Peter Francis Column - Quality the key when it comes to your diet

In his weekly health and exercise column in the Limerick Leader, Peter Francis explains the importance of a proper diet.

In his weekly health and exercise column in the Limerick Leader, Peter Francis explains the importance of a proper diet.

In recent years, Dieticians, Nutritionists, Medical Professors, Exercise Scientists, Homeopathic healers to name a few have all attempted to make pronouncements on the optimum nutrition for mind, body, soul and physical performance.

Omega 3s, amino acids, carbohydrate blends, whey protein, vitamins and minerals have all been pushed forward separately or collectively as what we require for optimum function. This is much to the joy of supplement companies who sell these products together or in isolation. However, many of the public do not consider how much of these essential ingredients we already have in a balanced diet.

Today we attempt to take an impartial look on the facts regarding nutrition for healthy living and exercise performance.

Energy Balance

No matter what extent we break down specific food products quite often optimum function comes down to a simple concept called energy balance.

That is we must attempt to balance the energy we take in as food with the energy we use in our daily lives. Energy requirements depend on age, gender, stature and activity level. For example an U-15 rugby player will have a three-way energy demand for growth, study and sporting activity. His requirement (2,400–2,800 calories) therefore would be much larger than that of a female office worker who does not part-take in any physical activity (1,600–2,000 calories). The extent to which we manage this balance governs whether we lose or gain weight.

Depending on activity levels 50-60% of our total calorie intake must come from carbohydrate (mainly fibre-based) the body’s equivalent of diesel, 25%-30% from fat (mainly healthy fats) which protects our vital organs and maintains a healthy nervous system.

The remaining 15–20% must come from protein which contains essential amino acids necessary for growth, repair and regeneration. In the case of our two examples above the young rugby player requires roughly 1,500 calories from carbohydrate, 650 calories from fat and 500 calories from protein. Our female office worker requires just 900 calories from carbohydrate, 500 calories from fat and 360 calories from protein.

Quality over Quantity

In its simplest form optimum nutrition is described in terms of energy balance. However, the quality and source of Carbohydrate, Fat and Protein we consume has a massive impact on our bodily function and physical performance.

Most people should aim to consume fibre based carbohydrate e.g. brown bread, brown rice and pasta, fruit and vegetables, weetabix and porridge.

The reasons for this are many. Refined or sugary carbohydrates cause large spikes in our blood sugar challenging our pancreas to produce large amounts of insulin and promoting storage of fat. This form of energy is not very useful for those needing to concentrate or exercise for consistent periods of time not to mention the cost of dental bills associated with this type of food.

Complex fibre based carbohydrate lead to slow and steady release of energy over time, beneficial for the busy student or high performing athlete. In addition the fibre in these foods while good for our digestive system, allows us to feel fuller for longer, reducing the need for unnecessary often sugary snacks. Think of how you feel going to work or study on a bowl of porridge compared with a bowl of frosties, for a similar calorie intake we yield far more from the former i.e. the quality of carbohydrate is better.

The same rules apply to the quality of protein and fat we consume. There is a misconception particularly in GAA and Rugby circles that more protein is better. In fact as in last week’s column when speaking about how to maintain healthy muscle as we age the same rules apply.

High quality protein at the right times is more important than consuming large amounts. The average person cannot absorb more than 160g per day regardless of amount consumed. The most common sources of quality protein in a western diet are lean meats, fish and milk based products. The average person who consumes milk at breakfast, tuna, low-fat yoghurt or cheese at lunch and a piece of lean meat or fish at dinner will achieve the recommended amounts with ease.

In fact by consuming that selection you have also consumed calcium and vitamin D needed for healthy bones, many of the essential amino acids (building blocks of protein), iron and B-vitamins needed for energy and vitality and of course Omega 3 fatty acids (oily fish) which maintain our nervous system and protect against heart disease.

The point I am making is that by consuming adequate amounts of high quality carbohydrate, protein and fat we take care of many of our micro-nutrients (vitamins and minerals) simultaneously. Ensuring we consume fruit as snacks and vegetables with our main meals boosts our fibre intake and ensures an adequate amount of vitamins A, B, C, E and K and minerals potassium and magnesium.

Take Home Message

As in all my columns I’m advocating quality over quantity. A balanced diet which meets our energy requirements will allow us to perform optimally in work, study and exercise. The public must be made aware that the supplement industry is more often driven by marketing (profit orientated) rather than high science (best practice orientated) and that much of what they offer is available as food. Those with a specific medical condition or athletic requirement may make use of supplements in specific cases when they are required and prescribed by medical professionals. For more information on the specific requirements of specialist populations such as vegetarians, diabetics, athletes etc. visit the FAQ section of As I conclude article 10 of our weekly health and fitness column I hope you are enjoying reading as much as I am writing.

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