Paul Stemman

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Healthy eating

It seems that people are very interested in food and healthy eating. There are lots of TV programmes looking at what we eat. The bestseller lists are full of books on healthy eating. So what is it all about?


There is a growing recognition that what food we eat is important. More and more people are aware that some foods are not very good for us, and others are very good for us. While most people can agree on that, people have different views on exactly what foods are okay.


There is a lot of interest in losing weight and diets. This also adds to the healthy eating debate. Different 'experts' have different views on the best diet for losing weight. However, most people would agree that following a balanced diet will help us to be healthy.


So what is a balanced diet? Eating a balanced diet means you can eat some 'bad' foods, but you also eat plenty of 'good' foods. The problem is when the balance tips towards the unhealthy foods. A balanced diet should give us the right amount of vitamins, protein and minerals, etc. These are the essential elements of food that our body extracts and uses to look after us.



The basics

We should aim for a diet that contains:

§ lots of fruit and vegetables

§ low levels of salt, sugar and fat

§ high levels of starchy foods (pasta, rice, wholegrain bread)

Doctors recommended that we eat five portions of fruit and vegetables every day. But what makes a portion? Well, one apple or orange counts as a portion. For a smaller piece of fruit, you need more of it. And with something like a pineapple, then a large slice counts as a portion. As for vegetables, then three heaped tablespoons is roughly one portion.


Dried fruit is very good for you, and one heaped tablespoon counts as one portion. With salad, you need about enough to fill a dessert bowl for one portion. And a glass of fruit juice (150ml) also counts as a portion - and before you think it, two glasses cannot count as two portions.



Cooking tips

To get the best from our fruit and vegetables, we should try not to overcook it (some of the goodness will be lost), eat the food as fresh as possible, try not to leave cut vegetables exposed to the air, use as little water as possible for cooking (steaming is better). Before you prepare your food think what can you do to keep lots of the goodness.




A new traffic light system is being introduced on food labels. This is to help us quickly and easily see whether an item of food it healthy or not. This is particularly useful when we want to compare to items of food. Some supermarkets have already started using the traffic light system and more will follow.


The label should tell us about the item's salt, fat, saturated fat, and sugar. Each is graded. Red = high, amber = medium, and green = low. We should try to aim for foods that have lots of green scores, and avoid those with red scores. It is okay to eat things with a red light, but we should try not to fill our trolley with lots of foods with the red light on.



Some effects of poor diet

Does it really matter what we eat? Well, some illness can be the direct result of a poor diet.


Eating foods that are high in fat and salt can lead to heart disease and raised blood pressure. Although healthy eating might not prevent the start of diabetes it can certainly delay it starting and give the body a better chance of responding.


More and more people are becoming obese. This means they have reached a weight that leads to bad health problems - the body finds it hard to cope. There are now three times as many obese people in the UK as there were in 1980. Eating a balanced diet and exercising can prevent obesity.


People with diabetes have to be very careful what they eat. If they do not, then this can lead to complications.


There are many different causes of cancer. However, doctors think that we could avoid one-third of cancers by eating a balanced diet.



Good for the mind

There is a growing amount of research that says what we eat can also affect our mental health. Trials done inside a young offenders institute demonstrated a positive effect on mental health. The nutrients from food help the brain to work and can affect the levels of our body's chemicals. These can then affect our mood.


There are also psychological links between the foods (and drinks) we consume and how we feel. Few people would deny that alcohol or coffee does not affect their head.


There is also evidence to suggest that chocolate does make us happier.


The link between food and our mental health is still being uncovered. But it looks certain to lead to another reason for healthy eating.




Eatwell - the Food Standard's Agency's website packed with information on healthy eating

Food and mood - the affect of what we eat on our mood

Mind's guide to food and mood