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Eating well

in Your Health

Eating well

Embarking on a new career is an exciting and challenging time, full of opportunities and demands. The learning curve is steep and we are anxious to prove ourselves, make friends and of course, maximise our social lives.

As we become busier and busier, it’s all too easy to neglect ourselves, and often our diets suffer as a result. In the short term, our bodies are pretty resilient, but over time, such neglect impacts on our health and wellbeing, and it is precisely at this time that we should pay extra attention to our diets to ensure that we are receiving the nutrients we need, as well as the energy to keep us going. 

Whilst most people realise the importance of a healthy lifestyle and diet, and do know what they should be eating, when the pressure is on it can be difficult to put into practice. However, with a bit of organisation and planning, it doesn’t have to be that hard, and we can make sure we look after ourselves at the same time as leading busy lives.

To start with, it can be a good idea to prepare a weekly menu, so that your meals are planned and your shopping list can be organised; an internet shop can be a great way of saving time. A little preparation can make a big difference as well, for example, cooking big volumes of soup at the weekends which can be frozen in portion sizes ready to take out the night before for a nutritious lunch. 

Breakfast is an important meal of the day – we have often gone 12 hours since our last meal - so, if you make only one change, make a point of starting the day with a healthy and substantial breakfast, which will keep you fuelled until lunchtime. Not only will skipping breakfast result in the all too familiar energy slump around 11 am, which has us reaching for the biscuit tin and coffee mug, but studies show that those who eat breakfast learn and retain information more easily than those who don’t. Another consequence of skipping breakfast is that you are more likely to overeat later in the day – when you miss meals, your brain subconsciously drives you to eat high calorie foods i.e. sugary carbohydrates, in order to replace the missing calories, so if you are watching your weight and want to feel alert and ready for the day, always start with breakfast. Some good work day choices would include eggs (poached, scrambled, omelette) on wholemeal toast, natural yoghurt with a handful of nuts (brazil, almonds), sugar free muesli with berries on top, baked beans on wholemeal toast, fruit salad or a protein shake (choose one without added sugar or sweeteners).

As for lunches, the occasional shop-brought sandwich or salad is ok, but the ingredients may not always be fresh and they often contain higher levels of sugar, fat and salt than expected. If possible, consider taking a packed lunch. This doesn’t have to be an elaborate affair, and can be sandwiches made with wholemeal bread, but you will have control over the ingredients and can include plenty of fresh, seasonal items which can increase your nutrient consumption. A tupperware container with salad including any number of combinations of vegetables such as cherry tomatoes, mixed peppers, carrot sticks, cucumber, mange tout, baby corn etc, along with a portion of good quality protein such as tuna, chicken, turkey, oily fish or a pot of cottage cheese and a portion of complex carbohydrates such as brown rice or pasta, wholemeal bread. Lunches like this can be prepared in 5 minutes and by combining complex carbohydrates with protein, blood sugar levels are stabilised and you are kept fuller for longer, minimising the need for snacks and avoiding cravings. 

When we don’t eat regular, balanced meals, our energy levels slump, inevitably leading to snacking, and in this situation we generally don’t make healthy choices, instead opting for foods such as cakes, biscuits, chocolate bars, coffee and fizzy drinks. Whilst this provides a quick fix as blood sugar levels surge, the body then has to work really hard to bring levels back under control, and the high is inevitably followed by a slump as levels come back under control, so the cycle then repeats itself. This rollercoaster of blood sugar highs and lows can make us tired, grumpy, irritable and unable to concentrate. The long-term implications are more serious, with such a lifestyle contributing to heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes. The sugar rollercoaster can be a hard cycle to break, but when you do, the benefits are enormous. If this sounds like you, start slowly by changing one or two things, and then as you start to notice improvements, make further changes. 

Caffeine is one of the drugs of choice for people struggling with energy fluctuations, using it as a crutch to get through the day. Caffeine has wide-ranging effects on the body and can contribute to the effects of stress, so weaning yourself off is a good idea, more so if you have problems sleeping, – caffeine has a half-life of 6 hours so try not to have any after 2 pm. Gradually replace your cups of coffee with green tea which studies show have numerous health benefits, including being a fantastic source of anti-oxidants. 

Alcohol can also feature heavily in the lives of busy stressed people, as they believe it to be a stress reliever. Not only does it not relieve stress, the detoxification of alcohol demands a lot of nutrients whilst it provides nothing in return, which is why it is known as an anti-nutrient. It also contributes to blood sugar imbalances, hence the next day hangover hunger. Alcohol consumption should therefore be moderate.

It sounds obvious to say that water is critical, as the human body is around 70% water, so even mild dehydration can have dramatic effects on performance and concentration levels. However, many of us spend much of our life in state of mild dehydration and the benefit of drinking more water cannot be under-estimated. Ideally, this should be about 2 litres of water spread across the day – more if you undertake vigorous exercise. Water can be an acquired taste, so if it really doesn’t appeal to start with, try mixing with juice and gradually reduce the concentration, making it more and more dilute, until you can do without.

With 3 balanced meals a day you may find that you no longer need to snack. However, sometimes you will and on these occasions, have some healthy options readily available, such as nuts & seeds, rice cakes, oatcakes or pitta breads with hummus, cottage cheese or peanut butter, home-popped popcorn, cherry tomatoes, natural yoghurt or a smoothy (innocent do portion packs). 

If you eat out on a regular basis, you will want to continue your healthy eating regime, which can be hard when temptation is all around. The occasional blow-out won’t do any harm providing you resume your healthy eating the next day. However, if you eat out regularly, it makes sense to continue with your healthy food choices, for example, choose salads but go easy on the dressings, or a steak but have extra fresh vegetables/salad and hold on the chips or roast potatoes. Choose grilled or baked, rather than fried, and restrict the cheese, butter and rich sauces that come with them. Also, consider portion sizes and eat what is right for you, not what has been dished up. Portions have grown considerably in recent years – a recent study found that the portions we eat of foods like hamburgers and fries are two to five times larger than the original versions our parents and grandparents used to eat.

Dinner at home can also be both quick and nutritious, and it may be worth investing in a cook book containing quick healthy recipes. Unfortunately, the more processed and packaged food you rely on, the more salt, sugar and fat you are likely to be eating and the more empty calories you are likely to consume. If ready meals are a must, add some brown rice and a couple portions of fresh vegetables to the side, or start with a fruit salad.

It is understandable that good nutrition may be hard to maintain when we’re stressed and busy, but ironically, it’s at this time that we need good nutrition the most. Experts say that it takes 21 days to form a habit, so whilst the changes may be hard work at first, over time they become second nature and your body will thank you for it as your health improves. Rather than adopt the all or nothing approach which often leads to failure, it is often easier and more manageable to make lots of small changes which then add up to a large overall difference to your health, and are sustainable for life. My advice therefore, is to take the first step today, to eat well and feel great!

Sarah Marshall DipONT
(Braintree Nutrition Advice)

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