When thinking of a healthy diet, lots of people think of lots of fruits and vegetables, never eating cake again, and even a lifetime of boredom and denial of your favourite foods. A healthy diet does not have to be boring; with a little bit of imagination, it can be colourful, delicious and enjoyable. Furthermore, you don’t have to cut out your favourite foods, it is the proportion of your diet which is made up by certain foods that matters.
The eatwell plate is a diagram from the Department of Health that represents how your diet should look overall. Every meal and every day does not need to look like this, it is meant as a guide. All foods are included in the eatwell plate, allowing you to have a diet which does not deny you your favourite foods, just to consume them in moderation. So what is in each section of the plate, and how can you make each section as healthy as possible?
Fruits and vegetables
This section (the green one on the picture above) should make up about a third of your diet. You should aim for at least 5 portions of fruits and vegetables a day (thats 5 in total, not 5 of each!) Each portion should be about 80 grams, or a fistful. Fresh, frozen and tinned (in juice not syrup) all count. Variety is the key; choose as many different flavours, colours and textures to give you as broad a spectrum of vitamins and minerals as possible. Here are just some ideas of how you can eat more fruit and veg:
- Put the vegetables on your plate first: often when serving ourselves whether at home or at a canteen, we put the meat on our plate, then fill up on carbohydrates, and squeeze the vegetables on the plate if they fit. Simply changing the order of how you pile up your dinner plate can have huge effects on how much of this important food group you eat each day.
- Put in soups, curries, stews and casseroles: This is particularly important if you are not a vegetable lover, or you are cooking for fussy children. Cut the vegetables up small and hide them. Over time, you can increase the amount of vegetables in the dish as your taste buds adapt.
- Add a piece of fruit to your breakfast: Lots of people have either no breakfast, a bowl of cereal or a piece of toast. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, so why not try to get some fruit or vegetables in? A chopped banana on top of your cereal is delicious, grab an apple as you fly out of the door late for work, even a small glass of juice can help. But a word of warning: a lot of the goodness of fruit and vegetables comes from the fibre content, which adds bulk to a meal without the calories. The juicing process removes the fibre, so irrespective of how much juice you drink, it will never count for more than one of your five a day. If you want juice, don’t choose the ‘juice drinks’ as they really are just sugar and flavourings.
- Take a piece of fruit or some raw vegetable sticks to work as a snack: Don’t just stick to the standard carrots and cucumber. Be adventurous; my favourite raw vegetables are red peppers, courgette and broccoli. Get some hummus involved.
The carbohydrates: bread, pasta, rice and potatoes
This food group should make up another 1/3 of your diet and provide around 50% of the energy. Currently as a nation, we eat far too much fat. Combined with the ever trendy ‘carb bashing,’ this food group really needs to be promoted. Potatoes are the anomaly of the group; whilst they are technically vegetables, they count as carbohydrates in your diet. Choosing wholegrain is the key: brown bread, brown pasta and brown rice are delicious, but may take some getting used to. Here are some tips to help you stick to a diet which is lower in white, refined carbohydrates and higher in wholegrain:
- If you are not a brown rice lover (you are not alone!), try boiling it in low salt vegetable or chicken stock for added flavour.
- You can always mix brown and white pasta or rice together and change the proportions gradually as your taste buds adapt.
Dairy and alternatives
This group make up a small section of the diet, and are important for the calcium and protein they provide. The main protein in milk (casein) has a wide amino acid profile, meaning it contains a lot of the essential amino acids. Calcium is important for building strong bones and teeth. A lot of people avoid this group; the number of times I have heard people say that traditional Asian diets are low in dairy products and Asian countries have lower levels of obesity (although these are on the rise!) is amazing. My response is pretty much always the same: you can’t just l0ok at a group of people who have a vastly different diet and lifestyle from our own, choose one single food group and attribute the the difference in obesity to it. If you want to choose non-dairy alternatives such as nut milk, try to go for ones fortified with calcium, particularly for growing children. The key to healthy dairy intake is choosing low fat options; some suggestions are below:
- Switch to skimmed milk (red top): If you think it tastes like chalky water (again, you are not alone!) make the change gradually. Start by putting the milk into foods where you won’t really notice the difference, or mix skimmed with semi-skimmed and change the proportions gradually. I started having skimmed milk in my porridge and tea; now if I try to drink semi-skimmed it feels horribly think.
- Choose 0% fat yogurt: yogurt can make a great pudding or snack, but try to choose 0% fat. Careful if you are choosing flavoured yogurts, they are often loaded with sugar.
- Cheese is very high in fat and sugar, so less is more: Try to stick to a matchbox sizes portion (no, not the cook’s matches with extra long handles!) Use a smaller amount with a stronger flavour or grate it make it go further. Soft varieties are normally lower in fat – cheddar is one of the worst!
- If you are dreading saying ‘NO!’ to ice cream over the summer switch to 0% fat frozen yogurt: this options is now available in most supermarkets, or you can make your own. Again, careful of the added sugar content; always read the label.
Meat, fish and alternatives
This should be another small section of the diet, comparable in size to the dairy section above. These foods are high in protein so important for growth, cell repair and wound healing. But beware: these foods can be high in fat, so should be limited. When choosing meat in the supermarkets or cooking at home, bare these tips in mind:
- Choose ‘lean’ cuts: these are meats with a lower fat content. Examples include chicken, fish or lean mince. Ask your butcher for help if you want help choosing a lean meat.
- Remove the skin off the meat before cooking: Most animals (and humans!) store fat under their skin to keep warm. For lean meats like chicken, the skin is the fatty bit. But take this off before cooking, not afterwards, as during heating the fat becomes soft and drips through the rest of the meat.
- Cooking techniques are important: Boiling, baking and grilling are good alternatives to frying or roasting in a lot of fat. Fried bacon is a big NO! from me.
- Remove all the visible fat from around the meat: This is where the a huge proportion of the calories come from. Lots of people avoid pork as they think it is a fatty meat. However, pork actually has very low intra-muscular marbling (IE pigs have little fat inside their muscle compared to other animals such as cows), but have relatively high fat stores around their muscles. Removing visible fat from pork can make it another healthy alternative.
- Limit your read meat consumption: Red meat is higher in fat than white meat, so try not to eat too much of it. If you do choose it, consider removing the visible fat and revise your cooking techniques.
High fat, high sugar foods:
You might be asking “Why in an eatWELL plate would you include these foods?” You are not alone. However, maintaining a healthy diet must be realistic and sustainable. Unless you have a superhuman willpower, you will once in a while give in to the cravings. I can’t go a day without chocolate, and I wouldn’t want to try. When it comes to this group, less really is more!