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Healthy weekday lunches minus the afternoon slump

Weekday lunches can be hard. If you work in an office, it will probably need to be something quick and easy. But if you choose badly, it can leave you feeling bloated and sleepy in the afternoon and desperately craving a sugar hit by 4pm.

healthy lunch photo

A good lunch can come in many different forms, but it needs to contain some protein, veggies or salad and usually, some wholegrain carbs. It also needs to be varied, in order to help you get all the nutrients your body needs in a day. The easiest way to do this is by preparing it yourself. If you have access to a microwave, then leftovers from last night’s dinner of casserole, chilli or homemade soup is a great choice. If not, then a bit of planning at the beginning of the week can provide lunches without resorting to sandwiches every day.

Try buying some base salad items, like lettuce, cucumber, tomato, carrots, beetroot, avocado, peppers and olives then add protein – cooked chicken (leftover from a Sunday roast or weekday dinner), tuna, cheese, humous or hard boiled eggs plus a slice or two of grainy bread or pita bread.  This will give you a few different lunches for the week, which you then throw into a plastic tub in the morning or keep in the office fridge. It will also add 1 or 2 serves to your daily fruit and veg target. Alternatively, make up a pasta or rice salad (see recipes) at the weekend, then use that as the basis for a lunch, throwing in a few extra bits for taste and variety.

If you are making a sandwich, use wholegrain bread and add plenty of salad – not just lettuce and cucumber, but tomato, peppers, grated carrot and try using avocado as a spread instead of butter; it works really well with ham, chicken or tuna and is full of healthy unsaturated fats.

However, it is worth saying that a big sandwich at lunch can leave us feeling bloated and sleepy. In Chinese and alternative medicine, wheat is said to be difficult for our bodies to process. It is often responsible for bloating and wind, especially if your afternoon is desk-based and sedentary. If you find this happening, cut out the bread and try having rice or oat crackers with your salad or soup. You could go carb free at lunch, but you may well need to plan a late afternoon snack of nuts, crackers and cheese or humous if you want to avoid the 4pm sugar craving.

If you buy lunch, aim for variety. If you work in the centre of a city, there may be many options available. Burritos are great if you’re starving and active – choose the wholewheat wrap if available and make sure you have the beans and salad for a super tasty lunch. Rice or salad bowls are lighter if you’re just sitting at your desk for the day. Middle eastern food such as falafels, humous and salads are really tasty and nutritious too, as are Asian stir fries or noodles, especially if you choose the veggie and cashew nut option. If your options are limited to a local sandwich shop or supermarket, vary the sandwich fillings, avoid the mayonnaise and go for those with the most salad in them. Many supermarkets offer alternatives to sandwiches now, so experiment with a few different things or try to bring your own food a couple of days a week.

A good lunch can come in many different forms – just try to include plenty of veggies, some protein and wholegrain carbs if possible. And don’t forget that variety is the key to getting all the nutrients you need and will help you avoid the boring old sandwich rut.

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Low carb or gluten free?

It seems that every article about healthy eating and weight loss in magazines and newspapers currently recommends low carb or cutting out gluten. But what is the truth behind this and should everyone be eating a low carb or gluten free diet?

spinach_and_pepper_pita_pizzas muesli photo

The simple answer is no. Carbohydrates are an important part of our diet. We may not have evolved eating grains, as the paleo diet points out, but for the vast majority of people, carbohydrates are our main source of energy and an important source of B vitamins and minerals. For hundreds of years we have been eating grains, however it is only in the past 30 years that a majority of the population has become overweight. There are probably two reasons for this: the introduction of processed, refined carbs (think of crisps, chips and breakfast cereals) and the widespread addition of sugar into everyday foods.

Refined carbohydrates and sugar have essentially the same effect on the body. They are broken down into basic glucose units and need little processing, so are absorbed quickly into the bloodstream. This is known as high GI (glycaemic index). Once in the bloodstream, they trigger the release of insulin which mops up the glucose and ushers it into the cells to be used to produce energy. If there is more glucose than the body needs, it is stored as fat. Lower GI foods, such as grainy breads, oats, brown rice, nuts and legumes are absorbed more slowly and don’t cause the huge release of insulin that can result in fat storage or the spike of energy followed by a crash.

Essentially we need to think of carbs less simplistically – low GI carbs provide long-lasting energy and nutrients. Refined carbs and added sugar are what we need to minimise or avoid.

So what about gluten? Gluten is a protein found in grains, such as wheat, that a very small minority (around 1%) of people are allergic to and causes a serious illness called coeliac disease. However, many people believe they are or could be gluten intolerant, which produces mainly digestive symptoms and fatigue. There is little scientific evidence to explain the huge increase in those claiming gluten intolerance in recent years. However, eating too much wheat, especially factory-produced bread, cakes and cereals makes many people feel sluggish and bloated. There is no need to resort to gluten-free products to address this. They generally don’t taste as good as the real thing! Reducing wheat and replacing it with oats or rice is a good idea. For example, substituting a wheat cereal for muesli made with oats or wheat crackers for rice cakes. Rye bread contains less wheat and sourdough bread is fermented for longer, making it more digestible.

For the vast majority of people, eating mostly low GI carbs, such as wholemeal pasta, brown rice, sweet potatoes, oats and bran and wholegrain bread is an essential part of a healthy diet. Even eating some higher GI carbs, such as mashed potato is not a problem when when included as part of a meal. It is the contents of the entire meal that ultimately determines how quickly the glucose enters the bloodstream and protein and fat slows its absorption.

However, for those who are overweight or conscious of maintaining their weight, it is worth looking at the amount of carbs you are eating. A good breakfast needs to include oats or wholegrain bread to provide energy for the day. However, at lunch and dinner, your plate should contain 50% vegetables, with 25% made up of meat or fish and 25% carbohydrates. Eating a low carb meal once a day can also help with weight loss as you’re eating less calories.

Barbecues – the easy way to make food taste amazing

It’s barbecue season once more which means loads of healthy and fabulous tasting food. Meat, fish and vegetables all take on extra flavour when barbecued. It’s also easy to make simple food taste good in summer as the fruit and vegetables in the shops are often grown closer to home and are naturally full of flavour. A dash of olive oil, lemon juice and fresh herbs is all it takes. Serve everything with a big salad.

I would recommend investing in a gas barbecue as results are so much more predictable than on a charcoal one and it’s quicker and more user friendly. However, whichever type of barbie you have, here are a few simple ideas for fab food:

1.  Make your own burgers

Finely chop 1/2 onion and add to 500g mince together with 1 tsp wholegrain mustard and a good dash of salt. Mix thoroughly and shape into patties with your hands, large for the adults and smaller ones for the kids.

2. Sausages with homemade guacamole

Guacamole-styled_web

Elevate the humble hot dog by smearing it in homemade guacamole. Just buy the best quality sausages you can and this makes a fantastic combination!

Mash the flesh of 2 ripe avocados using a large fork. Add to this 1/2 small red onion which has been finely chopped, 1 clove crushed garlic, juice of 1/2 lemon, 1 small red chilli (optional) and 2 tbsps olive oil. Mix together and serve within a couple of hours.

3.  Veggie kebabs

Thickly slice courgettes, wash mushrooms and chop peppers into squares to be threaded onto kebab sticks. Mix together 1 tbsp olive oil, a squeeze of lemon juice and 1 tsp dried Italian herbs into a bowl and stir in the chopped veggies. Leave for 1 hour. Thread the veggies onto wet kebab sticks (to prevent them burning) and cook on the barbie.

4. Corn on the cob

Sweetcorn on barbie

Sweetcorn needs no embellishment except the flames of the barbecue to bring out its flavour. Simply chop a whole cob into two or three pieces and barbecue until the outside is slightly blackened and the corn is soft.

5. Warm rice salad

See recipes page for a fab barbecue side.

6.  Fish steaks or whole fish in foil

Spray the grill with oil and cook fish fillets such as salmon, tuna or swordfish as meat or wrap a whole fish, such as trout or snapper in foil and place on the barbecue. Cook for approx.15 minutes.

7.  Sliced courgettes or peppers

Slice a courgette and / or pepper lengthways and barbecue for a sweet and smoky flavour.

8.  Honey and soy chicken

Honey soy chicken

Combine 100ml soy sauce (salt reduced is best), 50ml honey, 1 crushed garlic clove, 2cm ginger, finely chopped  and 2 tsps sesame seeds in a large bowl. Add 8 chicken drumsticks and stir around to coat the chicken. Leave to marinade for at least 2 hours. Cook the chicken in the oven for 25-30 mins then finish off on the barbecue.

To be or not to be a vegetarian

Becoming vegetarian is usually a decision based on religious beliefs or the ethics of eating meat. However, some people may try it for health reasons. A currently high profile example of this is the blog and recipe book, Deliciously Ella. Its writer, Ella Woodward adopted a vegan and gluten free diet after suffering a debilitating illness and found it helped her recovery.

Healthy-Vegetarian-Indian-Recipes

There are many different types of vegetarian diet, depending on what is excluded from the diet – some people eat fish but not meat, others avoid meat and fish but eat dairy products, while vegans exclude all animal products. On the whole, a vegetarian diet offers many health benefits; vegetarians tend to have lower body weights, lower blood pressure and incidence of heart disease and lower rates of cancer. However, to be healthy, a vegetarian must understand how to plan a balanced meal without meat.

There are several important nutrients that are not as abundant or well absorbed in plant foods. Meat is a good source of protein as it contains all of the amino acids necessary for human health and growth and is easily absorbed. Eggs and soy are also a complete source of protein but plant proteins are not as well absorbed and need to be combined with other plant proteins. Fortunately, this is not as difficult as it sounds – beans combined with grains or rice form a complete protein, so natural partners like vegetable chilli with rice or baked beans on toast will do the job. Eating nutritious foods like nuts, seeds, oats and grainy breads throughout a day also add to the protein tally.

Iron is essential to human health and plant sources are not as well absorbed as from meat. Iron is present in foods such as eggs, beans, dried fruits and green leafy veggies but the absorption can be boosted by vitamin C. So for example, a meal containing iron-rich chickpeas and spinach with vitamin C rich tomatoes and peppers will supply plenty of iron to the body.

Vegans need to be particularly aware and careful with their diets or to take supplements. Vitamin B12 is a vital nutrient only found in meat and dairy products and a deficiency can cause irreversible damage to the nervous system. Vegans need to seek out fortified soya milk or take supplements. Iodine is found naturally in fish and seafood and plants such as seaweed but also in dairy products. Vegans should regularly consume small amounts of seaweed (too much is toxic) or seek out fortified products such as iodised salt or soya milk to meet their requirements.

So, if we were to set ethics and religion aside, what is the healthiest option? I think a part-time vegetarian diet would be my choice. As a planet, we are consuming more meat and using more vital resources to produce that meat than is sustainable. If we all consumed a bit less, it would benefit the earth immeasurably. Having meat-free days could encourage experimentation with healthier foods such as fish, eggs, soy and legumes, which are full of vital nutrients and help us become less reliant on meat. I think we should all learn to cook a few vegetarian staples, so click here for a fab lentil and mixed veg curry and a quick pita bread pizza recipe.

How sunshine can boost your health

In recent years, we have heard much about the dangers of too much sun causing skin cancer. Most people now heed the warnings about sunburn and slather on high factor sunscreen or cover up. However, what has often been missed in this discussion is that humans are not that dissimilar to plants – we need sunshine to thrive!

Sunshine photo

Humans derive most of their vitamin D from sunshine that is absorbed through the skin. It can also be found in high amounts in oily fish such as salmon and sardines, in lower amounts in eggs and liver and in fortified foods, such as milk, margarine and cereals. However, it is difficult to get the recommended intake from food alone.

Vitamin D is a nutrient that is essential to good health. The most well-known action of vitamin D is its role in assisting the absorption of calcium, to ensure strong healthy bones. In childhood, if children don’t get enough vitamin D, they can develop rickets (a disease of malformed bones and impaired growth) and in adults, it can lead to soft spongy bones and osteoporosis. However, it plays many different roles in the body and scientists are now starting to recognise that a deficiency or simply low levels of vitamin D present in the body may be linked to some common conditions.

In the immune system, there are many cells that use vitamin D. Scientists now recognise that auto-inflammatory diseases such as multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis are much more common in more northerly latitudes, where people are naturally exposed to less hours of sunshine. A link has also been found between low levels of vitamin D and the development of food allergies in young children (Baek et al, 2014) suggesting it plays a critical role during pregnancy and researchers are investigating potential links between low vitamin D levels and inflammatory bowel disease.

Adequate vitamin D levels have also been associated with lower rates of breast, prostate and bowel cancers and a decreased likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes.

Production of vitamin D by the skin naturally decreases with age and may not be adequate in people over 65. Those with darker skins are also prone to deficiency as higher levels of melanin present in dark skin may inhibit production and those who are housebound or cover up when outside. For these groups, supplements may be advisable.

Between April and October in the UK, for most people it is possible to build up enough stores to last through the cold winter months. The current recommendations are to spend 10-15 minutes in the sun without sunscreen, most days of the week. This should be done between 11am and 3pm. However, in hot countries such as Australia, the recommendation is for just a few minutes per day of incidental sun exposure, such as during a short walk, in the summer months and 2-3 hours per week in winter.

The conclusion must be that sunshine is vital to our health in many ways, so get outside and enjoy it – not too much so you burn, but regularly and certainly in spring after a long cold winter.

Top tips for easy midweek dinners

One of the hardest times to stick to eating healthily is midweek, after a busy day at work or with the kids. Cooking from scratch can feel like a chore. However, if you make sure your cupboards are stocked at the start of the week, it is not difficult to have a home cooked meal on the table in 30 minutes or less.

1.  Quick prawn or chicken stir fry without the shop-bought sauce. Chop some veggies, such as onion, carrots, broccoli, mushrooms, peppers or mange-tout and fry in a wok with the chicken or prawns and some chopped fresh ginger, garlic, chilli, lemon or lime juice, a handful of cashew nuts and (reduced salt) soy sauce. Add a sprinkle of fresh coriander and serve with rice or noodles. If you’re cooking for children, reserve the chopped chilli until after you’ve served the children’s meals. Either add to the wok and cook for a couple of minutes longer or for a spicy blast, sprinkle on raw.

stir fry

2.  Thai curry. For another quick Asian dish, buy a Thai curry paste. Chop and cook veggies such as onion, peppers, mushrooms, carrots and courgettes in a pan. Add the curry paste and a tin of coconut milk, and add cooked chicken or prawns, some bean sprouts or baby spinach for a few minutes at the end of cooking. Serve with rice and a sprinkle of coriander.

3.  Spaghetti with sardines in a tomato sauce. A good tomato sauce can be made very quickly by frying in olive oil some onions, garlic, green (or red) peppers, mushrooms, courgettes and halved cherry tomatoes with tomato puree and a dash of white wine. Cook for 15 minutes and add the sardines towards the end. For fussy children (or adults!) who won’t eat sardines, you could add bacon or prawns.

4.  Sausages in a tomato sauce with cous cous. Make a tomato sauce as above. Stir in some cannellinni beans and basil and pour over cooked sausages. Serve with wholegrain cous cous.

5.  Pork or lamb chops or steak with roasted veggies. Chop a sweet potato into wedges and sprinkle with olive oil. This takes about 45 minutes to cook, which is longer than other vegetables, so set a timer and add any other veggies, such as pumpkin, parsnips, carrots, courgettes and peppers to cook for about 30 mins. Sprinkle everything with olive oil, a squeeze of lemon juice and herbs, such as rosemary or thyme. Technically this takes a bit longer than 30 minutes to cook, but once you have the veg in the oven, you’ve got time to do other things before coming back to cook the meat. Pork chops go well with a dash of lemon juice and a dollop of pesto sauce smeared over them to liven them up.

Steak and roasted veg

6.  Chicken pilaff. Chop leftover chicken from the Sunday roast (or a shop bought chicken) and stir it into my warm rice salad recipe for a very quick and tasty chicken pilaff.

7.  Salmon or white fish in lemon and caper sauce.  Grill or pan fry fish in olive oil. Melt 1-2 tbsps butter in microwave together with juice of 1/2 lemon. Stir in some capers, chopped basil or parsley and a bit of pepper. Pour over the fish and serve with steamed veggies and potatoes or a slice of crusty bread.

8.  Chicken salad. If you’re completely exhausted and can’t face cooking at all, buy a pre-cooked chicken from a supermarket (or chicken shop in Australia) and serve with a salad of rocket, avocado, chopped peppers, carrot, sweetcorn or whatever you have in the fridge. To make it more filling, add a baked potato (cook for a few minutes in the microwave then transfer to the oven for 20 mins to crisp up), some boiled new potatoes or a slice of wholegrain bread. Better than a ready meal and you’ll probably have leftovers for the next day.

9.  Double portion casseroles. Cook a big casserole or chilli on the weekend and freeze the leftovers. Just remember to get it out of the freezer the morning you want to eat it, so it’s defrosted in time. There’s nothing like coming home to a home cooked meal without having to make it!

10.  Invest in a slow cooker. If you have time in the mornings but are rushed in the evening, these can be ideal. Simply chop veggies and meat and place with stock in the slow cooker before you leave for the day. Arrive home later to amazing smells and a fantastic home cooked casserole.

So chocolate is good for you…..isn’t it??

Easter is just around the corner and the Easter eggs are already starting to appear in the house if you have kids. Many of us have read the newspaper articles in recent years that chocolate is good for you because it contains antioxidants. Does this mean that we should be stuffing our faces this weekend because chocolate is good for you or is it a myth after all?Easter Rabbits

Chocolate is made from cocoa which in its purest form, contains high levels of flavonoids, a group of chemicals found in plants, which are powerful antioxidants. Antioxidants help protect the body from damage caused by normal bodily processes as well as environmental toxins and are thought to be anti-cancer. Flavonoids have also been associated with improved blood flow around the body, reduced blood pressure and a beneficial effect on cholesterol levels. There is evidence to support this, but there is a catch. The levels of cocoa in chocolate vary widely and depend on the type of chocolate you eat.

White chocolate contains around 20% cocoa, with milk powder, sugar and flavouring. It has the highest levels of sugar of all the chocolates. If you look at the ingredients list, the first ingredient  and so the most plentiful is sugar. Gorging on white chocolate is guaranteed to give you a huge sugar spike, which is always followed by a crash and can lead to you storing the excess in your body as fat.

Milk chocolate has a higher percentage of cocoa than white chocolate but it’s always worth checking the ingredients to find the one which lists milk or cocoa first. This is probably the one to buy for yourself and your children. While dark chocolate is by far the ‘healthiest’ option, few children will be persuaded to eat it.

Dark chocolate has the highest concentration of cocoa, which is why you will see some bars marketed as ‘containing 70% cocoa’. Eating small amounts of dark chocolate has been shown to convey the benefits of the flavonoids and it boosts serotonin and endorphin levels, making you feel happier. If you’re looking for the ‘healthy’ Easter egg option, this is it. A small amount of dark chocolate, such as a few squares can be very satisfying, but leave it at that. Eating huge amounts of any type of chocolate is never a good idea.

However, being the pragmatist that I am, my advice is to enjoy Easter, eat chocolate but avoid the white variety and try not to eat an entire egg in one sitting!