Committing to a good, balanced, healthy diet is not merely an aesthetic question. It is a question of physical and even mental health. Fundación MAPFRE knows this and, for this reason, encourages it through workshops that form part of the Choose Health project delivered by the nutritionist Mercedes Gállego.
TEXT: GABRIELA DE NICOLÁS IMAGES: COURTESY OF MERCEDES GÁLLEGO
The data from one of the most recent studies on overweight and obesity make for a chilling read. Conducted by a team from the IMIM (Hospital del Mar Medical Research Institute) in Barcelona and published in the Revista Española de Cardiología [Spanish Cardiology Journal], it concludes that, should the obesity epidemic continue apace, by 2030 some 80 percent of men and 55 percent of women will be overweight or obese. However, note that these data not only affect the scales. There is also a monetary impact. Because this situation “will entail an additional 20 billion euros a year in direct medical costs.” Looking at this objectively, it is an authentic drama directly affecting the nation’s health.
A simple system
Knowing all this, it is not surprising that governments, institutions and even companies attentive to their workers’ health are implementing projects to help people control their weight. The system is (relatively) simple: follow a healthy diet and take some physical exercise on a regular basis. The theory seems straightforward and yet it seems we cannot put it into practice. Mercedes Gállego, a nutritional coach and Dietetics specialist, points out that we Spaniards are full of really good intentions. However, they often go up in smoke, usually due to a lack of time for cooking and what all this means in practical terms: “Homemade food is only too often replaced by processed foods or simply eating out. High calorie, ultra-processed products of scant nutritional value have done away with using raw materials to make real meals” and, on top of all that, “the amount of fruit and vegetables we now consume is less than the recommended level.” This, according to a report by the WHO and FAO, “is 400 grams a day of fruit and vegetables (excluding potatoes and other starchy tubers).” Gállego clarifies this: “Five servings of fruit and fresh vegetables, (three pieces of fruit and two portions of vegetables). If they are also local, seasonal produce, this can guarantee we receive the necessary nutrients in every season of the year, and they are generally cheaper than imported products.” And another recommendation: our main meals should include vegetables.
In effect, increased consumption of these products is one of the bases of a healthy, balanced diet. But it is not the only one. For this Nutritional Coach, it is also most important that “we prioritize the use of fresh foods – no labels or lists of ingredients.” In other words, fruit, vegetables and greens, whole grains, legumes, dairy products, eggs, meat, fish, nuts and seeds. And, at the same time, “reduce the consumption of ultra-processed products such as industrial bakery products, cured cold cuts, breakfast cereals and so forth, given that they offer an excessive energy input and little nutritional value.” Finally, drink between two and two and a half liters of water a day. And never forget that we should eat from all the main food groups. “A simple tip would be to base our dishes on the healthy eating method developed at Harvard University.” The plate is divided into four parts: half of the plate should be filled with fruit and vegetables – mostly vegetables – a quarter with whole grains, and the remaining quarter with sources of healthy proteins.
Changing our habits is always hard at first. That is why Gállego recommends modifying bit by bit, in a progressive manner. “If we attempt a drastic change, from one extreme to another, it’s almost certain to fail. On the other hand, if we introduce changes gradually into our daily routine, before we realize it they will already form part of our daily life and the effort will have been bearable and well worth it.” This nutrition expert talks about incorporating one healthy habit every two weeks: “In a year we’ll have incorporated some 24 healthy habits and that will have a positive impact on our health.” Because that is the ultimate goal. But, let’s not kid ourselves, also to be content looking at ourselves in the mirror: “While the overwhelming motivation is still for aesthetic reasons, an ever-increasing stimulus is watching what we eat in order to improve our health and prevent diseases.”
When we nourish ourselves appropriately, this is reflected in both our physical and mental health.
When we nourish ourselves appropriately, this is reflected in both our physical and mental health. “A good diet strengthens our immune system, provides us with greater vitality and prevents the appearance or chronification of diseases.” And she adds: “Eating not only consists in putting fuel into the machine that is our body. It is an act of the utmost importance that affects us at all levels: physical, psychological and emotional.”
It is true that with the busy life we lead nowadays, with less time to spend in the kitchen and, even, in the local market or supermarket, makes a balanced diet even more complicated. One of the tricks Mercedes Gállego proposes has to do with the healthy habit of preparing menus. “Devoting some time at the weekend to planning the weekly menu has several advantages: we can save time and money and, above all, it makes it much easier to eat healthily than if we simply attempted to improvise on the fly. It prevents us making poor decisions when we arrive home – usually hungry and not feeling like cooking – which usually leads to rather unhealthy dishes on the table, i.e. fast food or, dare we say it, junk food.”. The Nutritional Coach also asserts that it saves you money, as your shopping is “based on what you actually need.” Even more so if you take the time to check the labels of what you are buying and going to consume.
What does our food contain
Indeed, learning to read food labels is most important. In the first place, you have to “examine the list of ingredients: this tells you what the food contains, in decreasing order according to the quantities of each ingredient. A basic rule is that, the shorter the list of ingredients, the better the product.” But, there is still more. We have to examine the nutritional information in this order: “Carbohydrates: if refined sugars appear in the first three ingredients, that food is not to be recommended. Fats: quantity and quality. Salt content: upward of 1.25 grams per 100 grams is not to be recommended. We must also check the calorific content. And, most important, in Gállego’s opinion: “We must not let ourselves be ‘thrown off’ by advertising claims. Those words often prominently displayed up front (natural, light, whole, light, etc.) don’t offer us real information on the product.”
Fundación MAPFRE for a good nutritional culture
Through the implementation of health promotion campaigns in the labor environment, Fundación MAPFRE strives to instill healthy habits in every sphere of people’s lives. With regard to nutrition, it organizes workshops delivered by Mercedes Gállego that are designed to improve people’s dietary habits. She does so “through nutritional education, providing information and knowledge to communicate healthy habits in an accessible, practical and participative manner. We must learn to choose what we eat and interpret the nutritional information of products, understanding how healthy eating affects our well-being and health,” states the nutritionist. The aim is to provide guidelines for us to be aware of what we eat.
For a healthy diet, forget false myths
Misconceptions regarding dishes, diets and recipes are widespread among the general public in our country. These false myths range from overrating foods to absolutely trashing them. Mercedes Gállego has made a list of some of the most common with a view to debunking them once and for all. Because they influence the decisions we make when we are shopping… and eating.
- We need added sugar in our diet. One of the fuels our body needs is glucose, which our body obtains by consuming it, but also metabolically, from complex or slow-absorption carbohydrates (whole grains, legumes, tubers, fruit, greens and vegetables). Moreover, sugar contributes four nutritionally-empty kilocalories per gram. The World Health Organization recommends that solely ten percent of the calories – preferably five percent – in a person’s diet should stem directly from sugar.
- ‘Light’ products are not fattening. Applying the term light to food simply means that its calorie content is 30 percent lower than its counterpart, but that does not necessarily make it healthy. In addition, we tend to consume greater quantities, believing it is healthy and not fattening.
- There is no difference between whole and processed foods. Whole and refined foods provide our body with energy, but they do not do so in the same way. The former do so gradually, improving glycemic (blood sugar) control; and, as a source of fiber, they are more filling, help regulate cholesterol levels and stimulate the intestinal transit. Whole foods also provide a greater amount of nutrients (fiber, group B and E vitamins, and minerals). We must therefore prioritize the consumption of whole foods over refined products.
- Fruit is fattening after meals or later than 6pm. A piece of fruit provides the same calories before, during or after a meal. Nor does it make us slimmer if we eat fruit before meals, although it does help us feel fuller. It is a healthy food we can eat at any time of the day.
- We should eat five meals a day. There is no scientific evidence to corroborate this. Initially, it was considered more beneficial because, in this way, we eat less at one sitting and blood glucose levels remain more stable. However, if a mid-morning or afternoon snack consists of processed foods (industrial bakery products, sugary cereals, etc.), it is preferable to have three, highquality meals a day. It is not so much the number of times we eat each day, but rather that the dishes chosen in each of them are healthy.