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Nutrition Basics

Makerel dish
For all our interest in food, there are some fundamental knowledge gaps and myths about what healthy eating actually is. This section will help to explain the nutritional building blocks of a balanced, nourishing and delicious diet.

The Eat Well Plate

I’m generally not a lover of charts and tables as I think we have become far too figure- and measure-focused. However, the Eat Well Plate helps us see what food groups our bodies need and in what quantities. 
Nourish Eat Plate

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates that are grain-based, as opposed to fruits and vegetables, are broken down into complex and simple varieties. These should form a large part of our diet because they are the best source of energy. Complex carbohydrates are incredibly rich in nutrients and give you consistent energy throughout the day. Simple carbohydrates have had most of their fibre removed and may well have been bleached and refined – for example, white bread and pasta, biscuits and cakes. Most of the goodness in simple carbohydrates has been removed along with the grain, so we don’t find as much of some of the minerals and vitamins that naturally occur in complex carbohydrates. The lack of fibre also means you won’t feel satisfied after eating.
Great complex carbs:
Unsweetened muselis
Porridge oats
Wholemeal and wholegrain breads
Brown rice
Millet, spelt, barley, buckwheat
      Nourish bread

      Should I cut carbohydrates from my diet?
      A Starchy foods such as bread, pasta, potatoes and rice provide valuable sources of energy, essential vitamins and minerals, and fibre, especially when you choose wholegrain versions of these foods. These foods can also be particularly settling when you’re feeling nauseous, have a sensitive stomach, or want to slow down an overactive gut – a simple bowl of steamed rice with flakes of white fish and a drizzle of olive oil can settle almost anything.

      On the other hand, if you’re finding that you’re gaining too much weight, you might want to have a look at how much carbohydrate food you’re eating, as too much starch can make it difficult to lose weight. Reduce quantities and get that satisfying comfort food hit from other root vegetables, such as carrots, beetroot and celeriac, which are not only delicious but are packed with nutrients. 

      Fibre

      Fibre is needed to help keep our digestive system working efficiently and our hearts healthy; it also helps to balance our blood sugar, which affects our energy levels, our ability to concentrate and reduces the chances of us developing conditions such as diabetes and certain cancers. Fibre is found in two main forms in our diets – soluble and insoluble – and we need both. To maximise the fibre in your diet, keep the peel on fruits such as apples and pears and include some wholegrain products, such as porridge or wholemeal bread.
      Sources of soluble fibre: 
      fruits
      vegetables
      pulses
      grains
      Sources of insoluble fibre: 
      Husks of grains, such as wheat and rye
      Q How much fibre should I eat?
      A We should be eating 18g of fibre a day, yet the average for an adult in the UK is only 12g. This is why so many people have digestive problems, or don’t feel satiated enough after their meals and so are more inclined to overeat and be overweight. Rates of bowel cancer in the UK could be largely prevented by simply eating a diet rich in fibre.

      Fruits and vegetables

      Fruits and vegetables are classed as complex carbohydrates. We should aim to eat seven portions of fruits and vegetables a day as every cell in the body will benefit from their nutrients. It’s good to vary the fruits and vegetables as much as possible because some are particularly rich in certain minerals and vitamins (spinach in iron and carrots in beta-carotene, for example).
      Q Is fresh always best?
      A Tinned, frozen, cooked and dried fruits and vegetables can be as nutritious as fresh ones. Opt for tinned fruits in natural fruit juice, not sugary syrup. Frozen fruits and vegetables are frozen soon after they are picked, which means they are just as healthy as fresh (unless you grow your own or have a local market).
      Q Raw fruit and veg upsets my stomach. What should I eat instead?
      A Fresh, raw fruits and vegetables usually contain more vitamins and minerals than cooked ones but they can play havoc on your digestive system. In that case, cooking them may suit you better. Try poached peaches or pears, baked apples and plums, or roasted and puréed vegetables.
      Q Should I only buy organic?
      A There are some studies that suggest certain organic foods may have higher vitamins and minerals but not all the research shows that. Personally, I can’t justify the environmental impact of growing an organic carrot on the other side of the world and then flying it thousands of air miles to a supermarket. Similarly, it may not be worth overstretching your food budget for more expensive organic foods. I would prioritise local, fresh food instead, and organic if it is available and affordable.
      Of course, people who buy organic food aren’t just concerned about its nutritional value; they want to eat food that they feel has been produced with few pesticides. When it comes to meat, they prefer to eat animal produce whose organic certification standards provide them with some reassurance about animal welfare.
      Nourish carrots

      Proteins

      Proteins are essential for growth, brain development, healthy bones and endorphins (happy hormones!). Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins and there are a total of 22 – eight of which (10 for children) are called ‘essential amino acids’ because we can’t make them in our body and must therefore get them from our food.
      Animal proteins (including meat, seafood, fish and dairy products) contain all eight essential amino acids. Plant proteins (pulses, legumes, lentils, tofu, soya products, quinoa, buckwheat and seaweed) don’t contain all of the essential amino acids so need to be eaten in combination to provide all the protein you need.
      Q Should I eat a high-protein diet?
      A High-protein, low-carb diets may be very fashionable at the moment but I advocate a balanced diet that doesn’t exclude or over-emphasise certain food groups, unless for medical reasons. Protein-rich foods can be very valuable when you want to improve your body’s strength, immune system and stabilise energy levels and moods. Often when you’re fighting diseases such as cancer, your body has a tendency to break down your muscles and leave you feeling weak and vulnerable, so it’s a priority to increase your intake of protein rich-foods to help counteract the effects of the disease and treatments. While the thought of tucking into large quantities of anything, let alone piles of meat, can leave you cold, easier alternatives are a simple chicken soup or a frittata to have in the fridge for when you don’t have the energy or inclination to cook from scratch.   

      Q Does a vegetarian or vegan diet provide sufficient protein?
      A While it can be more challenging to eat enough protein when you’re either vegan or vegetarian, it’s perfectly possible. Legumes (chickpeas and beans), pulses (lentils and peas), soya products (miso, tofu), nuts and seeds are all good sources of non-meat protein. 

      Fats

      We all, especially children and older people, need fats in our diet. Fats are necessary for brain function; they provide some insulation under our skin so we don’t lose too much body heat (this is particularly the case with older people); they produce essential hormones to ensure healthy growth and development; some fat is also needed to ensure absorption of fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamin D.
      The majority of people should be eating enough good fat and not low-fat foods which can be high in sugar. Omega-rich fatty foods are good for virtually every part of the body. Fats from dairy products are also fine, as these foods can contribute calcium, magnesium, vitamin A and a little vitamin D.
      Omega-3 foods:
      Oily fish – salmon, trout, mackerel, herring, sardines, pilchards
      Nuts and seeds – linseed, pumpkin seeds, walnuts
      Q I’m worried about cholesterol. Can I still eat fats?
      A Saturated fats, such as butter and animal fats, can increase our levels of LDL cholesterol, which can ultimately lead to heart disease. Instead, you can switch to vegetable-based mono- or polyunsaturated fats, such as olive, rapeseed and avocado oils.
      Nourish Olive Oil

      Salt

      Official guidelines state we should be eating less than 6g of salt – just a level teaspoon – a day. Average consumption in the UK currently stands at 9g of salt per day. The occasional dip into some salted crisps, olives or smoked salmon isn’t going to harm anyone, as the body easily steps into action and gets rid of the salt (in the urine). However, a diet which is high in salt on a daily basis can have a profound impact on our heart, largely through aggravating blood pressure – according to the British Heart Foundation, if we reduced our salt intake by around 2.5g a day it could reduce our risk of stroke or heart attack by one quarter.
      Tips for reducing salt intake:
      • Use alternative seasonings, such as herbs, lemon juice and spices
      • Wean yourself off the taste by gradually adding a little less salt to your food
      • Taste your food as you cook and don’t automatically reach for the salt cellar
      • Check the traffic light salt amounts on food labels.
        Foods with hidden salts:
        Cheap meat pies and sausages
        Breakfast cereals
        Cakes and biscuits

        Sugar

        Sugar provides calories – 4 per gram – but they are empty calories, since sugar doesn’t contain any other nutrients. Too much sugar isn’t good for us, as it causes dental decay, may be a factor in the development of heart disease, it is linked to certain cancers and is suspected of having a bearing on low IQ. A diet high in sugar can also be a factor in promoting insulin resistance (insulin is the hormone that regulates blood sugar levels). This can mean that, over time, the effect that insulin has on the body is weakened, so that more and more insulin is needed to clear the body of unwanted sugars. Eventually this can lead to diabetes, and is one of the factors in the increasingly common adult condition called Syndrome X, a combination of diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity.

        GI is a ranking of foods from 0 to 100 according to how quickly each food will raise blood sugar levels (factors such as fibre, fat and protein content influence how quickly they are absorbed into the body).

        High GI foods:
        Honey; sugar of all sorts; chocolate; sweet still and fizzy drinks, bananas, watermelons, figs, dried dates and raisins; mashed potatoes, cooked carrots, squashes, parsnips and swedes; white and wholemeal bread; rye-based crispbreads; couscous, rice cakes and wholegrain cereals (including bran flakes); popcorn.

        Medium GI foods:
        Grapes, oranges, fresh dates, mangoes and kiwi fruits; raw carrots, sweetcorn, peas and potatoes (apart from mashed); white and wholegrain pasta; porridge and oatmeal; wholegrain rye bread (including pumpernickel); brown and white rice.

        Low GI foods:
        Apples, pears, peaches, grapefruits, plums, cherries and dried apricots; avocados; green, leafy vegetables and most other vegetables (but see above); lentils and beans; soya products.

        Q Should I cut out sugar from my diet?
        A Of course we need some carbohydrate (and that's what sugar is) because it is an essential energy source – but refined, processed sugar just isn’t necessary in our diet. For thousands of years of human evolution we didn't have any sugar, and physiologically we haven't changed from the cavemen and women so we shouldn't need it now.

        There are lots of flavourings that you can use to add sweetness to foods – coconut shavings, almond milk, dried fruits, star anise, to name a few. If you want to cut back on sugar, you should also look at the glycaemic index (GI) of the foods you eat.

        Nourish honey

        Water

        I recommend drinking 2.5 litres of water a day, and I’m not alone – the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that women should drink 2.2 litres water a day, with men needing closer to 2.9 litres. It’s my experience that the more plain water you drink, the better you feel in terms of energy levels, how plump, youthful and healthy your skin feels, and how well your digestive system works.
        Q Is bottled water better for me?
        A The health benefits of bottled water versus tap water may surprise you – tap water is just as hydrating and healthy as bottled. The main water suppliers are under a legal obligation to maintain a safe drinking water supply to your house. Bottled waters can have higher salt levels than many tap waters and don’t offer the same fluoride protection. But bottled waters can be more to your taste, and I love to drink sparkling water with a meal.

        Alcohol

        The advice for sensible drinking should be the Department of Health (DH) advice – 2–3 units a day for women, 3–4 for men. There is no real evidence that red wine is better than any other alcohol, and resveratrol, the component concerned, may work well in a test tube but not so well in the body. Your body will react to alcohol in a unique (and not always the same) way, so watch how you drink it: it can disrupt sleep, lower energy and mood levels, and can for some be a strong contributory factor in carrying too much weight, as alcohol is not only calorific but can also increase appetite, take away any resolve you had to eat well and make you crave fatty, salty foods.
        Q Does alcohol have health benefits?
        A Despite the headlines about the antioxidants in red wine, we now know that it’s only in a laboratory setting that they offer any real benefits, and I suspect that the other types of alcoholic antioxidants in white wine and beer won’t fare any better. Convincing studies show a link between drinking too much alcohol and development of mouth, throat, oesophagus, liver, bowel and breast cancers. Alcohol can also aggravate a fatty liver.

        Dairy

        Dairy produce has always been highlighted as the best source of calcium, but some people can’t take it, either because they have a lactose intolerance or are allergic to cow’s milk protein, while others just don’t like eating dairy foods. If you’re cutting down on dairy foods, you’ll need to ensure that you get sufficient bone-building calcium from other sources. Green leafy vegetables, soya products, sardines and anchovies, almonds, sesame and sunflower seeds are all good alternatives.
        Q What are the alternatives to cow’s milk?
        A There are some great alternatives to classic cow’s milk. You could try the ever-growing selection of nut milks (almond, hazelnut, cashew nut), coconut milk, hemp milk, or soya milk.
        Nourish ricotta

        Gluten

        There is a trend for believing that gluten causes the body, especially the brain, harm, but this simply isn’t correct. While people with coeliac disease have to avoid all gluten-containing foods because they damage the gut, for the majority of us, eating foods with gluten doesn’t cause any problems.
        Q I feel uncomfortable after eating gluten-containing foods. What’s the alternative?
        A Some people who don’t have coeliac disease still feel uncomfortable after eating gluten-containing foods. If, for example, wheat-based bread makes you feel bloated, you could try a loaf made with an alternative grain, such as spelt. There is less gluten in spelt than there is in wheat and it has a different structure, meaning it’s absorbed differently in the gut. For that reason, spelt bread suits some people better. You could also try chickpea pasta instead of your usual variety.