Hugh’s hints and tips for embracing healthier eating
I’ve loved good food – cooking it and eating it – all my life. And I’ve always had a sweet tooth. The first things I learned to cook were sweets, cakes, biscuits and puds, and my first job in a restaurant was making the desserts. So it’s no surprise perhaps that my own weight has been up and down over the years. Even as I’ve learned a lot more about healthy eating, and putting much more veg at the centre of my cooking, I can still cut loose on the cheese and chocolate, not to mention the beer and wine.
Over the past 18 months, I’ve turned my attention from what’s on my plate, to what the whole nation is eating. And as you will see if you watched Britain's Fat Fight, there’s a lot to be concerned about!
I’ve learned, through Newcastle Can, just how hard it is for many of us to change our habits, to embrace healthier eating and a more active life. And I’ve also met people who have made amazing changes they never thought possible. The reasons why some succeed and others struggle are incredibly complex: your emotions, and where you are in life, play a huge role. But whoever you are and whatever your circumstances, I think it’s helpful to have a look at the fundamentals of healthy eating, and consider whether a few simple changes might turn out to be easier than you think.
On the food front, I think one thing really worth doing is a “sugar and carb review”. Just take a few minutes to think about how much of the following foods you are regularly eating/drinking. The idea is just to scale back a bit on sweet treat snacking, and the main starchy carbs we all eat so much of.
You can start with the things you know are treats:
- fizzy drinks with sugar
- cakes and biscuits
- chocolate and confectionary
- crisps and other bagged snacks
If you are having “quite a few” of the above “pretty much every day”, then you kind of know it’s too much. How hard would it be to cut what you are having by a half? And maybe in few weeks time, by a half again?
Of course alcohol is one of the most popular “grown up treats.” And our favourite alcoholic drinks are all packed with calories. There’s about 85-100 calories in a small (125ml) glass of red wine. That’s nearly twice as much as the same amount of regular Coke! For most ciders and beer, the calories are just a bit more than for Coke. For me the breakthrough on booze has been not drinking every day. I reckon 3 alcohol free days a week are saving me around 1000 calories a week. I don’t manage it every week, but if I have a bad week I try and make sure that the next one is a good week. If I am drinking, I will usually have a drink (or two) before supper, a drink (or two) with it. But no more drinks after supper. I’ve really tried to knock the “might as well finish the bottle” mentality on the head…
Think also about the starchy carbs we tend to have with main meals. These are the main ones:
Do you like to pretty much cover your plate with pasta or rice, then put the saucy bit on top? Do you buy big spuds for baking, rather than normal ones? Would you dish yourself up a dollop of mash that covers half your plate? It could be easier than you think to reduce these in your diet. Take half the portion you normally take, but keep the meat, the sauce and the veg the same, and you’ll soon get used to it.
Three more to think about are:
- breakfast cereals
- juices and smoothies
Do you use bread and/or breakfast cereals as snacks - making toast or a sandwich or pouring yourself a bowl of cornflakes mid-morning or when you get back from work? Try knocking that on the head, and if you really need something, have an apple or a clementine instead.
Lots of us drink fruit juice and smoothies thinking they are better for us than fizzy drinks with added sugar. And they are a bit better. They have some vitamins and maybe a bit of fibre left from the fruit. But once blitzed or juiced, even the natural sugars in these drinks are hard for our bodies to process if we drink too much of them. More than one small glass a day is too much. The whole fruit - an apple, a pear, a couple of plums - is much better.
Improving your diet is not just about cutting out and scaling back. It’s also about increasing the great, health-boosting foods most of us don’t eat enough of. We know that the most important of those are:
- fresh vegetables and fruit
Lots of us have fallen into easy routines with familiar foods that we probably know are not particularly good for us. It’s easy to forget that there are actually quite a few healthy fruits and vegetables that we like. Now is the time to remind yourself about them! To rediscover that lightly steamed cabbage or kale with a small knob of butter and a twist of pepper is actually rather delicious. Or that grated carrot and shredded white cabbage, sprinkled with a few seeds and dressed with lemon juice and a little olive oil, is a treat beside a simple piece of grilled meat or fish. Or that a saucy home-made curry rammed with vegetables is really not that hard to put together.
Finally, one major tip. Let this be the year when you allow yourself to recognise and accept the feeling of hunger from time to time. Don’t always rush to “fill the gap” immediately. Regular snacking on sugary treats is one of the biggest reasons for gaining weight. If you can get from breakfast to lunch with just an apple in between, and from lunch to dinner with just one chocolate biscuit and an unsweetened cup of tea, then you are well on the way to re-setting your eating habits.
Of course there are diet books and recipes and meal plans that can help get you on track for healthier eating and sustainable weight loss. By all means put them to good use. But it’s worth bearing in mind that for the most part they boil down to the same sound advice. Eat less of the foods that you know aren’t great for your health, and more of the ones that you know are good for you. It’s sounds obvious, and it is! But so many of us make choices and form habits as if we didn’t know these simple truths.
Being conscious of these basic facts whenever we are shopping, cooking, ordering food, and even when we are actually eating, is really useful. Just thinking about the relative merits and drawbacks of the foods we are consuming, even as we consume them, can help shift our habits and guide our choices. That’s something you can start right now.
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