Let food be thy medicine—Hippocrates

healthy foodWhat is a healthy diet? There are so many different views about what is healthy both in terms of how to lose weight and how to stay healthy, but increasingly the view of both scientists and nutritionists (and one that I share) is that it’s about eating far more vegetables, some fruit, some grain, less meat, most definitely very little sugar and reduced amounts of fat.

And yet every week a new diet is published in our magazines and newspapers with claims like: “Eat your favourite foods”, “Lose 7 lbs in 7 Days”, “Get back into your jeans: just eat 2 bowls of our cereal and 1 main meal”. This last one, the cereal with the big red ‘K’, is so maddening to me! They advertise their breakfast cereal as being good for weight loss: but it’s not healthy. The manufacturing process of breakfast flake cereals is such that the nutritional content is virtually zero, so they have to add vitamins and minerals to replace the ones they have destroyed. Cereal flakes of are pretty tasteless, so sugars (in various guises) are added to make them palatable. This particular one has a higher sugar content than their regular cornflakes. And by asking you to eat 2 bowls—double your usual consumption—the food company gets to sell twice as much as usual! Sorry, I digress, but I want you to see that companies promote messages that on the surface look like they may be trying to help you, when in fact they are misleading, manipulative and they care far more about their bottom line than your weight.

Rant over! It is relatively easy for people to go on a (slimming) diet of some kind—including those above—and lose weight. But a healthy diet is not one that is just for a short time, or makes you count, measure, or track things, or ridiculously gets you to eat just one major food group (like the high protein Atkins diet): it is a diet that is for life. A way to maximise your health and allows you enjoy good, nutritionally high quality food without having to be martyr, or thinking you are on a (slimming) diet. It is a way of eating that allows your body to find it’s natural weight—and that’s not necessarily a size zero. Only a small proportion of people are naturally skinny. A healthy diet is measurable in terms of your well-being, zest for life and, if you were to be medically tested, then it would show up in very healthy medical reports too.

Dr Dean Ornish is a remarkable doctor leading the way in terms of scientifically proving diet not only impacts on your health, but it can reverse life-threatening diseases such as heart disease. In Dr Ornish’s 2nd year of medical school, he took time out to set about finding proof for what he had personally experienced; that your health is directly influenced by what you eat, how much you exercise and you manage your stress levels. At medical school he had studied under the renowned heart surgeon, Dr Michael DeBakey, assisting him in coronary artery bypasses but he was alarmed that these people frequently needed a second or third bypass because they did not change their lifestyle or eating habits. So he found 10 people whose heart disease was so severe that surgeons would not operate on them. Then he and these 10 people, along with a chef to prepare low-fat vegetarian meals, moved into a hotel for a month. Everyday Dr Ornish taught them about healthy food and what unhealthy food was doing to their bodies. They did yoga, exercised, stopped smoking, meditated and they sat in a circle to talk. At the end of the month, the results showed a spectacular 91% improvement in chest pain. His professors back in medical school told him not to publish these results as the group was too small and the results were unbelievable! This did not deter Dean Ornish: I suspect it may have motivated him. Since that first trial he has gone on to do a huge number of different trials based on the same approach with ever larger numbers of people all across the USA, proving now without a doubt, and finally acknowledged by the medical community, that heart disease and obesity (one of the main factors in heart disease) can be reversed.

There are many other wonderful people, pioneers and leaders in the world of science, nutrition and health whose stories and scientific research confirm your health is directly affected by what you eat. And to stay at your optimum health, a vegetarian diet full of vegetables (there are junk-food vegetarians!), which is high in fibre, low in fat with very little if any added sugar is the best for you.

I suspect that most of you reading this, if you’re not already a vegetarian, will not be ready to switch your diet (yet?) and, I hasten to add, whilst my diet is loaded with coloured vegetables, I still eat some fish and poultry. However, you can begin to improve your diet to make it much healthier by following these 5 steps.

STEP 1.

Radically increase your coloured vegetables: decrease your meat and fish.
I understand that most people do not wish to forego meat and fish, yet in the UK most people still see meat/fish as being the biggest part of their main meal. Not only is this not healthy for your body, WWF’s Livewell Report (2011) shows that our planet can not sustain our population growth and increasing levels of livestock required if we don’t change our eating habits. So, for your health and the planet, choose to eat less meat/fish. Aim to cut it down my one-third of your current intake. This can be done in several different ways. Consider following Paul McCartney’s Meat Free Mondays idea (or choose another day of the week). If you use mince in some shape of form (beef burgers, Chili con Carne, lasagna, Spaghetti Bolognese etc.) then increase the quantities of onions, carrots, beans and add other vegetables, perhaps butternut squash, courgettes, bell peppers, tomatoes) This makes your meat go much further without it feeling like you are eating less in volume. For example there was a time when I cooked 500 g of mince in meals mentioned above that would provide 4 portions (125 g of meat per person). These days 500 g usually provides 7–8 portions reducing the meat down to 63—72g per portion. Formally a big meat eater, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, has turned vegetarian and has created a wonderful array of easy-to-prepare vegetarian meals. Lots of these are freely available via Channel 4′s website see:http://www.channel4.com/4food/recipes/vegetarian Do you love your Apps? Then Green Kitchen is one I would recommend as it has lots of great recipes and it also shows you which recipes are gluten and/or sugar free etc.

STEP 2.

Reduce your intake of added sugar. In terms of weight gain, sugar is the enemy—far more so than fat. My view is that sugar is a drug. Yes, a drug—and I’m highly addicted as I suspect most of you are too. Sugar affects your body and brain chemistry in very similar ways that other pleasure drugs do. When you eat foods with a high sugar content, the dopamine pathways—brain neurons experiencing pleasure—excite your brain. After such a delightful experience, they demand more of the same! This means that for most people it is very hard to eat just one chocolate, one biscuit or one candy/sweet without wanting and giving in to eating more. Sugar doesn’t give any nutritional benefits to your body: it simply provides a temporary boost of energy. A much better way of enjoy natural sweetness is to eat fruit. Fruit has natural sugars known as fructose. For your body to get at this sugar, it first has to breakdown the fibre of the fruit, which means it is released more slowly into your blood stream. By contrast processed foods containing sucrose (sugar as we know it) is digested very quickly giving you an almost instant ‘hit’ of energy. Fruit, as well as providing slow-release of energy, also gives you vitamins, minerals and lots of phytonutrients (micro nutrients that have wonderful, life-giving properties). Sweet spices like cinnamon, vanilla, liquorice, star of anise can give a natural sweetness to things like stewed fruit, yoghurt and egg-based desserts.

Sugar is added to vertically all processed foods—both sweet and savoury. It’s added to make food tastier, to preserve it, to bulk food up, because it’s a very cheap product (more profits) and because it’s addictive we are more likely to get hooked on the taste of certain products.

STEP 3.

Choose good fats—ditch all those processed foods labelled “Low Fat”. Fat, unlike sugar, has valuable nutrients, such as vitamin D and Omega 3, although some fats are better nutritionally than others. Fats have ‘essential fatty acids’ – meaning we can’t get them from anywhere else. Fat gives taste and gives structure to food. However, it has a high calorific value (I don’t believe in counting calories: but there is sense in not exceeding what your body needs and can burn-off) and your body can more easily convert fat into body fat than it can from protein or carbohydrates. Good fats include coconut oil and avocado oil (both ideal for stir fries and smoothies), extra virgin olive oil (excellent for salads and low temperature cooking: for high heat use regular olive oil), sesame oil – great for spicing up dishes, and flaxseed oil has a great Omega 3 profile.

In terms of animal protein with a high fat content, where possible, trim off fat, and greatly reduce your portion size (remember to increase your vegetable intake so you don’t go hungry).

In the supermarkets there are a plethora of foods labelled ‘low fat’ – so you might assume that these are good for you? The vast majority these foods are NOT healthy. Food such as milk that has simply been skimmed of it’s natural fat is complete fine. BUT processed foods labelled “Low Fat” are some of the unhealthiest foods you can eat. Why? Because the food manufacturers have tampered with the food so much that what you are eating is no longer really food! Fat provides taste and structure to a food. Remove it and the food is both tasteless and formless. To make the “Low Fat” version appear to be like the full fat version, manufacturers go to extraordinary lengths. They add thickeners in the form of starches and gums; they then add sugar (again in many different guises) to give it taste. They sometimes add so much sugar it’s too sweet (but sugar is incredibly cheap and it also adds bulk to the food) so they then add “flavouring” which doesn’t need to be listed as anything other than “flavouring” which sometimes is a desweetener! Your body does cope very well with this kind of chemically altered food. Please avoid these foods!

STEP 4.

One very simple rule. Read ALL food labels before you buy a food! If label on a tinned, boxed or frozen food lists something that you don’t know what it is: put it back on the shelf! In this simple way your food choices will be healthier. Choose foods that have a minimum number of ingredients. Think of what you would use if you were cooking a dish like that. Would you add things like dextrose monohydrate (a sugar), barley malt (another sugar), potassium sorbate (a preservative) or xanthan gum (a thickener)? Yet these are found in vast numbers of processed foods.

STEP 5.

Watch what you drink. Drinks with alcohol, caffeine, and aspartame (artificial sweetener found in most fizzy drinks)—may be enjoyable, but they are NOT healthy.

Caffeine is a stimulant and whilst coffee can be seductive with its aroma and taste, for most people, it serious impacts on the quality of sleep. This causes a vicious circle of being tired in the morning, ‘needing’ a caffeine fix to get going which then impacts on your sleep, making you reach for your morning coffee. Caffeine stays in your system far longer than most people think: having a coffee in the morning doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect the quality of your sleep. Consider taking a month off caffeine. See if you sleep more soundly.

Alcohol is a depressant—or more literally numbs you from your stress or emotions. Socially it is one of the most acceptable drugs around—but a drug it most definitely is. Whilst red wine may have some health-giving attributes, the affects of alcohol on your body, counter them. If you have no intension of giving up your favourite tipple, have 3-4 days a week where you drink no alcohol whatsoever.

Aspartame is nearly always found in zero calorie soft drinks. These are often promoted as “diet” drinks with “zero” calories being promoted as a benefit. What zero calories really means is zero nutrients with a taste that comes from a chemical concoction. I used to be addicted to colas: I know how easy it is drink them, but please try to switch to water. Aspartame is known as an appetite stimulant, so drinking the diet coke if trying to lose weight is totally counter-productive. Although I would not class the following drinks as healthy, they are somewhat better than most: Feel Good drinks have neither added sugar nor artificial sweeteners. Like wise Appletise and Peartise are simply carbonated fruit juices. Innocent drinks have no nasties either, but fructose (fruit sugar) begins to convert to sucrose if the juice stands for more than 30 minutes. So this is not so good for you.

The healthiest drink is water. Boring to many – I know – but it can become a habit that is enjoyable too! Optimally drink 500 ml of water per 50 lbs of body weight to keep yourself fully hydrated. Try herbal teas or Red Bush tea, which is naturally caffeine free.