13 small changes that add up to a healthy diet

Full-fat latte, cappuccino, and americano coffee - What makes a healthy diet

You can change bad eating habits for good by taking small steps. Dietitian Annemarie Aburrow shows us how.

Making healthy changes isn’t always easy. Setting unrealistic goals, like cutting out certain foods completely, often leads to failure. Your January resolutions may have already fallen by the wayside. Now is a great time to take stock.

If you haven’t achieved what you hoped, don’t be discouraged. Instead, focus on the positive changes you can make today. Try setting goals that are SMART – specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and within a timeframe. 

Breakfast

A bottle of skim milk1. Swap to lower-fat milk

Using lower-fat milk is an easy change you’ll soon get used to. Start by swapping full-fat for semi-skimmed milk. Later, swap semi for one per cent fat or skimmed milk. 

Choosing to have your morning cereal with skimmed milk, rather than semi-skimmed could save around 160kcal across the week.

2. Read the labels to help you choose the right cereal

Many cereals are high in added sugar or salt. Don’t be taken in by health claims on the packaging – added vitamins or wholegrains don’t automatically make a cereal healthy. Look for wholegrain cereals with no added sugars (which include honey and syrup), like porridge oats or ‘no added sugar’ muesli.

Check the ingredients, too. If your cereal contains dried fruit, it may appear high in sugar, but you’ll benefit from vitamins and fibre and it can help towards your 5-a-day. Adding fresh fruit to no-added-sugar cereal or porridge will also help towards your 5-a-day.

3. Healthier bread, toast and toppings

Wholemeal, granary or multiseed bread is more nutritious than white bread. Swap butter for a reduced-fat spread, such as a light olive or sunflower spread. When it comes to toppings, jam and marmalade are high in sugar. Try a reduced-sugar version or go for a poached egg, which gives you protein, or sliced tomatoes, grilled mushrooms or a sliced banana, which all contribute to your 5-a-day.

Lunch

4. Don't always go for a cheese sandwich 

Carrots and crisps in bowlsA cheese sandwich is said to be the nation’s favourite lunch. Cheese is fine every now and then, but as it’s high in saturated fat, salt and calories, stick to a matchbox-sized portion. Reduced-fat cheese is a healthier option (though it may still be high in salt), as is tuna or egg with a little reduced-fat mayonnaise. 

Swap butter for reduced-fat spread to save around 50kcal per sandwich, and do the same if you have butter on your jacket potatoes (low-fat natural yoghurt is good, too).

5. Swap crisps for nuts

If you usually eat crisps at lunch, try swapping for a small handful of unsalted nuts. While both crisps and nuts are high in fat, unsalted nuts contain less salt and provide additional nutrients like iron and zinc. If you’re watching your weight, why not try swapping the nuts for carrot sticks? They provide plenty of nutrients, without the calories of nuts.

6. Add fruit and veggies to your lunch

Add extra colour and nutrients with a side salad and some fruit. These can help you towards your 5-a-day too. 

Calories saved per sandwich when you ditch the butterMain meals

7. Choose leaner meat

The fat content of meat varies a lot. Choose lean versions of meats such as mince to reduce your saturated fat intake. Removing all visible fat such as skins and rinds, and grilling your meat, is another easy way to cut down on saturated fat.

8. Include non-meat options

Swapping meat once or twice a week for a veggie option of eggs or pulses (beans or lentils) can reduce your saturated fat intake, and pulses give you more fibre. Changing from meat to fish (white or oily) is also a heart-healthy choice.

9. Healthier pasta

Changing from creamy to tomato-based sauces and adding extra vegetables makes pasta dishes healthier.

A slice of breadFor example, standard macaroni cheese is high in saturated fat and salt, but wholewheat pasta in a tomato-based vegetable sauce with a small sprinkling of cheese is a nutritious choice with more fibre and less saturated fat.

Check your portion sizes, too: starchy carbohydrates should make up about a third of the food you eat.

10. Add vegetables to meals 

A healthy diet isn’t just about cutting things out – there are lots of positive steps you can take, like adding more of your favourite vegetables to your meals. Vegetables are good sources of fibre, vitamins and minerals, and can help lower your risk of heart and circulatory disease. They can also make you feel fuller, which could help you stop snacking between meals. 

Drinks

11. Go "skinny" with coffee and hot chocolate

Instead of a full-fat latte, try a cappuccino or skinny latte. Even better, try a plain black coffee like a filter coffee or americano (add a dash of low-fat milk if you like it white).

Say no to whipped cream on hot chocolate and, if possible, have it with skimmed milk instead of semi-skimmed or whole. Use unsweetened cocoa instead of hot chocolate powder to cut back on the sugar content - that way you can just add a little sugar or low-calorie sweetener to taste.

12. Skip sugar in hot drinks

Yearly sugar saving figureIf you usually have sugar in your tea or coffee, replace it with a low-calorie sweetener. Not all sweeteners taste the same, so experiment to find one you like.

Or try gradually reducing the sugar in your drinks. You’ll get used to a less sweet taste and might find you can leave it out without missing it.

13. Go easy on fruit juice

While fruit juices are a source of vitamins, they are high in ‘free sugars’, because the juicing process releases natural sugars from the cells of the fruit. Limiting yourself to a small glass (150ml), or swapping juice for a portion of whole fruit and a glass of water, is much healthier.

Swapping sugary squashes and fizzy drinks for no-added-sugar or diet versions can also significantly reduce your sugar intake. 

Small changes add up

Small changes make a big difference when you stick to them. If you want to lose weight, 0.5kg–1kg (1–2lb) per week is a sensible aim, but even losing 0.25kg (0.5lb) a week leads to half a stone in three months, or two stone in a year. Don’t get fixated on losing a set amount. If your weight is moving in the right direction, you’re doing well.

Huge changes are hard to stick to. Small ones tend to have a greater impact over time. Don’t be put off if a single change only saves a few calories – it all adds up.

Skimmed milk on cereal instead of semi-skimmed can save 8,320kcal in a year. You can lose (or avoid gaining) about 1kg (2.2lb) of fat. Having reduced-fat spread instead of butter in your sandwich five days a week for a year saves up to 13,000kcal – more than 1.7kg (3.5lb) in weight. A skinny, instead of full-fat, latte saves 90kcal. If you do that five times a week for a year, you’ll save 23,400kcal – more than 3kg (6.5lb) in weight. These three changes could help you lose 5.7kg (12lb). And, vitally, they’re easy to stick to.

Why are we recommending these changes?

The results of the National Diet and Nutrition Survey show that, on average, we are eating more than the recommended amounts of saturated fat, sugar and salt, while not getting the recommended 5-a-day fruit and vegetables and two portions of fish per week.

Rising levels of obesity suggest that people in the UK are eating more energy than is being used up doing physical activity.

Less sugar: Too much sugar can mean your diet is too high in energy. Over time this can lead to obesity and then associated health conditions, such as coronary heart disease and diabetes.

Less saturated fat: Cutting your saturated fat intake could help reduce your cholesterol level. All fat is high in calories, so reducing fat generally can help control your weight.

More fibre: Fibre, found in wholegrains, pulses, fruit and vegetables, helps keep your digestive system healthy and keeps you fuller for longer. Soluble fibre, like that found in pulses and oats, can help lower your cholesterol level.

The government’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition report from July 2015, Carbohydrates and Health, recommended that we increase our fibre intake further to benefit our health.

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