7 easy steps towards a healthy diet
Want to eat a healthy diet? Nutritionist Susannah Lawson explains why it’s important to make the right food choices and suggest some easy ideas for healthy eating
You may have heard the phrase “you are what you eat”. But what does it mean – and is it true? Perhaps more importantly, what should you eat to feel and become healthier?
Your body is made from the nutrients you consume – proteins, carbohydrates, essential fats, vitamins, minerals and water. These nutrients help your body renew itself naturally – for example, your skin renews itself in 21 days and your bones can repair themselves in six weeks. In five years, you will be an almost completely new person!
However, if you don’t eat healthy food with the right nutrients, your cells won’t reproduce as well or as accurately. Not eating enough of these key nutrients can cause a variety of symptoms – from premature ageing and dull, dry skin, to anxiety and depression; or frequent infections and digestive issues to poor memory and low energy.
The good news is that by taking some simple steps to have a healthy diet, you can help look after your body – and feel and function better than ever.
1. Balance your nutrients
You need a mix of the following nutrients to keep everything working well:
protein (eg meat, fish, soya, dairy products, nuts/seeds) to build and repair body tissues
carbohydrate for energy (slow-releasing and wholegrain sources are best for sustained energy)
vitamins and minerals (vegetables and fruit to keep everything functioning)
Help to maintain an ideal balance of these important nutrients by seeing your plate made up of this simple ratio: 25% protein; 25% slow-release carbs; and 50% vegetables, salad and fruit.
To help you get started, here are some healthy meal ideas for breakfast, lunch and dinner:
Scrambled eggs, wholegrain toast, tomatoes, and avocado
Cream/cottage cheese, oat cakes, watercress, and pear
Plain yoghurt, low-sugar granola with chopped apple and berries
Prawn mayonnaise jacket potato and green salad
Smoked salmon wholemeal bagel, with rocket and avocado
Hummus pitta bread with carrot, cucumber and pepper sticks
Chicken breast, roast sweet potatoes, peas, green beans, and red cabbage
Grilled steak, New potatoes, grilled mushrooms, and tomatoes
Baked salmon and wholegrain pasta with spinach, broccoli, and pesto
Halloumi kebab with brown rice, roast peppers, and courgettes
TOP TIP: If you’re a fan of food boxes, double check this ratio applies to the meals provided and top up the veg if necessary.
2. Refuel regularly
The meal ideas above provide a good balance of nutrients and ‘fuel’ to keep you full of energy throughout the day. Breakfast is particularly important – as the name suggests, you ‘break’ the night ‘fast’, which could mean 12 hours without food. You couldn’t drive your car without fuel in the tank, so don’t try to run your body on empty.
Try to eat three balanced meals a day (see point 1). If you experience a dip in energy, have a snack mid-morning and mid-afternoon too.
Aim to choose healthier, nutrient-rich options such as an apple and chunk of cheese or a handful of unsalted nuts rather than biscuits, sweets or crisps.
3. Not all fats are scary!
Believing all fat is bad or makes you fat is a myth. Yes, fried or processed fatty foods aren’t good for you. But essential fats – found in nuts, seeds and oily fish (eg salmon, mackerel, anchovies or sardines) – help to reduce your risk of cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, depression, eczema and arthritis. So, try to eat more!
As long as you are not allergic, enjoy a handful of natural unsalted nuts or seeds daily (they make a great protein-rich snack or topping for cereal or salads). And aim to eat oily fish three times a week.
4. Stay hydrated
Your body is more than 60% water, so drinking water regularly will hydrate you and help you run more efficiently. Beware of drinking too much tea or coffee because they contain caffeine, which can be dehydrating as well as addictive.
If you feel tired, drinking a glass of water can give you a lift. Also try putting a glass by your bed and drink it first thing, carry a water bottle with you or put it on your desk so it’s always close at hand, dilute fruit juices 50/50 with water and opt for herbal or fruit teas. This way you can quickly build up to the recommended 6-8 glasses a day.
5. Need a top up?
Even the best diet in the world is unlikely to give you all the nutrients you need, especially when you’re busy or during periods of ill health or stress. So, think about taking some supplements.
During the summer months, we can naturally absorb Vitamin D via our skin from the sun. But to help support our immune systems during the dark winter months, every adult is now recommended to top up their Vitamin D levels. Take 25mcg of the D3 variety daily, from October to April.
During periods where you feel lacklustre or low in energy, a high quality daily multivitamin and mineral can also give you a boost.
Plus, if you don’t like oily fish, consider supplementing omega 3 essential fats.
6. Limit toxins
As important as getting the nutrients you need, is reducing the substances that can harm or deplete you. These include artificial food additives, processed fats and pesticides and too much alcohol, sugar and stimulants such as caffeine.
Where possible, avoid processed foods and those made with refined ‘white’ flour or sugar (the refining process removes the beneficial nutrients). Easy wins are to swap in brown rice for white rice, and wholegrain for white bread.
Aim to steam, grill, bake or steam-fry your food rather than deep fry.
To help limit your intake of alcohol, consider only drinking moderate amounts (1-2 glasses) at the weekend, and intersperse each drink with a glass of water.
7. Be realistic
We are lucky to have so much choice when it comes to our food. Healthy eating should be a joy – both in terms of taste and how it makes you ultimately feel. So don’t overburden yourself with too strict a regime.
Make changes slowly and choose healthy food you enjoy – that way, you are more likely to make a lasting change. I often advise my clients to follow an 80/20 rule, where you focus on making 80% of your diet as healthy as possible, then indulge in what you fancy 20% of the time. This keeps things real and allows you to ‘let the handbrake off’ on a regular basis!
Susannah Lawson is an award-winning nutritionist and co-author of Optimum Nutrition Made Easy and The Stress Cure.