Mummy was Right (and 10 Rules for Better Eating)

I have a BMI of 18. I have been this way, more or less, since hitting puberty. There have been times when I have been sad or fallen ill, when I have weighed less.

A BMI of 18 is considered slightly underweight. I let myself eat a tremendous amount of junk towards the end of last year post-abdominal surgery, gaining an extra kilo and a half. That didn’t feel right so I think I am at my best weight now.

I don’t automatically associate being slim to being healthy. Though, unless food is scarce, I suppose that’s not a bad problem to have.

People say it is due to my mother’s genes, who has pretty much stayed the same weight all her adult life. Because of her eating habits and resultant slender frame (accompanied by conscious regular exercise), she looks at least 10 years younger than she is.

I think we can all agree that good physical condition enhances our experience of life. It is the framework that supports being able to live the best life we can. If it is weak or diseased, it impacts everything else negatively.

I want to talk about food habits in this post; bare in mind, I am no nutritionist or health expert, just someone who thinks that mummy was right about a thing or two, and that my absence of weight issues is not because of ‘good genes’ but habits instilled at a young age that I later consciously sustained. Through years of practice, they are pretty much second-nature now (oblige me by calling them ‘rules’).

Rule # 1: Reading nutritional information for ‘saturated fat’ content. Plain canned tuna for instance, is very low in saturated fats, and may serve as a good reference. For anything I buy off a supermarket shelf I pretty much always consider the food labels before it goes into my basket. You must also consider trans fats — to this end, avoid deep-fried food.

Note: I read the ‘_ per 100g’ value as opposed to ‘_ per serve’, as the serving size is an arbitrary number that is pro-profit rather than pro-consumer.

Rule # 2: No instant meals. My husband and I cook most of our meals and we take leftovers or wholesome sandwiches* made with wholemeal bread to work. We like to eat out occasionally but other than that, I pretty much don’t eat anything that just needs heating in a microwave aside from popcorn.

Rule # 3: The weekly food trolley always has a variety of green, orange, red vegetables and fruit of various colours. As long as the colours are all natural, and they are in season which makes them reasonably priced, they come home with us.

Rule # 4: Our trolley has hardly any snack food. I still like salty things, which is my weakness and I will pick up some salted nuts or rice crackers, but I try not to if I can help it; we buy packaged raw nuts which we roast in the oven at home and snack on unsalted.

Rule # 5: We have one or two servings of free range chicken and lean red meat per week, the rest is seafood (MSC ecolabels are a good thing to check for to feel good about the seafood you buy), tofu and vegetables. Our shopping routinely has whitefish and oily fish (salmon, tuna, sardines, mackerel) and prawns, which we cycle through during the week. We also buy only free range eggs. Occasionally, we will pick up squid, shellfish, crabs or octopus, and trout when available. Disclaimer: I did not get my diverse seafood palette from my mum.

Rule # 6: We don’t buy soft drinks. My dentist told me many years ago that a said can of drink from the vending machine had 11 teaspoons of sugar. I hadn’t grown up drinking soft drinks and that figure helped keep it that way. I drink loads of coconut water though (I found a brand that tastes like it is straight out of a coconut, and has nothing added) — nothing quenches thirst on a hot day like coconut water! I also don’t espouse consuming (sugar-free) soft drinks with artificial sweeteners when we could train ourselves to ‘be addicted’ to something more natural.

Rule # 7: We try and have all of protein, good fats, veges/ fruit and carbs in at least our lunches and dinners. Carbs, we’ve decided to slowly reduce to less, and replace it with vegetables and good fats, given the increasing contention about the traditional food pyramid. (A word of caution: this does not mean you should eat more meat and saturated fats particularly if you already have CVD or diabetes). A little anecdote supporting this change:

*Recently, I stopped taking sandwiches for lunch and replaced it with an avacado, 3 or 4 pieces of whole fruit and a can of flavoured tuna. It started out as something I could quickly put into my bag in the morning if I hadn’t got to making a sandwich the night before. I realised that it filled me up for longer, and I wasn’t as ravenous in the afternoon — a weak point in the day when I would pretty much eat anything I could lay my hands on, good or bad. I realised it was also a good way of getting a good amount of fruit into me which is something I found hard to sustain otherwise. For now, it has become my standard lunch, and to keep it interesting I vary the fruit and the flavour of tuna but keep the avocado constant which makes me feel full.

Please note: while I’ve made some small changes, I am not advocating the ‘low carb high fat’ diet, as I feel that carbs are necessary particularly if they are unrefined and low GI, but that we possibly don’t need as much as we were told we do.

Rule # 8: This one is relatively new: If we buy something with ‘reduced fat’ we compare its sugar content with the full fat version. Be ware, it will often be higher! Sometimes the full fat version is better, especially if you are generally eating well/ healthy. Sugar is bad news, this is likely not news to you.

I recently stopped putting honey in my weet bix in the mornings since the lactose in milk is naturally sweet (and soy milk has sugar as an ingredient) especially when unmasked by added sugar or honey (honey is just another form of sugar and not necessarily healthier). If you are used to adding sugar in your cereal this might be hard to stop doing, but know that there is likely sugar in your cereal already (milk + cereal or soy milk + cereal = enough sweetness :)) and you’ll be able to taste it once your taste buds are set free. Try it for a few days, and see if you can get used to it (you can!).

Rule # 9: We use natural ingredients for seasoning, gravies and sauces. Pastes and anything from a jar will be loaded with unnatural stuff, saturated fats, sugar and salt. Read the label/ nutritional information (rule # 1) and you’ll know what I mean.

Rule # 10: We cook! It may seem like a lot of effort, but if you don’t expect every meal to turn out like a Jamie Oliver creation it isn’t that big a deal and you’ll be eating healthier and in control of what goes into you. Set lower expectations for the taste, just aim for healthier eating, and as you gain confidence your meals will turn out better too (but stick to natural ingredients). I feel food should primarily be about nutrition and if they turn out amazing, that’s a total bonus; at the very least they will be completely edible provided you’ve used good wholesome ingredients, and you haven’t overcooked the vegetables! Fresh fruit and vegetables, and even meat and seafood have a lot of natural flavour. Grow to love them, rather than masking the taste with all sorts of bad stuff.

If you haven’t been able to give your diet much thought so far but acknowledge that some changes are in order, I hope this post has something useful to offer. If you don’t cook at all presently, perhaps start with cooking one night a week. Just take it slow and change one thing at a time, and you’ll have momentum which will effect more positive changes with less perceived effort.

A time saving tip: Do a bit of bulk cooking when you can. I personally don’t want to be cooking every night if I can help it.

A word about cost: buying fresh wholesome ingredients may be a little costlier in the short term but it will reduce the cost to your health (and subsequent loss of productivity), quality of life, and cost of life-sustaining treatment and medicines in the long term. Think big picture.

A final word: We don’t yet have all the answers about what is good and bad for us, so keeping an open mind and modifying your diet as you learn more or find what works for you is important. Feeling better for it in the short term and keeping lifestyle-induced illnesses or their symptoms at arm’s length over the long term is absolutely worth the trouble. Our brains are adaptable and plastic and can be trained to be on our side!

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Originally published at smallwaystobemore.com on March 12, 2016.

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