For anyone who is wondering how to start eating healthier, or wants a basic understanding of what nutrients we need daily – it may be surprising to hear that our eating habits in India aren’t too far from what clinical studies have found to be healthy.
Traditional Indian food is known for its diversity of nutrients and for being inherently balanced in its everyday food combinations. For example, dal and rice (a staple in India) together contain all nine essential amino acids (building blocks of protein) that we need to get from our diet. Apart from this, Indian cuisine is also rich in antioxidants, probiotics and dietary fibre, making them extremely nutritious and healthy .
Over the years, though, our modern diet and lifestyles have changed the method of preparation of these food items. We now need to be conscious of the nutrients we consume and of what’s insufficient in our diet.
To help you do that, we’ve created a nutrition checklist that could act as a baseline of our everyday nutritional requirements.
Types of Nutrients
Nutrition can be broadly classified into two types of nutrients: macronutrients and micronutrients.
Macronutrients are the nutrients our body needs in larger amounts (carbohydrates, protein, and fat), to provide energy or calories .
Micronutrients are the nutrients our body needs in smaller amounts, (vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants). These help use the macronutrients we consume, for countless essential reactions and processes in the body .
General Nutritional Requirement
Every individual has their own nutritional requirements, based on their size, gender, exercise level, fitness goals, and overall health. However, consuming 2,000 calories is considered a standard, as this would meet most people’s energy and nutrient needs .
Your Daily Nutrition Checklist
Here’s how 2000 calories can be spread into a mix of ideal food sources:
At least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables (ideally 9 servings)
1 serving = 1 medium-large sized orange, apple, banana etc./half a cup of berries/grapes/smaller fruit, 1 cup of raw vegetables, or ½ cup of cooked vegetables
At least 9-10 servings of cereals (preferably millets and whole grains)
1 serving = 30 g of uncooked cereal (this roughly translates to 1 chapati of 6 inches or ½ medium bowl cooked rice)
At least 2-3 servings of pulses
1 serving = 30 g of an uncooked pulse. Pulses can be replaced with an equal amount of animal foods (eggs/fish/meat) for non-vegetarians. For example, 3 servings of pulses (that would be 90 g) can be replaced by one serving of cooked meat (that is equal to 85 g or one palm).
For vegetarians, combining pulses with cereal grains helps fulfil the daily essential amino acid requirements without the need for consuming animal proteins.
At least 2 servings of dairy/plant-based milk
1 serving = 150 ml.
If you’re allergic/intolerant to or prefer not to consume dairy, there are alternatives like soy, nut, oat or rice milk. If you are choosing plant-based drinks, opt for those that are unsweetened and fortified with the vitamins and minerals usually found in animal milk, e.g. calcium, vitamin B12, and iodine.
At least 1 serving of nuts and seeds (or a combination of them)
1 serving = 30 g (this is usually equal to a handful of nuts).
Opt for unsalted and raw nuts and seeds to get maximum nutrients. Vegetarians and those who do not consume fish regularly should make sure they consume omega-3 rich nuts and seeds like walnuts, chia seeds, and flax seeds.
Under 5 servings of cooking fat
1 serving = 5 g or 1 tsp.
The National Institute of Nutrition recommends using two or more types of vegetable oils on a rotational basis, to maintain a good balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Mustard oil, groundnut oil, canola oil, or ghee are all great for cooking .
Try to avoid hydrogenated oils (check for this information in the ingredients section of the packaging) which contain unhealthy trans fats.
Under 5 grams of salt
5 g of salt is equivalent to about one teaspoon. It is also best to use iodised salt.
Following this checklist will help you cover the basics and support your general health to a large extent.
Tweaking the Daily Nutrition Checklist for Your Health Goal
Anyone who has a specific health goal can tweak the checklist accordingly, in order to move towards achieving it. Here are some common health goals to illustrate how you can modify the above checklist:
1. Goal: Increase muscle mass
Protein: The first step is adjusting your daily protein intake to your exercise levels:
Minimal physical activity = 1 gram of protein/kg of your body weight
Moderate physical activity = 1.3 grams of protein/kg of your body weight
Intense physical activity = 1.6 grams of protein/kg of your body weight
Some high-protein foods can also be high in saturated fat (e.g. fatty meats or higher-fat dairy products), so it’s important to choose lower-fat options, such as lean meats. While adjusting your protein intake, do not cut on your carbohydrates as you need enough of them to fuel your muscles [6, 7].
Fats: Focus on your source of fats being largely made up of omega-3 fats.
2. Goal: Improve skin health
Make sure that the 5 servings of fruits and vegetables you’re consuming are largely made up of:
Colourful fruits and vegetables
These contain plant compounds such as carotenoids (found in yellow, red, and orange fruits/vegetables) that will help protect your skin from sun damage.
Red fruits/vegetables contain a potent antioxidant called lycopene, which is especially great for our skin’s health – it improves our skin tone and is particularly good at neutralising the sun’s UV rays [10, 11].
This vitamin (which also acts as an antioxidant) helps our body make collagen, our skin’s main protein. Vitamin C-rich foods include amla, berries, mangoes, citrus fruits, and peppers, among others.
3. Goal: Improve hair health
Make sure that your checklist of vegetable servings contains green leafy vegetables.
They provide you with folate (nourishes hair follicle cells and helps prevent grey hair) and iron (protects our hair from shedding, becoming dry and brittle) .
Choose your protein sources consciously.
Animal sources of protein contain vitamin B-12, zinc, and iron, which are important hair-healthy nutrients. Vegetarians can opt for nutritional yeast or dairy products to get vitamin B-12, and beans and legumes to get zinc .
4. Goal: Improve heart health
Your daily 9-10 servings of cereals should be made up of whole grains.
Whole grains come with additional fibre, which is known to support heart health .
Get a variety of colour in your 5 servings of fruits and vegetables.
Similar to getting healthier skin, consuming lots of antioxidants, especially lycopene, is important to improving our cardiovascular health .
Get omega-3 rich food sources through your checklist.
Omega-3 fats go a long way in supporting our health and are especially helpful when it comes to improving heart health .
For non-vegetarians: Feature fatty fish as your protein source at least twice a week [17, 18]. Fatty fish such as hilsa, black pomfret, tamb and rani are good dietary sources of two omega-3 fats, EPA and DHA.
For vegetarians: Make walnuts and flaxseeds your daily nuts and seeds.
These contain an omega-3 fat called ALA.
Reduce your intake of saturated fats and sodium.
Saturated fats can be avoided by focusing on legumes, poultry, and lean meats, instead of red meat and dairy products. Sodium can be limited by avoiding processed and packaged foods.
5. Goal: Improve mental health
Our brain needs 130 g of carbohydrates every day to function at its best . While following the standard checklist would cover this macronutrient quantity, here’s how you can modify it further to improve your mental health status:
Make sure you’re getting your daily servings of cereals from whole grains.
Consuming highly refined carbohydrates has been linked with the risk of developing depression . Look for whole grains while making up your 9-10 servings of cereal a day.
Throw in some feel-good foods!
6. Goal: Improve gut health
Get lots of fibre from your daily checklist.
Fibre helps keep your bowel movement regular and smooth (pun intended) . While this would come by way of the fruits, pulses, and even the nuts and seeds you consume in the day, it’s also a good idea to focus on whole grains in the cereals you choose.
You can look at consuming probiotic foods like yogurt (this can be your 2 servings of dairy).
These contain the good bacteria that live in our gut, which help us digest food, improve our immunity, and much more. They may have a bearing on our mental health, too.
We hope this checklist gave you an idea of how you can plan and shape your daily nutrition to reach your health goals. If you have any further queries do let us know in the comments below; we would be more than happy to help you reach your health goals!