Which foods we should be eating in what proportion has long been debated. As a pharmacist and healthcare professional, I have had experience of a number of different dietary recommendations over the years from the ‘Eatwell Plate’ of the British Dietetic Association, the low GI diet, the Atkins diet, the 5:2 diet, to the most recent press coverage of the Paleo diet. There is so much confusion out there as to what to eat and many articles seem to directly contradict each other. So what is scientific fact and what is fiction? And how do those with allergies and food intolerances cope?
The ‘Eatwell Plate’ of the British Dietetic Association – these are the UK’s official dietary guidelines; they are what I learned at University and are generally still the recommended guidelines taught to healthcare professionals. Recommendations include the following: five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, three portions of calcium rich food (like dairy) a day, two portions of protein such as meat, fish, or beans a day, and two portions per week of oily fish (such as salmon, sardines, mackerel, herring) with a high omega 3 content. The guidelines state that around 30% of your calories should come from carbohydrates, 30% from fruit and vegetables, 15% from protein, 15% from dairy and less than 10% should be made up of ‘treats’ in the form of foods high in fat and sugar.
However, a plethora of alternative dietary recommendations have made the news in recent years and with good reason. Each diet does have something different to offer. For instance:
The Low GI diet – GI stands for glycaemic index, and the idea with this is that you need to concentrate on eating foods that promote a slower release of insulin into the system and don’t give you an immediate sugar rush – this helps to balance out your blood sugar levels during the day and leads to fewer food cravings. For example, high GI foods that you should limit include things like white bread, baked potatoes, cornflakes and watermelon. Low GI foods which you want to eat more of are things like nuts, meat, oats and whole grains. The idea is that if high levels of glucose enter the bloodstream on a regular basis, the body quickly converts this glucose to storage fat as it sees it as excess energy, and this can lead to weight gain. In addition, regular high sugar load promotes insulin resistance and can lead to conditions such as Type 2 Diabetes.
The Atkins diet – Popular in the noughties and the scrutiny of much debate, Dr Robert Atkins recommended that we cut carbohydrates completely from our diet to improve weight loss. For years we had been told to cut out fat with the result that we ate too much sugar and carbohydrates and Dr Atkins diet sought to reverse that trend. However, he came under fire for promoting too much protein and saturated fat in his diet and not enough fruits and vegetables (interestingly, the promoters of the Atkins diet have recently changed some of their recommendations to include more vegetables).
5:2 diet – this diet was popularised by Dr Michael Moseley and looks at research which suggests that those on limited calorie intakes live longer. He says instead of feeling miserable by limiting our calorie intake every day, you should limit your calories on two days per week to about quarter of your normal intake. This helps weight loss which ultimately promotes longevity and also gives the body a digestive break and time to recuperate.Related to this idea is another recent study published in the British Medical Journal which has shown that not eating late in the evening and therefore leaving a 12 hour fasting gap each day can help to promote weight loss (for instance, don’t eat between 7pm and 7am).
The Paleo Diet has been popular in the last 2-3 years and it recommends that we eat like our ancestors (Palaeolithic man) did; if the caveman didn’t eat it, we shouldn’t either. Paleo recommends no processed foods, carbohydrates, legumes (e.g. beans, lentils, or peas), refined sugar or dairy. It recommends eating meat, fish, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds.
My preferred balance is a 2011 published guide to healthy eating by Harvard School of Public Health called the Healthy Eating Plate which is very similar to the Mediterranean Diet and is a good sensible overview. The Mediterranean diet has been clinically proven to help diabetic patients with their glycaemic control and also improves outcomes for those with cardiovascular disease. The recommendation is that 50% of your calories should come from fruit and vegetables, 25% from ‘healthy protein’ and 25% from whole grains (such as brown rice, quinoa, and oats). Other advice is to avoid sugary drinks, limit dairy, avoid unhealthy protein like processed meats, and use healthy oils.
One last thing to bear in mind with respect to healthy eating recommendations is that there are numerous studies which show that fat intake can actually be good for you. The key here, of course is the type of fat you are eating; so omega 3 fat (which is an essential fatty acid- we must get it from our diet as our bodies can’t make it) from oily fish, eggs and even organic animal meats, and omega 9 fats from avocados and olive oil are GOOD fats. Omega 6 fat is also an essential fatty acid (mainly found in vegetable oils) and while we need to eat some of this type of fat, in recent years we have been overdosing on it as it is found in abundance in crisps, fried and processed foods so caution is advised here. Eating some fat with every meal means you are sated; you won’t get the sugar highs and lows from eating too many carbs and this has been linked to eating fewer calories.
So what about those with food allergies or intolerances?
As a person who cannot eat nuts, sesame, gluten or dairy, I can empathise with those who suffer from food allergies and intolerances as it seems like a uphill struggle to eat anything, never mind trying to start to look at what is healthy. I remember going to see a naturopath years ago who gave me some excellent advice on healthy eating recommendations but who seemed positively disgusted with me that I couldn’t eat nuts or sesame. Her recipes, like those Deliciously Ella makes, were delicious, but packed with nuts and seeds at every turn. It is no good eating ‘healthy foods’ if they send you into anaphylactic shock.
So my top tips for healthy eating for those with food allergies and intolerances are as follows:
- A healthy diet includes: 50% of calories from fruit and vegetables (more vegetables than fruit ideally)
- 25% of calories from healthy protein like oily fish and organic meat (avoid processed meat)
- 25% of calories from whole grains such as quinoa, brown rice and oats (eating whole grains should help to even out your glycaemic load). Rising numbers of the population are gluten intolerant and gluten is not necessary for health- avoid it if you can.
- Eat two portions of oily fish a week for omega 3 content
- Reduce consumption of processed food- in addition look out for vegetable oils such as sunflower, soya or corn oil in your food and avoid eating too much of these.
- Eat a variety of food to get the benefit of different vitamins and minerals- make your plate as colourful as possible- lots of red, green and purple food
- Drink water rather than fizzy/ sugary drinks or caffeinated products
- Cook with coconut oil and use olive oil on salads
- Prepare food properly: steam vegetables, grill or bake food rather than frying and wash fruit and vegetables thoroughly
- Be aware that those people who give their bodies a digestive break by either fasting intermittently or leaving a 12 hour gap between meals are less inclined to be overweight which is a significant indicator of health and longevity
- On a dairy-free diet you will need to monitor your calcium intake. Be aware of alternative calcium-containing foods and make an effort to eat these or consider supplements.
If you would like more information on how to eat healthily if you have food allergies and intolerances, you can download a copy of my book from Amazon by clicking through on the link below:
I talk about the science behind allergies and intolerances, how to get diagnosed and include more than 100 recipes which are nut, seed, gluten and dairy free.
Please check out http://www.gisellewrigley.com/
- ‘A Healthy, Varied Diet.’ British Nutrition Foundation. http://www.nutrition.org.uk/healthyliving/healthyeating/healthyvarieddiet
- Helen Foster, GI Basics, (Great Britain: Octopus Publishing Group, 2006), p 10-11.
- Atkins, R.C. Dr, Dr Atkins New Diet Revolution, (Great Britain: Vermilion, 2003).
- Mosley, M. Dr, The Fast Diet: The Secret of Intermittent Fasting – Lose Weight, Stay Healthy, Live Longer. (Great Britain: Short Books, 2013)
- Knapton, Sarah. ‘Eat within a 12 hour window to lose weight say scientists.’ The Telegraph. 2nd December 2014. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/dietandfitness/11268685/Eat-within-12-hour-window-to-lose-weight-say-scientists.html
- Cordain, Loren, The Paleo Diet. (Great Britain: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010).
- Slieman D., Al-Badri MR., Azar ST., ‘Effect of Mediterranean Diet in Diabetes Control and Cardiovascular Risk Modification: a systematic review.’ 2015 Apr 28; 3:69.
- Healthy Eating Plate and Healthy Eating Pyramid.’ Harvard School of Public Health. http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-eating-plate/
- Mosley, ‘Michael Mosley: Should people be eating more fat?’ BBC News Magazine. 15th October, 2014.