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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!

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How to eat out or take away the healthy way

Most of us eat out regularly, whether it’s dinner at a good restaurant or lunch from the sandwich shop near the office. Eating out can be fun and it makes a lovely change from cooking and eating at home. If you only do it once a week, you don’t need to worry too much about what you’re ordering. However, if you buy your lunch every day or have dinner out or takeaway several times a week, you would probably benefit from giving your choices some thought. It is much harder to get all the nutrients your body requires when you have little control over the ingredients in your meal. A few tips on what to choose and what to avoid can help you minimise the indigestion / sluggishness / guilt and get what your body needs.

Middle eastern food

My favourite lunch from Comptoir Libanais

If you buy lunch, aim for variety – don’t just eat a supermarket sandwich every day. Many of them contain mayonnaise (full of saturated fat and little else) and there will never be much in the way of veggies in it, which will leave you needing to eat more at dinner to get your 5 a day.

Burritos are great if you’re active and hungry – choose the wholewheat wrap if available and make sure you have the beans and salad. 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 (see photo), as are Asian stir fries or noodles, especially if you choose the veggie and cashew nut option.

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.

At dinner, the same rules apply about veggies. Whatever type of food you’re eating, order a side dish of vegetables or a salad. The only salad to avoid is a caesar salad – the dish that has almost as many calories (and probably fewer nutrients) as a McDonalds cheeseburger and fries! To keep a meal light, skip the bread and have a small portion of potatoes or rice with your meat or fish. If you’re eating a pasta dish, don’t order the garlic bread as well.

Indian food can be really nutritious. There is usually a good choice of vegetable dishes, including smaller side dishes and super-healthy legumes are widely used in Indian cooking. Go for the drier, tandoori style main dishes with a mixed vegetable curry and dhal. Whether you’re eating in a restaurant or having takeaway, avoid ordering double carbs, ie. rice and naan bread – just choose one instead and swap the beer for a glass of wine. This should leave you feeling satisfied rather than stuffed and groaning from indigestion!

Drinks bought from a cafe can also unwittingly add a huge number of calories to your daily intake. Flavoured coffees such as caramel or gingerbread lattes contain as much sugar as a full fat Coca Cola. Smoothies and juices that are marketed as the healthy option have similar amounts of sugar and therefore, empty calories that don’t fill you up. This isn’t a problem if you drink one a week, but if you have them daily, they can really add to your calorie intake without you realising. Go for the standard coffees or make it at home instead and minimise the juices for an easy way to reduce your sugar intake.

 

Healthy eating for older people

As we get older, eating well becomes even more important than it has been throughout our adult lives. From the age of 50, our energy requirements decline as our metabolism and physical activity slows. This is often accompanied by a decline in appetite. However, our need for a regular intake of protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals is as great as ever – to help us fight age-related disease and maintain healthy bodies.

For older adults, being slightly overweight is not a health problem and is actually better than being underweight. Underweight may be associated with malnutrition and is linked to falls and osteoporosis. Underweight people may also have fewer resources to fight disease. On the other hand, obesity is still linked to heart disease and some cancers, so keeping weight at a healthy level is very important.

The key to good health in older age is to eat plenty of nutrient dense foods. When the appetite slows, it is even more vital for the foods that we do eat to contain the vitamins and minerals we need. A good diet boosts the immune system so we can fight infectious diseases, so the 5 a day rule is as important as ever. Including a piece of fruit at breakfast with porridge, a small bowl of muesli or yoghurt with a handful of nuts is an easy way to tick off one portion as well as adding plenty of B vitamins and fibre. Another piece of fruit after lunch or as a snack is then easy to do. Having a portion or two of veggies with lunch and a couple with dinner ensures you’re meeting the target. And try to vary the type of fruit and vegetable as each type and colour contains slightly different nutrients. Also remember that frozen is usually as good as fresh.

Other super-nutritious foods that should be eaten regularly are eggs, beans (baked beans, chickpeas, white beans, kidney beans, lentils), nuts, broccoli, green leafy veggies such as spinach, avocado, fish and lean red meat like steak (for recipes that include beans, click here). White bread should be avoided where possible – it contains lower levels of B vitamins and fibre, which are important for energy, circulation and digestion and it also causes a spike followed by a slump in energy levels.

A super-healthy lunch that takes 5 mins to prepare

Sardines on toast – a super-healthy lunch that takes 5 mins to prepare

Fish and oily fish in particular, deserve a special mention as a food that should be eaten by all older people a couple of times per week. Oily fish contains high levels of omega 3 fats, which have been shown to have powerful anti-inflammatory effect. This means consumption of omega 3 may be beneficial for arthritis, macular degeneration, depression, memory and cognition, prevention of dementia as well as raised cholesterol levels. The best fish to eat is wild salmon, sardines and mackerel with lower levels of omega 3 fats also found in walnuts and flax seeds / flaxseed oil. If you really can’t tolerate fish, then a fish or krill oil supplement is worth considering.

Drinking enough fluids each day is also vital to good health. Many older people seem to feel less thirsty and as a result, don’t drink as much as they should to maintain hydration. Mild dehydration can rapidly become severe dehydration with a fever or even in hot weather and is linked to urinary tract infections and pneumonia. You should aim to drink at least six glasses of fluid per day. This doesn’t need to be all water. Fruit juice (just one per day or a couple watered down) and tea count towards the total.

Finally, exercise helps to maintain muscle mass and bones, which in turn can prevent falls and osteoporosis. It boosts the immune system and mood, prevents weight gain and is great for the cardiovascular system. Exercising outdoors also increases your chances of getting vitamin D from the sunshine and makes you feel great!

Mexican inspired healthy eating

Probably the easiest way to eat well is to cook as much as you can from scratch. It isn’t always easy to do as life has a habit of getting in the way of good intentions. Having a stock of relatively simple and quick meals helps as does a bit of inspiration to expand the repertoire.

My recent holiday to Mexico reminded me of the joys of fajitas and fish tacos. Eating them next to a beautiful beach helped but they are essentially very quick, tasty and healthy dishes if done right. The ubiquitous side dishes of guacamole and salsa are also easy to make and worth the effort. They work beautifully for a Mexican-themed dinner or as a summer barbecue accompaniment. For a more filling and super-nutritious weekend meal, serve with refried beans. All types of legumes are packed full of protein, fibre, B vitamins for energy and minerals.

Chicken fajitas photo Mexico beach photoFish tacos photo

Fish Tacos

Fish tacos are traditionally made with fried fish, however there is no reason why the fish cannot be grilled instead.

Ingredients

  • 400g firm white fish, eg. cod or snapper
  • 2 limes
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1/4 tsp cumin
  • 1/4 tsp chilli powder
  • 6-8 soft corn tortillas
  • 1/2 red or white cabbage
  • 1 carrot, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 red onion
  • Handful of coriander

Serves 3-4 people

Place the fish in a baking dish and squeeze 1/2 lime over it. Add the garlic, cumin, chilli powder and 1 tbsp olive oil. Mix together and leave to marinate in the fridge for at least 15 minutes.

Next, chop the vegetables into thin slices to resemble a coleslaw. Place in a bowl and squeeze 1/2 lime over it. Add 1 tbsp oil, a handful of chopped coriander and a sprinkle of salt and pepper to taste. Mix thoroughly.

Warm the tortillas as per the packet instructions, either in the microwave or a frying pan.

Place the fish fillets on a medium hot barbecue or grill brushed with a little oil or in a griddle pan. Cook for about 3 minutes on each side or until white and opaque. Remove the fish and flake with a fork into bitesize chunks.

Divide the flaked fish and chopped veggies between the tortillas, squeeze over a lime and top with guacamole or sour cream.

Guacamole

This is my favourite guacamole recipe, which I’ve made many times and always tastes fantastic.

Ingredients

  • 2 ripe avocadosGuacamole picture
  • 1 small red chilli (optional)
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 1/2 small red onion
  • 2 tbsps olive oil
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • Salt

Serves 6

Scoop out the flesh of the avocados by first cutting in half, then removing the stones. Place into a bowl and mash the flesh well with a potato masher or fork. Finely chop the chilli, red onion and garlic and stir into the avocado with the olive oil and lemon juice. Add salt to taste and mix well.

More Tips on Feeding your Kids

What you should feed your children every day is essentially the same as what you should be feeding yourself. There is no reason why children should eat different food to adults and the vast majority of foods marketed for children are processed and nutritionally inferior, often containing hidden salt and even sugar. There is nothing wrong with serving fish fingers occasionally, but they contain considerably less protein than a piece of fish and are generally eaten with chips, which provide few nutrients. Children enjoy many of the same foods as adults – pasta sauces with tomatoes, garlic and herbs, casseroles, chilli con carne without the spice, steaks and prawns are super nutritious and should be eaten by all the family.

Growing children need a regular supply of protein, carbs, fats, vitamins and minerals to keep them healthy. I believe that poor behaviour can often be linked to hunger or under-nutrition, which can be a result of them not eating the right foods rather than just not eating enough.

A child’s diet should be comprised of the following:

  • Fruit – 2 portions per day (1/2 banana and an apple or a few strawberries)
  • Veggies – at least 3 portions per day (1 at lunch, 2 at dinner or as snacks)
  • Calcium / dairy products – 2-3 per day
  • Protein – 1 or 2 portions per day (an egg at lunch, meat, fish or legumes for dinner)
  • Meat – red meat up to 4 times per week (or legumes if vegetarian)
  • Fish – 2 portions per week

Iron is a really important mineral for growing children. It’s used by the body for energy production and to make cells which are essential for attention and learning. Iron deficiency can result in low energy levels and has negative effects on learning and behaviour. It is common in young children. Iron is found in the highest concentrations in red meat, but is also found in smaller amounts in other meat, seafood, legumes, bread and pasta, potatoes, and many vegetables.

Omega 3 fatty acids are also important for children. This type of fat is found in high concentrations in the brain and is critical for brain development and function.  Research is in its early stages, but there is some evidence linking a deficiency of omega 3 fats to poor behaviour and even Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in some children. These fats are found predominately in oily fish, such as salmon, mackerel and sardines, but also in walnuts, almonds, flaxseeds and oils made from them. Small amounts are present in green leafy vegetables and products made from grass-fed animals such as meat, organic butter and milk so increasing consumption of any of these will increase your overall intake.

Variety is another essential component of a healthy diet. Eating a variety of foods ensures you are most likely to consume all of the nutrients required for good health. This can be hard with children as they eat what they’re familiar with and often enjoy a more limited range of foods than adults. If your child is a fussy eater, the tendency is to give them what they will eat just so they eat something. Persevere in offering different foods, particularly when they are hungry. For example, a good time to increase your child’s daily vegetable intake is when you are chopping vegetables for dinner. Offer raw carrot or peppers or a few nuts and they may be more willing to accept.

Finally, try to monitor what your child is drinking each day. One glass of unsweetened fruit juice contributes to the 5 a day target, but much more than that contributes only unnecessary sugar and potential weight gain. Water should always be the first choice, with milk also a good option. Keep additional juices or soft drinks for a special treat.

Myths and misconceptions in healthy eating for children

It has become increasingly harder in recent years to know what to feed children given the huge array of products in the supermarket that are designed to appeal to them. There have also been conflicting reports in the media about whether drinks such as fruit juice are healthy or not and whether some processed products can be included in the 5 a day or not. Children need fruit and veg as much as adults do, for the fibre, vitamins and minerals that boost immunity and make a vital contribution to good health.

So, what foods do count as one of your 5 a day?healthy_kids image

  • One 150ml glass of 100% fruit juice
  • 80g whole fruit, eg. banana, apple, pear, a few large strawberries, a handful of blueberries
  • 30g dried fruit (a small box or large handful)
  • 80g vegetables or salad veggies
  • 3 tbsps legumes, eg baked beans, lentils, chickpeas

And don’t forget that all vegetables in soups, casseroles and sauces or fruit with cereal count towards the total. This means that even a small amount in each meal or snack all adds up to achieving the daily total.

Don’t be fooled however, by processed supermarket foods, such as ‘fruit bowls’ and ‘fruit loops’ that claim to be one of the 5 a day because they contain fruit juice. When you isolate the juice from the fruit, you’re taking away the fibre that slows the absorption of the sugars in the juice. More than anything, these snacks deliver a large dose of sugar, which is instantly absorbed, leading to a spike then a slump in energy levels and an increased likelihood of the calories being stored as fat.

Snacks, like all meals should contain some carbohydrates and some protein to slow the absorption of the sugars. This should also ensure that your child isn’t instantly hungry again. A good snack includes a piece of fruit with or without plain yoghurt, cheese and crackers (wholegrain if possible), raw veggies such as carrot sticks dipped in humous or cottage cheese, dried fruit and nuts – whatever your child likes to eat.

Breakfast cereals are another area where contentious health claims are made. The reality is that the vast majority of processed cereals contain a lot of sugar, so are absorbed quickly and are likely to leave your child feeling hungry again by mid morning.  By far the best option for a good breakfast is porridge made from rolled oats (not instant as they are more processed). If you add milk, chopped banana or blueberries, a few nuts and some honey, it should taste good and keep the energy and attention levels high for the whole morning. Other decent options are high fibre cereals, such as Weetabix or Bran Flakes with chopped fresh and/or dried fruit to boost fruit intake and add a bit of sweetness.

Most parents are aware that calcium is important for developing bones and teeth. Calcium is found mainly in dairy products, but also in nuts and green leafy vegetables. Children require 2 or 3 serves of calcium rich foods per day to meet the recommended daily intake. This is easily accomplished with cereal and milk at breakfast, a cheese sandwich at lunch and a glass of milk at bedtime.

However, too much calcium can affect the absorption of iron, which is vital for energy and concentration. Regularly giving a child more than three servings of milk, yoghurt or cheese in a day can have a negative rather than a positive effect on their overall health. And beware children’s yoghurts that are marketed as healthy because they contain calcium! They often contain far too much sugar to truly fit into the ‘healthy’ category and may not be necessary if your child already has plenty of calcium-rich foods. Try buying large pots of unsweetened yoghurt and adding fruit or a bit of honey instead.

In writing this article, I realised just how much there is to say about children and healthy eating, so this subject is to be continued!

How much protein and do we really need to eat so much fruit and veg?

Protein

Meat, fish and eggs provide vital protein to the diet. High protein, low carbohydrate diets are in fashion currently, but the average western diet provides more protein than our bodies actually require. A portion of meat or fish should be the same size as the palm of your hand and your protein requirements can easily be met from one meal per day of meat, fish or eggs and a serving of nuts, cheese or legumes.

To eat meat or not should be a matter of taste and personal preference, however eating large quantities of processed fatty meats such as bacon, ham and sausages has been linked to colorectal cancer and premature death (Rohrmann, 2013). As with all my dietary recommendations, moderation and variety is key. Some healthy eating guidelines recommend eating red meat no more than 3 or 4 times per week, and I tend to follow that advice, whilst usually eating meat just once a day. Meat that is grass-fed also tends to contain higher levels of omega 3 fatty acids (the really good fats), so if you can afford it, then buy organic and look for grass-fed varieties.

Oily or fatty fish is a fantastic source of omega 3s, so should be eaten a couple of times per week if possible. Omega 3 fatty acids are thought to have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body, so may be beneficial in conditions such as eczema, asthma, arthritis, depression, ADHD and prevention of cardiovascular disease and dementia in later life. So, the message here has to be to eat fish! Oily fish, such as wild salmon, sardines and mackerel has the highest levels of omega 3 fatty acids, but other common fish like tuna, sea bass, hake, haddock and cod has some omega 3s and are high in protein (although don’t eat too often as there are issues with sustainability).

Fruit and vegetables

The only advice I can give about eating fruit and vegetables is to eat as many as possible every day! Fruit and vegetable consumption is thought to have a protective effect against heart disease and many different types of cancer, as well as boosting the immune system to fight off everyday colds and viruses. It also adds to your fibre intake, which aids the digestive system. The official UK healthy eating guidelines suggest 5 portions per day, whereas in Australia it is 7 portions.

Try to eat fruit at least twice a day and eat it at whatever time of day it suits you. Some people may find that eating easily digestible fruits such as strawberries or grapes straight after a large meal causes indigestion, but for others it may not be an issue. Just make it part of your routine – with your breakfast, as a mid-morning or afternoon snack or as dessert in the evening – and stick to it. Eat seasonal fruits for the highest levels of antioxidants and the best taste. Try to freeze summer berries when they are abundant to eat during the winter, or cheat and buy packs of pre-frozen berries! Eat a variety of fruits, as the different colours are a sign they contain different phytonutrients and they’re all good for you!

For a super healthy apple and berry crumble recipe, click here.

Stick to the same principles with vegetables too. Eat a variety of different types and colours and make them part of your everyday routine. Salads needn’t just be lettuce, tomato and cucumber – try adding raw carrot, mushrooms, peppers, green beans, sweetcorn – any veggies you like to make it more interesting. Add extra salad to a sandwich and always have at least 2 or 3 different veggies with a main meal.  A meal is not complete without a good amount of veg to balance a meal and brighten the plate, and I wish more pubs and restaurants would take this advice. Again, try to eat seasonally – the best tasting veggies are often the cheapest and most prominently displayed in the supermarket or fruit and veg shop.

Make legumes a regular part of your diet. They contain lots of vitamins, minerals, fibre and protein and count as 1 of your daily servings of veggies. Think of legumes as a fantastic nutrient boost to any meal. So, when you’re making a casserole, add cannellinni beans, chickpeas or butter beans, cook or buy curries with added lentils or chickpeas and don’t shy away from good old baked beans on toast!

References

Rohrmann S., Overvad K., Bueno-de-Mesquita H.B., Jakobsen M.U., Egeberg R., Tjonneland A., Nailler L., Boutron-Ruault M.C., Clavel-Chapelon F. & Krogh V. & (2013). Meat consumption and mortality – results from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition, BMC Medicine, 11 (1) 63. DOI: 10.1186/1741-7015-11-63