How strictly do you police your eating habits? While some eat what they want, when they want, an increasing number of the people I see in clinic base their meal times around ‘rules’.
And hearing some of these ‘rules’ makes me want to bury my head in my hands.
Take the idea that fruit should only be eaten on an empty stomach, as it otherwise ‘slows’ digestion — there’s no foundation for this in science. It’s just one example of many.
Here, I focus on some of the food mantras that you can ignore. In doing so, I hope to help ensure that your meal times are healthier, happier occasions.
Wait to have a drink
The idea of taking a 30-minute break between eating your meal and having a drink has been around for years, based on the belief that drinking even water with meals will dilute our digestive enzymes.
But your body is smarter than that. While it’s possible that drinking water might momentarily dilute the concentration of stomach enzymes, there are sensors in the stomach to ensure that as many enzymes as you need to digest a meal are produced.
In fact, drinking water with meals is a good idea if you eat too fast and too much, as it can reduce the likelihood of over-eating.
How strictly do you police your eating habits? While some eat what they want, when they want, an increasing number of the people I see in clinic base their meal times around ‘rules’
Cut the carbs…
Carbohydrates have picked up a bad reputation — blamed for raising blood sugar levels and causing weight gain — and as a result, many people eliminate them altogether.
But for most people good-quality carbohydrates — such as oats — are a valuable addition to the diet. They provide useful amounts of fibre (we need 30g a day), and cutting them out can have a negative effect on our gut microbes, which use fibre as a food source.
What’s more, a review by Tufts University in the U.S., published in 2019, showed that a higher intake of wholegrains may actually lower the risk of weight gain.
The findings were based on studies involving more than 130,000 participants, which makes it pretty compelling evidence.
So, by all means say no to the highly processed white breads, cakes and biscuits, but don’t worry about including wholegrains such as quinoa and rye, legumes such as chickpeas and lentils, and other plant-based carbs.
…And sugary fruit
Many people seem to have bought into the idea that fruit is simply another source of sugar and so plays no part in a healthy diet. But research shows the opposite is true.
Fruit is packed with fibre, vitamins and other plant- based compounds (called phytochemicals) which are good for our gut microbes, including one group called bifidobacteria.
Low levels of this particular bacteria have been linked to low mood — this may help explain the findings of a review published last year by researchers at Sydney University, which showed that eating fruit was linked to a lower risk of developing depression.
The other thing to know about fruit is that the sugar is locked in with the fibre, so it won’t lead to quite the spike in blood sugar that can be caused by fruit juice (which doesn’t have this fibre).
I’d suggest eating two pieces of fruit a day, with the goal of having at least five different types across the week. The more diverse your fruit intake, the more different phytochemicals for your gut microbes to enjoy. Keeping them happy keeps us happy.
Did you know?
The liquid part of yoghurt that often separates and comes to the top — i.e. the whey — contains key nutrients such as protein, calcium and potassium. So don’t pour it away: mix it in or add it to a smoothie for an extra nutritious hit.
Ban processed food
It’s certainly true that any food with a very long ingredients list and which includes many words you don’t recognise is best avoided.
We know that ultra-processed foods — i.e. those made mainly with extracts from other foods and containing high levels of fat, salt, sugar and additives — can affect our gut microbes, encourage over-eating (because of their low fibre content) and may even affect our mental health.
But there is no need to demonise all processed foods, not least because our busy lives mean we can’t always make everything from scratch, but also because, frankly, even virtuous Greek yoghurt could be considered processed by some (the definition being that a food has been altered from its natural state, often by the addition of other ingredients).
Focus instead on buying food with ingredients you recognise, rather than additives, in the first four places on the label (ingredients are listed by weight, with the largest amount first).
Stick to fresh…
Tinned or frozen food can sometimes contain more nutrients than the fresh produce left on shelves or at the back of the fridge.
A study by Pennsylvania State University in the U.S., published in the Journal of Food Science, found that fresh spinach lost nearly half its folate (a B vitamin) after eight days in the fridge.
Frozen vegetables lose a fraction of their nutrients when blanched before freezing, but otherwise are bursting with goodness. Similarly, there is a reduction in nutrients when veg is heated during the canning process, but the vast majority are retained.
Tinned tomatoes, black beans and chickpeas are all staples of my store cupboard.
What’s more, using tinned or frozen foods can help you build more plant variety into your meals more cost-effectively, and with less risk of waste.
Tinned tomatoes, black beans and chickpeas are all staples of my store cupboard. Tinned tomatoes are seen above
OK, a homemade casserole is going to be better for you than a ready meal, but that doesn’t mean all homemade food is good for you — or healthier than a shop-bought product.
A homemade biscuit with 50 per cent butter and 30 per cent sugar is arguably worse for you than an oat-based, mass-produced biscuit such as a Hobnob, which is made of almost 40 per cent oats.
I’m not saying either is good for you, but don’t presume what comes out of your kitchen is automatically healthier than what’s available in the shops. It isn’t.
And last but by no means least, this rule is likely the one that the most people are religious about — but it’s one that’s ripe to ignore.
That’s because first, the calorie count on labels is often not that accurate — it’s based on what happens in a laboratory, not what goes on in your body.
Second, not all calories are equal when it comes to digesting them. For instance, a study published in the journal Food & Nutrition Research in 2010 found that digesting a processed meal used nearly 50 per cent fewer calories than the amount used to digest a whole-food meal (i.e. one based on veg, nuts and wholegrains).
So my advice is to try to centre your meals around whole plant foods which have been minimally processed (so no to those ultra-processed vegan burgers and yes to homemade chickpea burgers), as this will naturally curb your intake of foods that encourage weight gain.
This will ensure a healthier, more effective approach to eating and weight management.
Try this: ‘Live’ breakfast parfait
Don’t let those busy starts get in the way of a tasty and nutritious breakfast for you and your gut microbes. This is one of my favourites.
- 200g live, thick yoghurt
- 50g berries of your choice
- 40g no added sugar granola
- 1 tbsp dark chocolate, shaved
Layer the ingredients into a serving glass — first spoon in half the yoghurt, then half the fruit, then half the granola and repeat. Top with dark chocolate shavings.
My daughter has had stomach cramps, bloating and nausea and has lost weight since having norovirus five years ago. Despite tests (including blood and stool tests and an endoscopy), she’s had no diagnosis but, for the past three years, has been prescribed antidepressants for the stomach cramps. Whenever she tries to come off them slowly, the cramps return.
It sounds as if your daughter might have post-infectious irritable bowel syndrome (PI-IBS), which is quite a common cause of IBS. It occurs when an infection affects the enteric nervous system, which connects our gut and brain. As a result, even long after the infection is eradicated, the gut symptoms persist.
Certain types of antidepressants can help, prescribed at lower doses than when they are used to treat depression as they are targeting the gut rather than the brain per se.
I’d recommend asking for your daughter to be referred to an IBS specialist dietitian, who will be able to review her diet and determine if there are any key triggers.
It’s also worth considering cognitive behavioural therapy or gut-directed hypnotherapy, as both have been shown to help target the dysfunction between the gut and brain in IBS — they’re often used for patients who want to avoid relying on medication. Buscopan, which you can buy from pharmacies, can help with acute cramping during the short-term transition from medication to therapy.