Sunday, January 17, 2010
Planning ahead and packing a tasty and nutritious lunchbox can avoid reliance on the energy-dense, nutrient-poor options that often make up a quick meal on the move.
A nutritious lunch will help children and adults maintain energy levels and concentration through the afternoon.
Make your own lunch
If lunch is dictated by what's available - whether a sandwich bar, petrol station, corner shop or fast-food outlet - then choosing to make your own meal provides a nutritious and healthy alternative, and saves money.
Lunchboxes don't need to contain just a soggy sandwich and a packet of crisps. Ensuring the meal contains fruit and/or vegetables, a good helping of starchy carbohydrates and some dairy products will result in a nutritionally balanced lunch.
Avoid boredom setting in with some alternatives to sandwiches.
Try soup - a flask of warm vegetable soup can provide a portion of your five-a-day and boost fibre intake. Homemade versions can be tailored to personal taste, but shop-bought ones are fine, too (check the label to avoid those with a high salt content).
Rice, noodles, lentils, couscous, bulghur wheat and pasta can form the basis of salads, accompanied by chopped vegetables, fruit, seeds and nuts to boost vitamin and mineral intake. You can also add protein such as chicken, tuna, prawns and soya.
Leftovers from your meal the night before, such as homemade pizza, omelette or quiche, can all be eaten cold the next day, accompanied by a green salad.
Use different varieties of bread throughout the week, such as wholemeal, granary, oat-topped, seed-based, ciabatta, rye, bagels, wraps, pitta, baguettes and rolls. Choose wholemeal varieties for maximum nutrients (such as fibre, B vitamins, vitamin E and magnesium).
Fill out your lunchbox with the following:
Fruit – include fruit such as apples, grapes, plums and berries. Chopped fruit, fruit salad or dried fruit such as apricots, raisins and dates can be easily handled and eaten by children. A fruit smoothie is also a healthy option.
Vegetables - chopped vegetables such as carrot, celery and cucumber can be included with dips such as hummus to provide a nutritious snack. Cherry tomatoes, sliced peppers, baby corn and sugar snap peas are great for adding colour and are easy for young children to eat.
Desserts - fruit can be added to low-sugar jelly, or mixed in with natural yoghurt for a tasty dessert. Yoghurt drinks or small pots of custard or rice pudding can top up calcium intake and provide an alternative to more sugary or fatty options. If you like cakes and biscuits, try varieties such as hot-cross buns, scones and malt loaf. Include your favourite cake once in a while, but keep the portion small.
Variety is key to keeping lunchboxes appetising and appealing. Sandwich fillings can be packed with salad to add colour and nutrients, and accompanied by low-fat nutritious options such as lean meat, fish, egg and low-fat cheese.
Adding a treat every now and then is fine - try fun-size chocolate bars, snack-sized packets of biscuits and sweets to keep portions small and the calorie, fat and sugar content low.
Drinks - use tap water, or mix it with low-sugar squash or some fruit juice to add flavour. Unsweetened fruit juice and smoothies count towards one of your five a day, but avoid too many sugary drinks which can add lots of extra calories. Milk-based drinks, without added sugar, are a healthier option for teeth than sugary alternatives.
Eating out - choosing healthier options
More and more of us are eating out on a regular basis, whether it's for a business lunch, a girls' get together, or for a family meal.
The 2006 Family Food Survey found that households where the head of the household was under 30 years old were spending more than 40 per cent of their food budget on eating out.
Eating out usually means that we have little control over how the food is prepared or how large the portion is. Foods eaten out tend to be higher in fat and research has shown that those who eat out regularly generally have higher intakes of fat, salt and calories. Studies have also shown that eating with friends can tempt us to overeat. Meals with multiple courses eaten over longer periods and with alcohol are all associated with overindulgence. Large serving bowls and spoons increase the likelihood of piling more food on your plate than you usually eat.
Unlike packaged food, foods bought from cafes, restaurants etc don't have to carry nutritional information and so opting for the healthiest option might not always be obvious, or easy. However, with some knowledge and thought, eating out can be enjoyable and healthy!
If you're unsure as to what something is, or what it contains - ask! If the waiter/waitress doesn't know, then the chef will.
Think ahead, if you know you're eating out later and it could be a lavish affair, choose wisely earlier in the day to keep calories, fat, sugar and salt intakes under control.
Don't eat an extra course just to be polite.
Only order a sweet after the main course, and only if still hungry. Opt for sorbets, or fruit dishes to balance out a heavy main course.
Think about sharing a course with a companion if the portions look large.
Speak up about how you'd like a dish prepared eg ask for no mayonnaise, dressing on the side.
You're more likely to overeat at an 'all you can eat' style buffet.
Choose side orders of salad or vegetables to fill up on.
Cut off any visible fat from meat to keep saturated fat intake down.
Look out for smaller portions ie a main meal option as a starter size.
Opt for dishes which are grilled, baked, steamed, poached or cooked in own juice rather than fried.
Check the menu for dressings on salads and ask for it to be served separately. An otherwise healthy and nutritious salad could be drowned in a high fat sauce, bumping up its calorie content.
Avoid cheese, cream or butter-based sauces
If you're a cheese lover, think about sharing the cheese board option to keep saturated fat, salt and calorie intakes in check.
A takeaway provides a convenient night off from cooking, but they can be a poor choice for health-conscious consumers. Portion sizes can often be large, so think about sharing to keep the amount of food to a sensible limit.
Choose side orders of salad or vegetables to fill up on.
Often high in salt and can be oozing in fat, avoid dishes described as deep-fried or battered.
Opt for stir-fried chicken or vegetables to keep fat content as low as possible.
Choose plain boiled rice rather than fried rice.
Avoid the prawn crackers and crispy seaweed dishes - both moreish and loaded in calories.
Often high in fat, especially those with creamy sauces such as korma and masala.
Avoid those pre-meal poppadums and chapattis - both high in fat. Bhajis and naan breads are also surprisingly high in calories.
The best dishes to limit fat and calorie intakes are oven-cooked tandoori and tikka dishes. Madras, jalfrezi, balti or dupiaza are also all right.
Go for the thin crust pizzas rather than the deep-pan or 'filled crust' options.
Ask for small amounts of cheese or opt for the reduced fat versions some outlets now offer.
Keep the meat-based pizza toppings like pepperoni and salami to a minimum and go mad with vegetable and fish-based options instead.
Pasta dishes served with a tomato or vegetable-based sauce are much better than creamy or cheese-based varieties.
Forego the garlic bread or focaccia and try either plain bread or a mixed salad to accompany your meal instead.
Choose fruit or plain ice cream rather than fancy desserts.
Fish, chips, burgers and kebabs
Portion sizes are often huge, so think about sharing a portion of chips between two.
Eat the fish and leave the batter.
Avoid small fried items such as scampi or chicken nuggets as they contain more fat than a single larger item.
Forget the super-size deals, a small, plain burger is fine! Ask for salad and forego the mayo.
Try shish kebab instead of the fat-laden doner.
Look out for different bread types to add variety and taste.
Go for protein-based fillers such as ham, lean meat, fish, low fat cheeses like cottage cheese and Edam.
Avoid mayonnaise and other high-fat dressings. Try chutneys and pickles instead.
Look out for vegetable-based or salad-packed varieties to fill out the sandwich and keep calories low.
Look carefully at pre-packed versions. Some are very high in calories - opt for those less than 400kcal per pack.
Occasions like Christmas, parties, weddings and so on can often be difficult times for those trying to eat healthily and watch their weight. Thinking ahead and preparing for such times can help. In addition to the tips for eating out, the following may also help:
At buffets, don't stand near the food table - the temptation to keep grabbing a handful or plateful of something nearby can be overpowering. Talk to friends in another part of the room.
Just because food is offered doesn't mean it has to be eaten. Feel free to pass.
Avoid pastry-based foods such as mince pies, canapés, tarts, sausage rolls etc.
Aim to fill at least half your plate with healthier options, and add some colour to your plate. Naturally colourful fruits and vegetables like crudités are not only low in calories but contain vitamins and antioxidants which are beneficial to your health.
Try not to arrive at the event hungry. Have a light meal or healthy snack prior to getting there to prevent overindulgence.
Mix alcoholic drinks with low-calorie soft drinks and water. Not only does alcohol contain calories, but the more that is consumed, the more likely that good intentions go out of the window!
At functions like weddings and christenings, choose the cake course as a dessert instead of having dessert and the cake.
Many popular drinks contain the stimulant caffeine. It has a bad reputation, but what effects does it really have and does it bring any health benefits?
Effects of caffeine
Caffeine acts as a stimulant to the heart and central nervous system, and is also known to increase blood pressure in the short term, although there's no conclusive evidence of long-term effects on blood pressure.
The effects on blood pressure are most likely when caffeine is taken in excessive quantities or by people who are highly sensitive to it. People who are hypertensive (have habitual high blood pressure) are advised to avoid caffeinated drinks, and pregnant women should limit their intake of caffeine to less than 300mg a day.
Food Caffeine content
Instant 61 to 70
Percolated ground 97 to 125
Tea (mg/cup) 15 to 75
Cocoa (mg/cup) 10 to 17
Chocolate bar 60 to 70
Cola drinks (mg/12oz can)
43 to 65
Caffeine and weight loss
Caffeine has been shown to have very modest effects on increasing metabolism, and is sometimes added as an ingredient to weight loss pills. These pills often make claims about speeding metabolism to 'effortlessly melt' excess fat, but in reality the amount of calories that slimming pills containing caffeine would actually burn is very small.
Caffeine may also suppress appetite, but without making other changes to your diet and lifestyle caffeine is unlikely to make a significant difference to your weight.
Coffee has been linked with a number of the risk factors for coronary heart disease, including increased blood pressure and raised blood cholesterol levels. But no relationship has been found between drinking coffee and the likelihood of developing coronary heart disease.
Coffee may be beneficial in some areas of health - for example, research has found it may reduce the risk of developing gallstones and kidney stones.
It's difficult to suggest a safe limit for coffee intake because of the huge variation in caffeine content across different brands and an individual's sensitivity to the drug. People with high blood pressure and pregnant women are advised to limit their caffeine consumption.
For the rest of the population, there's no evidence coffee does any long-term harm. Caffeine does have a very mild diuretic effect but, drunk in moderation, you don’t need to increase fluid intake to any significant degree as the loss of fluid is very minimal.
Tea contains some useful minerals such as zinc, manganese and potassium, and scientists are researching its potential to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease and some cancers.
Tea contains antioxidant substances called flavonoids, which have been shown to help slow or inhibit the chemical reactions thought to take place during the development of coronary heart disease.
There's also a lot of interest in the health benefits of green tea, particularly in relation to cardiovascular health. Again, this is due to flavonoids, which are powerful antioxidants found in high concentrations in both green and black teas. The concentration of these compounds depends on how long the tea has been brewed, but can range from 125mg to 140mg.
Some studies have compared the concentration of these antioxidant compounds to that found in fruit and vegetables. Flavonoids bring potential benefits to heart health, as well as possible reductions in the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative conditions.
Caffeine and iron absorption
Both tea and coffee contain polyphenols that can bind to iron, making it difficult for our bodies to absorb. Avoiding tea and coffee during and around mealtimes is important for people at risk of iron deficiency.
Milk and dairy products
The foods in this group are important sources of protein, vitamins and minerals, and are particularly rich in calcium, which is essential for healthy bones and teeth.
What foods are in this category?
This food group includes milk and milk products - cheese, yoghurt and fromage frais - but not butter, margarine or cream. They belong in the fat and sugar group of the Food Standards Agency's 'eatwell plate'.
Varieties of milk
Supermarkets now stock many different varieties of milk. The most common in the UK is still cow's milk, but others include sheep and goat's milk, as well as a number of plant-based substitutes - including soya, rice, oat and almond milk - for those with lactose intolerance.
Milk in the UK (generally cow's milk) is distinguishable by its fat content.
Whole or full-fat milk contains about 3.5 per cent fat
Semi-skimmed contains about 1.7 per cent fat
Skimmed milk contains 0.1 to 0.3 per cent fat
Even whole milk is relatively low in fat and certainly semi-skimmed milk can be labelled as a low-fat food. Contrary to popular belief, lowering the fat content in milk does not affect the calcium content, so an adequate calcium intake can still be obtained from lower-fat dairy products. However, low fat milk contains less energy and lower amounts of fat soluble vitamins and isn't suitable for children under two years.
Some supermarkets have now started selling milk with a 1 per cent fat content which has almost half the fat of semi-skimmed milk but retains a more creamy flavour. This is a good option for those people who want to lower the amount of fat they're consuming but don’t like the taste of skimmed milk.
Cheese contains the same beneficial nutrients as milk, but most cheeses contain much more saturated fat and high levels of added salt, so it's important to only eat full-fat cheese occasionally and in small portions.
Yoghurt is rich in protein and vitamin B2: essentially the same nutrients as in milk. Some varieties contain living bacteria that are healthy for your digestive system (probiotics). Yoghurt can be made from whole or low fat milk, but be careful. Fruit yoghurts often contain added sugar. Low fat doesn't necessarily mean low calories. If you're watching your weight, look for 'diet' versions, or make your own by mixing fruit with natural, low fat, unsweetened yoghurt. Check out the labels of packs for details.
The importance of calcium
Calcium is a mineral that helps build strong bones and teeth, regulates muscle contraction (including the heartbeat) and makes sure the blood is clotting normally. Milk and dairy products have long been held as an important source of calcium, although more recently the role and safety of dairy calcium sources have been questioned by some scientists and more research is needed to draw a firm conclusion.
Other sources of calcium include:
Fish (for example sardines)
Dark green leafy vegetables
More importantly, research also suggests that calcium in your diet is less important in developing healthy bones than vitamin D (from your daily diet or from the sun's effect on the skin). Similarly, sufficient exercise is now seen as another vital factor in maintaining healthy bone structure and density - concerns have been voiced that a lack of excercise in growing children will have a detrimental effect on their bones.
Calcium can continue strengthening your bones until the age of 20 to 25 when peak bone mass is reached. After this point, your bones can only maintain or lose their density and grow weaker as a natural part of the ageing process. Inadequate dietary calcium intake before this age can increase the risk of brittle bone disease and osteoporosis, as calcium is drawn from the bones as a reserve.
Each year in the UK, over £1.7 billion is spent on treating osteoporosis. Health professionals estimate that one in two women and one in five men over the age of 50 in the UK will break a bone, mainly because of osteoporosis. Women are more affected as they have less bone mass than men, and may lose it faster as they get older, especially after the menopause when falling oestrogen levels result in the loss of the protective effect of oestrogen on bone density.
Why children need calcium
Calcium is an essential nutrient for all children to help grow strong bones and reduce the risk of developing osteoporosis when they're older. But many children and teenagers don't receive their recommended daily intake. Encouraging children and adolescents to drink more milk, rather than other drinks, can provide not only calcium, but also important proteins, carbohydrates and micronutrients.
Daily recommendations for calcium intake in children:
Age (years) Calcium requirement (mg/day)
0 to 12 months 525
1 to 3 years 350
4 to 6 years 450
7 to 10 years 550
11 to 14 years 1,000 800
15 to 18 years 1,000 800
19+ years 700 700
Calcium for vegans and the lactose intolerant
If your diet excludes milk and dairy products, or if you can't tolerate milk sugar lactose, then you need to look for calcium alternatives. Other dietary sources of the mineral include:
calcium-enriched soya milks, yoghurts and cheeses
dark green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, broccoli and watercress
almonds or sesame seeds – try as a topping on salads, cereals or desserts
dried fruits - apricots, dates and figs all contain small amounts of calcium
(for non vegans) fish such as sardines and anchovies, especially the bones
As dairy products are such a rich source of calcium, three portions of dairy products each day should be sufficient to meet your body's calcium needs. Try to choose low or reduced fat versions to avoid too much unhealthy saturated fat.
The following are examples of individual servings:
200ml milk (whether it is whole or full-fat, semi-skimmed or skimmed)
250ml calcium-fortified soya milk
40g hard cheese (such as cheddar, brie, feta, mozzarella or stilton)
125g soft cheese (such as cottage cheese or fromage frais)
1 small pot of low-fat plain or fruit yoghurt (150g)
Fruit smoothie made with 200
Meat, fish, eggs and alternative sources of protein
It's vital our diets contain protein, either from animal or plant sources.
Foods containing protein
Meat, poultry, fish, shellfish and eggs
Pulses, nuts and seeds
Soya products and vegetable protein foods
Why is protein important?
From hair to fingernails, protein is a major functional and structural component of all our cells. Protein provides the body with roughly 10 to 15 per cent of its dietary energy, and is needed for growth and repair.
Proteins are large molecules made up of long chains of amino acid subunits. Some of these amino acids are nutritionally essential as they cannot be made or stored within the body and so must come from foods in our daily diet.
Although all animal and plant cells contain some protein, the amount and quality of this protein can vary widely.
Protein from animal sources contains the full range of essential amino acids needed from an adult's diet. But red meat, in particular, should be eaten in limited amounts due to the high level of saturated fat it contains, which may raise blood levels of 'unhealthy' LDL cholesterol.
A high intake of saturated fat can lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and other related disorders. As an alternative source of animal protein, choose poultry, fish and shellfish.
The 2007 World Cancer Research Fund report recommended meat eaters limit their consumption of red meat to no more than 500g a week, with very little processed meat, as these have both been linked to certain forms of cancer.
Fish is a good source of animal protein. Oil-rich fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring, tuna, trout and sardines are all rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which help to reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
Shellfish is also a good source of protein and is low in fat.
Aim to eat a couple of portions of fish every week, with at least one portion being an oily fish.
Advice for vegans and vegetarians
Vegetarians rely on plant sources for their daily protein. Plants don’t contain the full range of essential amino acids and so are not as high in nutritional value as animal protein. But by eating a well-balanced diet that contains a variety of different foods, it's possible to consume the required amino acids, regardless of the time of day they’re eaten or in what combinations within a meal.
Foods such as nuts, seeds, beans, pulses, vegetable protein foods and soya products all contain protein. There are also small amounts in grains and dairy products. Due to this variety of protein-rich foods available in the UK, protein deficiency is rare.
How much is enough?
Health professionals suggest men should eat 55.5g protein a day and women 45g. In practical terms, eating a moderate amount of protein - in one or two meals every day – should give you all the protein you need. Most people in the UK eat far more protein than they actually need.
You should eat two to three servings of protein every day from both plant and animal sources. Here are some examples of one serving (about the size of a standard pack of playing cards):
100g boneless meat (eg lean beef, lamb or pork)
100g boneless poultry (eg chicken or turkey breast)
100g fish (eg salmon, sardines or tuna)
2 medium eggs
3 tablespoons of seeds (eg sunflower or pumpkin seeds)
3 tablespoons of nuts (eg almonds or walnuts)
Choosing the right protein
If you can, choose to eat low-fat protein foods as these will help to:
Keep your heart healthy
Keep cholesterol low
Minimise the risk of developing cardiovascular disease and other related disorders
Use this table to choose foods rich in protein but low in saturated fat.
(g) Total fat
(g) Saturated fat
Almonds 21 55.8 4.4
Salmon 20.2 11 1.9
Beef (lean) 23 9.3 3.8
Prawns (peeled) 10.5 7.5 1.1
Pork (lean) 21.4 4.0 1.4
Eggs (1 medium) 8.1 7 2
Chicken breast (no skin) 30.1 4.5 1.3
Turkey breast (no skin) 29.9 3.2 1.0
Cod fillet 19.4 0.7 0.1
Lentils (cooked) 7.6 0.4 0
Protein and weight management
High-protein diets are sometimes popular with people wanting to lose weight, and there have been many studies looking at the effect of such diets on weight loss.
Regardless of the composition of the diet, weight loss will only occur if you expend more energy through activity than your body produces from food.
Protein-rich foods tend to make people feel fuller than foods rich in carbohydrates or fat. This can have a knock-on effect on appetite, minimising feelings of hunger, and helping to reduce overall energy intake.
Diets rich in protein at the expense of carbohydrates, for example, have been associated with slightly greater losses of weight in the short term compared with the recommended high-carbohydrate, low-fat eating plans. But after one year, studies have found there is no difference in weight loss between the two diets.
To control your weight it's important to find an eating pattern that suits your lifestyle and that you can sustain over a long period.
Bread, cereals and other starchy foods
This food group is your body's main source of energy and contains bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, noodles, chapatti, cereals and other starchy carbohydrates.
Refined and unrefined grains
The foods listed above (apart from potatoes) are all produced from grains, such as wheat, corn or rice. They should be a part of all meals, filling about a third of your plate. They can come in two forms – refined or unrefined (often known as whole grains).
Refined grains have been stripped of their outer bran coating and inner germ during the milling process, leaving only the endosperm. They include white rice, white bread and white pasta.
In a whole grain the bran, germ and endosperm are all still present. The bran is an excellent source of fibre; the germ is a source of protein, vitamins and minerals; and the endosperm supplies most of the carbohydrates, mainly in the form of starch. Unrefined or whole grain forms provide far more nutrients than their refined counterparts.
Whole grains are rich in phytochemicals and antioxidants, which help to protect against coronary heart disease, certain cancers, and diabetes. Studies have shown people who eat more whole grains tend to have a healthier heart.
Most people get their whole grain from wholemeal bread or whole grain breakfast cereals such as porridge, muesli or whole wheat cereals. Choose a whole grain variety over processed or refined grains, and look out for added sugar or salt.
Other whole grains include:
Dietary fibre is found in plant foods (fruit, vegetables and whole grains) and is essential for maintaining a healthy digestive system. Fibre cannot be fully digested and is often called bulk or roughage. The two types of fibre found in food are soluble and insoluble.
Soluble fibre, which can dissolve in water, is found in beans, fruit and oat products, and can help to lower blood fats and maintain blood sugar.
Insoluble fibre cannot dissolve in water, so passes directly through the digestive system. It’s found in whole grain products and vegetables and it increases the rate at which food passes through the gut.
Evidence for health benefits of fibre
High-fibre foods take longer to digest, so keep you feeling fuller for longer. The slow and steady digestion of food through the gut helps control blood sugar and assists with weight maintenance
Fibre helps in the digestive process and can help lower blood cholesterol
Fibre promotes bowel regularity and keeping the gastrointestinal tract clean to help reduce the risk of developing diverticular disease and constipation
A high-fibre diet may reduce the risk of developing diabetes and colorectal cancer
To eat more fibre, try these healthy swaps:
Refined Swap Unrefined
Frosted flakes Bran flakes
White toast Porridge oats
Cereal bar Rice cakes
French bread Wholemeal bread
Normal pasta Wholewheat pasta
Breadstick Dark rye crispbread
How much is enough?
Bread, rice, potatoes, pasta and other starchy foods should make up about one third of your diet. Try these recipes from the BBC Food website:
Banana and Oat Smoothie
Wholemeal pizza baguettes
Ham and watercress sandwich on wholemeal bread
Creamy lentils and brown rice
Using wholemeal flour in baking, as in this Irish Soda Bread or half and half as in these Carrot and Pineapple Muffins
What about GI?
The glycaemic index (GI) is a way of ranking carbohydrate foods based on how quickly they increase blood sugar levels. Low GI foods are especially helpful for people with diabetes, who need to have more control over their blood sugar levels than the general population.
Ideally foods with a low GI, such as those rich in soluble fibre like oats and legumes, should be eaten more frequently than those with a high GI. But the texture, type of cooking or processing used, and the amount and type of sugars present can all affect the GI. Since foods are often consumed as part of a meal or snack, it can be difficult to calculate the GI. Focusing on unrefined, high-fibre, whole grain cereals and minimising rapidly absorbed, refined cereals and sugary foods will all help to lower the GI of your diet