dose.
- Found in: seafood
- Good for: immune system, muscles, heart
- Found in: spinach, potatoes, broccoli, bananas, avocado, beans, whole cereals
- Good for: immune system, sexual development, DNA synthesis
- Found in: red meat, poultry, seafood, milk, dairy products, whole cereals, soy.
Foods Fortification: Are There Only Benefits?
Foods fortification is a public health policy of adding vitamins and minerals to staple foods (foods that are consumed on regular basis and are available all year round) such as bread, condiments or flours, with the purpose of making sure the majority of the population gets the minimum required dose of that element, or for preventing some endemic conditions. While statistics often show a decrease in the incidence of diseases caused by lack of essential nutrients, this practice is controversial, because micronutrients in excess can also lead to health problems. What’s interesting is that the practice of food fortification has its origins far away back in history. There’s evidence that in the year 400 B.C. that authorities in Persia where considering adding iron to wine with the purpose of making soldiers more potent and able to fight better. Although there are also other evidences of attempting to fortify foods throughout the history, it was between the two world wars when food fortification became an established public health practice in many countries.
Healthy Recipes For A Balanced Nutrition
Although food supplements are available and can be bought without medical prescription, it’s not advisable that people stuff themselves with vitamins and other nutrients without asking a health specialist, because excess can be as harmful as deficit in some cases. What you can do is to make sure you include all types of foods in your diet, in the proportions that are indicated in MyPyramid, for example. Eat vegetables and fruits every day, try to cut down on saturated fats, control the amount of carbohydrates and most of all, learn how to cook healthy meals. In all recipes we selected for you, we tried to emphasize on their health benefits, by indicating the main nutrients that are included in the main ingredients. Beware though, by healthy recipes we don’t mean diets that address particular diseases, but only general health and well-being. If you suffer from anything like food allergies, cardiovascular problems or other chronic ailments, be sure to get nutritional advice from your healthcare professionals, because your doctors know best what’s good for you and what could harm you. Also, if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, medical advice should be the source to trust. Treat all other sources, this website included, as general purpose information and don’t try to apply what you’re reading to your particular case.