The foods we choose can be decisive for our health
In simple terms, we can divide nutrients into two categories, macronutrients and micronutrients, with the first consisting of fats, carbohydrates, proteins, water and fibre. We get energy from all macronutrients other than water and fibre, which we need for other things. Macronutrients are the nutrients we need most from our diet. In addition to providing energy, these substances take care of more or less all of the body’s systems.
Vitamins and minerals are micronutrients. Even if smaller amounts of these nutrients are sufficient, they are crucial to our continued health and development. For example, as children, we need iron for our cognitive development. Iron deficiency can also cause anaemia in children and adults. We also need folate which helps the body to form new cells, zinc to strengthen the body against infections as well as vitamin D for our bone structure, and a variety of other vitamins and minerals. Vitamin D is the only micronutrient that is created naturally in the body. We have to get all of the other substances from our diet.
If we don’t get enough essential nutrients, we become ill. For this reason, the Swedish National Food Agency uses the Nordic nutritional recommendations that were developed to give advice on what and how much we should be eating. These are shared recommendations for the Nordic nations. The first Nordic nutritional recommendations were published in 1980 and the most recent in 2023. These include foods which are good for your health in the short and long term, as well as recommendations on how much physical activity we need.
Some nutrients are essential for us as they are simply vital to our survival, but the body cannot produce them by itself. There are over 40 essential nutrients. These include the above-mentioned macro and micronutrients, fats, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, water and fibre. Protein alone contains at least 20 amino acids. By eating things such as eggs, farmed fish, soybeans and meat, we get enough proteins with essential amino acids. According to Professor Stig Bengmark however, what type of meat we eat is important, and how it is cooked. Avoid processed meats that are smoked, fried, or grilled, and sausages, meatballs, burgers and the like. Also avoid meat from animals raised on concentrates. Choose meat from grass-fed animals instead.
Other proteins such as legumes, nuts, grains, oats, peanuts, wheat, beans and lentils, known as incomplete proteins, must be combined with each other or with additional foods in order to provide the necessary essential amino acids.
The right choices can reduce illness
According to the WHO, adults should eat at least 400 grams of fruits and vegetables per day to reduce the risk of chronic diseases and premature death. Fruits and vegetables contain vitamins as well as fibre. The body also needs fats to be able to build and repair cells and produce hormones, and not least, to be able to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. At the same time, our total fat intake should be less than 30 percent of our total energy intake.
Today, there is scientific evidence that certain types of fats are better for our well-being than others. While polyunsaturated and unsaturated fats such as olive and rapeseed oils, fish, avocados and nuts are considered to be the most beneficial and are foods we should eat a lot of, saturated fats such as butter and dairy products should make up less than 10 percent of our daily fat intake. We should also do our best to avoid trans fats, previously found in cakes, biscuits and pastries. In recent years, however, the amount of industrially produced trans fats has decreased heavily. Too much saturated fat and trans fats can lead to diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers.
Break down into sugar
Just as there are different types of fat, there are different types of carbohydrates, some better than others. Most carbohydrates break down into a sugar, known as glucose in the body, which is needed to provide energy to cells. Glucose is primarily stored in the liver and muscles, and works as an energy store. The brain also uses glucose as fuel. And while wholemeal bread, wholemeal varieties of pasta and rice, wholemeal flour, as well as high-fibre vegetables, fruits and legumes contain slow carbohydrates and have a protective effect against several chronic diseases, too much white bread, standard pasta and other fast carbohydrates such as soft drinks, ice cream and sweets actually increase the risk of becoming ill.
In a study published last year in The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), the results showed a clear link between a diet high in fast carbohydrates, i.e. with a high glycaemic index (GI), and future cardiovascular disease and premature death. The connection was found regardless of whether the study participants had previously had a cardiovascular disease or not. The glycaemic index (GI) is a measure of how quickly and for how long the blood sugar level is affected after eating a specific food. The study included 137,851 people aged 35-70 from 27 countries on five continents, of which 4,000 were Swedes. Along with data from previous research, the study provides further evidence that fast carbohydrates are bad for us.
The more, the better
The more nutrients a food contains, the healthier it is. We then say that this food is nutrient dense. One example of a very nutritious food is chicken liver, which contains proteins, B vitamins, not only vitamin B12, which is so important to us, but also vitamins A, D and E, as well as folate, selenium and a lot of iron. Chicken liver provides a large amount of the recommended daily intake (RDI) of essential nutrients. Also sardines in oil, mackerel, egg yolks, sunflower seeds and nuts are considered to be very nutrient dense foods.
Antioxidants – good or bad?
There has been a lot of focus on antioxidants in recent years. The task of antioxidants is to neutralise free radicals which, despite being formed naturally in the body, can cause damage to our tissues and cells, especially if we are exposed to a lot of stress. Antioxidants can be found in both vitamins and minerals, and if you eat a complex diet of fruits and vegetables, you will get the antioxidants your body needs to protect your cells against free radicals. But antioxidants can also be found in a lot of dietary supplements. They’re often marketed as being able to prevent cancer. However, the benefits of antioxidants are a hotly debated topic, especially when it comes to supplements. According to the Nordic Nutrition Recommendations (NNR) there is sufficient scientific evidence to show that dietary supplements with high levels of antioxidants can be harmful to health. More recent research shows that large amounts of antioxidants help cancer cells to bypass the body’s own defences, and can thus cause an already developed cancer to spread. Studies have looked at lung cancer and malignant melanoma. But studies are continuing into whether this also applies to other types of cancer.
The importance of intestinal flora
It’s becoming more and more obvious that our intestinal flora is also affected by what we eat, and thus also how we are feeling. Several studies have shown that microbes, i.e. bacteria, fungi, yeast, and viruses that are found in our intestines, which are called intestinal microbiota, are important for our health, and that disorders in the intestinal microbiota can be linked to several diseases such as inflammatory bowel syndrome, cancer, type 2 diabetes and auto-immune rheumatological diseases.
Changes in the intestinal mucosa and in the composition of the intestinal flora also appear to be important for the absorption of certain substances in food. A study of mice presented in the magazine Science a couple of years ago showed that the intestinal flora affects the circadian rhythm of the small intestinal epithelial cells, and this is connected to nutrient uptake in the intestines. The epithelial cells can be found on the surface of the intestine, and they transport nutrients into the bloodstream. According to the scientists behind the study, the epithelial cells are activated by a signal connected with the circadian rhythm. Meaning that lack of sleep, shift work, and jet lag can affect our nutrient uptake. This should also explain why irregular meal and sleep times can be related to eating and intestinal disorders. So maybe it’s not just what we eat that matters, but also when we eat?
MD Anderson Center – mdanderson.org /publications/focused-on-health/what-are- macronutrients
CDC Center for Disease Control and Interventions – cdc.gov /nutrition/micronutrient-malnutrition/micronutrients/index
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