A no-nonsense guide to healthy eating

Patsy Westcott / 11 October 2017

With so much advice on what we should and shouldn’t eat, it’s hard to know what to put on our plates. Patsy Westcott cuts through the confusion.



As we get older a healthy, nutritious diet is vital for everything from strong bones and muscles to a healthy heart, strong immunity and a lower risk of chronic health problems.

Most of us know that means at least five portions of vegetables and fruit a day, protein from beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat, unsaturated fats from nuts, seeds and their oils plus oily fish, wholegrains, dairy foods, keeping within alcohol guidelines and steering clear of processed foods high in fat, sugar and salt.

And you don’t need to forgo the good things in life. According to a study, a daily ‘polymeal’ consisting of seven foods – wine, fish, dark chocolate, fruits, vegetables, garlic and almonds – could reduce the risk of a heart attack by 76% and increase life expectancy by six and a half years (men) and almost five years (women)

Despite this, it can be hard to know exactly what to eat, especially when we’re bombarded with so much contradictory, misleading, and sometimes downright wrong information. Barely a month passes without a new headline claiming this or that food is healthy or unhealthy: ‘Bacon, ham and sausages have the same cancer risk as cigarettes’, ‘Sliced white bread is just as healthy as brown', and ‘A daily slice of Marmite on toast may help prevent you getting dementia’ are just some in recent months.

We’ll help you cut through all the conflicting information and advice to give you the best possible chance of living a long, healthy life.

Barely a month passes without a new headline claiming this or that food is healthy or unhealthy

Eat to beat disease

The foods and nutrients needed to help prevent and fight chronic diseases are remarkably similar to those needed for a healthy diet. It’s all down to the actions and interactions between them.

Osteoarthritis (OA)

If aching, creaky knees are interfering with life, putting antioxidant and anti-inflammatory foods on the menu could help to ease the strain.

Go for: a Mediterranean diet that contains omega-3s from oily fish to support healthy cartilage, antioxidant vitamins C, E, beta-carotene and selenium from fruit and veg, and plant chemicals that may help to quell pain, from spices such as ginger.

Try: sardines on toast, a mixed salad with as many differently coloured fruit and veg as possible, a cup of fresh ginger tea.

High blood pressure (hypertension)

Heart disease, stroke, vascular dementia and chronic kidney disease are among the risks associated with a regular reading of more than 140/90.

Go for: a low-fat, low-salt diet, with plenty of potentially blood-pressure lowering calcium, potassium and phosphorous from dairy foods, plus polyphenols, plant compounds from brightly coloured fruit and veg, and green leafy veg, which supply vitamins, minerals and plant chemicals.

Try: chicken kebabs, yogurt and cucumber dip (tzatziki), spinach and beetroot salad.

Diabetes

A healthy low-fat, low-glycaemic diet is key to help prevent and control Type-2 diabetes, caused by failure of the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas to control blood sugar.

Go for: a varied diet that contains antioxidant vitamins such as E to help control blood sugar, blood sugar stabilising carbs – called non-starch polysaccharides – carotenoids, antioxidants found in orange fruit and vegetables, to help enhance insulin sensitivity and possibly protect against complications of diabetes such as infectious diseases, and kidney, nerve and eye problems.

Try: a baked sweet potato, chickpea hummus, a handful of mixed seeds.

Dementia

Brain-friendly foods may help to stem the progress of this devastating disease or even help to prevent it developing in the first place.

Go for: US nutrition expert Martha Clare Morris’s MIND diet, rich in green leafy vegetables, as well as other vegetables, nuts, berries, beans, wholegrains, fish, poultry, olive oil and wine.

Try: baked herrings in oatmeal, a brown rice salad, a handful of berries with yogurt.

Prostate cancer

Although age and genes seem to be the major causes of this number-one cancer to affect men, what you eat could help to lower the risk and delay progression.

Go for: a diet rich in vegetables and fruit for antioxidant vitamins, minerals and plant chemicals such as lycopene, in cooked or processed tomatoes, glucosinolates, in broccoli and vegetables from the cabbage family, and catechins, from green tea, which may modify the chemical pathways that eventually lead to prostate cancer.

Try: Wholegrain pasta with tomato sauce, sprouting broccoli, green tea.

Breast cancer

Help protect against a disease that strikes one in eight women.

Go for: a high-fibre diet containing plenty of veg, fruit and wholegrain cereals. This is is linked to a lower risk of breast cancer and will provide plant chemicals, such as resveratrol, a plant compound found in grape skins, and genistein, from soya, which may help to block steps on the cancer pathway. Try: a bowl of lentil soup with plenty of veg, a soya yogurt, a handful of grapes, blueberries or blackcurrants.

Osteoporosis

Combat this brittle bone disease, which affects one in four of us as we get older.

Go for: a diet rich in calcium for strong healthy bones, vitamin D, found in sun-exposed mushrooms, oily fish, cheese, egg yolks and fortified foods, to help calcium to work, and vitamin K, found in green leafy greens, which also helps bone formation.

Try: sprats or pilchards, sun-exposed mushrooms on toast, kale and vegetable stir-fry.

Depression

A healthy diet can also help you beat depression, which is linked to a greater risk of other health problems, including dementia.

Go for: a diet that offers plenty of complex carbohydrates found in wholegrains, pulses and fresh fruit and veg; high-quality protein, from lean meat, fish, seafood and dairy; vitamin B12, from meat, fish, poultry and yeast extract; folate, from meat, eggs, dairy, cereals and dark leafy greens.

Try: poached eggs on toast, oatmeal porridge, grilled fish or chicken, spring greens.

A healthy diet can also help you beat depression

Five superfoods that live up to their name

1. Salmon for…omega-3 fish oils, good fats linked to a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, dementia, osteoarthritis, disease, some cancers and other diseases, plus a range of other nutrients.

2. Broccoli for…vitamin C and other nutrients, plus glucosinolates, plant chemicals that when broken down may help to reduce the risk of cancer.

3. Berries for…a range of vitamins plus plant chemicals called polyphenols associated with lower risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, as well as better memory and brain health.

4. Avocados for…‘good’ monounsaturated fats, healthy fats linked with healthy blood vessels and a balance of cholesterol and other blood fats, plus a wide range of vitamins and minerals.

5. Garlic for…sulphur compounds, found to combat inflammation, protect nerve cells and keep blood vessels healthy – important for reducing arthritis, cancer, dementia and heart disease risk.

Food myths

You can’t believe everything you read – we sort the facts from the fiction.

Five ‘bad’ foods that are good

Full-fat cheese: formerly slated on account of its cholesterol-increasing effect, the calcium it contains may act as a buffer. A 30g portion of Cheddar contains a quarter of your daily requirement of calcium.

Chocolate: the cocoa in chocolate (especially the dark varieties) contains antioxidants, anti-inflammatory plant chemicals known as polyphenols, that may protect against disease. A square a day is plenty, though.

Coffee: caffeine has been said to lead to rollercoasting energy, but a recent study shows higher levels of coffee consumption is linked with a lower risk of dying from a variety of diseases – though more research is needed to find out why.

Eggs: cholesterol in food has been shown to have minimal effect on cholesterol in the bloodstream, most of which is produced by the liver. Eggs are a low-calorie source of protein, good fats, vitamins and minerals.

Potatoes: these have had a bad rap recently. But cooled potatoes contain ‘resistant starch’ (which literally resists digestion) that may help steady blood sugar and maintain healthy levels of gut bacteria.

Cholesterol in food has been shown to have minimal effect on cholesterol in the bloodstream

Five ‘healthy’ foods that could be bad for you

Fruit juice: high in free sugars (those added to foods and drinks and naturally present in honey, syrups and fruit juice) that can increase risk of obesity, heart disease, some cancers and Type-2 diabetes. Eat fruit whole or stick to a small (150ml) glass of juice.

Low-fat fruit yogurts: when manufacturers remove fat, the chances are they replace it with sugar. Some low-fat yogurts have as many as five teaspoons’ worth.

Soft margarine: long promoted for their cholesterol-lowering properties, soft margarines can contain trans fats that increase the risk of atherosclerosis (furred, narrowed arteries) and heart disease.

Smoothies: despite their healthy image, shop-bought smoothies can be high in sugar. Check the ingredients list, or make your own with more veg than fruit.

Low-carb snack bars: they may be marketed as healthy options, but can be stuffed with additives and artificial chemicals.

Despite their healthy image, shop-bought smoothies can be high in sugar

Forever young

You can’t turn back the clock but, as part of a healthy diet, these foods could help you stay looking good and full of vitality.

1. Sweet potatoes…for glowing skin

Carotenoids, antioxidant plant nutrients that give sweet potatoes their orange hue, may help to protect skin against sun damage, the main cause of wrinkles, and skin cancer. Find them, too, in other red, orange and yellow vegetables and fruit such as carrots, tomatoes, peppers and cantaloupe melon.

2. Eggs…for healthy eyes

A great source of lutein and zeaxanthin, two carotenoid plant nutrients, thought to be especially important for eye health. According to research, lutein and zeaxanthin may help to protect against AMD – age-related macular degeneration – the leading cause of blindness in older people. Other sources include kiwifruit, grapes, spinach, orange juice, courgettes and squashes.

3. Sardines…for strong teeth and bones

Thanks to their soft, edible bones, sardines are exceptionally rich in calcium, which is vital for healthy teeth and bones. They are also a source of phosphorus, which helps to maximise the tooth and bone-strengthening effects of calcium, and the also-essential vitamin D.

4. Nuts…to increase energy

Packed with protein, good fats, fibre, vitamins, minerals and beneficial plant compounds, nuts are positive powerhouses of nutrients. They are especially rich in magnesium, which is essential for producing energy from the food we eat.

5. Curry…for flexibility

A home-cooked curry needn’t be full of fat and contains the plant compound curcumin, which gives turmeric its vibrant colour. Curcumin has anti-inflammatory properties and has been linked to better joint function. Opt for the whole root (rather than powder), which can also be used in kedgeree and paella.

6. Brazil nuts…for healthy hair

Thinning hair has many causes as we age, but it can be caused by underactivity of the thyroid gland. Selenium, an essential trace mineral found in the soil, is essential for a healthy thyroid. Brazil nuts are one of the richest sources and contain protein and other properties that could benefit hair. Six nuts (preferably organic) a day are all you need.

7. Pumpkin and green leafy veg…for healthy hearing

Pumpkin is one of the best sources of beta-carotene and beta-cryptoxanthin. A higher intake of these, together with folate, found in green leafy veg, was linked to a lower risk of hearing loss in women, in a 2015 study.

8. Green tea…for good looks

Green tea is many nutritionists’ favourite drink thanks to its abundance of catechins, antioxidant plant compounds that have been linked to a reduction in cell damage throughout the body. Green tea has also been hailed for its ability to help whittle the waist and help control weight.

A home-cooked curry needn’t be full of fat and contains the plant compound curcumin, which has been linked to better joint function

Four of the best…supplements

While it’s best to get the nutrients you need from a healthy, varied diet, it’s not always possible. Taking supplements can be a good way to make up any shortfall.

1. Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (fish oils)

Action: they calm inflammation, lower levels of blood fats called triglycerides and are vital for health of nerve cells.

Good for? A healthy heart and brain, arthritis, depression.

2. Vitamin D

Action: found in virtually every body cell and essential for calcium absorption. Hard to get from food alone and impossible to quantify what we get from the sun.

Good for? Healthy bones, plus there’s also emerging research to show it may have wider health benefits. It’s associated with a lower risk of gum disease, autoimmune disorders, heart disease, some cancers, Type-2 diabetes and neurological disorders. Consider taking 10mcg a day throughout the year.

3. Vitamin B12

Action: works with folate (a B vitamin found in green leafy veg) to help make red blood cells and help iron work better; also needed to maintain health of nerve cells.

Good for? Redressing vitamin B12 deficiency, which affects one in 20 people aged 65-74 and one in 10 aged 75-plus. Certain medications can make it hard to absorb vitamin B12. But a deficiency can also be caused by pernicious anaemia, so ask your doctor for a blood test before self-medicating with vitamin B12.

4. Probiotics

Action: they maintain a healthy balance of good and bad gut bacteria. Good for? Good digestion and a healthy immune system.

Caution: Too much of certain nutrients can be harmful. If you take regular medication or have health concerns, consult your doctor or a dietitian before taking a supplement.

Time it right

When you eat can make all the difference to energy levels, alertness and more. Check out the ideal times to consume your three meals a day.

7am–9am A filling breakfast that includes some protein and complex carbohydrates (eg wholegrains), ‘good’ fats (see Five Superfoods that live up to their name] [LINK] fruit and/or veg. Eating within half an hour to an hour of waking helps rev up your metabolism after the night’s fast and keeps energy levels and concentration up during the morning.

12noon–1pm A healthy lunch that includes low-fat protein, complex carbs, fresh vegetables, wholegrains and a piece of fruit, if you like. It helps keep you well fuelled for the afternoon and avoids energy slumps. A late lunch (after 3pm) is also associated with slower weight loss.

6–8pm A lightish supper with a source of low-fat protein, wholegrains or a starchy veg, lots of colourful vegetables, and perhaps fruit for dessert. To avoid indigestion or insomnia, don’t eat too late. Eating between 6pm and 8pm gives you time to digest before hitting the sack. A large, late meal can disrupt your body clock and may increase your risk of weight gain.

Include a small snack mid-morning and/or mid-afternoon if you feel like it: a piece of fruit; a small handful of nuts; an oatcake spread with hummus.

Too much of a bad thing?

We all know that too much of things such as sugar and salt is unhealthy, but how much is found in common foods? This guide can help you keep within safe levels.

Sugar 

Official recommendation: no more than 30g (7 tsp) a day

Bagel 6g
Tomato ketchup (1 tbsp) 4g
Flavoured latte 26g
1 tsp granulated sugar 4g
Two-finger KitKat 10.6g
0% fat vanilla yogurt 20.9g
Chocolate hazelnut spread (1 tbsp) 11g
Smooth peanut butter (1tbsp) 1.5g

Salt

Official recommendation: no more than 6g (1 tsp) a day

Carrot, butternut and coriander soup 1.6g
Small packet cheese and onion crisps 0.4g
Hummus (50g serving) 0.32g
Two slices multi-seed bloomer 0.74g
Two slices smoked salmon 1.1g
Bowl (30g) cornflakes 0.39g

Check the label

75-80% of salt is hidden in processed foods. Per 100g:

High (red) more than 1.5g
Medium (amber) 0.3-1.5g
Low (green) less than 0.3g

Saturated fat

Official recommendations:

Men – no more than 30g a day
Women – no more than 20g a day

3 slices thinly sliced ham 0.3g
2 pork sausages 8.4g
1 serving (5g) butter 2.5g
1 serving (100g) lamb mince 10.2g
1 serving (100g) roast chicken 3.6g
1 small (45g) chocolate bar, eg Cadbury’s Dairy Milk 8.3g
Large (16fl oz) full-fat cappuccino, eg Starbucks Grande 4g

Check the label

Saturated fats per 100g:

High (red) more than 5g
Medium (amber) 1.6-4.9g
Low (green)1.5g

Red and processed meat

Official recommendation: no more than 70g a day

2 sausages 60g
Three rashers bacon 75g
2 slices ham 50g
Portion of Bolognese sauce 100g

NB These are typical values found in some brands. Always check the packet for exact amounts of nutrients.

Be a good loser

Changes in your body along with less physical activity can lead to creeping weight gain as we get older. Here’s how to lose it healthily, without too much effort.

The rules

Follow these tried-and-tested ways to shed pounds in a sustainable way

Watch portion size

Eat slowly so you recognise when you’ve had enough, stopping before you feel full. Be aware of situations in which you overeat (parties, meals with friends or family, restaurants, holidays). Make healthy food choices. Find ways to be more active.

What foods should you choose?

The same foods as for a healthy, balanced diet. But even if you eat healthily, it’s important not to eat too much. We need fewer calories as we get older. And remember, alcohol is calorific, so keeping an eye on that tipple can help control your weight – and your waist.

Five foods worth giving menu space to

1. Leafy greens: low in calories and carbs yet packed with nutrients, leafy greens – think kale, spinach, Swiss chard and spring greens – can help fill you up and quell hunger without piling on the pounds.

2. Lean protein: includes chicken breast without the skin, turkey or tofu. Can help you stay full between meals, curbing cravings so you’re less likely to snack.

3. Dairy: people who consume dairy foods such as milk, cheese and yogurt as part of a healthy diet lose more weight than those who cut them out. These foods can help you feel full for longer so you’re less likely to overeat at your next meal. It’s also thought that the calcium in dairy might help the body burn fat.

4. Fish: low in calories, high in protein and, if you go for oily varieties such as herrings, mackerel and trout, a source of omega-3s that have been linked with a healthy heart and brain. Aim for two portions of fish a week and make one of those oily.

5. Soup: soup drinkers are less likely to be overweight or obese than non-soup drinkers, according to research. Soup has a high water content, so it fills you up without adding calories. Go easy on the salt though – use herbs and spices for flavouring instead.

A perfect plateful

Protein: 60-90g cooked chicken breast/sliced turkey/grilled fish/sardines/hardboiled egg/prawns/tofu

Fat: ¼-½ avocado/70g nuts/40g mixed seeds

Green leafy veg: 80g mixed leaf salad/lettuce/watercress/rocket/ baby spinach leaves/baby kale leaves

Colourful vegetables: 160g shredded or spiralised beetroot, carrots, cabbage (red/green), courgettes, onions, tomatoes, cauliflower (you could either do separate piles or mix them all together), mushrooms, peas, green beans

Dressing: 1-2 tsp simple olive oil and vinegar/lemon (3 tbsp oil to 1 vinegar/lemon) with chopped herbs

Complex carbohydrates: Slice wholemeal bread/2 tbsp brown rice, quinoa or other wholegrain

Note: This is a general guide only. Exact amounts depend on age, weight, height, sex, and how much weight you have to lose. For more on weight loss, see Judith Wills’ How to drop a dress size in six weeks.

Weight loss aids – useful or not?

There’s a wide range of diet drinks, pills and supplements on the market promising rapid weight loss. Alas, there’s little evidence they work. At best they can be an expensive waste of money; at worst, dangerous to health.

There is one licensed over-the-counter slimming drug, orlistat (aka Alli), which works by preventing fat absorption. But it’s not a magic fix. Only people with a BMI of 28-plus should consider taking it, and you will still need to make lifestyle changes. And it may cause unwelcome side effects, usually in the first few weeks. Check with your doctor or pharmacist before buying it if you have any existing illnesses or are taking medications.

Cook it right

How you prepare your food can make all the difference to its nutrient value.

Steaming: best for preserving colour and texture and sealing in flavour in most veg. Steaming helps to preserve nutrients that dissolve in water such as vitamin C, folate, and other nutrients found in fresh vegetables and fruit.

Microwaving: can help to preserve water-soluble nutrients, but some veg – think cauliflower, broad beans and beetroot – lose antioxidant properties. Artichokes, asparagus, garlic, onions and spinach retain them and microwaving actually boosts the antioxidant power of aubergines, corn, peppers and Swiss chard.

Frying: although it gets a bad rap for boosting calories, pan-frying veggies such as peppers, courgettes, tomatoes, aubergines and potatoes Mediterranean-style in a small amount of olive oil preserves and even increases fat-soluble vitamin E and helpful plant compounds.

Pressure-cooking: great for increasing digestibility of wholegrains and pulses and tenderising tough cuts of meat. However, it can make vital minerals in pulses, such as zinc, less easy to absorb. Meanwhile, many vegetables lose vitamins and antioxidant power.

Baking: a healthy option for most vegetables, including beetroot, celery, onions, Swiss chard, and green beans. However, fish can lose B vitamins when baked.

Roasting: roasted meat retains a host of healthy minerals, such as iron, although B vitamins can be lost in the juices, so use these for gravy. However, roasting can produce AGEs – advanced glycation end products – which are chemicals linked with inflammation. Choose lean cuts, marinate first in something acidic, such as lemon juice, and slow roast to reduce AGEs.

Boiling: probably the worst way to cook water-soluble vegetables in terms of nutrient wastage, as vitamin C and health-promoting plant compounds are lost in the water. If you have to boil vegetables, be sure to add any leftover cooking water to a stew, casserole or soup so nutrients don’t just go down the drain.

Vegetarians and vegans

Vegetarian or vegan diets can be a healthy way to eat and boost your intake of disease-fighting nutrients, providing you go for the right foods and are aware of the up sides and down sides.

The pros The cons
A lower risk of developing and/or dying of heart disease. Fruit-, veg- and plant-based foods, such as tofu, are lower in calories than meat so it can be hard to meet energy needs.
Vegetarians have an 8% lower risk of some cancers, and vegans 15%. Plant foods don’t contain all the essential amino acids, the building blocks of protein found in meat and fish.
A lower BMI – body mass index – than meat eaters in general. Meat is rich in an easy-to-absorb form of iron, heme-iron.
Lower levels of blood fats, blood sugar and blood pressure, all risk factors for diseases including Type-2 diabetes, heart disease and dementia. Vegans miss out on B12. This vital vitamin, which is harder for older people to absorb, is found in foods of animal origin.
Unless you eat oily fish (or take a supplement of the algae they feed on) you will miss out on the long-chain omega-3s fatty acids. The shorter-chain omega-3s found in some plant foods are hard for the body to convert into the long chain variety, which has been shown to have benefits for the heart and brain

Key foods for a healthy veggie diet

  • Avocados, nuts, nut butters, seeds, plus oils for good fats and energy.
  • Pulses, soya products, nuts and seeds, eggs and cheese (if you’re not vegan) for protein.
  • Pulses, nuts, seeds, eggs, green leafy veg, tofu, dried fruit, molasses and fortified foods for iron. Vitamin C helps boost uptake, so have some fruit or vegetables at the same time.
  • Milk, dairy products and eggs for B12. Vegans go for fortified products, such as soya and rice milks, breakfast cereals, veggie burger mixes and yeast extract. Or take a supplement.
  • Walnuts, linseeds, chia and dark green leafy veg for ALA. This is a type of omega-3 that is converted to the essential longer-chain omega-3s in the body but not very well. Consider a supplement.

Your perfect meal planner

If you had to choose an ideal day’s food to boost your health, this selection would serve you well:

Breakfast: bowl of oatmeal porridge made with milk or a milk alternative, topped with mixed berries

OR

A slice of rye bread with spinach, poached egg and a sprinkle of herbs or spices.

Why? For complex carbs to keep energy levels up. Fibre for a healthy digestive system and to keep cholesterol levels stable. Calcium for healthy bones, muscle and heart. One of your five or more a day portions of fruit and veg for vitamins, minerals and plant chemicals.

Lunch: homemade lentil soup (including olive oil, onions, garlic, carrots, celery, leeks, a tin of tomatoes and herbs and spices of your choice), a slice of wholegrain bread.

OR

Large homemade mixed bean salad with good variety of colourful vegetables, plus a slice of wholegrain bread. An apple, pear or small bunch of grapes.

Why? For heart-healthy fibre, complex carbohydrates, healthy monounsaturated fats, plus some of your five a day for a wealth of vitamins, minerals and plant chemicals.

Supper: baked halibut OR grilled chicken breast OR tofu, with asparagus, carrots and broccoli spears, roasted cherry tomatoes, a baked sweet potato, large mixed salad, yogurt topped with slices of mango.

Why? An easy-to-digest meal that’s high in omega-3 fatty acids, more of your five or more a day, calcium, fibre, and complex carbs.

During the day, include a couple of healthy snacks, such as a piece of fruit, handful of nuts, oatcake spread with nut butter, cottage cheese or hummus.

Drink plenty of water. It’s easy to become dehydrated as we get older as the thirst cues don’t always work as well.

Need to know

How many calories you need a day depends on your age, sex and how active you are but as a general rule here’s what you need…

Age Men Women
45-54 2,581 2,103
55-64 2,581 2,079
65-74 2,342 1,912
75+ 2,294 1,840

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.