Number two in my holy trinity is Eat well. There are a lot of people out there saying a lot of things about food, nutrition and diet and it is important to say that I am a nutritional advisor not a nutritionist. Therefore this is my broad-stroke advice, based on national guidelines, for improving your diet for health.
Nutrition is a huge subject, far bigger than I can do justice to in one blog post but in essence we should all be eating to fuel and nourish our bodies. What do I mean by this? Our bodies not only need energy to function but they need nutrients to keep all of our vital functions doing just that; functioning to keep us alive. So as well as carbohydrates, protein and fat, all of which are important fuel sources, every body part needs a cocktail of vitamins and minerals to function optimally. For example we need fibre for our gut to work and calcium for bone strength. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for treats but if the treats become the norm then you could be putting your long term health at risk and I for one want to give myself the best opportunity at a long and active life.
It’s worth dwelling on this point of food as fuel for a moment because I wonder how many times we eat purely for pleasure or convenience (and I include myself here) rather than fuel and nourishment. Fuel makes it sound bland and uninteresting and nobody wants food to become that. Food, I believe, is to be enjoyed but this is where a little knowledge can go a long way.
For long term health, as well as for controlling our weight, there are some simple principles which can help us to not only fuel our bodies and keep them healthy but which can also be filling, tasty and importantly do not have to cost the earth. The analogy of a car is a useful one here. You would not routinely put petrol in a diesel car because it can’t function for very long with the wrong fuel in it. Similarly a diet that is full of what we fitness types refer to as ‘hyper palatable, highly caloric foods’ does not have all the nutrients that our bodies need to function well in the long term. In addition, if weight loss or maintenance is your goal, then these hyper palatable, highly caloric foods will not be helping you. By hyper palatable I mean moorish, tasty foods that are often highly processed and high in salts and sugars. Things like cakes, biscuits and crisps but also convenience foods like sausage rolls, ready meals and pizzas. These things taste good and can be convenient but they are also highly caloric – they have a lot of calories in them. Because they taste amazing (let’s be honest – I love a cake!) they are easy to overeat and if you are eating lots of foods with lots of calories in them, the chances are you will be lacking in essential nutrients and possibly also putting on weight. But, as I said above, even if you’re not thinking about weight loss, if you are eating lots of these foods it is likely that you will not be getting the nutrients that you need for your body to function properly in the long term.
So what can we do about this without food becoming a boring chore, the weekly shop getting more expensive or denying ourselves the foods that we love? There are a few simple things that can help to fuel and nourish our bodies:
- Try to eat as many vegetables and fruits as you can. One portion is counted as 80g and although government guidelines say that we should all be eating five portions of fruit and vegetables a day there is increasing evidence that this should be closer to ten in order for us to get all of the health benefits. As well as giving you lots of nutrients they are almost always lower in calories than the highly processed foods I have talked about meaning that you can still eat lots of food and feel full up – just make sure you are getting a wide variety of vegetables and fruit so you are getting a wealth of nutrients. Crucially, and it seems simple, pick vegetables that you actually like. I don’t like Kale. There. I’ve said it. I don’t cook with it often sticking instead to veg I love so that I don’t feel like its a challenge or a chore.
- Reduce the amount of processed foods that you eat. This includes cakes and sweets, ready meals and pre made sauces but note I said reduce. In my opinion we need to be very careful not to demonize foods. There is no such thing as a bad food; but you can have a bad diet. If your diet is varied and full of vegetables, fruits, lean sources of protein and wholegrains then the odd cake or takeaway here and there is not going to have a huge impact – as with many things health and fitness related, your body responds to what you do consistently. If you eat cake and pizza every day but manage a week of kale and chicken (for the record I absolutely DO NOT condone that as an option!) your body will respond to the pizza and cake and you will most likely gain weight as well as becoming deficient in essential nutrients.
- Eat whole foods where possible – wholegrains, naturally occurring fats and sugars. This is an extension of the point above – make as much of your own food as possible (within the limits of your time, money and culinary skills or interest) from natural ingredients. Anything that is pre-made has to have a shelf life and has to taste amazing so that you keep coming back for more. As a result many of them are full of extra salts and sugars which you can avoid if you have the time and inclination to make it yourself.
- Be prepared. I know this sounds dull but plan your meals ahead of time and make sure that you have healthy snacks with you at all times so that you don’t find yourself grabbing something hyper palatable and highly caloric when you hit that 4pm slump. Make enough food so that you can take leftovers for lunch the following day and try to make sure that every meal contains vegetables, protein and some carbohydrates to keep your body filling full and well fuelled.
- Season your food. Use herbs and spices to make your food taste delicious so that you don’t associate healthy eating with bland meals.
- Drink more water. Many of us fail to drink enough water (your wee should be very pale if you are adequately hydrated. By contrast it will be darker in colour if you are dehydrated). It may sound unbelievable but it can be easy to confuse hunger for thirst especially if you consider that many of the things we experience when we are mildly dehydrated (headache, fatigue, lightheadedness and difficulty concentrating) are also common of hunger. Added to which we often eat for reasons other than hunger; boredom or simply because we like the flavour for example. If you’re looking to lose or maintain weight then this is especially significant. If you think you may be hungry, instead of grabbing a snack have a glass of water. Wait 10-15 minutes and if you still feel hungry then most likely you are in fact hungry. Try to get used to listening to your bodies cues around hunger but also about when you feel full.
- Don’t deny yourself the foods you love altogether. Even if you are on a weight loss journey make room to eat the foods you enjoy some of the time. The important thing is to try and create a diet that you can stick to in the long term that has lots of nutrient dense food but also the treats that you love. Try to think about your diet as a forever thing not as a short sharp burst of denying yourself all of the foods you enjoy.
These are just some simple suggestions but simple does not always mean easy. Convenience foods are called that because they are convenient. If you work in an office full of bakers it can be hard to say no to frequent cake offerings. These suggestions may sound simple but they can be really hard to put into practice so don’t feel like you need to go from A-Z all in one go. Start by upping your vegetable and fruit intake and see how you get on. If you have some spare time at the weekend do a little food prep for the week ahead and see how you get on and remember that nutrition is not as complicated as it can be made to sound.
Really it all boils down to this: Eat lots of vegetables and fruit. Get lots of fresh nutrient-filled foods onto your plate and try to cut down on those hyer-palatable foods. Drink plenty of water and enjoy your food!