What’s hiding in your healthy food?

Woman choosing between fruits, smoothie and organic healthy food against sweets, sugar, lots of candies, unhealthy food.

I must be honest, dieting and healthy eating have never really been my areas of expertise.

Woman choosing between fruits, smoothie and organic healthy food against sweets, sugar, lots of candies, unhealthy food.I’ve always been perfectly happy with my ‘traditional’ figure and I’m lucky enough to stay in pretty good health without really needing to try too hard.

A slice of lemon in my gin counted towards one of my five a day.

But, as middle age creeps up on me, I’ve been giving my health and nutrition more consideration and, in an effort to live forever (or at least long enough to plough through my boxed set of The West Wing), I am trying to eat a healthier diet.

Easier than it sounds. Much of the mass-produced food in our supermarkets which masquerades as a healthier choice is just very cleverly marketed to appear more healthy.

Usually it’s no better whatsoever and, in many cases, it is positively worse!

Better breakfasts

For example, in choosing a really healthy and diet-conscious breakfast, surely I can’t go wrong with cereal?

Not the calorie-laden ones which are swathed in chocolate or encrusted in sugar, obviously, but the nutritious varieties, the high-fibre mueslis and wholegrain versions. They’re totally fine, right?

Quite the opposite.

Multi-coloured cereals pouring into a bowlEven these seemingly healthy choices can be loaded with sugar and refined carbohydrates which may not only cause weight gain, but will also play havoc with blood sugar and energy levels.

Most commercially produced breakfast cereals are the very worst way to start the day with blood sugar and insulin levels spiking and then crashing, causing the poor body to be screaming out for yet more refined carbs.

So, if cereal is a bad way to start the day, how about some toast? Not stodgy, white doorsteps dripping with full-fat butter, of course, but a slice of wholewheat bread with a smear of low-fat margarine.

Unfortunately, usually another poor choice.

Whole wheat is certainly ‘less bad’ than refined wheat. But only in the way that being hit in the face with half a brick is ‘less bad’ than being hit in the face with a whole brick.

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Most ‘whole grain’ foods are not actually made from whole grains – that term is just a cunning advertising device. In most cases, the grains have been ground into a very fine flour that will still cause blood sugar levels to spike. And there is every chance that a wholewheat loaf will be full of refined sugar and additives, too.

As for so-called healthy / low-fat spreads, in most cases I’m better off ladling pure butter onto my bread.

Of course, saturated animal fats, like butter, will clog arteries and send cholesterol levels soaring. So food manufacturers looked at ways of using unsaturated vegetable oils to produce an alternative to butter. They developed hydrogenation, a process which creates a solid fat out of vegetable oil.

Far from offering a healthy alternative to butter, however, hydrogenated fats contain high levels of dangerous trans-fats which are bad for the heart and raise cholesterol levels. In many cases these artificial spreads can actually contain higher levels of the ‘dangerous’ fats than real butter.

As far as breakfast is concerned, a return to the porridge oats of my childhood isn’t a bad idea. Back then it looked and tasted like moist putty but, add a drizzle of honey or a small handful of finely chopped nuts, and fresh fruit and it’s delicious.

tasty porridge with berries and glass of juicePorridge contains a range of vitamins and nutrients (including B vitamins, zinc, vitamin E, calcium, folic acid and potassium), it has slow-release energy and has been proven to reduce cholesterol and the risk of heart disease.

I’ll be steering clear of the ‘instant’ porridge varieties on the market since most of these contain additives and sugar. Natural rolled porridge oats, however, prepared with milk or water (or a mixture of the two) and I’m on my way to a healthy day.

Sin-free snacking

I can’t resist a mid-morning snack and that’s allowed, even when I’m trying to be good, as long as I choose something healthy. Granola is always advertised as a healthy and high-fibre food. But most granola bars really aren’t healthy at all.

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While the raw ingredients, nuts, oats, seeds etc are certainly very beneficial, food manufacturers pack these bars with fructose-heavy refined oils, syrups and sugars.

Again, not only will these bars pile on the pounds, they will cause that all-too familiar blood sugar spike / crash problem, adversely affecting energy levels.

Perhaps for my mid-morning snack I should just settle for a yoghurt. After all, yoghurt has been made and eaten for centuries and has always been deemed a healthy, nutritious food.

And in its pure and unadulterated form, it certainly is.

But the problem with shop-bought yoghurt is that so many of those on the shelves are highly processed and filled with all sorts of nasties. Ironically, the supposedly healthy low-fat and fat-free versions are the worst offenders.

When you remove the fat from yoghurt, it tastes like wallpaper paste. So, to make it palatable, food manufacturers fill low-fat yoghurts with sugar, artificial sweeteners and corn syrup. They remove the fat and replace it with something that is far worse and will, ultimately, do the body more harm.

Hand with different dried fruits against white backgroundAs snack foods go, I’m far better off with a piece of fruit and a small handful of nuts and seeds. Or a bowl of carrot, cucumber and celery sticks with some homemade guacamole – made with fresh avocados, tomatoes and a little chilli and coriander – to dip ‘em in.

And if I’m going to have a yoghurt, I’ll make sure it’s a totally natural yoghurt with nothing added to it but a pot and a lid.

If the need for chocolate is so overpowering that I just can’t resist, as so often happens, a small bar of good-quality plain chocolate with a high cocoa content won’t land me in too much trouble with the diet police.

Lovely lunches

Moving onto lunch, the healthiest option, of course, is going to be a salad. Vegetables are great, full of vitamins, nutrients, antioxidants, soluble fibre and all sorts of beneficial goodies. But they can be a little bit bland on their own and need livening up.

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Most commercially produced dressings and sauces, however, even the low-fat and low-calorie ones, are full of sugar, soybean oil and high-fructose corn syrup. I’m much better off making my own salad dressing with some olive oil and vinegar (and a few fresh herbs and spices if I’m feeling particularly creative).

olive oil on wooden tableWhile it may contain a few more calories and have a higher fat content, olive oil is a ‘good’ fat, has a variety of health benefits and, taken in moderation, can lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease.

A big part of a more healthy diet is making sure the body has plenty of fluid. But I’m steering clear of the vitamin water which has become popular recently. I may as well take a multi-vitamin tablet with a tablespoon of sugar.

Most so-called vitamin waters or similar drinks are essentially just sugary water with a few chemically produced vitamins thrown in. It is highly unlikely that vitamins taken like this will have any health benefit whatsoever – that will depend entirely on a variety of factors concerning the health and the diet of the individual.

Certainly, without any doubt, no supplement can match the nutrients and vitamins contained in whole foods. So I’ll just pour myself a glass of water. It’s the best way to keep the body hydrated, it won’t rot my teeth, it’s calorie-free… and there is always plenty of it in the tap.

My attempt to eat a healthier diet and pay more attention to nutrition means that I now have to be far more vigilant in the supermarket. I must be wary of enticing claims and empty words and, if in doubt, I scrutinise the ingredients. It is worth it.

You are what eat so, if you eat a lot of rubbish… well, you get the picture!

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About Josephine Liptrott

I had several proper jobs in marketing and customer relations prior to training as an actor at the age of 40. These days I tread the boards occasionally and do a bit of writing for several different publications, both online and in print. I'm a northerner by birth but live in London, love tea, Shakespeare, Radio 4 and Bruce Springsteen and have been an ardent feminist since childhood.