How to get started in healthy living — part 3

Improving your diet and increasing healthy activity

Eating a nutritious, balanced diet is perhaps the lynchpin of healthy living. Not only does it keep all your body systems working efficiently, it also provides energy, protects your heart, helps prevent and fight off disease, maintains a healthy body weight, contributes to healthy skin, hair and nails and even influences mood.

Eat more healthy foods 

Most of us eat too much processed and refined food (containing excess sugar, fat and salt) and not enough whole grains, fiber, fruit and vegetables. The average daily intake of fiber in the UK, for example, is 12g per day — significantly less than the 18g target, while a recent Nutrition and Diet Survey found that although fruit and veg consumption has increased, the average is still less than three portions per day.

Take action

  • Take a daily pill. According to the Harvard Medical School, most people benefit from a daily multivitamin and mineral complex, particularly if they don’t eat the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables each day, if they regularly miss meals or rely on highly-processed foods.
  • Up your antioxidants. These naturally-occurring compounds fight disease-causing free radicals in the body and are found mainly in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes and nuts. Vitamins A, C and E and the mineral selenium are powerful antioxidants, so foods rich in these micronutrients are a great place to start.  
  • Eating more fruit and vegetables is one of the simplest things you can do to enhance your health — and up your antioxidant intake. While ‘five-a-day’ is the well-known recommendation, the ideal is seven to nine portions, according to many experts. Don’t get stuck in the trap of eating the same varieties, day in day out. Make it a rule never to leave the house without having consumed one of your five a day, and always have another one in your bag or car.
  • Avoid trans fats. Increasingly, evidence is building to suggest that this type of ‘manufactured’ fat is more harmful even than saturated fat — no safe level has been established. Read food labels and avoid products with the words ‘hydrogenated vegetable oils’ or trans fats on.
  • Switch to wholegrain and brown versions of rice, pasta and bread — these are more nutritious, in terms of their vitamin and mineral content, and also contain more fiber than white varieties.
  • Eat more fish. There is strong evidence that the 'omega-3 fatty acids' in oily fish helps to protect against heart disease. Eat sardines, salmon, herring, mackerel or fresh tuna once a week, and another type of non-oily fish once a week. 

Maintain a healthy body weight

More than half the adults in the UK are overweight, one in five are obese. If you are overweight, losing weight and making healthier food choices is crucial to better health, as obesity is associated with an alarming number of diseases including diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, heart problems, some types of cancer, arthritis of the back and legs, gallstones, breathing problems, some complications of pregnancy and depression. One study found that just a 10 per cent weight reduction helped overweight people reduce blood pressure and cholesterol and increase longevity. The two main factors are reducing overall calorie intake and reducing fat intake.

Recent research from the University of North Carolina found that portion sizes have expanded not just in the home but also when we eat out — it’s quite common to be eating a serving that is up to three times larger than a ‘standard’ portion, piling on additional calories. The average British diet contains 41 per cent fat — significantly higher than the recommended maximum percentage of 30 per cent. What’s more, too much of the fat we eat comes from unhealthy saturated and trans fat sources (derived from meat and dairy products, pastry, fried food, refined and pre-packaged products and cakes), which is damaging to heart health.

Take action

  • Weigh yourself and check your body mass index. If you are overweight, aim to lose 0.2 to 0.4kg (0.5 to 1lb) per week. Don’t be tempted by quick-fix diets. The best way to keep weight off is to lose it slowly and sensibly.
  • Don’t cut out, cut down. Instead of banning cookies from the house, for example, allow yourself one in the morning and one in the evening instead of eating half the packet.
  • Learn what portion sizes look like. For example, a serving of cheese should be about the size of a matchbox, a serving of meat the size of the palm of your hand. While what you eat is obviously a very important part of the equation, even very healthy food, like wholegrain bread, oily fish and pasta, when eaten to excess, is fattening.
  • Reduce your use of oil or fat in cooking. You can substitute water, tomato juice or white wine — with a dash of soy sauce — for oil in pan frying.
  • Go easy with fat-filled condiments and sauces, like mayonnaise, oily salad dressings, rich or creamy sauces and gravy.
  • Trim visible fat from meat, and don’t eat the skin of meat or fish. Opt for leaner cuts, such as back bacon rather than streaky, chicken breast rather than leg
  • Don’t forgo dairy products, as these are the richest source of calcium, which has an essential role in muscle contraction and in metabolism. It’s also vital in maintaining bone health, as calcium is a component of bone. Go for low fat versions instead.
  • ‘Frontload’ your diet, so that you eat most of your calories earlier in the day and eat lightly in the evening. One study found that people who skipped breakfast or lunch and ate most of their calories in their evening meal had lower metabolisms than ‘frontloaders’, while research has also shown the body is more responsive to insulin in the morning, and therefore more capable of handling carbohydrate efficiently compared to in the evening, when the action of cortisol is more likely to cause carbohydrates to be converted and stored as fat.

Exercise for a healthy life

Despite myriad campaigns and initiatives, we still aren’t getting out and about nearly often enough to benefit our health. The average person in the UK watches 26 hours of television per week! The latest statistics show that 56 per cent of men and 70 per cent of women aged 16 to 54 fail to reach the recommended levels of physical activity for health benefits. No wonder obesity is such a problem in this country ... But we remain sedentary at our peril: regular physical activity has been shown to reduce the risk of a number of chronic diseases including cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes — as well as the risk of premature death.

Take action

  • Stop and think before you make a journey. Could you walk it or bike it instead of driving? If it will take under 15 minutes to get there, then the answer is yes!
  • Be more aware of how you use your body. Bend your knees when you pick up heavy objects, sit at your desk properly and try to keep your stomach pulled in and shoulders back and down.
  • Find a fitness goal that you can work towards. It could be something as simple as being able to walk up all seven flights of stairs at work, or entering a charity fun run.  
  • Think of a sport or fitness activity you loved as a child — perhaps netball or judo, cross country running or ballet — and find somewhere that you can give it a go again. It may rekindle your enthusiasm …
  • Avoid labor-saving devices in and outside the home — like the remote control, the food processor, the elevators and escalators, the shopping home delivery service — even the ‘no-scrub’ bathroom cleaning fluid!
  • Invest in a pedometer (they are not expensive) and monitor your steps for a full day. The goal is to reach 10,000 steps per day, but if you are like most people, your total may be closer to half of that. Aim to build up by 200 steps per day. 

Drink more fluids

Many of us spend a lot of time in a state of ‘hypo’ hydration. We’re not officially dehydrated but just slightly under-hydrated. This can make you feel sluggish, impair mental function and increase the risk of constipation. It also doesn’t do wonders for your complexion. Experts recommend that we consume 1ml of fluid for every calorie we take in — which means that the average UK woman needs around 2l, the average man needs 2.5l of fluid per day. Happily, at least a third of this comes from the moisture in the foods we eat — but it is still important to ensure you drink fluids regularly throughout the day (it doesn’t have to be water — though water is a calorie-free, sugar-free, additive-free choice). If you exercise, then starting at a level of hypohydration practically guarantees that you won’t perform to the best of your ability — so be especially vigilant if you are active.

Take action

  • Keep a bottle of water handy — on your desk, in your bag or in the car — you’ll be surprised how often you take a sip from it.
  • Drink a cup of water for every cup of tea or coffee you drink.
  • Swap sugary carbonated drinks for sparkling water. Don’t drink too many diet drinks — the acid in them is harmful to teeth and there is still controversy over the safety of the artificial sweeteners they contain.
  • Swap at least some of your caffeinated beverages for decaffeinated ones. Caffeine is a diuretic, meaning it makes the body shed water. ‘Water-processed’ decaffeinated coffee is free from chemicals and much tastier.
  • If you are exercising for more than 45 minutes, consider drinking an isotonic sports drink instead of water.
  • Monitor the color of your urine. If you are adequately hydrated, it should be the color of pale straw. Dark urine, infrequently passed, is a sure sign of dehydration.

Alcohol consumption

Excess drinking has become so much part of our culture that many of us barely notice we are doing it — but health practitioners certainly are – with worrying increases in alcohol related diseases from cirrhosis of the liver to heart problems, stroke, obesity, some cancers and alcohol-related accidents. Stick to the recommended amounts and you can enjoy alcohol without harming your health (there’s some evidence that consuming modest amounts of alcohol is actually healthier than being teetotal) – but unfortunately, many of us are overdoing it. A survey by the Royal College of Physicians found that one in five women aged 25 to 44 had ‘binged’ (defined as consuming more than six units in one session) at least once in the previous week while in 2001, the Chief Medical Officer’s report stated that liver cirrhosis had increased seven-fold in the last 30 years in women aged 35 to 44 and eight-fold in men of the same age group.

Take action

Know your units. The maximum recommended amount is four units per day for men (but no more than 21 per week) and three units per day for women (but no more than 14 units per week), necessitating at least two alcohol-free days per week. Keep a ‘drink diary’ to find out how much you are really drinking on a weekly basis.

  • Find a glass at home and mark on it with tippex or nail varnish the amount that constitutes a unit of your usual favourite tipple. For beer drinkers, that’s half a pint, for wine drinkers, 125ml and for spirit drinkers, 25ml constitutes a single unit.
  • When you’ve finished an alcoholic drink, fill the glass with water and don’t drink another one until you’ve finished the water.
  • Don’t get involved in ‘rounds’. You often end up drinking just because it’s been bought for you, even though you already feel you’ve had enough.
  • Don’t drink alcohol when you are thirsty. Make your first drink a large soft one, otherwise you will gulp it down too quickly.
  • Don’t drink on an empty stomach — either drink with food or eat before you go out.

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