How to make healthier food choices

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If you’re craving salty, fatty or sweet foods, our guide to making healthier choices could help

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Eating is one of the quickest ways to comfort ourselves – food can calm, energise and nourish us, after all. And while most people occasionally turn to sweet, salty or fatty treats for a quick hit of comfort, such foods are often low in nutrients and can often leave us wanting more.

By making healthy food choices, you can give yourself both the comfort you’re craving and the daily nourishment your body needs to function at its best.

1. Opt for nutrient dense foods

Notice how certain foods always leave you wanting more? A doughnut for example, is high in calories, but contains hardly any nutrients. It’s also high in sugar and fat which leads to a quick high after eating, as your body is flooded with a dose of simple carbohydrates that shoot glucose into your bloodstream. Your pancreas responds by releasing insulin to deal with the excess glucose in your blood. Then, when your blood sugar returns to normal, you may be left feeling drained and low, possibly wanting more sweet, salty or fatty snacks.

This cycle may provide quick comfort, but it isn’t giving your body the essential nutrients it needs to stay healthy. Instead you should choose foods that are rich sources of nutrients without being high in fat or calories. These are usually more filling than processed foods, keeping you satisfied for longer in between meals.

Examples of nutrient-dense foods include:

  • Fruits – apples, pears, citrus fruits and berries
  • Beans and legumes – kidney beans, lentils and chickpeas
  • Herbs – oregano, rosemary, thyme and basil
  • Spices – especially turmeric and black pepper
  • Whole grains – oats, wild rice and buckwheat
  • Nuts – walnuts, almonds and Brazils
  • Seeds – pumpkin, sunflower and chia
  • Good quality proteins – lean meat, fish, eggs, tofu and pulses
  • Healthy fats – olive oil, olives and avocados

2. Eat for immunity

Now, more than ever, it’s important to make healthy food choices that can support your immune system. Recent research shows that you should aim to eat at least 30 different plant foods a week to support good health and immunity. Key nutrients for healthy immune function include, vitamins A, C, D, Zinc and selenium.

3. Choose foods that help your brain make the pleasure chemical

If you’re feeling stressed, worried or bored, it’s easy to turn to food as a source of comfort. Dopamine is one of the brain’s chemical neurotransmitters that stimulates the reward centre of the brain, creating a pleasurable sensation. If dopamine is low, you may be more likely to comfort eat.

To make dopamine, you need to eat foods that contain the amino acids tyrosine and phenylalanine. Foods rich in these amino acids include proteins such as meat, fish and poultry as well as dried seaweeds, Gruyère cheese, apples, bananas, blueberries, grapes, oranges, papaya, strawberries, prunes and watermelon. Vegetables, nuts and seeds also help with dopamine production.

4. Make healthy food swaps

Know which sugary, fatty or salty foods are sources of temptation for you. Then, prepare healthy alternatives for when cravings arise. Here are some suggestions:

Ice cream. Blend 1 chopped banana and some berries with 200ml almond milk; freeze Crisps. Eat spicy roasted nuts instead. Drizzle nuts with olive oil and sprinkle with chilli or paprika. Roast in a hot oven for 1-2 minutes Red wine. Have red grape, pomegranate or cranberry juice instead Dessert. Slice up a fresh pineapple, sprinkle with cinnamon and bake in the oven for 20 minutes

5. Ask yourself what your body really needs

Sometimes cravings can be your body’s way of signalling that it needs something. Here are some examples:

  • Salty foods. This may be a sign that you’re dehydrated, which can throw electrolytes out of balance. Electrolytes are chemicals in your blood, urine and sweat that help hydrate the body and regulate muscle and nerve function. So make sure you’re drinking enough water.
  • Sugary, sweet foods. This suggests your blood sugar levels are low. Eat foods with a low Glycaemic Index (this is an index of how quickly a food affects your blood sugar) such as pulses and wholegrains and include some quality protein at every meal (see examples above). This will keep your blood sugar levels balanced and help reduce cravings.
  • Chocolate. You may be low in magnesium, also known as ‘nature’s tranquiliser’. Rich sources include almonds or leafy greens. You could try taking a magnesium supplement.

6. Limit salt

Ingesting too much salt can be harmful to your health. Too much salt can affect bone health, make muscles weak and lead to high blood pressure and water retention. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends no more than 5g (one teaspoon) of salt a day and this includes ‘hidden’ salt in foods such as crisps, sauces, ready meals and canned foods. Keep your salt intake to a minimum by reading nutrition labels and rinsing canned vegetables and beans (these contain added sodium). Instead of salt, season food with herbs and spices such as black pepper, turmeric, oregano, basil, parsley and coriander. Sometimes adding lemon to a food can also take away the need for salt.

7. Replace habitual sugary treats

Excess sugar can lead to obesity, tooth decay and inflammation and the WHO recommends sugar make up no more than 5 per cent (or 6 teaspoons) of your daily calorie intake. This includes honey, fruit juices and hidden sugars found in foods such as ready-made sauces, ready meals and syrups. To minimise sugar intake read food labels. Try to opt for foods that contain 5g or less of sugar per 100g. If you love dessert, try replacing it with fresh fruit and cutting down to one delicious dessert a week. Instead of having fruit juice and soft drinks everyday, try sparkling mineral water with freshly squeezed lemon or lime.

8. Choose quality over quantity

Sometimes when only the real thing will do, it helps to opt for a high-quality version. For example, when you just have to have chocolate, opting for a couple of squares of quality dark chocolate that contains 70% or more cocoa solids may help you feel satisfied with less, rather than choosing a variety that’s higher in sugar. If crisps are your thing, a small bag of baked crisps now and again can provide the same crunchy sensation you’re craving. To maintain healthy food choices just remember the old adage: everything in moderation.

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