Eating healthily through a balanced diet is the be-all and end-all – and in more ways than one. The right nutrition keeps us alive, provides more vitality and saves us from many serious diseases. Along with regular exercise, it is the guarantor of a long, fulfilling life and has a significant influence on our well-being. The most important aspects of nutrition can be found in the following article.
Macronutrients: carbohydrates, fat and protein
According to the current state of science, a balanced diet includes the macronutrients protein, fat and carbohydrates. This mixed diet optimally supplies the body with vital energy. The nutrients are broken down in the digestive tract. Then they find their way via the blood into the cells, where they are consumed. The energy density of a food is given in kilocalories (kcal). Fat has more than twice as many calories as carbohydrates and protein.
The German Society for Nutrition (DGE) recommends that adults between the ages of 19 and 65 should compose their diet as follows:
- 55 percent carbohydrates
- 30 percent fat
- 15 percent protein
Based on 2,000 kilocalories (kcal) daily, an average of 264 g of carbohydrates, 66 g of fat and 72 g of protein should be consumed for a balanced diet.
Carbohydrates consist of sugar molecules. In food, they occur in both simple and complex forms. Simple carbohydrates are found, for example, as fructose in fruit. When eaten, they immediately enter the blood. Carbohydrates are found in complex form as starch in bread, potatoes, pasta and rice. All carbohydrates are converted or broken down to glucose. The difference between simple and complex carbohydrates is that complex carbohydrates are broken down more slowly. As a result, they provide the body with a continuous supply of energy. The feeling of satiety lasts longer.
Fat is needed so that the body can absorb the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. This is how the supply of these essential micronutrients is ensured. On the other hand, the polyunsaturated fatty acids omega-6 and omega-3 are essential for life. The body cannot produce them itself. They must be supplied externally through the diet.
Omega-6 fatty acids are found, for example, in cereals, oatmeal, meat and soybeans. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in fatty sea fish, linseed oil or chia seeds. Omega-3 fatty acids in particular are valued for their positive health properties, but are far too rarely consumed by most people. They increase the basal metabolic rate, lower blood pressure and have an anti-inflammatory effect. But beware: both omega fatty acids must be in the right ratio to trigger health-promoting effects. Experts advise a ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 of two to five to one (2 – 5: 1) for a balanced diet.
Omega-3 fatty acids reduce fat formation and fat transport. They ensure that excess nutrients are not stored, but immediately consumed as energy. Its counterpart omega–6 makes fatty tissue grow to store excess nutrients in it for bad times. Omega-6 fatty acids are also involved in growth processes and wound healing. They lower the "bad" LDL cholesterol concentration in the blood.
Protein provides amino acids and nitrogen. Cells and tissues, muscle fibers, organs and blood, as well as enzymes and various hormones such as insulin, are built from these building materials. Some amino acids cannot be produced by the body itself. They must therefore be taken in with food, just like the two omega fatty acids.
Micronutrients: vitamins, minerals and trace elements
A balanced diet also requires consideration of the essential vitamins, minerals and trace elements, as described below.
- Vitamin C protects cells from free radicals, ensures their supply with oxygen and tightens connective tissue. In addition, vitamin C supports the formation of cartilage and bone tissue. An average adult needs about 100 milligrams of vitamin C daily – also known as ascorbic acid. This requirement can be easily met by various fruits such as acerola (approx. 1 700 mg), kiwi fruit (approx. 71 mg) and oranges (approx. 45 mg) and numerous vegetables such as peppers (approx. 140 mg), broccoli (approx. 115 mg) and Brussels sprouts (ca. 112 mg)
- Vitamin B1 supports the brain. This micronutrient is found, for example, in whole grain products and potatoes. At least 1 mg is needed per day.
- Vitamin B2 strengthens the immune system, is needed for protein metabolism in the lens of the eye and promotes general performance. Carriers include milk and dairy products, meat and fish.
- Folic acid also belongs to the group of B vitamins. (Another name for folic acid is vitamin B9.) It protects against cardiovascular diseases, is needed for growth processes, cell division and blood formation. The word comes from the Latin "folium", which means "leaf". Accordingly, folic acid is predominantly found in green leafy vegetables such as spinach and cabbage. But it is also found in tomatoes, egg yolks, soybeans and peas. On average, adults should consume 300 mg of calcium in their diet every day. The three B vitamins are water-soluble.
- Vitamin B12 is important for the formation of red blood cells (erythrocytes). Its main task is the transport of oxygen. A deficiency of vitamin B12 can lead to anemia. Typical symptoms are fatigue and pale skin as well as neurological complaints. Gait unsteadiness or tingling in the hands and feet are possible consequences. According to the DGE, adolescents 15 years and older and adults should consume at least three micrograms of vitamin B12 daily. There is an increased requirement during pregnancy (3.5 to 5 micrograms).
- The fat-soluble vitamin E protects cells from free radicals. Suppliers are sunflower oil and nuts. 12 to 15 mg are recommended on average.
Minerals and trace elements
- Calcium, also calcium, is an alkaline earth element. It keeps the heart healthy and strengthens bones and teeth. The main suppliers are dairy products. For example, a 50 g piece of Camembert contains 250 mg of calcium. The DGE recommends a daily intake of 900 mg of this nutrient.
- Iron protects against disease, is important for oxygen transport, blood formation and prevents fatigue. Recommended intake is 10 – 15 mg per day. Pregnant women have an increased need. You should even consume up to 30 mg of iron daily. Nuts and seeds such as pumpkin seeds (12.5 mg), flax seeds (8 mg) and pistachios (7 mg) are good sources, as are legumes such as lentils (8 mg) and kidney beans (6 mg).
- Potassium ensures healthy blood pressure. To ensure a daily intake of 2,000 mg, fruit such as dried plums (700 mg), apricots (440 mg) and bananas (400 mg) should be included in the diet.
- Magnesium is essential for the nervous system and metabolism. A deficiency can become noticeable through calf cramps. Heart palpitations, fatigue, nervousness, vomiting or diarrhea can also indicate a lack of magnesium. 350 mg should be taken daily. Whole grains, lettuce and legumes are optimal sources of carbohydrates.
- Zinc plays a crucial role in metabolism. The trace element is important for skin, hair and wound healing. It supports growth and the immune system. It is found in all animal products as well as nuts. 10 mg per day is recommended.
Consequences of a wrong diet
A balanced diet requires a distribution of macronutrients as described above. Those who severely limit their carbohydrate intake and prefer to eat foods with little fiber may suffer from digestive disorders such as chronic constipation. As there is no feeling of satiety, the appetite is increasingly satisfied with fat and protein. If too many calories are consumed, the body weight will increase sooner or later. This also applies to people who eat too much fat in a diet with a mixed diet.
If the fat content is significantly above 30 percent, weight gain and obesity are to be expected. Internists, as suitable medical specialists, are specialized in correctly assessing complaints due to an incorrect diet and treating the consequences accordingly. The health risk increases if there are too few whole-grain products, nuts and fruit on the menu, or if salt consumption is too high. The consequences: Diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels. This in turn increases the risk of arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). Diseases of civilization such as diabetes, stroke and heart attack are now the number one cause of death in the western world, as shown by figures from the German Federal Statistical Office.
A diet high in coffee, alcohol and foods that are too fatty or too sweet can irritate and inflame the mucous membrane of the esophagus. As a result, gastric acid production is increasingly stimulated, which can lead to the development of reflux disease.
Balanced diet – appropriate for age and adapted to lifestyle
Nutrition experts usually quote average values when it comes to the correct supply of macronutrients such as carbohydrates, fat and protein as well as micronutrients such as vitamins, trace elements and minerals. They often use a daily calorie intake of 2,000 kcal as a guideline. For most adults, however, this is much too high.
The exact requirement depends on your own life situation. In addition to age, size and gender, the level of physical activity also plays a role. Someone who works in an office and does no sports in their free time has a lower basal metabolic rate than a competitive athlete.
Nutrition for athletes
Athletes should always adapt their diet to their performance and goals. They should cover their daily energy requirements with 55 percent to 60 percent carbohydrates. It is not recommended to obtain energy exclusively from fat and protein. During physical exertion, there would be a drop in performance, because both macronutrients are not metabolized as efficiently as carbohydrates.
Two to three hours before the training the last low-fat and high-carbohydrate main meal should be eaten. The body needs more blood for digestive processes during this time. Only then is it fully available to the muscles again. If the food is too fatty, heartburn can occur during physical exertion.
The body stores around 600 grams of carbohydrates in the form of glycogen in trained people. This means that the athlete is ready to perform for a maximum of 90 minutes. Afterwards, the stores must be replenished. This can be in the form of an energy drink or a banana. Energy bars are only recommended to a limited extent, as they often contain too much sugar. After sports, a meal of easily digestible carbohydrates with little protein and fat is recommended.
For athletes, the optimal supply of fluids should also not be ignored: Experts advise consuming five to seven milliliters of fluid per kilogram of body weight four hours before the start of training. If you drink too much immediately before sport, you risk suffering from urinary urgency at the crucial moment. During exercise, fluid balance helps regulate body temperature through sweating.
Nutrition for children
A mixed diet of plant and animal foods ensures that children do not suffer deficiency symptoms. A balanced diet should be as varied as possible and contain lots of fresh foods, i.e. fruit, salad and vegetables. When eating hot meals, make sure that little salt and sugar are used. For this, herbs should be used to provide flavor. This lays the foundation for later nutrition.
Children prefer nicely arranged plates to lovelessly filled ones. It is important not to push the children to eat up. You should learn to trust your sense of satiety. Active, lively children need a higher calorie intake than quiet ones. It is essential to pay attention to this in order to avoid obesity.
Children are growing. For this reason, their need for certain nutrients is higher than that of adults. This affects calcium, vitamin C and vitamin D. For example, a daily calcium intake of 900 mg is recommended for children between the ages of seven and ten. Children from ten to 13 need 1 100 mg, children and adolescents from 13 to 18 even 1 200 mg. In addition, children are considered to have a high demand for lecithin – a substance that performs multiple functions in our organism.
Iron deficiency in childhood is a widespread problem: A one-year-old child has the same iron requirement as a seven- to ten-year-old. This is due to the fact that the amount of blood increases considerably at this age. The child often seems listless and unfocused? Is it frequently ill and takes felt every infectious disease? Iron deficiency could be behind this. In girls the need increases later additionally due to the period.
Nutrition in old age
In people over 65 years of age, physical activity decreases. Your basal metabolic rate drops. Nevertheless, the supply of macro- and micronutrients must be ensured. For a balanced diet, it is recommended to choose foods with a high nutrient density. In addition, some things must be considered:
Seniors often have difficulty absorbing vitamin B12. The problem occurs regardless of the chosen type of diet. Not only vegetarians and vegans, but also meat eaters are affected. For the body to utilize vitamin B12, it must combine with a protein building block called intrinsic factor. This transport protein is produced by the gastric mucosal cells. It accompanies vitamin B12 through the acidic environment in the stomach to the intestine. Only there can the body access it.
Drugs for gout, heartburn or anticoagulants prevent the formation of intrinsic factor. This makes the intake of vitamin B12 impossible. A deficiency can become noticeable through nervousness, forgetfulness and coordination problems. Some seniors also suffer from sleep disorders or cardiovascular difficulties. Due to vitamin B12 deficiency, homocysteine, a toxic intermediate product of protein metabolism, is no longer broken down. It accumulates in the body, increasing the risk of arteriosclerosis or dementia.
According to the DGE, seniors also need to pay more attention to getting enough vitamin D, folic acid (300 mg daily) and the minerals calcium (1,000 mg daily) and zinc (10 mg daily). Iron, on the other hand, should be reduced. Women before menopause have an increased iron requirement due to their periods. This changes with menopause. Those who do not then limit their iron intake run the risk of iron being deposited in the organs. This can lead to tissue damage and symptoms of poisoning in the liver, pancreas, heart, pituitary gland or joints.
The biggest nutritional errors
Spinach is an excellent source of iron. Honey is healthier than sugar and coffee dehydrates the body. Correctly? Wrong! These claims are among the biggest nutritional errors. Spinach contains only 2.7 mg of iron per 100 grams. Nevertheless, the legend of spinach containing iron is not dead. The misconception dates back to 1890: physiologist Gustav von Bunge determined the iron content of 100 grams of dried spinach and put the value at 35 milligrams. However, this does not apply to fresh spinach. It contains less than one tenth of this value.
As an untreated natural product, honey benefits from its good reputation. Three-quarters of it consists of different types of sugar such as glucose and fructose, and one-fifth of water. Vitamins, minerals and enzymes together make up only three percent of its ingredients. The tiny quantity of inflammation-inhibiting enzymes is destroyed still in addition with temperatures over 40 ° C. Those who sweeten hot tea with it or use bee honey for baking do not benefit from its positive effects. Another problem: honey is sticky. When eaten, it sticks to the teeth longer than sugar does. There is a risk of tooth decay. At 340 kcal, it is hardly less calorie-intensive than household sugar, which is at 380 kcal.
In the past, a glass of water was traditionally drunk with coffee to compensate for the loss of fluids. This concern about drying out is unfounded. Although the caffeine has a diuretic effect. But coffee does not dehydrate the body. Since it consists of water, it should be absolutely counted with the computation of the taken up drinking quantity, so Helga Strube of the DGE. In traditional Viennese coffee houses, a glass of water is always served with coffee. This serves to neutralize the taste buds and makes coffee more digestible. Thus the served coffee can be enjoyed sip for sip over and over again.
Balanced diet and food intolerances
If flatulence, diarrhea, headache or abdominal pain occur after eating food, a food intolerance may be the cause. Among the most common are
- Fructose intolerance (fruit sugar intolerance),
- Lactose intolerance (intolerance to milk sugar) and
- Histamine intolerance (histamine intolerance).
For a balanced diet, these personal intolerances must be taken into account in any case. If one does not stand something, one should delete it from its nourishing plan.
Fructose is found, for example, in fruit, honey, fruit and vegetable juices. Even household sugar contains fructose. After consumption, the fructose from the intestine enters the blood with the help of a transport protein. Experts suspect that one third of the German population struggles with the processing of fruit sweetener and can only tolerate small amounts. The intolerance becomes noticeable through flatulence, abdominal pain and diarrhea. What helps: Reduce the amount of fruit and avoid products rich in fructose.
Lactose intolerance is related to a missing enzyme. The body can only utilize lactose if it is broken down in the intestine. This requires the enzyme lactase. About 15 percent of Central Europeans can only consume small amounts of dairy products. Otherwise, a feeling of fullness, abdominal pain, nausea, flatulence and diarrhea are reported. Milk, cottage cheese, cream cheese and chocolate are particularly lactose-intensive.
Those affected can now easily replace these foods with lactose-free alternatives. Instead of cow’s milk, rice milk, almond milk or soy milk can be used. Vegan cheese varieties and dairy-free chocolate are available in many larger supermarkets or health food stores. If you don’t want to change your diet, you can take lactase in the form of powders, chewable tablets or capsules. Taken with food, the enzyme then breaks down the ingested lactose. This makes lactose-containing foods easier to digest.
The neurotransmitter histamine regulates the release of gastric acid and the sleep rhythm. Histamine is also important for the immune system. Some people break down histamine from food with a delay or incompletely. Hives are often a consequence of increased histamine concentrations. The typical symptoms include reddening of the skin and itchy, weeping wheals. Other symptoms include headaches and migraines, gastrointestinal problems and palpitations. Nutritionists help sufferers identify problem foods. Histamine is found, for example, in aged cheeses such as Emmental or Parmesan, red wine, salami, sauerkraut and canned fish.
Conclusion: Balanced nutrition is less complex than you think. Anyone who mixes their plate daily with the right distribution of macronutrients is on the right track. Add to this the right vitamins, trace elements and minerals and you are already doing a lot right.