I Eat Because... I'm Healthy
Healthy eating is great provided you haven't been led astray by inaccurate or even dangerous guidance.
'Eat plenty of carbs just not pasta, bread, or white rice.'
'Meat is a great source of protein, but you shouldn't eat bacon or red meat.'
'Dairy is good for your bones – but don't drink cow's milk.'
From the paleo plan to veganism, juice cleanses to counting macros, there are endless diets and lifestyles that claim to be the healthiest (and only) way to eat – but how do we know which ones are really worth following, and which can be ignored?
We asked Brits how healthy they think their eating habits are, and what 'healthy eating' means to them. With help from nutritionist Charlotte Stirling-Reed, we've dug into their responses to try to understand the truth behind what we should and shouldn't eat regularly.
Britain's diet: A picture of health?
It seems the majority of Brits are confident their diets are on the right track – according to our survey:
59% class themselves as healthy
23% class their eating habits as unhealthy
But what 'healthy' means changes depending on who you ask. What really is healthy these days?
Calories, carbs, and coconut oil: Myth-busting 'healthy' eating tips
In our written survey, we asked people to rank their eating habits on a scale of 0-10 (0 being the unhealthiest and 10 being the healthiest) – the average score was 5.76.
We then challenged them to explain what it is about their diet that makes them define themselves as 'healthy' or 'unhealthy'. The varied responses made us wonder – do we have an informed understanding of what 'healthy' means?
Food expert Charlotte Stirling-Reed has helped us to dig into some of their words, and offers her expert insight into where we might be making mistakes when it comes to food choices – whether the respondent claimed they were 'very healthy' or 'very unhealthy'.
Wise words for the 'very unhealthy'
Here are typical answers of those who classed themselves as a 3 or below on the 'healthy' scale, along with Charlotte's advice:
'I only eat junk food. I don't eat fruit or veg.'
"We know from a vast amount of research that eating more fruits and vegetables only ever a good thing for most people. Even if you're not hitting your 'five a day', it's not a lost cause. Remember that even adding in one or two extra portions of fruit or vegetables is beneficial, and they don't have to be expensive. Frozen vegetables and fruits are just as nutritious and are simple to add to meals, as a side option, or even on top of a dessert!"
'I am an emotional eater.'
"Many people eat in response to their emotions; whether that's happiness, sadness, or stress. It's important to try to get to the root of the problem, rather than using food to distract or dull any emotions.
Try finding new ways of coping with these situations – a short walk, phoning a friend or even choosing nutritious food options to make sure you're eating with balance, and not associating any specific food with comfort."
'Mostly I don't eat anything at all until late in the evening and then it will be something really unhealthy.'
"Often when we are very hungry, we don't make the best meal choices. Try spreading your intake slightly throughout the day, even if you do so bit by bit. Having a couple of smaller snacks earlier on in the day, or before it gets to your evening meal, may give you the patience to help you to make better choices, or have more energy to prepare meals in the evening."
'My diet is mostly carb based, mainly for convenience of having a sandwich or boiling some pasta. I am stuck for ideas for quick, filling non-carb based foods that are easy to prepare and store for a long time.'
"There is nothing wrong with including carbohydrates in your diet, but some of us do need to look at the amount and the type we are consuming. Try to vary your carbohydrates so you're not only having bread and pasta, and include other versions such as rice, potatoes, couscous, barley and oats.
Additionally, try to opt for wholegrain options which are more filling than white carbohydrates, and should help you feel more satisfied and full after a meal."
'I eat too many sweets, chocolate, and high-calorie foods.'
"Many of us overconsume these kinds of foods because they are readily available, fairly cheap, and they taste very good. Avoid punishing yourself for eating too many of these foods and instead think about where you could add some extra nutrient-rich foods into your diet.
For example, could you switch a packet of your favourite sweets for some dried fruits occasionally? Or could you make homemade vegetable chips rather than crisps once per week? Focus on making positive changes rather than simply taking away the things that you enjoy and aim to build on these changes over time."
A reality check for the 'very healthy'
This is what 'healthy' is for those who placed themselves as 9 or higher on the scale, and Charlotte's take on their habits:
'I try to eat low-carb food.'
"Low carbohydrate diets don't necessarily equal 'healthy'. In fact, carbohydrates come alongside plenty of fibre, B vitamins, and energy, and can also count towards your intake of wholegrains. Many people feel that carbohydrates are the enemy, when in reality, it's the type of carbohydrates we choose and the amount that we eat that can be somewhat problematic.
Rather than cutting out carbs or opting for a low-carb diet, I'd recommend trying to switch to wholegrain options and perhaps focus on eating smaller portions at mealtimes."
'I try not to eat processed rubbish.'
"Remember that some processing is what helps our food to become edible and safe. For example, pasta and tinned tomatoes are somewhat processed. Kidney beans are poisonous until they are first processed, and pasteurising milk helps to kill some potentially dangerous bacteria.
Ultimately, it's a good idea to reduce intakes of ultra processed foods, to eat a balance and a variety and cook from scratch when possible. However, this isn't possible for everyone, and so processed foods of some sort do have a place for many."
'I always keep an eye on fat levels and only eat low-fat items.'
"Our bodies need fat to survive. Plenty of high-fat foods such as fish, nuts, avocado and olive oil are very beneficial for our health. Therefore, basing 'health' solely on fat levels in foods isn't always helpful. Think of the Mediterranean diet as a great example of a moderate fat and very healthy way of eating."
'I follow macros tailored to my needs as an athlete. I eat moderate healthy fats, zero trans fats and processed foods, low sugar, high veg, high fibre, and lots of lean protein.'
"This sounds like a great diet, especially if you're eating well for a specific sport. Be mindful to be kind to yourself, too, and avoid overly restricting, unless it's part of a sport's dietitian or nutritionist's specific recommendations."
'I always make sure I have my five-a-day, every day. I eat meat once a fortnight now, and I'm looking to cut it out altogether.'
"There is no need to cut out any foods all together from a health perspective. Remember to replace the nutrients from meat if you are heavily cutting back. Meat is a source of B vitamins, iron and zinc, and so it's important to include foods such as eggs, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, tofu, and fish in your diet regularly."
Eat like a nutritionist: Charlotte's 10 top tips
It's clear that our perceptions of healthy eating are skewed across the board, and so we asked Charlotte to simplify things to help us get an idea of how to make better food choices. Charlotte says:
"Avoid skipping meals, especially breakfast. From personal experience, I know that if I leave the house without breakfast, I have less energy and motivation, and will need a pick-me-up mid-morning. Eating breakfast also helps to reach that all important 30g of fibre target."
"Don’t restrict yourself. Doing so often leads to binging on restricted foods. Instead, think about moderation, and make sure you think about all the foods you enjoy to add in to your diet. I love crackers and Marmite, or dipping vegetable sticks into peanut butter. Find nutrient-dense foods you enjoy, and make sure you include them in your diet more regularly."
"Get your fibre. Recently, the government upped the amount of fibre that we are recommended to have each day to 30g, and most of us are falling short by around one third. Lots of research suggests eating more fibre could be beneficial for our health, and particularly for digestion. Try boosting fibre intakes by choosing wholegrains, snacking on fibre-rich fruit and veggies, oatcakes and crackers, and adding nuts and seeds to dishes."
"Being told to eat your five-a-day may not be the most interesting advice, but it’s important. Plenty of research suggests the more fruits and veggies we add to our diet, the healthier we are likely to be. If five portions seems too much, don’t fret as even including one more portion to your existing diet can add multiple benefits."
"Hydrate yourself. Many of us – including myself – can forget to drink plenty, especially when it's cold outside. However, keeping hydrated is important to keep our bodily systems functioning properly, including the heart and brain. We have a wide variety of options available to us when it comes to tea and coffee, and it all counts towards eight glasses of fluid per day, so opt for a variety and get gulping!"
"Be kind to yourself. This is one of my top tips for 2018. Too often, we don't look after our wellbeing by comparing ourselves to others, constantly thinking negatively, and punishing ourselves when it comes to food. It's time to stop the guilt around what we eat and instead try to enjoy food every day."
"Fresh air and exercise. Getting outside and stretching our legs can do more than expend a few calories. I often find a short walk and fresh air helps to reduce stress and allows me to put concerns into perspective. Don't undervalue the power of exercise for your mind and body."
"Don't make it about weight. Many of us focus all too often on weight as a measure of 'health'. However, for some of us it would be beneficial to take the focus away from losing weight, the numbers on the scale and counting calories, and instead focus on behaviours that could generally improve overall health."
"Take time to eat. So many of us eat on the go or at our desks. It's important to try to sit back, have some time out, and appreciate and enjoy the food we are eating. Mindful eating can help us to feel fuller and satisfied after a meal, and that's important for your food enjoyment, too."
"Experiment with new foods. There are more options available than ever before, and we often don't take advantage of this. Many markets include exotic fruits and veggies, and the international food isle in the supermarket also contains ingredients many of us may have never tried.
Why not take a stroll down these isles and do some experimenting with some new foods and ingredients? This can help to expand your palate and you never know, you might just find a new food you absolutely love."