At the end of September, we observe Healthy Eating Week; an annual event hosted by the British Nutrition Foundation. The week has several important purposes, including putting the focus on food provenance and safety, but perhaps the most central and well-known goal is to encourage healthier diets. We often hear about the need for a healthy balanced diet, but what does that look like in practice and why is diversity so important?
It all comes down to nutrients. Different foods contain different nutritional profiles, and each has a role to play in supporting the body. Because each nutrient has distinct qualities, advantages and uses to the body, there are certain foods and nutrients that can aid in specific areas of the body. This Healthy Eating Week, why not take a closer look at how our body uses nutrients in the food and drink we consume?
It is important to note that while we can put various nutrients and food under the microscope and discuss the potential benefits to physical health, the following should not be mistaken for medical advice, or used as such. As ever, your first port of call should always be your registered physician or health practitioner.
Mental Health and cognition
The brain is one of the most important organs in the body, and just like the engine in a car it needs to be maintained and looked after. There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that gut has a role to play in supporting mental health, but there are also certain nutrients that are believed to play a part too. Omega 3 fatty oils are often cited as a useful nutrient for brain health, commonly found in fish. These are polyunsaturated fats which help to form cell membranes. Two particular types, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) are believed to play a crucial role in the development of infant brains. Studies have supported this idea, as maternal supplements of DHA have been shown in to correlate with higher test scores in children1. Scientists are currently exploring the influence that fish oil supplements containing Omega 3 could have on certain brain impairments and cognitive decline. B vitamins are also believed to support brain health and cognitive development. Folic acid is a well-known example, often taken by expectant mothers during pregnancy. B vitamins have been studied for their effect on the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease and cognitive decline through ageing2. Foods that contain a rich supply of B vitamins include fortified foods such as bread and pasta, as well as eggs, dairy products and legumes.
There are certain nutrients in foods we consume every day that can encourage the hair to grow and thicken or protect it from damage. Protein and biotin are two examples – they are nutrients that encourage the body’s cells to grow, and that includes our hair! Both of these substances are found in eggs. Another useful nutrient for the hair is Vitamin A, which can be found in carrots or liver. Vitamin A is believed to support the secretion of sebum, which is a substance that helps to prevent hair breakage and split ends, as well as moisturising the skin.
The skin is the body’s largest organ and forms part of our immune defence, because it provides a physical barrier, but did you know it can be influenced by the food we eat?
Vitamin E is a particularly useful nutrient for skin health. Too many oxidants, and the skin can become inflamed and disrupted. Vitamin E helps to protect against oxidative stress, and so can help maintain clear, healthy-looking skin. The nutrient is abundant in a very wide range of foods, so it can be fairly simple to include it in everyday diets. You’ll find Vitamin E in foods such as avocado, sunflower seeds, almonds and olives. Hydration is often overlooked – but don’t forget water! Studies3 have shown that drinking water can have a positive influence on the skin, flushing out toxins and improving blood flow to the skin, leaving a clear and even complexion. Water is also understood to help the skin retain its natural elasticity4, which can help to slow down visual signs of ageing.
As we age, our joints can suffer from wear and tear which can manifest as conditions such as arthritis. Our mobility is crucial, which means joint health becomes increasingly important as we age. There are certain nutrients that can positively influence the joints. Omega 3, found in flaxseed and chia seeds, is believed to help reduce the intensity of some joint symptoms, including stiffness, swelling and discomfort. Great news for hot drink aficionados too – tea and cocoa, as well as berries, can be a rich source of a nutrient category known as catechins. This nutrient is understood to slow the breakdown of collagen and cartilage, which can help to protect the joints from premature damage. Some further studies5 suggest that the spice turmeric (or active compound curcumin) can help to reduce inflammation, leading to its development as a joint health supplement.
The immune system
The importance of our immune system can’t be overstated! It’s our body’s first line of defence against harmful viruses and pathogens. So, how can we support the function of the immune system with the foods we eat?
The answer could lie in the gut! Many people are surprised to hear that 70% of the immune cells are in the gut, and there are certain nutrients and substances that our bodies can use to support these defences. Vitamin C has long been understood to help prevent certain illnesses – we all know the story of early sailors taking supplies of citrus fruits on voyages to avoid scurvy! The vitamin supports cellular functions of both the innate and adaptive immune system, and can assist in other ways too, such as supporting the function of phagocytes, which surround harmful pathogens or cells, as well as enhancing cytokine production by the white blood cells. We know that Vitamin C is abundant in citrus fruits, but it’s also found in rich quantities in chilli peppers! You can even get this nutrient through broccoli, but be aware that heat processes, such as boiling or cooking, will reduce the Vitamin C content.
Stand by for part 2!
Healthy Eating Week is a great opportunity to understand diet in more detail. We often hear about the need for a healthy, balanced diet, but it can sometimes be difficult to see the end goal – understanding how different parts of the body use particular nutrients can help to put the bigger picture into focus.
Find part 2 of our blog, which outlines more of the essential nutrients for important parts of the body, including the all-important gut, our muscles and our bones!
- Maternal supplementation with very-long-chain n-3 fatty acids during pregnancy
- Effect of 3-year folic acid supplementation on cognitive function in older adults
- Effect of oral hydration on skin microcirculation in healthy young and midlife and older adults
- Dietary water affects human skin hydration and biomechanics
- Product-evaluation registry of Meriva®, a curcumin-phosphatidylcholine complex, for the complementary management of osteoarthritis
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