By Stephen Gurr
In the early 2000’s, well known psychologist Barry Schwartz wrote of the Paradox of Choice, suggesting that the abundance of choice available to the modern consumer, rather than increasing freedom and autonomy, actually increases our level of stress and anxiety. Our local supermarket is a prime example of this, with an average of over 30000 items to choose from!
Superimposed on this is the endless amount of advice on which combinations of these foods will lead to better health and wellbeing.
Given that most of us are not in a position to regulate the quality or quantity of foods available in a supermarket, or indeed the quality of dietary advice provided online, we need a much simpler way of defining what foods we should be having to promote health and wellbeing, and to fuel an active lifestyle. One strategy I have found resonates with many folks is that at each meal, they simply aim to have a source of high-quality carb, high-quality protein and as many non-starchy vegetables they can fit on the plate, in their bowl or in their sandwich. As simple as 1, 2, 3!
Step 1: Include your nutrient dense carb
While carbs have received some bad press in recent years (and in the case of ultra-processed carbohydrate rich foods e.g. pop, candy etc. this is well justified), the simple fact is that carbohydrate is the only fuel our brains can use, and the only fuel your muscles can use when engaged in moderate to high intensity exercise. By extension, it stands to reason that inadequate intake is associated with reduced cognitive and physical performance. Therefore, having a source of nutrient dense carb at each meal is a useful way of ensuring that you get enough each day to meet your requirements (Note: if you are engaged in regular physical activity, you will likely need more carbs than can be comfortably consumed at three main meals).
Step 2: Include your nutrient dense protein
Every single cell in your body is made up of different types and combinations of protein, which in turn are made up of varying amounts of the twenty amino acids, or protein “building blocks”. As nine of these can’t be produced by the body (i.e the essential amino acids (EAA)) they must be provided through the food we eat. While animal-based proteins e.g. meat, eggs, dairy foods, provide a full complement of these EAA, plant based sources of protein e.g. nuts, legumes, are low in one or more of them. However, simply combining two different types of plant-based proteins e.g. beans with rice, will ensure that you get all the EAA you need.
Table 1: Examples of nutrient dense* carbohydrate and protein rich food
*A food source that provides a source of carbohydrate or protein, as well as other nutrients your body needs.
Step 3: Add color (i.e. lots of non-starchy vegetables)
Non-starchy vegetables provide an abundance of essential vitamins and minerals that our bodies need. As they are typically very low in calories, filling your plate with a variety (i.e. lots of different colors) of non-starchy vegetables is a great way of providing your body with a big nutrient boost at a low energy “cost”. Bonus marks if you can get most of your vegetables (and fruit) from your local farmers market, and enjoy them when they are in season.
The sheer volume of often conflicting advice about what to eat to be healthy and to fuel an active lifestyle can make the decision about what to eat at a given meal, or what buy at the supermarket, both stressful and overwhelming. But by simply asking yourself what type of high- quality carb to serve with your cod or high-quality protein option to add to your pasta (along with all those different colored veggies!), you will be well on the way to ensuring that you get all that you need to optimize both health and performance. As simple as 1,2,3! J.