With the New Year upon us, how many of you have made resolutions? Although the promises we make to ourselves at this time of year can relate to anything, more often than not they centre on making steps towards a healthier lifestyle. Whether it’s to lose weight, become fitter or eat healthier, it’s important to set yourself realistic goals and decide what will enable you to achieve these; it’s difficult to lose two stones if you don’t have a plan in place that details the specific changes you will make to reduce your calorie intake for instance. While reducing foods high in fat and sugar and cutting down on portion sizes are obvious changes, here we discuss seven more subtle dietary changes that can be easily introduced and can potentially provide a wide range of benefits. An additional three lifestyle changes, although common sense, are also discussed detailing the not so appreciated benefits you can gain by resolving to change these habits. Remember, don’t set yourself up to fail; it’s better to focus on one change that you can complete successfully, than try to change everything at once, which for the majority of us is a near impossible feat. Equally don’t look at these changes as quick fixes or short term changes; they can provide long-term benefits if maintained.
Eat regular meals. We all know the old adage about breakfast being the most important meal of the day, but eating three well balanced meals each day can help in so many ways. If you are aiming to lose weight regular meals are your friends, so don’t be tempted to skip meals to save on calories; they help to keep hunger at bay, prevent dips in energy levels and can have a positive impact on your metabolism. Anyone with diabetes should already know the importance of eating regularly to control their blood sugars, but it is surprising how many people with this medical condition still end up missing meals. Irritable bowel syndrome is common amongst women, manifesting as a range of symptoms including abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhoea and bloating; eating regular meals is a key feature in its lifestyle management. However, we can all benefit from eating regularly, as each meal is an opportunity to maximise our intake of nutrients vital to maintain our health; for example missing breakfast can potentially reduce our intake of fibre, calcium, iron and B vitamins, for which people often have sub-optimal intakes. While it’s difficult to change a habit such as not eating breakfast or lunch, there are still possible steps you can take to get your three meals each day. For example, if time constraints are an issue, getting up ten minutes earlier, taking something to eat on the bus or train, or eating your breakfast at work might help you to get the first meal of the day. Alternatively, if forgetting to eat is a problem, setting a reminder on your phone can act to jog people’s memory to eat.
Take time over your meals. How many of us just grab a slice of toast as we leave the house or end up wolfing down a sandwich at our desk instead of taking a lunch break? Time pressures can make it more difficult to sit down and allow ourselves sufficient time over each meal, but rushing our food can cause problems not just for our digestion, but also our waistline. Indigestion is a common problem when meals are rushed, but this can also exacerbate the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. Rushing meals can equally encourage us to overeat, as it takes time for our brains to recognise that we are actually satisfied by what we have already eaten, by which time it might be too late if your meals are gobbled down. While we can’t add extra hours to the day, we can try to make more of an occasion of eating, so for instance see whether you can sit down with others at home or work to eat, as the opportunity to take part in conversation will automatically slow you down.
Aim for “Five A Day”. Only around a fifth of us manage to eat five portions of a combination of fruit and vegetables each day, which may have implications for our future risk of experiencing heart disease, a stroke or cancer. Fruit and vegetables are packed with a range of vitamins and minerals, some of which act as antioxidants and therefore help to protect our body from the changes that can lead to the aforementioned conditions. They are also high in fibre, which not only benefits digestive health, but helps keep you feeling fuller for longer, so are an ideal way to fill up at meal times if you are reducing your protein or carbohydrate portions, as fruit and vegetables are generally low in calories. The cost, preparation and poor shelf life of fruit and vegetables are often cited as reasons why they are not eaten as often as they should be. However, the good news is that fruit and vegetables don’t have to be fresh; frozen, tinned, dried and pure juice all count and tend to be cheaper, more convenient and last longer.
Choose wholegrain carbohydrates. We should aim to include a carbohydrate at each meal such as bread, pasta or cereals, as these are the body’s preferred energy source. However, not all carbohydrates are equal. Wholegrains – which as the name suggests contain all parts of the grains – have a higher content of not just fibre, but also various vitamins and minerals. They are a source of iron (needed to prevent anaemia), magnesium (necessary for nerve and muscle function and to maintain bone strength), selenium (important for immune function and protecting the body cells from damage) and B vitamins (these play a role in metabolism of nutrients, the production of new cells and DNA, as well as preventing anaemia). Wholegrain carbohydrates include wholewheat cereals such as Weetabix, Branflakes and Shreddies, oats, brown rice, wholewheat pasta and wholemeal, granary and rye bread. Ideally we should aim to include wholegrains with every meal, but if you rarely eat them, beginning to include them daily is a positive step.
Eat fish twice weekly. Fish might not be on everyone’s favourite food list or eaten weekly, but all types of fish are very nutritious. White fish such as cod, haddock, coley and Pollock are a low fat source of protein, but are also rich in B vitamins, selenium and iodine – the latter is needed to support the thyroid gland responsible for maintaining the body’s metabolism. They should be eaten at least once weekly if possible; a good alternative to white fish are prawns, mussels and other shellfish. The other type of fish is oily fish such as salmon, sardines, mackerel and trout. These are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which help to protect the heart and are important in the development of the eyes and brain in babies and children; they may also help to protect against dementia. Not only this, but they are also a good source of Vitamin A (needed for new cell production and vision in poor light) and Vitamin D (essential for strong bones, but may also have a role in protecting against conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, diabetes and depression). They also contain useful amounts of iron, so are a good option for anyone who doesn’t eat meat, but is happy to eat fish. We should aim to eat oily fish once weekly and while men and older women can safely eat up to four portions weekly, women of child bearing age should limit their intake to twice weekly. This relates to the fact that with higher intakes, the mercury and chemicals contained in the flesh of these fish might cause harm to a developing baby during pregnancy and if breastfeeding.
Include more pulses in your diet. Most of us will have a can of baked beans in our kitchen, but what about other beans, peas and lentils? These are another low fat source of protein, which are high in fibre to boot; the type of fibre they contain can help to lower cholesterol levels. They also have what is called a low glycaemic index – a measure of how quickly they raise our blood sugar levels – so are an excellent choice for people with diabetes, anyone trying to lose weight or someone keen to keep their energy levels topped up throughout the day. For anyone who avoids animal produce pulses are also a great source of calcium and iron. Pulses work well in soups and stews, where they can replace all or part of the meat. They are also popular in curries, can be added to pasta dishes, salads and combined with seasonings and other vegetables to make side dishes to accompany a meal.
Drink sufficient fluid. We all know we should be drinking more water, but two litres daily seems impossible to achieve. The good news is that other drinks can count towards our fluid intake. Alternatives include no added sugar squash, fruit and herbal teas, and even standard tea and coffee can count towards the eight cups of fluid you should be aiming for each day. While tea and coffee were once thought to have a dehydrating effect on the body due to their caffeine content, this is now known to be only mild and of little consequence if you only have a few cups each day. However, you should still include other forms of fluid each day and pregnant women are advised to limit caffeine to 200mg daily – equivalent to two mugs of instant coffee or three of tea – as higher intakes has been linked to miscarriage, premature and still birth.
Stick within the recommendations for alcohol. We all like a drink, but if you feel you have overdone it during the party season, now might be the time to consider cutting back. Not only does heavy drinking significantly increase your risk of liver disease, but also heart disease, mouth cancer and damage to the nervous system; alcohol is also high in calories, so can also contribute to weight gain. For women sensible drinking is considered to be consuming no more than 2 to 3 units of alcohol in a day and having a maximum of 14 units each week. A unit of alcohol is generally equivalent to half a pint of beer, lager or cider, 25ml of a spirit and less than 100ml of wine; bear in mind that wine is usually served in 175ml or 250ml and as with spirits we tend to serve more if pouring our own drinks. It’s advisable to have at least two alcohol free days each week as well, so that your body is not constantly having to process alcohol. While the risks of high alcohol intake during pregnancy are well understood, the advice to women regarding what alcohol intake during pregnancy is safe is sketchier. Women might be able to drink one or two units once or twice a week without causing harm, but this can’t be ruled out, so the best course of action is to avoid alcohol altogether from the time when you start trying to conceive until you have finished breastfeeding.
Take 30 minutes of exercise most days. The darker nights, less pleasant weather and all the festive food, don’t exactly encourage us to be active at this time of year. However, besides keeping us in shape, exercise helps to reduce our risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, various cancers, osteoporosis and arthritis. Current recommendations for physical activity recommend we take at least 150 minutes of exercise each week, which can be thought of as 30 minutes across five days. However, it is important to remember that this is the minimum to help protect our health; additional physical activity is likely to provide greater benefits and certainly for weight loss closer to an hour of exercise daily is recommended. If you are wondering where you can find an extra 30 minutes in your day to go swimming or to an exercise class, the good news is that activity can be broken down into 10 minute chunks and walking, housework, gardening and DIY can also count; exercise does not have to be taking part in sport or traditional fitness activities.
Ditch the cigarettes. The dangers that smoking poses to the heart and lungs, as well as unborn babies isn’t new, but many people continue to ignore these. However, it isn’t so widely known that smoking also increases your risk of infertility, osteoporosis, cancers of the head, neck and digestive system, kidney and bladder, as well as compromising your immune system, leaving you more vulnerable to infections. In households where there are smokers, babies are also at increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome, and along with young children are more likely to develop asthma, chest infections and meningitis. You therefore aren’t just putting your own health at risk by smoking; yet another reason to quit the habit for good.
Apple – by By Abhijit Tembhekar from Mumbai, India via Wikimedia Commons
Tuna – by Chensiyuan via Wikimedia Commons
Water – by Tysto via Wikimedia Commons
Jogging – by Ed Yourdon via Wikimedia Commons