Consuming a healthy diet throughout life helps prevent malnutrition in all its forms, as well as a range of diseases and conditions, and maintains one’s well-being.

Unfortunately, the increased production of processed foods, rapid urbanisation and changing lifestyles have led to a shift in dietary patterns, whereby many people are now consuming more foods high in energy, fats, free sugars or salt. To add to this unhealthy style of eating, people do not eat enough fruit, vegetables and dietary fibre such as wholegrains. This has led to a high burden of diet-related diseases, including obesity, heart disease and stroke.

What constitutes a healthy diet varies based on various factors, including individual needs such as age, gender, lifestyle and physical activity. Other factors include cultural context, locally available foods, income and dietary customs.

However, the basic principles of what constitutes a healthy diet remain the same. One of the food groups in a healthy diet is proteins. Proteins are the necessary building blocks for our bodies to keep healthy, especially during convalescence. These foods are also good sources of vitamins and minerals, particularly vitamin B12, iron, iodine and zinc.

However, some protein sources can be hazardous if consumed in high proportions or at regular intervals. Red meat (beef, lamb, pork) is high in saturated fat, which is the unhealthy type of fat coming from animal sources. To help reduce the amount of saturated fat in our diets, it is wise to opt for lean meat such as rabbit, poultry and fish, and also legumes (peas, beans and lentils), nuts and seeds.

Fish is commonly promoted as a healthy source of protein. It has additional benefits, as it is also a good source of iron, iodine and zinc. Oily fish, such as sardines, salmon, Atlantic horse mackerel (sawrell), chub mackerel (kavalli), amberjack (aċċjola) and young amberjack (ċervjola), are also a rich source of omega-3 polyunsaturated fat.

These foods are good sources of vitamins and minerals, particularly vitamin B12, iron, iodine and zinc

This type of fat is necessary for adequate growth and development in children and has an important role to play in the prevention of heart disease. To get a good intake of fish oil, it is advised to consume two servings of fish weekly, preferably fresh and from a wide variety, one of which should be oily. If fresh fish is not available, one can consume frozen fish or canned fish that has been drained from added oil or brine, and this can still be a useful source of protein.

Legumes, nuts and seeds are healthy alternative sources of protein, iron and zinc. They are also a good source of carbohydrate, dietary fibre and other nutrients. The soluble components of dietary fibre in legumes have been shown to help regulate cholesterol and sugar levels in the blood, whereas the insoluble components help prevent constipation. The fatty acids found in nuts and seeds have been shown to improve the profile of blood fats, leading to a decrease in the risk for cardiovascular disease. Hence, it is wise to include legume-based dishes throughout the week.

These could take the form of homemade dips (bigilla, red kidney dip and hummus), salads (bean and chickpea salad), stews, vegetable soups (minestra) and homemade torta tal-ful.

Processed meats (e.g. cold cuts, deli luncheon meat and ham, smoked cold meat cuts, canned meat and sausages) refer to meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking or other processes to enhance flavour or improve preservation. Most processed meats contain pork or beef, but may also contain other red meats, poultry, offal or meat by-products such as blood.

These are best avoided or consumed only occasionally, as they increase the risk of colorectal cancers and raise cholesterol levels in the blood, which in turn increases the risk for other diseases. The consumption of processed meat was associated with small increases in the risk of cancer in several studies reviewed by the International Agency on Cancer Research.

In these studies, the risk generally increased with the amount of meat consumed. An analysis of data from 10 studies estimated that every 50g portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by about 18 per cent. Based on this research, it is recommended to limit intake of red meat to less than twice weekly.

Eggs offer animal protein and other nutrients such as iron, lutein and zeaxanthin, the latter three found in the yolk. The yolk also contains dietary cholesterol, but recent guidance recommends egg consumption in moderation based on the individual’s blood cholesterol status.

When an individual consumes a well-balanced and healthy diet, this provides enough protein, meaning that individuals on this type of diet rarely, if ever, need protein supplements. The amount of daily recommended protein depends on the age and health of individuals. Vegans can get enough protein by eating a variety of plant proteins to provide the required array of amino acids for good health.

Prof. Charmaine Gauci is Superintendent of Public Health.

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