Most of us know which foods are healthy and which are not and how a nutritionally balanced diet with adequate amounts of protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals is key to avoiding weight gain and feeling healthy and well.
Yet, in spite of this widespread knowledge, many people still start fad diets in January, hoping to lose the extra few pounds they put on over Christmas. Others see the dawning of a new year as a time to change bad habits that have built up over a longer time.
Here, four nutritional experts go beyond the usual advice on which foods to eat and which to avoid and focus on food behaviour.
Nutritional therapist, Elsa Jones suggests setting yourself small achievable goals as part of daily and weekly challenges. Dietitian Paula Mee offers some tips for those considering vegetarian or flexitarian diets in 2020.
Dietitian Aveen Bannon advises everyone to eat well before they drink alcohol rather than avoiding food before a night out. And, finally, Brendan Harold praises mindful eating as a healthy eating approach that everyone can follow.
Small achievable goals
Elsa Jones, nutritional therapist and author of Goodbye Sugar believes small achievable goals are the key to healthy eating.
“You don’t have to make radical changes to your diet in order to see or feel a difference. Even making small changes can improve the way you look and feel. I’m a firm believer that making healthy choices, no matter how small, has a ripple effect. Once you start to feel a benefit from making one change, eg more energy, it motivates you to make another one and then another one . . . So, ask yourself this: What one positive choice can I make today that will help me to look and feel my best?
“The first thing I say to people is to ditch the diet. Strict diets aren’t sustainable long-term and they don’t address the psychological and emotional factors behind our eating habits. They can also leave you nutritionally deprived, slow your metabolism and make you feel weak and miserable.
“It’s a good idea to set yourself up for success with small achievable goals and daily and weekly challenges.”
Here's Jones's suggestions that could help improve your diet slowly and really make a difference:
- Eat a green vegetable every day
- Swap refined cereal for porridge oats
- Reduce your coffee intake by one cup a day
- Switch from milk chocolate to dark chocolate
- Fill half of your dinner plate with vegetables (one quarter with protein and one quarter with carbohydrates)
- Fast for 12 hours at night eg 7.30pm through to 7.30am
-Make a batch of vegetable soup for the week ahead
- Choose wholewheat pasta or wholegrain rice over white; start the day with a mug of warm water with lemon juice
- Eat one vegetarian meal a week which includes legumes.
“And, remember if you’re trying to lose weight, don’t buy in biscuits, sweets or chocolate. If they are not there, you can’t eat them. And, finally, take 20 minutes once a week to plan out your meals for the week ahead so that you’re well stocked up on healthy foods.”
Advice for vegetarians and flexitarians
Paula Mee, consultant dietitian has advice for those becoming vegetarian or flexitarian in 2020.
"About eight per cent of people in Ireland are now vegetarian, while two per cent are vegan. And, there are growing numbers of people who are flexitarian (or semi-vegetarian), meaning they include eggs and dairy but only occasionally eat meat, chicken and seafood.
“If you’re taking meat off the plate, you need to eat more plant foods that contain proteins. Examples of these are peas, beans, lentils, chickpeas, seeds, nuts, soya foods, and whole grains (such as wheat, oats, barley, and brown rice). Eating a wide variety of protein sources every day is sufficient to get all your essential amino acids but this takes commitment.
“Vitamin B12 is found by and large in animal foods such as dairy foods and eggs, so most vegetarians and flexitarians get what they need. Vegans however avoid all animal products and therefore need to eat fortified foods such as soya and rice drinks with added B12 or take a B12 supplement to avoid developing neurological problems and pernicious anaemia.
“A good vegetarian diet will contain around the same amount of iron as a diet containing meat. However the haem-iron in red meat is more readily absorbed than the non-haem iron found in plant foods. You can enhance the uptake of non-haem iron by adding vitamin C rich foods to a vegetarian or vegan diet.
“When appropriately planned vegetarian and vegan diets can be very healthful and may be better for the health of the planet too. The traditional Mediterranean diet, which is largely a plant based diet, is associated with longer life and reduced risk of several diseases. Even if you don’t want to become a complete vegetarian, you can steer your diet in that direction with a few simple substitutions, such as plant-based sources of protein like beans and legumes instead of meat a couple of times a week.”
Aveen Bannon, dietitian with the Dublin Nutrition Centre warns people off the habit of skipping meals to save calories for alcohol before a night out.
“According to one UK report up to 40 per cent of women aged 25-34 admitted they’d skipped a meal to save calories for alcohol. This is not a healthy trend and is sometimes referred to as ‘drunkorexia’. Although this is not a medical term, it is happening often enough for a phrase to have been coined to describe it.
“The problem is that young people know that drinking on an empty stomach means they get drunk faster. However, if reducing calories in favour of alcohol becomes a repeated behaviour, it can lead to malnutrition and increased risk of liver problems, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers.
“The best advice is to always eat before drinking alcohol. If you are going out straight from work, have a snack before leaving the office. Also ask for a glass of water when you arrive at bar or party before having an alcoholic drink. This will help address any thirst you might have and stop you drinking an alcoholic drink too quickly. Then continue to match each glass of alcohol with a glass of water. Often restricting food before drinking alcohol results in eating more the following day or on the way home from night out when, we are much more likely to make less healthy food choices.”
Brendan Harold, dietitian manager for HSE mental health services in Dublin south suggests mindful eating as a worthwhile habit for all in 2020.
“I’m against the diet culture and the idea of quick fixes. We all feel the blues a bit in January and you don’t want to add to that by jumping on a fad diet and failing with it. Fad diets are quite restrictive and thereby can set us up to fail, instilling a feeling of guilt. Also, it’s not good to have your whole self-evaluation based around looks and weight.
“The best advice I can give is to eat to feel satisfied. To do that, you have to be a ‘mindful eater’ and focus on how to nourish yourself and your body and mind with food, exercise and self-compassion. It’s about slowing down when you are eating – looking at, smelling and appreciating your food as you taste and eat it. In our culture, we eat so fast that we don’t register the signal from the stomach to the brain when we are full. If you eat more slowly, you will enjoy your food more and you’ll understand the difference between feeling satisfied and feeling full.
“It’s also important for people to understand the relationship between mood and food – especially if you use food to regulate your emotions. Many people see food as the remedy when they are frustrated, anxious, lonely, bored or stressed. Keeping a mood and food diary can help you build your awareness around the types of food you eat when you are in different moods. It’s also important to honour the feeling of hunger by having healthy snacks available (fruit, nuts, crackers and cheese, popcorn) when you do feel hungry.”
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