In National Obesity Week we’re looking at ways everyone can improve their health and wellbeing, often with just small changes. Whether you’ve started the New Year with resolutions or you don’t believe in them, there are easy things you can do that can make a big difference. It could be considering some food substitutions, going for a walk a little more frequently or just adopting a few new habits that take a step in the right direction.
Eating well means different things to different people but in general it means a sensible balance of healthy food and a variety across a range of different food groups.
The British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT) is the professional body for Registered Nutrition Practitioners and it recommends ‘eating a rainbow’ with seven fruits or vegetables a day. This could include a piece of fruit with breakfast and another as a snack, tomatoes and cucumber, pepper or carrot sticks as a lunch accompaniment, and three different veg with dinner – it’s not as difficult as you might think and BANT’s helpful rainbow chart provides some suggestions.
Change4Life – www.nhs.uk/change4life – also have plenty of ideas for eating well. They recommend checking food labels – the traffic-light coloured labels on most food and drink that provide indicators on saturdated fat, salt and sugar content - and give lots of healthier recipe ideas here - www.nhs.uk/change4life/recipes#SI6QVctd0c76KTFO.97 - including chilli beef and bean burgers, potato and poached egg hash, salmon with spring onion mash, vegetable jalfrezi, blueberry and banana smoothies, carrot and sultana mini pancakes and cherry berry crumble.
If you’re aiming to lose a little weight, eating well may mean keeping your calorie intake under control. Again the Change4Life receipes can help, along with checking labels and making some sensible swaps. Try something new or try cooking something different – a vegetable bake, a homemade pasta sauce or baked pineapple, a healthier version of fish and chips with no batter and sweet potato.
A healthy cholesterol level helps to keep our hearts healthy, however more than half of adults in the UK have too much cholesterol in their blood. Some food substitutions can help according to Heart UK, the cholesterol charity which endorses the Ultimate Cholesterol Lowering Plan ((UCLP).
The plan – available here https://heartuk.org.uk/cholesterol-and-diet/about-the-uclp – advocates swapping high fat high sugar options for sensible alternatives, and you may be surprised that something as simple as switching from a chocolate éclair (14.5g of saturated fat) to a hot cross bun/ teacake with 0.9g of saturated fat can be such a significant reduction.
Switching a pastry meat pie (13.4g of saturated fat) to a potato-topped version (7.7g of saturated fat) is another relatively simple swap, while switching from apple pie with cream to an oaty apple crumble with a lower fat plant-based cream alternative can also almost halve the saturated fat content too.
The plan advises three portions of vegetables and two portions of fruit daily – and these can been fresh, canned, frozen or dried – and one or two portions per week of omega-3 oil rich fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines or trout.
Plant-based foods are also advocated including soya-based yoghurts, milks, custards and meat substitutes, nuts, foods fortified with plant sterols/ stanols and foods with oat and barley beta glucans, such as porridge and other oat-based cereals, pearl barley and oatcakes. Other wholegrain food such as wholemeal bread, brown rice and pasta, and beans and pulses are all included in foods that contribute to healthier cholesterol levels.
Let’s Talk Sugar
With increasing evidence indicating a high intake of ‘free’ sugars is detrimental to health, this is an area where small changes can make a real difference.
What is a ‘free sugar’?
‘Free sugars’ include all monosaccharides and disaccharides which are added to foods by the manufacturer, cook or consumer.
It also includes sugars naturally present in honey, syrups and unsweetened fruit juices.
Under this definition lactose (milk sugar), when it is naturally present in milk and milk products, and sugars contained within the cellular structure of foods (particularly fruits and vegetables) are excluded.
What are free sugars in?
You will find ‘free sugars’ in sugar-sweetened drinks, cakes, biscuits, pastries, sugar-sweetened cereals, confectionery, preserves and fruit juice.
The current average individual intake of free sugars are at least twice that recommended and three times higher in 11 to 18 years old.
What can I do?
It’s thought that if everyone across the UK reduced their calorie intake by just 100 calories per day by easing up on the sugar it could reduce the risk of obesity and improve dental health.
Public Health England advises that the average intake of ‘free sugars’ should not exceed 5% of total dietary energy intake. In practice this means no more than 19g/day of free sugars for children aged 4 to 6 (equivalent to around five cubes of sugar), no more than 24g/day for 7 to 10-year olds (six cubes) and no more than 30g/day for children from age 11 and adults (seven cubes).
At the same time we are being encouraged to increase the amount of dietary fibre we eat, to replace the energy provided by free sugars. Current intake falls well below the new recommendation of 30g of fibre per day for adults. We should all be eating more high-fibre starchy foods such as wholegrain cereals, wholemeal bread and pasta, brown rice, jacket potatoes and pulses.
Did you know?
• 13% (one in eight) of adults already achieve this 5% dietary energy recommendation
• average intakes of free sugars across the age groups range from 49-64g/day in females and 63-84g/day in males
• highest intakes are in children aged 4 to 10 years (14.7% of dietary energy intake) and 11 to 18-year olds (15.4% of dietary energy, on average)
• sugar-sweetened drinks provide 30% of the free sugars intake of 11 to 18-year olds, on average, and 16% in younger children and adults
There is a Change4Life Sugar Swaps app which is easy to download and will show you how much sugar is in the things you are eating and drinking by simply scanning the bar code. This can be downloaded from Google Play – look for Change4Life food scanner.
A Bit About Salt
Salt is another substance which we should all try and reduce in our diets.
What is the risk?
It’s the sodium part of salt (also known as sodium chloride) that raises your blood pressure and in turn increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. Our bodies only need around 1g of salt a day however many adults consume between 7g and 9g a day.
Guidelines for adults are currently for no more than 6g a day (approximately a teaspoon of salt).
Did you know?
Two thirds of our daily intake comes from salt present in manufactured foods, so cutting down on salty snacks and opting for lower salt soups, sauces, ready meals, stock cubes and using canned vegetable without added salt and canned fish in oil or spring water can help.
It can also help to reduce the use of salt in cooking and at the table.
Where can I check?
Look also for food labelling which will show the value per 100g (most will use a traffic light system):
Red: anything more than 1.5g = High content, you should only have this occasionally.
Amber: 0.31g to 1.5g = Medium content, is okay most of the time
Green: 0.3g or less = Low content, this is a healthier choice.
Don’t forget some packaging doesn’t use the traffic light system so you need to read these carefully.
Reducing blood pressure
It's not always clear what causes high blood pressure, but certain things can increase your risk.
You're at an increased risk of high blood pressure if you:
- are over the age of 65
- are overweight or obese
- are of African or Caribbean descent
- have a relative with high blood pressure
- eat too much salt and don't eat enough fruit and vegetables
- don't do enough exercise
- drink too much alcohol or coffee (or other caffeine-based drinks)
- don't get much sleep or have disturbed sleep
Making healthy lifestyle changes can help reduce your chances of getting high blood pressure and help lower your blood pressure if it's already high. Some steps include;
- reduce the amount of salt you eat and have a generally healthy diet
- cut back on alcohol if you drink too much
- lose weight if you're overweight
- exercise regularly
- cut down on caffeine
- stop smoking
- try to get at least six hours of sleep a night
Salt raises your blood pressure. The more salt you eat, the higher your blood pressure. Aim to eat less than 6g (0.2oz) of salt a day, which is about a teaspoonful.
Eating a low-fat diet that includes lots of fibre – such as wholegrain rice, bread and pasta – and plenty of fruit and vegetables also helps lower blood pressure. Aim to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables every day.
Limit your alcohol intake
Regularly drinking alcohol above recommended limits can raise your blood pressure over time.
Staying within these recommended levels is the best way to reduce your risk of developing high blood pressure:
- men and women are advised not to regularly drink more than 14 units a week
- spread your drinking over three days or more if you drink as much as 14 units a week
Alcohol is also high in calories, which will make you gain weight and can further increase your blood pressure.
Being overweight forces your heart to work harder to pump blood around your body, which can raise your blood pressure. The BMI healthy weight calculator shows the range you should be aiming for but it’s worth remembering that losing just a few pounds can make a big difference to your blood pressure and overall health.
Being active and taking regular exercise lowers blood pressure by keeping your heart and blood vessels in good condition.
Regular exercise can also help you lose weight, which will also help lower your blood pressure.
Physical activity can include anything from sport to walking and gardening.
Cut down on caffeine
Drinking more than four cups of coffee a day may increase your blood pressure.
If you're a big fan of coffee, tea or other caffeine-rich drinks, such as cola and some energy drinks, consider cutting down.
It's fine to drink tea and coffee as part of a balanced diet, but it's important that these drinks are not your main or only source of fluid.
Smoking doesn't directly cause high blood pressure, but it puts you at much higher risk of a heart attack and stroke.
Smoking, like high blood pressure, will cause your arteries to narrow. If you smoke and have high blood pressure, your arteries will narrow much more quickly, and your risk of heart or lung disease in the future is dramatically increased.
Get a good night's sleep
Long-term sleep deprivation is associated with a rise in blood pressure and an increased risk of hypertension. It's a good idea to try to get at least six hours of sleep a night if you can.
Read some tips for getting to sleep if you find yourself struggling to get enough sleep.
One of the easiest ways to up activity levels is to walk more, as just ten minutes of brisk walking a day can improve health.
While we should all be aiming to be active for around 150 minutes each week, any activity is better than none and ten minutes of brisk walking can get your blood pumping and improve your mood, as well as reduce your risk of long term health conditions.
Public Health England’s campaign ‘Ten steps to an active you’ gives some tips around how to get started and how to stay motivated. There’s also the free Active 10 app to help show when you are walking quickly enough and long enough to for health benefits.
For more details please see here - https://www.nhs.uk/oneyou/ and click ‘Moving’. The site also provides advice on a range of subjects including Sleep and Stress.
If you’re interested doing something other than walking, then Active Norfolk has information about other activities that may be of interest - https://www.activenorfolk.org/ . A search of activities within a five-mile radius of the hospital reveals beginners running, tai chi, dance and exercise classes and courses as well as options for those with intermediate fitness levels.