To get the maximum benefit from your 12-week programme – and feel happier and healthier as a result it is vital to maintain good nutrition. Eating a well-balanced diet, rich in colourful fruit and vegetables, whole grains, protein, fish, white meat and beans – all packed with essential minerals and vitamins – can boost immunity and guard against disease. If you are not sure where to start, don’t worry; we’ve put together a healthy eating guide, featuring plenty of inspiring ideas and useful tips to keep you on track.
Follow a Mediterranean Diet
There is a reason why the French, Italian, Spanish and Greek seem to glow with health; their diet is based on the wonderful zesty fruits and lush vegetables gathered from verdant local markets. Emulate their eating habits by following a Mediterranean Diet – so-called as it is based on the traditional cuisine of countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea – incorporating vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, and olive, coconut or avocado oil. Aim for seven to ten servings of fruit and vegetables a day, switch to whole grains (bread, cereal, pasta, bulgur), opt for healthy fats (choose olive oil over butter), substitute red meat with fish and poultry, increase your seafood intake (fresh tuna, salmon, mackerel, herring and trout are ideal), enhance flavours with spice rather than salt, and include some calcium-rich dairy (low-fat Greek yoghurt over berries is divine) and a small portion of your favourite fromage – be wary of calories though!
And don’t worry in this time of ‘lockdown’ if you can’t get the ready supply of fresh foods – frozen or canned can be just as healthy and in some cases more so as vitamins and minerals deteriorate over time – consider frozen spinach as much of a basic as frozen peas and add to any number of dishes – pasta, soups, lentil dahl… the list goes on. The same is true of canned fish… canned sardines mashed with a little pepper and vinegar or lemon juice, on freshly toasted whole grain toast with a salad of chopped tomatoes is a delicious lunch jam packed with flavour and goodness.
Heart-healthy and delicious, the Mediterranean Diet is said to combat chronic disease, increase longevity and keep you agile too. Saluti to that!
Follow the Harvard ‘Healthy Eating Plate’ guide
Devised in America by nutrition experts at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) in conjunction with colleagues at Harvard Health Publications, the Healthy Eating Plate is based on scientific evidence showing that a plant-based diet lowers the risk of weight gain and chronic disease. It literally portions off your dinner plate, showing which food stuffs should go where and in what quantity. Simple!
“We want people to use this as a model for their own healthy plate or that of their children every time they sit down to a meal – either at home or at a restaurant,” explains Eric Rimm, Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition at HSPH. The sections of the Healthy Eating Plate include vegetables (eat an abundant variety – but limit starchy potatoes), fruits (consume a rainbow of fruits daily), whole grains (brown rice, oatmeal etc), healthy proteins (fish, poultry, beans, lentils and pulses or nuts), healthy oils (olive or avocado) and water (drink water, tea or coffee and limit dairy).
Use your hand for portion control
You may be eating healthy cuisine, but if there is no control of portion sizes, then weight loss will not be forthcoming. Fortunately, you do not need to invest in a fancy new set of scales; you can simply use your own hand to gauge portion size. So, for example, a serving of carbs such as cooked pasta or potatoes should be no bigger than your closed fist. The same for fruit. Your protein component, of meat, fish, tofu or poultry, should be around the size of your cupped palm, while an allocation of healthy veg can equate to an open hand with fingers spread wide. Use your thumb to measure high-fat foods such as cheese or nuts, and your fingertip to ration the size of fats.
Plan your meals and recipes and shop for the food you need
How many times have you headed to the supermarket with the best of intentions, before being seduced by the enticing displays of naughty treats? One way to avoid temptation is to sit down and plan your meals for the week, have a look through our healthy recipes for some inspiration. Then once you have compiled a weekly list of dinner table winners, write a list so you only buy what you need and avoid the temptations of the confectionary aisle and don’t go shopping when you are hungry!
Plan healthy snacks into your shopping needs
Whether we are busy chasing after little ones, frantically working towards a deadline or simply sat at home feeling bored, it’s easy to reach for the crisps or biscuits which have very little nutritional value. To get out of the habit, think about what healthy snacks you could incorporate in your weekly shop. Great options include chunky carrot and celery sticks with hummus (simple to make at home by blitzing a can of chickpeas, a spoonful of tahini, olive oil and lemon juice… bottled works fine… and plenty of garlic – and it freezes perfectly), frozen berries with low-fat yoghurt, a small handful of almonds, apple slices dipped in peanut butter, cooked chicken pieces or homemade coconut protein balls, Sit down, get a cup of herbal tea and plan your feel-good snacks – then polish your halo for being so organised!
Allow some treats
A diet which is too restrictive can be so hard to sustain that you end up falling off the wagon with a bump – gorging on so called ‘forbidden’ food – we all know what they are but in reality no food should be forbidden, portion control is the trick. Much more sensible is maintaining the 80/20 principle (eating ‘clean’ 80 percent of the time, then allowing treats for the other 20 per cent), meaning you don’t have to feel deprived.
‘Clean eating’ involves choosing foods that come in their natural, whole, unprocessed forms, equalling less additives and preservatives entering your body. You can feast on fruit and vegetables, whole wheat and brown rice, farro and quinoa, legumes, nuts and seeds (full of heart-healthy fats), and unprocessed meats. Then for the remaining 20 per cent of the time, enjoy a few indulgent snacks, guilt-free, like that piece of chocolate you’ve been fantasising about! Plump for good quality dark chocolate, join me in a resounding ‘Hallelujah!’ as it’s officially okay to eat chocolate on a healthy eating plan. But do make sure you are swapping milk chocolate for top quality dark chocolate – milk chocolate generally contains less of the original cocoa bean, as it is usually diluted with milk solids, sugar and cream. The dark variety, however, typically retains more of the original cocoa, which is a fabulous source of flavonoids – a type of antioxidant that has been shown to reduce cell damage, improve vascular function and help lower blood pressure. Flavonoids also enhance the power of Vitamin C in the body, prevent inflammation, keep blood glucose levels stable and normalise cholesterol levels. Make sure you choose dark chocolate with a minimum of 65 per cent cacao to enjoy the beneficial properties.
Reduce alcohol consumption
Whilst some reports suggest there are health benefits to savouring the odd glass of wine, it is a good idea to keep an awareness of how much you drink and stay within the guidelines. In the UK, the Chief Medical Officer states:
To keep health risks from alcohol to a low level it is safest not to drink more than 14 units a week on a regular basis, see drinkaware.co.uk for guidance on units within each drink.
Alcohol, as well as being ‘empty calories’, also decreases our resolve when it comes to portion control and healthy eating choices. Studies show that downing too much wine, beer or spirits can inhibit the effects of leptin – a hormone that suppresses appetite – and may stimulate nerve cells in the brain’s hypothalamus that increase appetite. If you enjoy the ritual of having a beer or glass of wine after a long day, try an alcohol-free variety – with the added bonus that you won’t be saddled with a hangover next day. You can even buy alcohol free ‘gin’ flavoured with delicious botanicals, perfect with ice and a slice. Win-win!
Stay well hydrated
Staying well hydrated is particularly important during this time, as hydration supports all of our body functions, including oxygenating cells, so they work at their full capacity.
Keep a fresh jug of water, with some lemon, rosemary or sprigs of mint around and keep topping up. Many health-conscious folk promote the vast benefits of sipping freshly-squeezed lemon juice in lukewarm water at the crack of dawn (not boiling as this will kill off some of the precious Vit C). We take a more modest view on its powers, as there isn’t direct scientific evidence to support these benefits. However, if you enjoy the taste and it helps you to enjoy more fresh water during the day that is great.
Herbal and green tea and coffee also count but try to limit your caffeine intake, and watch the additional milk intake in your coffee – and don’t add sugar!
What should you be eating?
To reiterate what you should be popping in your trolley; aim for plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. Hero fruits, nutrition-wise, are grapefruits, pineapple, avocado, blueberries, apples and pomegranate, while your veg drawer should be heaving with spinach, carrots, broccoli, Swiss chard, kale, ginger, garlic and asparagus. Cook with beans and pulses such as kidney beans, lentils and chickpeas, which are said to help reduce cholesterol, prevent heart disease and contribute to healthy bones and teeth. Limit red and processed meats as these put you at a higher risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Substitute with lean white meats such as turkey and chicken, without the skin. Make whole grains the norm, so cook your spag bol with brown pasta and serve your favourite Thai curry on a bed of brown rice. And whip up tasty lunch bowls with whole grain noodles or quinoa, pimped up with fresh herbs, onion and garlic for extra flavour. Delicious!
Follow 16/8 fasting
Fasting is not essential to the programme and is not recommended for everyone and in some cases can be harmful. Under normal circumstances it should not be considered without speaking to your GP, however, under the current circumstances this is not an easy time to be seeking medical advice, so unless you are in peak condition, do not follow this eating pattern now. This is particularly important if you have any underlying medical conditions, if you are taking any medications, have low blood pressure, diabetes or have a history of eating disorders. It is also not recommended for women planning to conceive, are pregnant or breastfeeding. It works by limiting your intake of food and calorific drinks to an eight-hour window each day, abstaining from food or ‘fasting’ for the remaining sixteen hours which for healthy adults can be a sustainable way to maintain a healthy weight. The good news is it can fit around your lifestyle and you can repeat the cycle just once or twice a week. There is flexibility in timing also, so while some might choose to eat between noon and 8pm (so they can fast overnight and skip breakfast), others may opt to eat between 9am and 5pm, before starting their fast. Whatever the timings, experts recommend you eat several small nutritious meals and snacks (including fruit, veg, whole grains, healthy fats and protein) to keep hunger at bay and stabilize blood sugar levels. It is also important to stay hydrated and drink plenty of water throughout the fast period.
In addition to weight loss, 16/8 fasting is said to boost brain function and enhance longevity.