There is currently a great deal of confusion around fats in the diet. For the past 20 years, healthy eating guidelines have told us to eat low fat foods and in particular to reduce saturated fat. Food companies have moved to produce low fat products, however the fat has in many cases, been replaced by sugar in order to make the product taste better. Yoghurts are a particularly good example of this. The addition of sugar to low fat yoghurts has in many cases, increased the number of calories to the point that a low fat yoghurt has more calories than the original full fat version! And guess which yoghurt tastes better?
Some scientific studies are also questioning the direct links between saturated fat, high cholesterol and heart disease. This is work in progress, and the latest review of scientific studies (Cochrane, 2012) suggests that a reduction in total fat intake doesn’t seem to affect cardiovascular risk, but a reduction in saturated fat is still to be recommended for everyone.
One thing that most scientists agree on is that trans fats are bad. Trans fats are produced when solid fats are chemically processed (partially hydrogenated) to become spreadable. They can be found in margarine and many processed supermarket foods, such as biscuits, pastry and pies. Trans fats raise levels of bad cholesterol (LDL) and also reduce good cholesterol (HDL), so a double whammy against the body.
To eat well, aim to consume more unsaturated than saturated fats and avoid the trans fats altogether. Unsaturated fats are found in foods such as nuts, avocado and olive oil. Omega 3 polyunsaturated fats can be found in fish, walnuts and walnut oil, flaxseeds and pumpkin seeds.
Here are a few guidelines for eating the right kind of fats:
- Use avocado as a spread in sandwiches
- Cook with olive oil
- Make your own salad dressings, using olive oil, lemon juice and mustard or balsamic vinegar
- Buy organic butter instead of margarine, but use in small quantities
- Eat cheese if you enjoy it but eat in small quantities
- Eat full fat plain or minimally sweetened yoghurt (check the label)
- Full fat, semi-skimmed or skimmed milk? If you’re physically active, choose whichever you enjoy – I have full-fat!
One of the most important elements of a good diet are carbohydrates – the right carbohydrates. The most popular diets currently demonise carbs, while lumping everyday foods, such as bread, pasta, rice and cereals in the same “bad” basket. This is too simplistic. Carbohydrates provide glucose, which is the fuel for our muscles and brains, B vitamins that help our bodies release that energy, fibre and important minerals such as calcium, potassium and magnesium. Our bodies need a regular intake of carbohydrates to perform at their best.
The glycaemic index is a measure of how quickly the glucose from carbohydrates is absorbed into the bloodstream. Low GI foods tend to contain more fibre and are absorbed slowly, providing a steady supply of energy to the body and keeping you full for longer. A diet high in fibre is also thought to be protective against heart disease and various gastro-intestinal disorders. Low GI carbs should provide the foundation of your diet.
Low carbohydrate intake can potentially cause tiredness, constipation, nausea, dizziness and dehydration in the short term. The long term effects are still unknown. While some studies have shown that reducing carbs can help weight loss, others have shown no effect. I will look at eating for weight loss in a future post. The key to carbs in everyday eating is choosing the right ones.
So what should you eat regularly?
- Grainy bread (minimally processed which is generally not supermarket sliced bread)
- Brown or basmati rice
- Sweet potatoes
- Legumes (chickpeas, lentils, cannellini beans, kidney beans, reduced sugar & salt baked beans)
- Buckwheat noodles
Eat a couple of times per week:
- Pasta (wholemeal is best)
- Wholemeal cous cous
- Wheat-based cereals (none are as good as oats but you could add fruit and nuts for extra nutrients and fibre)
Less often (special treat!):
- White bread – it causes a spike in blood sugar and insulin levels followed by a crash and contains lower levels of B vitamins than wholegrain breads.
- White rice
- Highly processed carb based snacks – crisps, crackers (unless wholegrain)
Carbohydrate-based snacks are great if you’re active and hungry! The best options are wholegrain crackers (Ryvita or other rye based), served with cheese or peanut butter or veggie sticks, rice cakes with hummous, unsalted plain nuts or fruit with plain yoghurt.
For a fantastic warm rice salad recipe that includes all the best carbs, go to the Recipes page.