Creating Long-Term Habits: 10 Tips for Healthy Eating

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Many people can feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of nutritional information on the internet, so it can be easy to get bogged down with this often conflicting advice when you are trying to make some healthy changes.

There is no ‘one fits all’ diet as so many things can impact our dietary intake; including our taste preferences, experiences, cultural background, finances, cooking skills, habits, certain medical conditions and the food which is available to us (etc.).

However, there are certain healthy eating principles which apply to most people. So to help you decide which changes are worth focusing on, here are some of my top tips when it comes to healthy eating. You can also ask your doctor to refer you to a Dietitian for individualised advice if you would like more support with this.

1. Ditch Food Shaming

Unless you have a specific allergy or intolerance, no food should be completely off-limits, as no one food can make an overall diet healthy or unhealthy, it’s the overall balance which is important.

If somebody eats kale everyday it doesn’t mean that the rest of their diet is necessarily healthy, and on the other hand if somebody eats some chocolate everyday it doesn’t mean that their overall diet is unhealthy.

Therefore, fad diets like ‘clean eating’ which label certain types of food as bad or ‘unclean’ should be avoided; especially as this type of thinking can also lead to a damaging obsession over healthy eating in some cases1. Strict calories counting can be unhelpful for the same reason, and is also unlikely to be sustainable in the long-term. 

So instead of associating guilt with eating or thinking about foods as being inherently ‘good or bad’, it is better to have an awareness of which foods we should consume more often than others (see ‘everyday foods’ and ‘sometimes foods’ below), while also allowing ourselves occasional treats so that good habits can realistically be maintained long-term.

2. Focus on Whole-foods Not Individual Nutrients

As we eat such a complex mix of different foods it can be counter-productive to focus too much on individual nutrients; such as specific amounts of carbohydrates, fats, protein, or specific vitamins and minerals. Also, most of the evidence related to healthy eating is based on whole-foods (such as: fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, oily fish etc.) rather than specific nutrients.

A better approach is to think about the bigger picture and focus on eating a good variety of foods.

3. Think Mediterranean

The Mediterranean diet is a style of eating which follow’s this whole-food approach and there is good evidence that this way of eating is linked with a lower risk of diseases such as: heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer2-7.

 The benefits of the Mediterranean diet are thought to be related to much more than the nutrients it contains, but an overall healthy lifestyle which includes regular physical activity, less stress, and a focus on eating socially8-9.

The Mediterranean diet promotes a high intake of olive oil, nuts, fruits, vegetables and wholegrains; a moderate intake of dairy (preferably low fat versions), fish, poultry, eggs, legumes, potatoes and wine (consumed with meals); and a lower intake of red meat, processed meat and sweets8.

Picture source: Fundación Dieta Mediterránea

Another way of thinking about adopting a Mediteranean style of eating is to think about which foods we should try to have everyday, and which foods we should only have sometimes.

Everyday Food & Drinks Sometimes Food & Drinks
  • Starchy carbohydrates (preferably wholegrain versions)
  • Fruit and vegetables
  • Legumes – beans, chickpeas, lentils, peas etc (more than twice per week)
  • Potatoes (roughly 3 servings per week)
  • Olives, seeds and unsalted nuts
  • Dairy (preferable low fat version or fortified alternatives made with soya/oat/nut/coconut/hemp etc)
  • Olive oil
  • Herbs and spices
  • Protein sources: fish (at least twice per week), eggs (2-4 servings per week), poultry (about twice per week), red meat (preferable lean – less than twice per week)
  • Plenty of water to drink
  • Sugary food and drinks e.g. sweets, chocolate, biscuits, cakes, full-sugar soft drinks, ice-cream
  • Foods high in salt e.g. crisps, salted nuts, most takeaways
  • Foods high in saturated fat e.g. butter, coconut oil, takeaways, chocolate, biscuits, pastries etc
  • Processed meat less than once per week)
  • Other alcoholic drinks

Table based on: http://mediterradiet.org/nutrition/mediterranean_diet_pyramid

For more information on the Mediterranean diet see:

4. Balance Your Meals

As discussed above a flexible approach to eating which includes a wide variety of  foods is key. However, to achieve a balanced diet a good guide is to try and include something from each main food group at each meal as outlined below.


Carbohydrate source

(preferably wholegrain e.g. cereal, bread, pitta bread, wrap, pasta, rice, couscous, quinoa, potato etc.)

And

Protein source

(e.g. chicken, turkey, fish, meat, eggs, small amount of cheese,

beans, chickpeas, lentils etc.)

And

Salad or vegetables

(Aim to fill ⅓ – ½ of your plate with salad or veg)

And

Drink e.g. water / sugar free squash / semi skimmed milk

*also aim for 3 sources of calcium-rich foods per day e.g. yoghurt, milk, cheese, calcium fortified dairy alternatives (soya/nut/oat milk etc), tofu, for more information on calcium see here)  

5. Be Aware of Portion Sizes

The amount of food we need varies based on factors such as our age, sex and activity level. Being led by our own hunger and fullness signals is really important, but it can also be useful to have a rough idea of sensible portion sizes, as outlined in this ‘handy’ guide to portion sizes:

Image reference: www.jeantuttle.com

Another guide is to fill your plate with roughly: ⅓ starchy carbohydrate foods (like bread, pasta, rice, potatoes etc), ⅓ protein rich foods (fish, eggs, poultry, meat, tofu, beans etc) and ⅓ vegetables or salad.

If you want to lose weight (although wellness rather than weight loss is usually a more helpful focus as discussed in the first post of this series) it can be useful to bulk out your meals with even more veg or salad (i.e. ¼ starchy carbohydrate foods, ¼ protein sources and ½ vegetables or salad on your plate). Another tip for reducing portions can be to use a smaller plate, as this can help us feel satisfied with a smaller portion and create the illusion that we have eaten more than we have10.

6. Eat Regularly

There is not much strong evidence to say whether any particular eating pattern is better than others11-12, with the exception of some studies which looked into how our hormones rise and fall at different times of the day which have found that having an irregular eating pattern may have a negative metabolic effect13. The best approach is responding to our own hunger and fullness signals, but this isn’t always easy to do especially if we have been over-riding these signals for years, so for some people this may be a longer-term goal to achieve. When starting out it is often sensible to aim to spread out meals over the day in order to keep our energy and blood sugar levels stable, and to reduce the risk of becoming very hungry which can increase the risk of mindless overeating.

7. Choose Healthy Snacks

There is nothing wrong with having some snacks but it can often be tempting to reach for the crisps and chocolate a bit too often, especially if we don’t have anything healthier readily available. So having healthy snacks on hand is a useful way of ‘making the healthy choice the easy choice’. 

Healthy Snack Ideas:
  • Piece of fruit (e.g. 1 medium apple/pear/orange, 2 small fruit – kiwi/plum/satsuma, a handful of grapes or berries, 1 tablespoon of dried fruit once per day)
  • Vegetables (e.g. cherry tomatoes, carrot sticks, pepper sticks, celery, cucumber etc. with or without a small amount of low fat dip or hummus)
  • Bowl of wholegrain cereal or porridge
  • Wholegrain crackers/crispbreads/rice cakes/toast with a small amount of olive spread or hummus or peanut butter
  • Yoghurt
  • Sugar-free jelly
  • Small handful of nuts/seeds
  • Low sugar hot chocolate

8. Drink Plenty of Fluid

It is that we are staying hydrated and so that we are not mistaking thirst signals for hunger signals. We are advised to have about 6-8 glasses of fluid per day, water is a great option but other suitable daily drinks include: no added sugar squash, lower fat milk, tea and coffee (without adding sugar to these)14. One of the best ways of checking how hydrated you are is to check the colour of your pee, a light straw colour means that you’re well hydrated (check out this infographic for more information).

9. Discover Convenience Health Foods

As most of us don’t have a lot of time on our hands, making use of healthy foods which are quick and simple to prepare makes it much easy to continue to have healthy meals. Great examples are: frozen vegetables, couscous, porridge oats (can be quickly prepared in the microwave), tinned beans/chickpeas/lentils (a great addition to currys and chillis etc.) and tinned fish.

There are also cheap and handy appliances which can make meal preparation much easier. My favourite is a microwave steamer, I use mine a few times per week and it is so useful for steaming vegetables, potatoes and fish so that a healthy meal can be prepared within minutes.

For tips on healthy eating on a budget see here.

10. Get Label Savvy

Learning how to read food labels can be a useful way of choosing healthy options. For example, you can check that there is no added salt in the tinned beans you buy or to chose the breakfast cereal with the least added sugar.

The British Heart Foundation have some great practical advice on learning to read food labels, especially their resource ‘this label could change your life‘.

For more detailed information about the legal side of food labelling see here.

For more information on healthy eating see the Eatwell Guide:

 

For more information on creating long-term habits check out:

Creating Long-term Habits: A Healthy Mindset 

 

Disclaimer: This is general public health advice and should not replace any individual advice given to you by a healthcare professional. Not all advice given in this post will suit each individual. For personalised advice it is best to book an appointment with a Dietitian.

 

References:

  1. American Psychiatric Association (2016) “Orthorexia: Can Healthy Eating Become Unhealthy?”
  2. NHS Choices “What is a Mediterranean diet?” (accessed September 2017 via: http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/Goodfood/Pages/what-is-a-Mediterranean-diet.aspx)
  3. Estruch et al. (2013) “Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease with a Mediterranean Diet”
  4. Tong et al. (2016) “Prospective association of the Mediterranean diet with cardiovascular disease incidence and mortality and its population impact in a non-Mediterranean population: the EPIC-Norfolk study”
  5. Georgoulis et al. (2014) “Mediterranean Diet and Diabetes: Prevention and Treatment” 
  6. Cancer Research UK (2008) “Mediterranean diet can protect against cancer” (accessed September 2017 via: http://scienceblog.cancerresearchuk.org/2008/07/01/mediterranen-diet-protects-against-cancer/)
  7. Garcia et al. (2015) “The Efficacy of the Mediterranean Diet on Obesity Outcomes: A Meta-Analysis”
  8. http://mediterradiet.org/nutrition/mediterranean_diet_pyramid
  9. Sanchez-Villegas et al. (2016) “The Association Between the Mediterranean Lifestyle and Depression”
  10. Holden et al. (2016) “Whether Smaller Plates Reduce Consumption Depends on Who’s Serving and Who’s Looking: A Meta-Analysis” 
    PEN (2015) Available via: http://www.pennutrition.com/KnowledgePathway.aspx?kpid=15329&pqcatid=146&pqid=8778
  11. PEN (2015) Available via: http://www.pennutrition.com/KnowledgePathway.aspx?kpid=15329&pqcatid=146&pqid=8780
  12. PEN (2015) Available via: http://www.pennutrition.com/KnowledgePathway.aspx?kpid=15329&pqcatid=146&pqid=8655)
  13. Oike et al. (2014) “Nutrients, clock genes and chrononutrition”
  14. NHS Choices “Water, drinks and your health” (accessed September 2017 via: http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/Goodfood/Pages/water-drinks.aspx)

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