This blog aims to debunk some of the myths surrounding ‘healthy eating’ and give some simple practical advice on how to eat well every day. I trained as a nutritionist in Australia, but am now based in the UK. I get very frustrated with the confusion surrounding food and what to eat, often stoked by media articles on the latest study or celebrity ‘diet’. What follows is my, pragmatic way of eating well. So, what constitutes a healthy diet?
- a diet which prevents excess weight gain and potentially helps with weight loss,
- provides plenty of energy for tackling our busy lives,
- plentiful vitamins and minerals, which help boost the immune system and could protect against ‘lifestyle’ diseases and
- is sustainable in the long term.
There are many popular contemporary diets that claim huge weight loss while cutting out entire food groups or articles discussing the latest superfoods, such as expensive goji berries and chia seeds to boost antioxidant levels. Newspaper articles discuss the latest findings on the Mediterranean diet or the traditional Japanese diet and their links to longevity. There is an easier way! For a diet to be sustainable, it needs to fit into your daily life and your culture. There are many different ways of eating well and the role that culture plays in the way we eat should not be under-estimated. In Britain, to cut out all bread and cheese, unless a specific health issue exists, is a difficult and frankly unnecessary undertaking. The key is to cook or prepare as much as possible at home, be mindful of what you are eating and to make 80% of your diet good. Then the occasional treat, such as birthday cake at a party or an ice-cream on a warm, spring day is not a problem. Here are a few simple rules that I recommend:
- Include some vegetables or salad with every lunch and dinner
- Eat a good breakfast every day – porridge / muesli or wholegrain toast with eggs
- Eat 2 pieces of fruit per day
- Avoid fizzy drinks / juices
- Eat unsalted, raw nuts as a snack
- Use butter or olive oil, not margarine
- Eat a varied diet – include different meats, fish, fruit and veggies depending on the season
My aim is to explain how to eat well on everyday foods, while cutting out the real culprits behind our obese society – added sugar, refined carbohydrates and highly processed foods. High levels of sugar have crept into our diets hidden in all manner of foods – bread, breakfast cereals, yoghurts, pasta sauces and Chinese dishes. Chinese food in particular, tastes totally different – far less sweet – in China! In a standard British diet, you could easily exceed the new WHO recommendations of no more than 6 teaspoons of sugar per day. Imagine a breakfast of Cornflakes followed by toast with jam and an orange juice, a mid-morning coffee and biscuit, a white bread ham sandwich and a diet yoghurt for lunch, a piece of fruit in the afternoon, then pasta with chicken and a jar of shop-bought pasta sauce for dinner. Not that unusual? A diet such as this causes huge fluctuations in blood sugar, which raises insulin levels and potentially promotes fat storage in the cells. However, if you were to substitute the cornflakes and toast (while keeping the orange juice!) for a bowl of homemade muesli or porridge, skip the biscuit with your coffee, swap the white bread for wholegrain and add plenty of salad and make your own pasta sauce with chicken and veggies for dinner, you could cut out much of the sugar and probably feel a lot more satisfied too.
So why do we need to reduce our sugar intake? Obesity levels in many western countries have rocketed over the past 20 years, with current rates in England at 57% of women and 67% of men overweight or obese 1. This is despite the plethora of low fat products that are available in supermarkets and evidence that shows people have taken note of government healthy eating guidelines and are eating less fat. So, could it be that the guidelines are wrong and sugar is the true culprit? Recent evidence is starting to point in that direction. This is particularly clear cut in the US, where an explosion in obesity levels can be traced back to the introduction of high-fructose corn syrup into the food system and many processed foods in the 1970s. I believe we need to take food back to basics without the need for extreme diets. In the words of Michael Pollan, ‘Eat food, mostly plants, not too much’ and ‘don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognise’. Fruit loops, cheese strings and squeezy yoghurt? So, what foods should we include in a ‘good’ diet? To be continued in the next post, but check out my recipe for homemade muesli on the Recipes page – a fantastic start to the day, providing loads of vitamins, minerals, fibre and energy to see you through until lunch.
1. HSCIC 2014 Statistics on Obesity, Physical Activity and Diet, p5.
2. Michael Pollan, In Defence of Food