Healthy diet, superfoods, low-fat, high-protein and counting carbs – all buzzwords we have heard on television, read in books, magazines and on the internet. There is a wealth of information concerning nutrition out there that, at times, can seem conflicting and often confusing. So who is right and what is really important when it comes to eating a healthy diet and what impact does this have on your job performance? The answers may surprise you.
While healthy nutrition can be a confusing subject, the basics are not. Yes, there are fad diets and extreme weight-loss plans that may work for some, but the easiest way to eat healthy is by following a simple plan that will not only make your body healthier, it will also improve your mood, raise your energy level and keep you healthy. All of these elements contribute to better job performance. People who consistently eat a healthy diet—not just cutting calories—reduce their risk of cardiovascular (heart) disease, cancer and other diseases and infections. Body weight is often lower, reducing stress on muscles and joints and healthy eaters fatigue less easily. A healthy diet also contributes to an efficient immune system and better overall health. The basics of a healthy diet are made up of five main components: carbohydrates, protein, fats, vitamins and minerals.
Carbohydrates are the body’s fuel source and are made up of two types: simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates give the body short, quick bursts of energy and come from foods like fruits, juices and milk. Complex carbohydrates can be stored in the body for longer periods of time to be used as energy. Examples of complex carbohydrates are whole grains, pasta, bread and vegetables. All forms of carbohydrates are broken down by the body into glucose, which is then converted into energy.
Protein is responsible for building and repairing muscles, ligaments, tendons and other tissues. Protein is not a significant energy source, and excess protein will be stored as fat. Fats are a concentrated energy source and are also used for cell function, protection of vital organs, supply essential fatty acids and are used to transport vitamins throughout the bloodstream.
There are three main types of fats: trans, saturated and unsaturated. Trans fats are usually added during the cooking process, often by frying and should be avoided, as they raise triglycerides and LDL (bad) cholesterol. Saturated fats from meat, dairy and some oils also increase cholesterol and therefore risk of heart disease. They should be consumed sparingly. The two types of unsaturated fats, mono and poly, are considered “healthy” fats and lower cholesterol levels and raise HDL (good) cholesterol. Polyunsaturated fats come from vegetable and fish oils, while monounsaturated fats come from olive oil, peanut oil, avocados and most nuts. Vitamins and minerals provide no energy, but are important components that help support the body’s essential functions.
While every person is different, the same general principle applies. If more calories are consumed than burned, the person will gain weight. If more calories are burned than consumed, the person will lose weight. Younger and active people will require more calories daily, while older and sedentary individuals will require less. In general, men will need to consume more calories than women. See Figure 1 for more information about daily caloric intake. Again, these percentages are dependent on each individual, their age and activity level. Men typically need more protein than women, while active individuals will need more carbohydrates than sedentary people. A healthy diet might start with a good breakfast. Job performance will suffer if breakfast is an afterthought and comes in a greasy bag from a fast food restaurant. Breakfast should be high in carbohydrates for energy and high in protein. This helps keep hunger at bay until lunchtime. Easy healthy breakfast options include: oatmeal with fruit, whole-wheat toast with peanut butter and jelly or an English muffin with peanut butter. Natural fruit juice with few or no added sugars, tea or milk are good beverage options. Lunches and dinners should include a high percentage of protein, some carbohydrates, and lots of fruits and vegetables. Lunch needs to keep you full until dinner, so protein is a priority. A reasonable amount of carbohydrates should be added to give you energy. Lunch is also an easy place to add fruits and vegetables, possibly with an apple and peanut butter or carrot sticks and hummus. Dinner could include anything grilled (chicken, pork or fish) and a serving of vegetables, such as a salad or steamed vegetables. Dinner should be light on fats and heavy sauces or dressings. The term “superfoods” is used frequently, but with good reason. It usually describes foods that are not only healthy, but also contain an abundance of nutrition. These foods should be included in your diet as much as possible.
Active Males 2,400-3,000 45-65% 25-35% 20-35%
Sedentary Males 2,200-2,800 45-60% 20-30% 20-35%
Active Females 2,000-2,500 45-65% 20-30% 20-35%
Sedentary Females 1,600-1,800 45-55% 15-25% 20-30%
Black beans – low in fat and packed with fiber and protein
Broccoli – low in calories, high in vitamin A, vitamin K and sulforaphanes, which protect against stomach, lung and breast cancers
Green tea – high in antioxidants and protects against viruses, infections and cancers
Kiwi – the most nutritionally dense fruit, contains many vitamins and minerals
Mackerel – high in heart-healthy omega-3 fats (good fats) and low in mercury
Pork tenderloin – low in fat and calories, high in vitamin B6
Swiss chard – similar to spinach, high in vitamins A and K
Walnuts – high in omega-3 fats Anyone will benefit from a heart-healthy diet that includes whole grains (providing fiber which lowers cholesterol), healthy fats (monounsaturated and omega-3) and lots of fruits and vegetables.
Here are some examples of heart-healthy foods:
Fish – especially salmon, mackerel and herring, which all contain omega-3 fats
Cooking oils – olive, sunflower, peanut and sesame oils all contain high levels of monounsaturated fats, which lower cholesterol, and vitamin E, which lowers LDL (bad) and raises HDL (good) levels
Fruits – contain fiber, phytochemicals and lycopene, all of which lower the risk of developing cardiovascular disease
Dark, leafy greens – spinach, kale, greens, arugula, Swiss Chard and bok choy all contain folate (a mineral) which decreases heart disease risk
Nuts – peanuts, cashews, almonds, walnuts and others all contain fiber and omega-3 fats which decrease triglyceride levels as well as contain monounsaturated fats, which decrease LDL levels and raise HDL levels Eating a healthy diet does not need to be complicated, expensive or time-consuming. The best plan is to take one step at a time, gradually making a permanent lifestyle change. The benefits of improving your health far outweigh any negatives, such as extra time or money spent in the long run. If the result is improved job performance, better quality of life and longer life, any extra effort is worth the payoff.
Erin O’Brien, MS, ATC is a Certified Athletic Trainer and Marketing Coordinator for O’Brien International, the association management company that manages the Concrete Sawing & Drilling Association. O’Brien received her Bachelor of Science degree in Athletic Training from Ohio University, her Master of Science degree in Applied Physiology and Kinesiology from the University of Florida and is a Level 2 Certified Crossfit Instructor. She is a regular contributor to Concrete Openings magazine. She can be reached at erin@ csda.org or 727-577-5002.