Most of us tend to think of foods in terms of taste and calorie content. Or just as something to fuel the furnace. However, some foods can be very beneficial for our health, while others have quite opposite the effect. So, to pick a healthy alternative, which foods do we choose and which should we avoid?
It's very important to set the context and to understand the big picture.
In nutrition, there are no absolutes.
Everything isn't black or white. Just because you start eating a type of food that is renowned for having healing properties every day won't necessarily mean that your health will suddenly become miraculously improved. Likewise, the occasional junk meal isn't going to send your health into a nosedive.
The relationship between health and nutrition is far more complex than some would have you believe. We need to take into account some other factors:
Genetics as part of overall health
You've probably come across someone who has smoked for 50 years and remained in good health. You'll be aware of the big role that genetics plays in determining our health.
The same is true when it comes to nutrition; some people, it seems, need to eat healthily all the time to remain in good health. On the other hand, some seem able to consume average or even poor diets and yet thrive!
Quantity, frequency and balance of our food choices and when to choose healthier alternatives
It's not just what you eat, but how much and how often you eat it.
Also, the other foods in your regular diet play a big part. For example, sausage egg and chips every night is not the best recipe for a healthy heart.
If though, you eat it only once a week and the rest of your diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fatty fish, you're probably not going to have too much to worry about...
Environmental factors affecting our diet
These can and do play a big role in determining what foods are good for you. If you're stressed and tired because of what's going on around you, certain foods may reduce your energy levels. You'll find they upset your digestion.
However, you also find that when you're completely relaxed and refreshed these same foods can be eaten without issue.
When on holiday, for example, we may find we don't have the same problems with what we eat.
The timescale for good nutrition to kick in
Unlike exercise, the benefits of good nutrition can take months to become noticeable. This makes it difficult to identify what foods suit you best. It can be hard to make changes to your longterm eating patterns because of the lack of immediate feedback.
Seven food swaps and healthy alternatives to help improve your overall diet
Sugar and high sugar foods
(jam, soft drinks, confectionery, sweet desserts etc.)
Although they supply carbohydrate. sugar and sugary foods contain little if any fibre. Fibre is essential for a healthy bowel and digestive system. These foods have also had most of the health-giving essential nutrients (vitamins and minerals) removed during processing.
Moreover, the sudden surge of sugar can disturb the body's natural balance in energy levels. This can lead to fatigue and energy swings, even increasing the risk of diabetes. The lack of fibre also means you may consume large amounts of calories without feeling full.
Weight gain often follows.
Healthy alternatives to high sugar foods
Nature's sweet foods are also extremely healthy; fruits and dried fruits are the way to satisfy a sweet craving!
White flour products, white rice and refined 'white' cereals
They're not as nutritionally bankrupt as sugar, but white flour products suffer from the same drawbacks; low nutrient and fibre content and an increased risk of disturbing natural energy levels.
The problem is that as regular features of your diet, many people consume large quantities of white flour products.
Healthier options are displaced and we get far less benefit.
Healthy alternatives to refined 'white' products
Simple one this - just switch to from white to wholemeal bread, from refined to whole-grain cereals, from white to whole brown rice - you get the idea.
Hydrogenated vegetable oils and margarine
These oils and fats have two main drawbacks; they often contain high levels of saturated fats. Even more worrying is that many (especially cheap) brands contain high levels of artificial trans-fats. These trans-fats fats are especially harmful to heart health and may even carry a risk of cancer. Some countries actively ban trans-fats.
Healthier alternatives to hydrogenated vegetable oils and margarine
For cooking, use olive oil only. With salad dressing, I recommend olive or cold-pressed seed oil. For spreading, use a high-quality sunflower margarine low in trans-fats or butter
These combine sugar with a dollop of caffeine to disturb those blood sugar levels. The phosphoric acid in these drinks also helps to dissolve away tooth enamel so the sugar can rot your teeth! Thrown in some colourings and preservatives and you have a perfect recipe for nutritional mayhem...
Cola drink healthy alternatives
Go for sugar/colouring/caffeine-free soft drinks instead. Better still, diluted fruit juice tastes delicious and provides a generous slug of nutrients
Biscuits and cookies
Biscuits deserve a special mention as most of them manage to combine a nutritional triple-whammy of the worst kind; high sugar content, white flour and artery-clogging saturated fat. A great way to dig your way to an early grave.
Healthy alternatives to biscuits & cookies
Go for low-sugar whole-grain cereal bars or flapjacks
pies, sausages, burgers etc
Another dubious nutritional triple-whammy; most processed meat contain bits of the carcass you'd rather not mention in front of the children. In addition, lots of saturated fat combined with a generous helping of salt to help raise blood pressure.
Healthy alternatives to processed meats
Make your own burgers, pies etc using lean minced meats or vegetarian options such as Quorn; It'll be much higher in protein and lower in fat. You'll also know exactly what else it contains.
Commercially prepared fried foods
Virtually all commercially prepared fried foods use cheap hydrogenated oils; worse still, these oils are re-used many times over. A mixture of unpleasant chemicals builds up, some of which have been linked with heart disease and cancer
Healthy alternatives to commercially fried food
Unless you know it's prepared in fresh olive oil, there is no alternative. Just avoid altogether.
A healthy balance between body and brain is probably most important
One final point; healthy nutrition demands healthy psychology. Picking a healthy alternative where you can is fine, sometimes it's just not worth worrying about.
Worrying excessively about consuming the occasional naughty treat, or that you're not always eating 'superfoods' will probably have more of a negative impact on your health than the potential benefits of eating 'perfectly'.
Worry and stress are bad for brain chemistry and immunity. Your immune system is your body's first line of defense and crucial for long-term health. Eating well works best when you enjoy what you eat and can stay relaxed.
A good tactic is to eat well 90% of the time and enjoy the other 10%