Ever wondered which foods dietitians choose for themselves – and what’s strictly off the menu? Registered dietitian Helen Bond opens the door to her kitchen
As a registered dietitian and HFG expert, I’m often asked what I put in my own shopping trolley (or, more often, the items I avoid). Although the key to maintaining a healthy diet is to eat everything in moderation, there are certain foods that rarely pass my lips. Here’s why…
1. Sugary drinks
‘An easy way to overload on sugar without noticing’
You might not add it to tea or coffee, but it’s easy to forget about the sugar already lurking in other drinks. A 330ml can of Fanta Orange, for example, contains more than 5tsp sugar – and when you consider each teaspoon bears 16 calories, it’s easy to see how the empty calories can add up for little nutritional gain. More and more experts are warning that sugary drinks in any form – cordial, fizzy pop, sports drinks and even vitamin waters, fruit juice and smoothies – make it harder for us to control our overall calorie intake. Regular consumption of these may be to blame for our ballooning waistlines, especially in children, putting us at risk of health problems such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and stroke.
Easy change Choose water – if you want flavour, add a squeeze of lemon or lime juice, or a sprig of fresh mint. Or get into herbal tea, which adds taste without sugar.
2. White chocolate
‘The dark side is purer’
Nutritionally, there’s a stark difference between white, milk and dark chocolate, particularly in terms of their flavonoid content – the heart-healthy antioxidants found in cocoa solids. White chocolate tends to contain no more than 30% cocoa solids – much less than milk or dark chocolate, so contains the smallest number of flavonoids. Plus the cocoa butter and a high proportion of sugar make it an unhealthy choice – 25g white chocolate has around 15g sugar, compared with around 7g sugar in the same amount of dark chocolate with cocoa solids.
Easy change Make your next occasional chocolate fix a dark one, and enjoy it in small amounts of around 25g – that’s three to four pieces or half a small bar. That way you’ll give yourself an antioxidant boost as you indulge.
3. Gourmet salt
‘It’s no better for your health than the cheaper stuff’
You may think you’re making a healthy choice by opting for posh seasonings such as sea, rock or Himalayan salt, but the health hazards remain the same. Gourmet varieties contain the same amount of sodium as regular table salt, and it’s too much sodium that can lead to high blood pressure. The only differences are cost, taste, texture and size of the crystals – and the larger the crystals or flakes, the greater the amount of sodium we consume. The average amount of salt consumed in Britain remains a cause for concern. According to Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH), for every 1g salt we cut from our average daily intake there would be 6,000 fewer deaths from heart attack and stroke each year.
Easy change Many of us add salt to our meals out of habit – or because recipe books recommend it – but as soon as we stop, our taste buds begin to adjust to the new taste. Instead, flavour dishes with herbs, ginger and other spices, garlic, vinegar, lemon or lime.
4. Refined carbs
‘They cause an energy crash’
Foods such as white bread, pasta and rice are stripped of their fibre-rich outer bran coating and nutrient-packed inner germ during the milling process, leaving only the starchy endosperm. They also have a high glycaemic index (GI) – a scale used to rank carbohydrate-rich foods based on how quickly they increase blood sugar levels. High-GI foods are digested quickly, giving a rise in blood sugar and energy levels followed by a crash-and-burn low – then you’re hungry again.
Easy change Swap white processed carbs for brown varieties. Choose wholegrain or wholemeal bread; wholewheat pasta; unprocessed grains, such as brown rice, quinoa and bulgur wheat; and wholegrain breakfast cereals such as oats – high in fibre, they keep your digestive system in tip-top order.
‘It’s just as thirst-quenching from the tap’
While bottled water is handy when you’re on the go, it’s a myth that it’s nutritionally superior to tap water. Both hydrate you, both must meet strict criteria to ensure they’re safe to drink – but tap water is free. Watch out, too, for flavoured bottles of water that have added sugar.
Easy change Fill a reusable plastic bottle with tap water to take with you when you go out.
6. Processed meats
‘It’s the increased cancer risk’
If you find it hard to resist sausages sizzling on the barbecue, love to indulge in an antipasti platter of salami, chorizo and pepperoni, or take a ham sandwich to work each day, you’re putting yourself at an increased risk of cancer and heart disease.
One study found people who ate large amounts of processed meat (160g – about three sausages – or more each day) were 44% more likely to die early, compared with those who ate the least (20g – about one bacon rasher – or less a day). Processed meat contains several cancer-causing substances, such as N-nitroso compounds, plus it’s often sky-high in salt – just two grilled rashers of streaky bacon can have as much as 1.7g salt, more than a quarter of the maximum RDA for adults. The World Cancer Research Fund also warns of strong evidence that links processed meat with bowel cancer, and high-salt foods with stomach cancer. In fact, it recommends we avoid processed meat altogether.
Easy change Choose skinless chicken or turkey breast (or ask your butcher for chicken sausages) and ‘meaty’ fish such as salmon and tuna.
7. Reduced-fat treats
‘They can be high in calories’
By law, ‘light’ products must contain 30% less fat than their standard alternatives, but they can still pack a punch calorie-wise. For example, a regular McVitie’s chocolate digestive biscuit contains 86 calories while a ‘light’ one has 77 – a difference of a mere nine calories. And some foods marketed as ‘healthier’ aren’t as nutritious as they seem – some ‘healthy’ ready meals and desserts cut the fat but double the quantity of sugar and salt.
Easy change Compare on-pack nutritional information. Better still, go back to basics – the healthiest foods you can buy, such as fresh fruit and veg, aren’t labelled. Cooking a simple healthy meal from scratch gives you control over the ingredients, portion size, calories, fat and salt.
‘Not a smart way to start the day’
I’d never eat them, nor give them to children – no matter how much they pester me for them. Unfortunately, many cereals targeted at children can be high in sugar. Children aged five to 10 years should have no more than 24g sugar a day and the majority of this should come from nutrient-rich foods such as fruit, milk, yogurt and other dairy products. While a bowl of high-sugar breakfast cereal can provide an invigorating boost for the school journey and is often fortified with nutrients, such as iron and B vitamins, it may push them over their RDA for sugar, and the subsequent spike in insulin levels will cause energy levels to sink long before lunchtime. And if you’re a fan of shop-bought muesli or granola, watch portion sizes as dried fruit is high in sugar.
Easy change Good old-fashioned oats make a fantastic no-sugar, nutrient-rich breakfast for kids. And to help keep your morning sugar intake down, make your own muesli by mixing jumbo oats, nuts, seeds and a little dried fruit, and store in a sealed container. Or top natural yogurt with a couple of tablespoons of granola instead of tucking into a bowlful.