1. What are starchy carbohydrate foods? Why are they important in our diet?
Starchy carbohydrate foods are an important source of energy composed of starch, sugar and fibre. Aim to get 3-4 servings per day of starchy carbohydrates, which includes potatoes, pasta, rice, bread, couscous, oats, breakfast cereals and other grains such as rye, millet and buckwheat. After they are eaten they are broken down into glucose, which is the body’s main energy fuel source, especially important for the brain and muscles.
Starchy food should make up around a third of our plate and can make up an important element of our dishes, think mashed potato on a fish pie or rice to accompany a curry! Wholegrain varieties of starchy foods are good sources of fibre, such as whole wheat pasta and brown rice. Potatoes with their skin left on are a higher source of fibre too.
Starchy foods can get a bad reputation for being fattening, however this is typically linked to the foods they are frequently served with, so be mindful of your serving size when you next add butter to your potato or cheese to your pasta.
2. What is fibre and how does it benefit your health?
Fibre is a nutrient and the term used for all carbohydrates that are found in plant based foods that aren’t digested or absorbed by the body, rather they pass through and help to keep our digestive system healthy and prevent constipation. Dietary fibre can reduce your risk of heart disease and bowel cancer too.
The amount of fibre we should be having in our diet progressively increases with age up to adolescence. For those aged 17+ and adults it’s recommended to aim for 30g fibre a day. By following a healthy, well balanced diet it’s possible to comfortably meet these recommendations.
Fibre can be found in an array of foods (another reason why it’s important to have a varied diet) such as fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, peas, beans and pulses. We can get even more fibre in our diets by choosing brown rice, pasta and bread more often and bulking out salads and soups with beans and lentils. A small handful of dried fruit, nuts and seeds (up to 30g), or some veg crudités are all great fibre-rich options to choose for a snack.
3. Why do I need protein? Where can I get it from?
Protein is an important nutrient or building block for strong bones and helps in the growth and repair of our muscles.
For the UK population we currently get enough protein in our diet, so it’s not a nutrient of concern. We should aim to have 2 to 3 servings throughout the day with a focus on eating a variety of protein based foods. The main sources of protein include eggs, beans, lentils, poultry, red meat, fish, nuts, seeds and meat alternatives such as tofu.
It’s wise to choose some lower fat protein foods, such as lean meats or pulses to reduce our saturated fat intake. Meat can be eaten as part of a balanced diet, but be mindful of how much you have in your diet (limit red and processed meat such as bacon and sausages to less than 70g per day) and consider going meat free once or twice a week to embrace other non-meat vegetarian sources such as beans and lentils which are higher in fibre.
4. What’s the importance of dairy in our diet?
Dairy foods are an important source of nutrients including calcium, protein and iodine. Calcium is especially important for the building and maintenance of strong bones.
Dairy based foods include cheese, plain milk and yoghurt and you should aim to include 2-3 servings a day. To make healthier choices, where possible opt for reduced or lower fat versions such as cottage or cream cheese, yoghurt and skimmed or semi skimmed milk. Check your food labels to make sure these lower fat options aren’t then high in added sugar.
For vegetarians and vegans or those with a cow’s milk allergy or lactose intolerance unsweetened, calcium fortified dairy alternatives such as plant based milk and yoghurt are a good replacement for dairy foods.
5. Fruit and vegetables - Why are they important & tips to hit your 5-a-day.
Different coloured fruits and vegetables provide different vitamins and minerals, each play different roles within the body, which further highlights the importance of a balanced, varied diet.
Fruit and vegetables are at their best when eaten in season – just when they're at their most juicy, ripe and sweet. So whether it’s pears in the autumn, beetroot in the summer or apples in the winter, mix up the fruit and vegetables you eat each week to make sure you get a good balance, and more of the nutrients you need in your diet.
It may sound a lot, but if you can get one portion in at each meal and a couple of portions a day as snacks, you’re heading towards hitting that target. All fruit and vegetables (except white potatoes, they’re a starchy carbohydrate!) count towards your 5-a-day – whether fresh, tinned, dried or frozen. A good balance to aim for is two fruit and three vegetable portions each day as a minimum.
6. Types of fats - why we should be aiming to include more healthy fats in our diet.
The main types of fat found in food are saturated and unsaturated fat. A small amount of fat is important in the diet to help absorb vitamins A, D and E. These vitamins can only be absorbed by the body in the presence of fat.
Large amounts of saturated fatty foods in the diet have been linked with increased cholesterol; a risk factor for heart disease. So as part of a healthier diet we should be reducing our intake of foods high in saturated fat, such as butter, cream, ice cream, chocolate, biscuits and meat products, e.g. sausages. This can be done by using cooking methods such as grilling or baking, rather than frying; using less fat in cooking and choosing lower fat versions of dairy products, by checking food labels.
As part of a healthy diet consider swapping saturated fats for unsaturated, which are mostly found in vegetable oils (e.g. rapeseed, sunflower), oily fish (e.g salmon, mackerel), avocados & some nuts (e.g. brazil). Research shows this too can help lower cholesterol. Note even unsaturated fats should still be consumed sparingly as they are still high in energy and calories.
7. What are the types of sugar? Why should we be mindful of our sugar intake?
There are 2 main types of sugars; ‘free’ or ‘added’ sugars are those sugars added to food and drinks by the food manufacturer. They are also found in fruit juice, honey & syrups. Whereas natural sugar occurs naturally in foods such as fruit, vegetables, milk and plain yoghurt. It’s the ‘free’ sugars we need to reduce in our diet as they can increase our risk of tooth decay and are often found in foods which provide little other nutrients, e.g. fizzy drinks and sweets.
Nutrition labels on food and drink declare the sugar content as ‘of which sugars’ – this is the sum of both the free sugars and natural sugars added together. So it can be difficult and misleading to differentiate between the two types of sugar.
The best way to keep track of your sugar intake is to check the ingredients list on the food label of your favourite and staple foods and remember sugar can come in all sorts of different forms, e.g. glucose syrup, fructose, maltose and brown rice syrup.
8. How much salt is too much? Why should we be mindful of our salt intake?
Salt is a nutrient that in large quantities in the diet can raise blood pressure which in turn can increase risk of cardiovascular disease, e.g. heart attack, strokes.
Foods that are naturally high in salt include bacon, olives, cheese, ham, gravy, stock; all common ingredients used in cooking. Salt is also added to many common staple foods such as bread, breakfast cereal and cheese, this is not to say we should exclude these foods, but rather be mindful of how much salt they provide by checking their food labels.
Adults should have no more than 6 grams of salt per day (less for children). To cut down on salt try to reduce the amount of salt you add to your food both during cooking and to the finished meal. Fresh and dried herbs and spices and ingredients such as garlic, chilli, ginger and lemon are great weapons in cooking to further boost flavour!
9. Importance of a balanced diet
We all know we should be eating a balanced and varied diet, but why is this so?
Different foods provide different vitamins, minerals and nutrients. So it’s important to try and incorporate each of the food groups at mealtimes where possible:
Starchy carbohydrates, e.g. pasta, bread, rice. Wholegrain varieties are higher in fibre so include in your diet where you can.
Fruit and vegetables - aim for 5-a-day. Tinned, dried and frozen fruit also count.
Dairy - try to opt for lower fat foods where possible such as low fat cheese and yoghurt and skimmed or semi skimmed milk.
Protein - this includes eggs, fish, meat, tofu. Embrace pulses such as lentils and beans which are higher in fibre, lower in fat and still a great source of protein.
Oils and spreads - choose unsaturated fats and oils (e.g. olive, vegetable and rapeseed oil) and consume in small amounts as they are still very energy dense.
Have you heard the phrase ‘eat the rainbow’? It encourages eating a variety of fruit and vegetables, as their different colours indicate the different vitamins and minerals they each contain. Mix up the fruit and vegetables you buy during your weekly shop.
10. Hydration - importance of & how to hydrate well
Hydrating well can make such a difference to how we feel, our behaviour and performance during the day. The NHS recommends we aim to consume 6-8 glasses of fluid throughout each day, the equivalent of 1.2 litres. Water is a great option to hydrate with as it is a healthy and cheap choice and it contains no calories and no added or free sugar. In addition to water; plain milk, tea, coffee and fruit juice all may count towards this total too. Keep a check on your caffeine intake and opt for decaffeinated or herbal tea where you can.
Fizzy drinks, energy drinks and flavoured milks, often contain high amounts of added sugar. If you’re after a drink with a flavour boost, hydrate with flavoured water, i.e. water with fresh fruit and/or herbs, think grapefruit with rosemary or orange and mint.
With regards to fruit juice & smoothies aim to consume no more than a 150ml serving, once per day. These provide a maximum of 1 of your 5 a day no matter how much you drink, but the sugar found here is still classed as free or added sugar.