Food: Maintaining a balance for a healthy life

As we approach the colder months, looking after your health should be a top priority. Having a healthy, balanced diet can help sustain your overall wellbeing during the winter period.

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is important for everyone, but alongside feeling healthy and supporting your overall wellbeing, it can be especially helpful to avoid exacerbating the symptoms of some disabilities.

Ensuring your food is nutritious and beneficial can help to uphold a healthy weight all year round, but as winter approaches and there are less opportunities to get active outdoors, a balanced diet is essential.

With access to different services like physiotherapy interrupted or restricted and centres for physical activity operating on reduced hours due to the coronavirus pandemic, continuing a healthy diet at home can help in everyday life until things return to normal.

Food groups

Consuming enough of each food group can help decrease fatigue, improve bowel functions, keep bones healthy and improve muscle strength.

Each food group comes with its own benefits for your health, the major food groups are: proteins; carbohydrates and sugars; fats; fibre; vitamins and minerals.

A heathy diet is about eating a variety of different foods from each of the main groups every day, this means eating more of certain foods and less of others.

The amount you should consume is based on your age, gender, how active you are and your goals. It is important to discuss this with your doctor or specialist nurse before making big changes to your diet.

Particular food groups can be important if you have a disability like diabetes – how much you eat of each food group will affect your blood sugar levels.

Balance

Proteins are essential for growth and tissue repair, making them especially important with conditions including MS and muscular dystrophy. Foods such as beans, nuts, eggs, meat and fish contain high amounts of protein and work to keep your muscles healthy.

Incorporating oily fish like salmon and sardines into your meals as a source of protein will also provide omega-3 which can help protect the heart.

Dairy products including milk, cheese and yoghurt are also great sources of protein, but alongside meats, will ensure you intake the right amount of fats. These products are essential to the health of bones, teeth and muscles.

Although fats are important in a balanced diet, choosing low-fat alternatives to dairy products can ensure you don’t consume too much saturated fat which can lead to weight gain.

Carbohydrates are starchy foods like potatoes, rice, pasta and bread. These are broken down in the body into glucose and used by our cells as fuel.

Although starchy foods are key to a healthy diet, some can also raise your blood sugar quickly. For this reason, some starchy foods are better than others.

Eating wholegrain bread, wholewheat pasta and brown rice is better for your body and is a source of fibre. If your disability affects your digestive health, increasing your fibre intake can help.

Alongside saturated fat, you shouldn’t have high levels of processed sugar in your diet, found in products such as cakes, fizzy juice and sweets. While these items aren’t nutritionally rich, they can be eaten as a treat occasionally.

Through eating the right balance of main food groups, you will receive the vitamins and minerals that are essential for good health.

When thinking of what fruit and veg to add to your plate, try to keep it as colourful as possible, having a wide variety will help you get the vitamins and minerals you need.

Alongside each food group, keeping hydrated is equally important to maintaining a balanced diet. Water intake is essential for the body to process nutrients and function at the optimum level, and is used in various chemical processes happening in our cells.

Seasonal

Most fruits and vegetables can be purchased all year round, but eating what’s in season can help you get the highest levels of nutrients.

Some fruit and veg, including bananas, cabbage, onions and pomegranates, are in season all year round so can be a staple in your balanced diet.

As we enter winter, apples, clementines, dates and pears are coming into season and will be more readily available. Apples, clementines and bananas are all good sources of vitamin C which is beneficial for boosting your immune system and wound healing, while pears and dates are great sources of fibre.

When thinking about what vegetables to include in your meals, brussels sprouts, celery, leeks, lettuce, parsnips and sweet potatoes are all in season.

Celery reduces inflammation and supports digestion, sweet potatoes support gut health, and brussels sprouts are high in nutrients.

Planning

Maintaining a balanced diet may sound easy, but how you plan your meals, shop and eat can all pose barriers. When planning meals for yourself or the person you care for, consider the individual circumstances and requirements.

If you have problems holding cutlery or keeping dishes stable so rely on things like ready meals, there is adaptive equipment that can support you. An occupational therapist can help you discover ways to make meal times easier for you or the person you care for.

This could include referrals to specialists if you struggle with loss of appetite or swallowing. Understanding portion sizes and traffic light systems on food packaging can promote awareness or understanding to create a balanced diet.

The NHS Eat Well resources provide guidance on this system and other tips, or you can ask your primary healthcare provider to refer you to a nutritionist for tailored advice and support.

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