Health and nutrition: food groups

When it comes to food, health and nutrition do not always go hand in hand. The physiological sign of hunger is not enough to direct us towards correct food choices suited to the needs of our body. In other words, individuals do not make choices to compensate for food shortages or to meet the needs of the body, but are often oriented towards one food over another on the basis of family, local, cultural or traditional habits.

For a healthy and correct diet it is therefore necessary to know a little better everything that arrives on our table, in particular which are the food groups.

What are the food groups?

With the term "food" we refer to all those substances used for nutrition that they provide to our body:

  • Nutrients
  • Fibres
  • Water
Nutrients are necessary for our body to support the vital functions of organs and systems (respiratory, circulatory, body regulation, etc...) and to carry out any type of physical activity. This category includes carbohydrates (both complex and simple) that are our primary source of energy, lipids (saturated, mono and polyunsaturated fats), proteins (animal and vegetable), vitamins (soluble and hyposoluble) and minerals, both macro and micro.
Based on the nutrients they contain, foods can be broken down into cereals and cereal products, fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, eggs, legumes, milk and dairy products and sweets. A varied diet, including fresh and unselected foods from different food groups, provides adequate intakes of all nutrients, including vitamins and minerals.

Cereals

This food group includes bread, semolina, whole wheat pasta, cereals, rice, potatoes, barley, black rice, kamut pasta, polenta and all products containing them. These foods form the basis of the Mediterranean food pyramid and are recommended in each of the three meals of the day because they provide us with complex carbohydrates and B vitamins; for this reason cereals are the most important source of energy for our body and especially for the brain. Wholemeal/wholegrain products are preferable because of their high fibre content, which induces a sense of satiety in the body, while at the same time improving glycemic control and intestinal functions.
Being a great source of energy, grains should never be missed in the daily diet and especially in the phases of pre and post workout.

Fruits and vegetables

All fruit and vegetables on the market play an important role in our daily diet. They are important not only for the minerals and vitamins they provide to our body, but also for being a main source of fibre. Fruits and vegetables, although their characteristics are similar belong to two different groups and it is important to know that they are not interchangeable.
Fruit

It generally provides more calories than vegetables because it contains more sugar. The fruit can be divided into fleshy or fresh, such as pears and apples, dried or oily, such as walnuts and olives and floury such as chestnuts. The main nutrients in fruit are vitamins and minerals, followed by a considerable amount of water and carbohydrates. Some types of dried fruit are composed of a large proportion of fat and have a high content of sugars, carbohydrates, proteins, fibres, minerals, iron, calcium, phosphorus and vitamins E, A and B2.
Fresh fruit can be divided into three groups according to their content of simple carbohydrates and, consequently, the calories supplied to the body:

  • Low sugar content: pear, orange, grapefruit, apricot, plum, peach, melon, watermelon and strawberries;
  • Medium sugar content: apple, kiwi, cherry, tangerine, pineapple;
  • High sugar content: banana, fig, persimmon, grape, clementine.

Many of these contain, in addition to sugar, a large quantity of water, vitamins and minerals. Two portions of fresh fruit per day (a total of 300-400 gr per day) are recommended, preferably between meals and not immediately after. Dried fruit, on the other hand, should be eaten in moderation because of its fatty nature. Floury fruit should be added in place of dough or bread.

Vegetables

This food group is characterized by a high concentration of water, a low sugar content, an even lower content of lipids and proteins but a high level of potassium, sodium, calcium, iron, magnesium, folic acid (useful for red blood cells), vitamin E (antioxidant), K (useful for bones), A (skin and eyes) and C (which helps the absorption of iron). The fibre content of vegetables is extremely high which, in a balanced diet, helps to reduce the level of cholesterol in the blood and the risk of cardiovascular diseases.

Regular intake of a good variety of vegetables is a great health benefit. We recommend 2-3 portions a day (300-400gr) of seasonal vegetables, either raw or cooked, provided you avoid too many rich seasonings or by replacing them with raw extra virgin olive oil (1-2 tablespoons per serving).

Meat and eggs

This food group includes fresh or frozen meat and eggs that provide the body with a high biological value of proteins, saturated animal fats, minerals and group B vitamins. Red meat therefore provides some of the basic nutritional needs, but it is advisable to reduce its consumption to 1-2 times a week, preferring lean cuts and alternating it with white meat, fish and eggs.
White meat (chicken, turkey, rabbit) is rich in complete proteins (used by the body to increase tissue and produce hormones, enzymes and antibodies. Another characteristic of white meat is its low fat content: only 1% in chicken breast and 1.5% in turkey, giving a very low calorie intake. Eggs are rich in protein and B vitamins as well as sodium, potassium, iron, phosphorus and lecithin.

Fish

By fish we mean all types without distinction between vertebrates and crustaceans. Its chemical composition is 60-80% water and 15-25% protein easily digestible thanks to the absence of connective tissue. The concentration of lipids changes significantly between the various types (from 0.5 to 22%) and for this reason the fish are divided into lean, semi-fat and fat. The age, reproductive cycle and nutritional habits of the individual types vary the amount of lipids contained within. In addition to lipids we find triglycerides, phospholipids and cholesterol, vitamins A, D and other sterols are widely present.

Fish fat is better known as 'good' because it contains a higher percentage of unsaturated fatty acids than meat fat. Carbohydrates are only present in small traces. Fish is also high in phosphorus, calcium and iodine as well as B vitamins and vitamins. A portion of fish (100g) is recommended 3-4 times a week.

Milk and dairy products

Milk is one of the few complete and balanced foods in terms of macronutrients and is also the main source of calcium in our diet. It consists of 75/85% water, 3/7% protein, 4/9% fat and 4/5% carbohydrates. The latter in milk are represented by lactose (glucose + galactose) which affects the digestibility of milk and in fact its intake must be controlled and regulated according to your body. It should not be forgotten that milk proteins are also considered to be of higher quality than other proteins contained in foods such as meat, soya or wheat. This means that they are rich in essential amino acids, the essential ones that our body cannot synthesize on its own.
Milk is the main element of dairy products (yogurt, cheese, ricotta etc...) which are also a source of minerals, especially calcium in a form easily assimilated by our body and correctly balanced with phosphorus, but also proteins, highly digestible and with an ideal supply of essential amino acids. Depending on the technique used to process the milk into cheese, the final product may be more or less fat and therefore contain more or less cholesterol. Generally one portion of milk (150 ml) or yoghurt (125 ml) is recommended each morning and no more than two portions of cheese per week (50g/magro 100g ripened).

Legumes

Legumes, which include many plant varieties such as beans, soybeans, chickpeas, lentils, peas and lupins should be in all diets as they are satiating, nutritious and protein-rich without any fat. All legumes contain 20% protein, a good amount of starch and are rich in useful fibres for the intestine. With the exception of soybeans, legumes have a low fat content (1-4%) and are rich in minerals such as iron, calcium, potassium, phosphorus and magnesium and vitamin B. Legumes are to be considered as a main dish and for this reason they will replace meat, cheese and fish.
If cooked with pasta and rice, they become a complete and quality meal as the missing part of amino acids in legumes is compensated by grains. The ideal portion of legumes to be consumed 2 or 3 times a week is 100g, if accompanied by other foods the dose must be reduced proportionally.

Sweets or dessert

Sweets are basically a source of sugar and fat and significantly increase the calories taken up by our bodies. Generally we take sweets or desserts at the end of very abundant meals, or as a snack before going to sleep, we should however consider that the sweets do not provide essential nutrients. The recommended guideline is to control the amount and frequency of intake of sweets without eliminating them completely. The ideal frequency is 1-2 times a week or eat a small portion of homemade cakes (cakes, plum-cake, donuts) at breakfast.

Fats and condiments

This group includes extra virgin olive oil, unique seed oil (corn, sunflower, peanut), mixed seed oil, mascarpone cream, mayonnaise etc... What is good to keep in mind is that the intake of animal fats should be minimized as they are harmful to our health. The advice is to choose the extra virgin olive oil to use preferably raw: inside it there is in fact a large amount of vegetable fats and vitamin E.

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