If you want to start eating more healthy food, it’s better to have some sort of plan. Completely changing eating habits isn’t something you can easily do overnight. When people try to switch to a completely different diet, they often give up after a few weeks. A better way to go about it is to assess what is wrong with your current diet and then plan how you can introduce more healthy food week by week.
Start by looking at what you’re eating
Keeping a food diary is a very helpful first step to getting into better eating habits. Recording everything you eat over the course of the week is a good starting point to plan improvements. Use this downloadable food log to record everything you eat and drink for a week.
The food log
Record all your food, including drinks, on this log for week. Even people who think they eat mainly healthy food are often surprised when they keep a food log. Hidden sugars and drinks can really add to calorie intake and disrupt blood sugar control. Small amounts of fat contribute lots of calories because fat is so calorie dense. Calories aside, saturated (animal) fat intake is a particular problem heart health and is often higher than it should be. You might also find your diet is quite low-fibre, which is bad for the digestive system, plus it means sugar absorbs faster. Or you might realise that you’re not doing as well with fruit and veg as you thought, which could mean you are less energetic due to lack of vitamins and minerals.
Now review your diet log
Did you have starches/complex carbs in at least 2 meals?
This food group includes potatoes, bread, pasta, rice and cereals. Organisations concerned with health and nutrition recommend that a large proportion of our diets should be complex carbohydrates. No official health body recommends low carb diets. The argument that humans have only eaten grains since we started farming is true, but before this humans ate other forms of long-chain carbohydrate. If you’re interested in the debate on carbohydrates, this article by the National Geographic Magazine takes an in-depth look at what the natural diet of humans is.
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A note on gluten: gluten is a protein found in wheat. A small percentage of people can’t tolerate gluten. This condition is called coeliac disease and can cause a range of health problems. Most of us do not have coeliac disease, but for those who do, there is still a wide choice of complex carbs.
Did you have plenty of wholegrains?
The white versions of rice and wheat products have had the outer part removed, which contains a lot of nutrients and fibre. The loss of fibre means that white bread, pasta and rice are more quickly digested. This causes blood sugar spikes and increased insulin production, followed by feeling the need to eat again as the blood sugar drops. If you don’t like 100% wholegrain, there are plenty of 50/50 products around or you can use a mixture of brown and white pasta, rice, couscous etc.
Did you have 1-2 portions of healthy protein?
We need protein for growth and repair in the body. Meat and fish are the main sources of protein for non-vegetarians. Vegetarians get their protein from dairy (non-vegans) and a variety of sources including nuts, seeds, beans and pulses.
“Healthy protein” includes most sources apart from fatty meats, processed meat products (burgers, sausages, bacon, nuggets etc.), and full fat dairy products. Nuts, seeds and oily fish are high fat, but it’s mainly unsaturated fat and these foods also contain lots of valuable nutrients. They’re good to eat as part of a balanced diet, as long as total fat intake is not too high.
Did you have at least 5 portions of fruit and veg a day?
We all know this by now. Fruit and veg provide us with vitamins, minerals and fibre, as well as health boosting plant chemicals. It doesn’t have to be fresh fruit and veg. Canned and frozen count, so do beans, soups, juice, smoothies and dried fruits. Aim for a mixture of all these different types. Read more about 5 a day here.
Was your intake of foods/drinks with added sugar low?
Added sugar is usually one of the things that surprises people when they keep a food diary. There are the obvious foods like biscuits, cakes and ice cream, but many others have a surprising amount of sugar. Check foods like savoury dressings and breakfast cereals for their sugar content. Often it isn’t listed as sugar, it may be any of the following sugar types:
There are even more, but these are most of the common ones. To see how much added sugar is in a product, look at the carbohydrate count, then the bit which says “of which sugars”. Anything more than 10% sugars should be taken in moderation.
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Also, don’t forget about added sugar in drinks. Apart from the sugar (sucrose) you add yourself hot drinks, fizzy drinks, squashes, milkshake powders, drinking chocolate and other milky drinks all have added sugar.
Note: Be cautious of sweeteners – although they don’t add calories, they don’t solve the problem of craving sugary foods. To maintain long term healthy eating habits it’s much easier not to have a very sweet tooth. Most people find that once they’re used to eating healthy food, large amounts of added sugar really don’t taste very nice.
Was your oil and fat intake low?
Fats have over twice as many calories per gram as carbohydrate and protein, which is why we need to keep intake low. Saturated fats (any fats that are from animals, including eggs and dairy) aren’t any more calorie dense than unsaturated (plant) fats, but are more damaging to health. So what is a low intake? The recommendation is that about 30% of our calories should come from fats. For a moderately active woman this would be about 70-80g of fat a day. A low fat day would be anything up to this amount. If you have several of these foods in one day, it’s likely that this will be a high fat day.
- Ice cream
- Deep fried food (including crisps)
- Meat with visible fat
- Oily fish
- Full fat dairy products including butter
- Other full fat spreads
- Nuts and seeds
- Large amounts of cooking oil
Now decide on some healthy food changes
When you’ve finished reviewing your diet log, decide on some healthy food changes to make. Even if it’s only one or two changes, it’s a step in the right direction. Then after a few weeks, you can repeat the process. This isn’t a fast track weight loss strategy, it’s a gradual process of switching to more healthy food. In the long run, this is more likely to be successful than any calorie restricting diet, because it develops sustainable healthy eating habits.
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