Making simple swaps in the foods that we eat can make all the difference to our diet and motivation. When we see one easy change work, it can spark a chain reaction in our confidence and reap huge health benefits.
The key to success, according to national dietetic advisor for the HSE Margaret O’Neill, is to tackle change in bite-size chunks. “Pick one change at a time,” she says.
“Start with one thing and try to stick with it – we know that behaviours can take a while to change: it can take two to three weeks to bed in.
“Some people will be able to cut down from five biscuits a day to one; for others, it’s a case of not having biscuits in the house.”
And it’s not all about what you eat – but how and when you eat, too.
“Be honest about your weight, how you’re eating and when you’re eating,” Margaret advises. “A lot of us can deny what we’re actually eating.” She says a food diary is a really good way to keep track of what you eat and help identify where a change can be made. “Is your soft spot eating out or in front of the TV? Do you eat while on your phone? Mindful eating can also help make people aware of their food intake and the speed they eat at. It might not be sexy advice but it’s practical, evidence-based and it works.”
Here are five small, but impactful ways to improve your eating habits:
1 Swap: A heaped plate for a balanced plate
A mountain of buttery mash with an afterthought of carrots might feel like manna from heaven on these long winter nights but it’s cold comfort from a health point of view. While spuds have their place, along with pasta, rice and couscous, they should take up only a small portion of your plate. In fact, half of your plate should be given over to vegetables, a quarter to carbohydrates and the rest to protein, i.e. meat or fish. This powerful swap will go a long way to meeting the recommended daily fruit and vegetable intake of seven pieces a day, without sacrificing the comfort hit of starchy carbs.
“We hear a lot of negative things about carbohydrates,” says Sarah Keogh, a dietitian based in Dublin and founder of eatwell.ie. “They’re actually fine but the portion size is too big – carbohydrates should only make up about a quarter of your plate, so I would swap out some carbs and pop in vegetables.”
“All evidence suggests that a plant-based diet is better for us; we don’t all need to turn vegetarian or vegan, but we do need to increase our portions of fruit and vegetables every day,” says Margaret O’Neill. “We know from all the research now that a Mediterranean-type diet rich in fish, lean meat, fruit, vegetables and wholegrains works, but that’s not how we’re eating now in Ireland.”
2 Swap: White processed grains for wholegrains
Wholegrain breads, wraps and pasta and brown rice leave us feeling fuller for longer and are full of fibre. They also play an important role in reducing cholesterol and in reducing bowel cancer. Senior paediatric community dietitian Joanne O’Halloran says this is a swap the whole family can make that will positively influence food choices for a lifetime.
“Swap low-fibre breakfast cereals such as Rice Krispies and Corn Flakes for high-fibre cereals such as Ready Brek, All Bran, porridge and Weetabix. It will fill you up more and keep you going longer. Constipation can be a problem for young kids, so this swap can help them to go to the toilet regularly.
“Start them off on this road early and they will be reaching for the wholegrain bread without even thinking about it when they are adults.”
And by ‘early’, Joanne means from four months old. “If babies are weaned with a bland baby porridge instead of one flavoured with fruit juice, it won’t give them a taste for something sweet in the morning.”
For older children, it can be tempting to sweeten porridge with honey but, as Joanne points out, it is another sugar. Instead, she recommends topping Weetabix with fresh fruit, such as sliced banana or apple.
To keep up the good work at lunchtime, plan ahead and pack falafel, salads, plain cooked chicken, chopped vegetables and fruit – instead of reaching for the standard sandwich.
3 Swap: Meat for vegetables and fish
“We need to reduce our intake of meat,” Margaret says. “We need meat: it’s a really important source of iron and protein, and it’s especially important for those who are ill or have special dietary needs, but most of us are eating too much of it in Ireland.”
Too much meat in the diet is linked to higher rates of some cancers, high LDL cholesterol and heart disease. Margaret suggests a meat-free day a week, maybe featuring a veggie curry as a nutritious and tasty substitute.
Dietitian Orla Walsh, who has a private practice in Dublin, agrees, but she’d like to see us swap in fish too. “There’s a heavy reliance on chicken in Ireland,” Orla says. While it’s a valuable lean source of protein when oven-baked, grilled or steamed, Orla says we could get a big nutritional ‘hit’ by eating fish at one of those meals instead.
“It’s important that people don’t look at fish as a whole but as three separate types – oily fish, white fish and shellfish – because nutritionally they’re very different. Ideally, we should eat a variety of these during the week.”
Does tinned tuna count? “Fresh tuna counts as an oily fish but in tinned tuna a lot of the omega 3 has been removed so it’s not considered an oily-fish portion.” However, it’s still a great source of protein, so don’t rule out that tuna and broccoli bake.
4 Swap: Soft drinks for water and cow’s milk
Sugary soft drinks sit along with cakes and biscuits on the smallest shelf of the food pyramid for good reason. While they’re okay for the very occasional treat, they contribute little to our nutritional needs while increasing our chance of gaining weight and developing type-2 diabetes and obesity.
Instead, we should be reaching for water and milk, but even that isn’t as simple as it seems. Step into any coffee shop and the choice of coconut cappuccinos and soya lattes make it a food and fashion minefield. Meanwhile, water has gone way beyond ‘still’ or ‘sparkling’, with infusion bottles, juice cubes and fruit mashes making it an art form. Despite our best efforts to complicate the issue, the advice is clear: cow or goat milk and water should be our staple drinks. Plain, still water is the best thirst quencher to have during and between meals, as it’s sugar- and calorie-free, making it kind to waistlines and teeth, while the health benefits of cow’s milk far outweigh milks from plant-based sources, even if they’re fortified.
“What’s become apparent over years of research is that receiving nutrients through food is the best choice of all because of the nutrient matrix within the food,” says Orla.
“We know that the calcium in milk is much more effective at improving bone density than calcium from a supplement.”
And Joanne O’Halloran says that plant-based milks shouldn’t be given to a child, unless there’s a diagnosed allergy and it’s under the supervision of a dietitian.
“For a healthy child, we don’t recommend any of the plant sources,” she says. “Unless they’re fortified, they can be a poor source of calcium; they have less protein and are lower in calories. Children aged from nine to 18 need five or more servings of calcium a day for bone health, so this is definitely not the time to reduce calcium intake.”
5 Swap: Processed for homemade meals
“The quality of the food we eat is so important but it gets overlooked,” says Margaret O’Neill. “Food is our medicine: it keeps us well and helps to make us better if we’re sick.” She says we should limit processed foods, along with sweets, cakes and crisps to treat times only. That means not even once a day. “Processed foods are generally poor quality, and high in fat and sugar,” she says. “It’s about going back to how we used to eat when we were young and cooking food from scratch.”
Instead of crisps and dips, try serving hummus and low-fat cream cheeses with vegetable sticks, or homemade chicken on a stick flavoured with garlic and lemon. Cooking at home also means you can hide vegetables in your children’s dinners, taking some of the heat out of mealtimes. Try finely grated carrot and courgette in bolognese, tomato in shepherd’s pie, or peas and sweetcorn in fish pie.