Published: 06 August 2021. Written by: Cheryl Freedom.
Small changes add up – these mindful tweaks from a nutritional therapist will help you feel happier, healthier and greener one meal at a time
The daily food choices we make have a knock-on effect for so many other things – our overall long-term health, how we feel day-to-day (energised, constipated, sluggish), and the planet.
However, it’s all too easy to let our good habits slip. For some, lockdowns and working from home have meant more time to prepare healthy meals and make greener choices, like growing our own veg (which has seen a resurgence). But for others it meant falling into new habits – grabbing biscuits to beat afternoon slumps and ordering takeaways as a ‘treat’ at the end of another mundane day (numbers of deliveries tripled during the pandemic).
The good news is we can all make low-effort micro-changes to our plates, eating behaviours and mealtimes – tiny tweaks that, overall, boost our health, our mood and help the environment. This in turn provides a positive lift. One 2016 study confirmed that engaging in eco-friendly behaviours helps us feel good about ourselves.
We spoke to registered nutritional therapist Jackie Lynch, author of The Happy Menopause: Smart Nutrition to Help You Flourish, for her tips on the changes that add up.
1. ‘Use a smaller, prettier plate’
Waistband feeling snugger than it used to? Surveys last year suggested that 48% of people put on weight during lockdown. One way to breathe easy again could simply be rethinking your crockery. The diameter of the average dinner plate these days is 28cm, but in the 1950s it was only around 25cm. ‘Research shows dinner plates have increased in size over the last few decades. But smaller plates make it easier to manage portion sizes. There is a tendency with massive plates to just fill them,’ explains Lynch.
Some folk have ditched plates altogether and reckon food served in bowls is richer and more satisfying. Meanwhile, studies by gastrophysicists suggest that artfully arranging your food might make it seem tastier. Fruity face, anyone?
2. ‘Be the last to finish’
Research from the UK in 2019 suggests eating with friends or family can mean we eat more, perhaps because social norms ‘permit’ us to do so in company.
Lynch suggests challenging yourself to be last to finish when dining in a group, to help stop you overeating. ‘You’re more likely to chew your food properly – most people eat too fast. You don’t have to do 32 chews per mouthful, but if you swallow lumps of unchewed food, you’ll get bloating and indigestion. Chewing also releases enzymes in your saliva that activate the satiety response, which tells you when you’re full. So eating more slowly and mindfully is better for your digestion and your weight.’
Whether dining alone or in company, slower eating is a good idea. Japanese research links wolfing your food down, rather than savouring it, with conditions including obesity and high blood pressure.
Also, eat at the table, not your laptop, again linked to overeating, says Lynch. ‘Don’t sit in front of the telly or a screen, shovelling it down. Similarly, try not to eat standing up – common if you’re running after kids, with toast in one hand and a coffee in the other. It makes it really hard to keep track of what you’re eating.’
3. ‘Mix up fresh food colours – including beige’
‘Try to eat a rainbow of different vegetables and fruit over the course of a week, because the different colours contain different antioxidants to support your health,’ says Lynch. ‘I’m not just thinking orange, red and green, but black things like aubergine or blackberries, which contain anthocyanins, plant compounds that are particularly good for supporting immune function.’
Don’t write off less obviously colourful vegetables either. ‘Include beige vegetables like onion and garlic – don’t confuse these with beige foods like white bread or biscuits. Onions and garlic are both sulphurous, so really good for liver support. Garlic is also antiviral, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory.’
4. ‘Drizzle a little olive oil onto your vegetables or salads’
‘The reason isn’t just to make them taste nice, it also supports the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins like vitamin A, or beta-carotene, found in carrots and sweet potatoes, and vitamin K, which is needed for healthy bones. Avoid shop-bought dressings, though. Make your own using heart-healthy monounsaturated fats like olive oil.’
5. ‘Have two handfuls of leafy greens per day to beat stress’
‘Leafy greens are a one-stop shop for health. Split them between lunch and dinner: things like cabbage, kale, rocket, watercress, broccoli. They’re packed with magnesium, which calms the nervous system and regulates the body’s response to stress, helping you cope with the challenges of daily life. Magnesium also regulates muscle function, including the heart, supports healthy blood pressure, and peristalsis, which is the action of your bowel pushing your stools through your system. We need magnesium to kickstart the body’s energy production process – think of it as our body’s ignition key.
‘Leafy greens are also an excellent source of vitamin C, rich in iron and vitamin K. And they have twice as much calcium per 100g as milk. Women of any age will benefit. Use them in a smoothie, a salad, or have wilted spinach with an egg in the morning.’
6. ‘Go from white to brown foods’
‘An easy change is switching to wholemeal bread and wholemeal pasta from white – they’re higher in fibre, which supports your digestion and helps balance blood sugar, keeping you going for longer and meaning you’re less likely to have the munchies.
‘This means wholegrains are good for mood as well – when you have a blood sugar crash, you don’t just get sugar cravings, you feel anxious, irritable and jittery.’
‘Make sure there is protein in every meal’
On average, most adults need approximately 0.75g of protein per kilo of body weight each day. While many of us do have at least that amount in our daily diet, Lynch says: ‘Many of us aren’t good at having enough protein throughout the day – and we need it to keep going. People often miss out on having protein at breakfast. Don’t just have jam on toast or a fruit smoothie – by mid-morning you’ll crash. Have a big spoon of ground flaxseed with your cereal or add them to your smoothie, have an egg or nut butter on toast. Balance your blood sugar with a combination of protein and fibre at every meal, every snack.’
8. ‘Eat seasonally and locally’
‘When you go to supermarkets, it’s hard to know what’s in season as everything is there all the time,’ says Lynch.
Take time to read labels, and seek out smaller shops for local produce. ‘Eating locally and seasonally will help you reduce food miles, which is better for the planet. But also the further food travels, the less nutritious it is. It’s probably been picked before it’s ripe and left in storage. The longer you keep a vegetable or fruit, the less nutritious it becomes. By the time it reaches your plate, it’s technically fresh, but how bioavailable [how much can be absorbed into our bodies] are the minerals? Probably not as much as some frozen foods, which are often frozen within an hour of being harvested.’
And take it into your own hands. Not all of us have a big garden or allotment, but many of us have space for growing some courgettes or tomatoes in a pot. Growing herbs on a windowsill is another easy way in. ‘Try parsley, which is one of the highest vitamin C foods,’ advises Lynch.
9. ‘Find a dry goods store’
Stock up on healthy foods without the wasteful packaging by finding your local dry goods store, says Lynch, where you can buy dried lentils and chickpeas by the scoop-full.
‘Take your own reusable containers [if Covid compliant] and stock up on nuts, seeds and oats – it’s cheaper, greener and will keep you going for ages.’
Often you can also fill up olive oil bottles and things like washing-up liquid containers as well. Reusing is even better than recycling.
10. ‘Shop at markets where you can’
Look up when your nearest farmers’ or street market is and then diarise it. ‘Very little is packaged and if you only need two carrots, you’re not stuck with a whole pack, which can be a problem if you live alone,’ says Lynch.
‘Markets also make you feel more engaged with your community, which is good for your mood. You’re often supporting local farmers and businesses, so it’s more sustainable. It’s a fabulous outing.’
11. ‘Sign up for a veg box delivery’
‘It’s always seasonal and they send you things you might not choose yourself, so they get you out of a rut,’ says Lynch. ‘Several years ago, they sent me kohlrabi and I’d never seen it before, I wasn’t sure which part I was supposed to eat. Veg boxes are great as they make you look up recipes, and challenge you. Plus, again, if you live on your own, you don’t need a bag of 10 onions or all these tomatoes that will go off, so it reduces waste as well as packaging.’
It’s worth adding that, contrary to possible expectations, veg boxes often save you money.
As a Vitality member, you could get up to 25% cashback on Waitrose & Partners Good Health food when you get active. If you have a second qualifying health insurance or life insurance plan, you could get up to 40% cash- back. A monthly spend cap applies. Excludes beverages. Log in to Member Zone for the details.