If you asked me five years ago about my thoughts on healthy eating, it would be a rather different answer compared with today.
My food philosophy nowadays has nothing to do with how much kale you can include in your diet (I can’t stand the stuff), whether you should substitute bready pizza bases for ones made out of cauliflower (I’m sure it tastes okay and is healthy, but let’s face it, bread is delicious), and I don’t advocate removing chocolate brownies from your vocabulary (CHOCOLATE BROWNIES. MMM…). I used to buy into ‘superfoods’, the latest health supplements and food trends promoting low calories and zero processed sugar. But over the years my idea of healthy eating has evolved.
If you have dietary necessities such as gluten intolerance or dairy allergies, that’s a different matter. However, if you are generally healthy with no diet concerns, there really is no reason for you to be depriving yourself and eating foods you don’t enjoy just because you ‘should’. These days I advocate eating everything in moderation, cooking real home-cooked meals with real ingredients as much as possible, and focusing on quality over quantity when it comes to food.
Here’s the basic healthy eating principles I go by these days, and what I try to pass on to my personal training clients.
Eat plenty of fruits and veges
I am a true believer that nothing beats fresh fruits and veges when it comes to nutrition. Packed with essential vitamins and minerals to keep everything in your body healthy from your skin, to your hair, to your muscular tissue, they also contain dietary fibre that keeps your digestive system healthy and regular. Your gut is key to a healthy immune system, and I believe that the reason my household rarely has to deal with illness is because we eat plenty of fresh fruit and veges. If you’re not eating your 5+ servings each day, you are not getting enough.
We recently ‘upgraded’ to buying spray-free, organic fresh produce every week from a local company that delivers a box – including organic free-range eggs – to our doorstep for no additional charge. The produce actually costs less than it would if we bought from the supermarket, it’s always freshly picked as it’s local and seasonal, and everything really does seem to taste better.
Buy organic and natural
Ditch whatever chemicals you can by buying spray-free, organic ingredients for your cooking. Pesticides and other chemicals can build up in your system over time and aggravate health problems ranging from allergies to hormonal imbalances.
For me this doesn’t just apply to our fruit and veges. If you think about all the things in your home environment that can contain toxins, there’s a lot of room in your average household to make improvements. I’d never really given this much thought until I fell pregnant but once I did a little research on it I had to do something about it.
We now use eco-brand beauty products as much as possible (shampoos, conditioners, body wash, night cream… my main exception to this is deodorant as I haven’t found any natural brands to comply with my standards to date), and also household cleaning products (laundry powder, dish washing powder, dish washing liquid, multipurpose cleaning spray…). Even our toilet paper is hypoallergenic and fragrance-free.
Cook from scratch
I always harp on about this, but I am a strong advocate for it. Packet sauces, pre-made meat products, store-bought breads – just about anything that comes ready-made from the supermarket contains extra ingredients your body wouldn’t have to deal with if you made it yourself at home.
As an example, there is no need to buy a pre-made packet of honey soy stir fry sauce – you can make it yourself out of honey, a little oil, and soy sauce. The difference is that the store-bought sauce will likely also contain extras such as preservatives, added flavours and colours. Breads can be a pain in the arse to make yourself, but store-bought ones typically contain raising agents (to make the yeast activate faster/speed up the breadmaking process) and again preservatives (so that your bread will last a week in your pantry rather than a few days). I believe that these additions are a key driver behind all the allergies that we see today.
I often feel bloated after eating bread products here in New Zealand, but when my husband and I went to France a few years ago I ate bread every day and felt great. The difference? Each morning someone from the family we were staying with would go down to the local bakery and buy their fresh bread for the day. No preservatives or added extras, as you would just get new bread the next day.
I don’t buy any pre-made baked goods such as biscuits or cakes unless it’s to satisfy a specific craving or a special occasion. These days we only really get wholefood bliss balls or nut bars, or bake from scratch (again to avoid added extras such as preservatives). I do use processed sugar, but as they are treat foods about once a month and not regulars in our diet it really isn’t an issue. It’s also a lot easier to eat your baking in moderation when you know you put six cups of sugar into a cake and the icing that went on it 😉
As a yoga teacher in training, I’m always surrounded by vegetarians and vegans (a key lifestyle principle for yogis is ahimsa – or non-violence to yourself and others which for some people’s definition includes animals). Although our household will not be removing meat or animal products from our diet any time soon, I do see the value in remembering that animals have given their lives so we can have a protein-rich meal, and I would like to think they had a decent life up until that point, so we now buy free range and organic whenever we can.
It’s important here to note that when it comes to eggs, cage-free is NOT the same as free range. A hen that is not in a cage can still be cramped with 100 other chickens into a small pen or barn.
This is the only thing on this list that has really affected our supermarket budget, as it can be more pricey. However, it has actually made me start to buy smaller cuts of meat to counter the price. The interesting thing about New Zealanders is that when it comes to healthy eating we tend to become obsessed with eating more protein – we often don’t really need to eat more as we typically eat enough protein in our diets. We just need to eat better quality lean protein. Around 5 or 6 serves a day, each around the size of the palm of your hand. This can come from meat, dairy products, legumes, lentils, eggs, fish, and a range of other foods.
Buy quality, basic, real food
I no longer buy into the ‘fat free’ stuff. Unless you have specific health reasons or eat a ridiculous quantity of dairy products, a little butter likely won’t harm your health. In fact, some of the latest health research is indicating that replacing animal fats in your diet may not even reduce your risk of heart health problems. However, next time you get your margarine out of the fridge check the ingredients list and see what you can recognise on that packet. You may be surprised.
If you’re on a budget, supermarket home brands can be great for the staples such as dried pasta, tinned chopped tomatoes and baking ingredients like flour or cocoa powder. There is nothing wrong with them and they are often just as good – if not better – than branded products.
Takeaways really aren’t your friend
If you’re eating food someone else has made, you really don’t know the ingredients that have gone into it. I recently did a little research for some of my young health studies students, and most takeaway meals that you think would be healthy (Japanese sushi, stir fries, chicken salad wraps etc.) are bigger than your average portion size should be. Some also contain obscene quantities of salt (even if they are low in fat and sugars….). One popular takeaway option had a noodle bowl that had a week’s worth of sodium in a single meal and almost enough calories for a day’s food.
Often the main meal itself isn’t such a problem, however if you’re buying soft drinks or juices and sides/dessert as well, this can blow your cheat meal well out of proportion. Do some trial and error with recipes you can find online to substitute some of your typical takeout meals. You will have better control over what goes into them.
Energy drinks aren’t your friend either
I rarely ban anything from my clients’ diets; energy drinks are the exception to this. I used to hammer them back when I was studying at university in my 20’s – I liked the taste and felt I needed them to stay awake. Energy drinks perpetuate energy level rollercoasters, giving you a fast hit of sugar and/or stimulants to make you feel temporarily better. But what goes up must come down and that artificial energy hit will need replacing again. This can play havoc with your circadian rhythm and affect your quality of sleep at night.
Maintaining balanced energy through good sleep (if your sleep sucks, work at creating a good bedtime routine that promotes better sleep!), restorative practices (meditation, cat naps, resting up), and nourishing food are far better ways of staying awake when you need to.
Image / NZ Real Health