People often ask me how we can make our food healthier. Frankly, I do not think our foods are inherently unhealthy. Rather it is the way in which we sometimes cook and eat them that cause problems to our health.
Our grandparents did not seem to have the same weight problems we do and this no doubt is due to the changes in our lifestyle. We are more sedentary and we are also eating more processed foods.
Indeed a University of Cambridge study published in The Lancet Global Health last year reported that: “Taken all together, Sub-Saharan Africa, particularly West Africa, ranked better than wealthier regions in North America and Europe, probably because of a diet comprised of lean meats, vegetables, legumes, and staple starches, with less processed foods than countries that fared worse (such as the US and Russia)”.
I believe it is possible to eat Nigerian foods whilst maintaining a healthy weight with a few changes to the way we cook and eat.
Lifestyle Change, not Fad Diets
There is no end to diet regimes out there promising miraculous weight loss: “The Paleo Diet”; “No Carbs”; “The Atkins Diet”; “The Raw Food Diet” and so on, not to mention meal replacement shakes. Each year seems to bring a new one.
Anyone who has ever been on a diet will probably tell you that they are difficult to sustain and, indeed, they end up putting on more weight than before they went on the diet.
Health and fitness experts advocate changes in our lifestyle rather than cutting out any major food group. Given that food is an essential part of our life, it makes sense to develop healthy lifelong habits.
As we all know that exercise is an essential part of this, I will concentrate on the changes we can make to our eating habits and say no more apart from to encourage people to increase their activity levels.
Recently, I managed to drop a dress size within six weeks just by walking for an hour at least three times a week. Experts say that we should aim to take 10,000 steps daily at least five times a week.
This is not as onerous as it sounds as most people already take an average of 3-4,000 steps a day.
Get Healthy in the Kitchen
Given the pressures of modern life, many of us turn to convenience foods and snacks which often contain high amounts of fat, sugar and salt. Preparing your meals from scratch means that you know exactly what has gone into the food you eat. It also means that you can choose healthier cooking methods such as steaming, grilling and roasting rather than deep-frying.
- No junk: The simple most important thing you can do to ensure that you eat in a healthy manner is to get rid of junk food and unhealthy snacks. If you can’t see it, you can’t eat it. Replace crisps, cakes and biscuits with prepared fruit and vegetables stored in your fridge for easy access.
- Choose whole grains over refined grains. In fact, try and reduce the amount of refined food you eat. This is known as ‘clean eating’ whereby all the food you eat is as close to nature as possible.
- Lean meat: Choose lean cuts of meat such as skinless chicken and goat meat. Remove any visible fat before you cook the meat.
- Reduce the amount of oil you use in cooking. A good way to do this is to measure the amount of oil you use in cooking soups so that you can reduce it over time. I am not one of those that believe palm oil is bad for you; rather, I believe that moderation is key. After all, it is a key component of many of our dishes, adding flavour and some nutrients such as Vitamin A and E amongst other beneficial nutrients.
- Grill or bake rather than fry. Who doesn’t like fried chicken or indeed any fried meat? Rather than deep-frying meat, place the meat on a baking tray and drizzle a small amount of oil over the meat and bake in the oven for about 20 minutes, turning the meat over halfway through the cooking. This also has the added benefit of freeing you to carry out other tasks whilst the meat is cooking.
- Reduce your salt intake. This includes the use of commercial stock cubes. I am always amazed by the number of people that proudly tell me that they don’t cook with salt and yet they use stock cubes which obviously contain high amounts of sodium. Use freshly ground spices and fresh herbs to compensate for any loss in flavour.
- Beware of hidden sugars. Sugar is increasingly being regarded as the reason for our obesity crisis. This includes natural sugars such as honey and fruit sugars. Reading the labels on everything you consume will help you understand how much sugar is in the food and drink that you consume. For instance, it may surprise you to know that, despite its convenience, drinking fruit juice is a far less healthy choice eating a piece of fruit. The juicing process removes almost all the natural fibre of the fruit and destroys a number of beneficial compounds and antioxidants.
- Try and eat a wide variety of food. We are blessed in Nigeria with the number and variety of ingredients and local dishes we have. Yet many of us stick to the same basic dishes every week.
A Chinese-Malay friend of mine once told me of a Chinese saying: “eat until you’re still hungry”. Knowing when to stop eating is essential to maintaining a healthy weight. Apparently our brains take around 20 minutes to register the chemicals released when we eat or drink. I have to say the first time I tried to take my friend’s advice, I woke up in the middle of the night, starving. So, it does take some practice!
Experts suggest drinking a glass of water 10 minutes before each meal so that the brain will register satiety within 10 minutes rather than the usual 20 minutes.
Other tips to help control portion sizes are:
- Weigh or measure everything you eat. This may seem tedious at first but you will soon learn how much food you should be eating. In the beginning, it will seem surprisingly small – for example the recommended portion of rice is 60g – 90g (uncooked). However, remember that the rice will almost double in size when cooked.
- Eat from smaller plates to help trick your brain into thinking you have a generous portion of food.
- Wait for about 5 to 10 minutes before going back for second helpings. You may find that you don’t need that extra spoon of rice.
- Fill up on fruit and vegetables. An easy trick is to fill half your plate with fruit or vegetables, a quarter with lean protein and the other quarter with complex carbohydrates. For instance, if you are eating Nigerian soup, make sure the fufu is no bigger than your fist.
- Keep a food diary for a week or two, writing down everything you eat and drink. It might also be useful to write down your emotions to help you understand what triggers unhealthy food choices.
- Try and eat slowly so that the brain has time to register that you are eating. A friend of mine suggests using children’s cutlery so you are forced to eat more slowly.
This is by no means a definitive piece and perhaps we can explore one or more points in more detail in future articles.