Good health is driven by what we do most of the time rather than by occasional indulgences. Here are five everyday habits that can make a big healthy difference.
1. Drink mainly water
Fruit juice and soda are full of free sugar. One large glass (300 ml) of fresh orange juice contains around 25 grams of free sugar, the entire total daily amount recommended by the WHO (5% of calories)1. The same glass contains 135 Kcal, close to 8% of recommended daily calories, but because it has been stripped of the fruit’s fibre, it does little to satisfy hunger. Switching to water can cut daily calories by a quarter and eliminate a large chunk of free sugar consumption.
Free sugar, a WHO definition2, distinguishes between the sugar in fruit, which is still in nature’s wrapper, and the sugar in processed foods and juice which comes with no filling fibre and quickly slides into the blood stream causing all sorts of health problems.
Drinks with artificial sweeteners only work if you are very disciplined. Artificial sweeteners act on the brain to trigger craving. Several studies show that drinking them leads to more sugar later4. Some sweeteners might interfere with healthy gut bacteria too3. In addition, those who kick all sweet things readjust their taste buds and crave sweetness less.
2. Avoid highly processed foods
Processed foods are often high in refined carbohydrates, salt, free sugar, saturated fat and trans fat. These can be hard to spot and find their way into cereal bars, biscuits, cakes, ready-made meals, pre-made doughs and processed meats.
3. Get lots of unrefined grains, beans, pulses, vegetables and whole fruit
Fruit, vegetables and whole grains are full of vitamins, phytonutrients, fibre, protein and slow release carbohydrates. And they are low in saturated and trans fats, salt and free sugar.
Unlike refined processed products, it is difficult to overeat these foods. They are highly filling for the calories they contain. For example one easily consumed frankfurter has around the same calories as 900 grams of cooked spinach. But the frankfurter has virtually no fibre, 17 times the saturated fat and only round one third of the protein of its calorific equivalent in spinach6.
Try substituting refined foods for whole ones. Swap white breads for grainy ones and white rice for brown rice. Most highly refined foods come with a high glycemic load. This means they cause the level of glucose in the blood to shoot up, something associated with high blood cholesterol and type two diabetes.
4. Grab a handful of nuts
Studies5 suggest a handful of nuts a week might halve the risk of a heart attack. But be careful with Brazil nuts. They are very high in selenium, a trace element that is healthy only in limited quantities.
5. Cut down on meat, dairy and eggs
These foods are typically high in saturated fat which can lead to high blood cholesterol and in time clogged arteries.
In addition, meat, dairy and eggs are calorie dense low fibre foods. A 2.5 cm cube of hard cheese has the same calories as a small head of broccoli (250 grams), but is far less filling. And, calorie for calorie broccoli has 17% more protein than cheese.
Consider using these foods sparingly as flavouring rather than as the centre piece of a meal.
1Reducing free sugar intake in children and adult – WHO
2WHO definition of free sugar
3Low-Calorie Sweeteners – Harvard School of Public Health
4More Bad News for Artificial Sweetener Users
5Nuts for the heart – Harvard School of Public Health
6900 grams of cooked spinach contains 207 Kcal, 26.7 grams of protein, 21.6 grams of fibre and 0.4 grams of saturated fat. One 76 gram frankfurter contains 204 Kcal, 9.7 grams of protein, 0.1 gram of fibre and 6.6 grams of saturated fat.
7250 grams of raw broccoli contains 85 Kcal, 7.0 grams of protein, 6.5 grams of fibre and 0.3 grams of saturated fat. 20 grams of hard cheese contains 83 Kcal, 6.0 grams of protein, 0 grams of fibre and 6.5 grams of saturated fat.