During the long winter it’s easy to fall into poor eating habits, when fresh, local produce is a distant memory and comfort foods become the norm. Making matters worse, the cold weather and short days mean your motivation to exercise may have dwindled. If you’ve emerged from hibernation feeling lethargic and heavy, now is the time to spring-clean your diet.
But “spring-cleaning” doesn’t mean restricting yourself to juice cleanses and detox fasts. Instead, think about going back to basics and choosing wholesome, minimally processed foods that will nourish your body, boost your energy levels, lift your mood and prepare your body for an increase in your exercise routine. Freshen up your diet with easy changes that will kick-start your training and improve your health.
Cut down on free sugars
Free sugars are any sugars added to foods and drinks by manufacturers, cooks or consumers. While most of us know it as sugar, sugar may go by numerous other names including dextrose, fructose, sucrose, glucose, maltose or high fructose corn syrup. Free sugars are also sugars found naturally in honey, syrups and fruit juice. Sugars found in fruits and vegetables (fresh, frozen or dried) and in milk and products such as plain yogurt and cheese are not classed as free sugars.
After a short while of eating unsweetened food you will start to lose your liking for intense sweetness and start to find naturally sweet foods like a banana or a handful of blueberries sweet enough to satisfy your cravings.
Eating sugary foods encourages overeating and this habit gets worse as we get older. One study that followed nearly 5000 men and women over 30 years, found that their calorie intake from free sugars increased by 50 percent during that time, and as their sugar consumption increased so did their waistlines. As well as unwanted weight gain, excessive sugar consumption is linked to increased risk of diabetes.
Scan ingredients on packaged foods and choose those with little if any added sweeteners. Replace sugary breakfast cereals, flavoured yogurts, and reduced-fat peanut butter (which often swaps fat for sugar) with steel-cut oats, plain yogurt, and natural nut butter.
Don’t make the mistake of swapping sugars with artificial sweeteners. Although they are calorie free, they are intensely sweet and don’t help to reduce sugar cravings. You may find after drinking a sugar free fizzy drink, instead of feeling satisfied you’re left with a craving for pick ‘n’ mix.
After a winter full of stews and roasted vegetables, you may be craving fresher-tasting raw foods—and that may help you lose weight. Scientists have found that cooking increases the amount of calories your body absorbs from food. That’s because heat breaks down cell membranes in food, making more calories available for absorption. It also makes digestion easier, so you don’t burn as many calories digesting. The implication is that a serving of raw carrots and sashimi salmon may contain fewer calories than the same weight of roasted carrots and grilled fish. Raw food requires extra chewing, which gives your brain a chance to register fullness, so you’re less likely to overeat, too.
Add more raw food to your meals and snacks – top your (cooked) chicken or fish with a raw vegetable salsa. Replace wraps or pittas with large lettuce leaves or breadsticks for veg sticks to have with hummus or avocado dips.
Spring gives us plenty of colourful seasonal fruits and vegetables to choose from. Eating a rainbow of foods is a great way to boost intakes of fibre, vitamins and other disease-fighting compounds. The pigments that give fruits and vegetables such as beetroot, radishes and rhubarb their deep colours are powerful antioxidants. They protect against damage to cells caused by oxidative stress. Exercise-induced oxidative stress is a common cause of cell damage, so if you’re upping your exercise game, you’ll need these foods to improve your recovery.
Include two to three colours at each meal. For example, scramble eggs with spinach and red pepper. Add strawberries and apricots to green salads. Swirl cooked rhubarb and crushed blueberries through Greek yogurt.
Drinking water during the colder months is not always appealing, so fluid intake tends to suffer. But with warmer weather and more exercise on the horizon, it’s time to take hydration seriously again. Dehydration can impact your metabolism, leave you sluggish, and can mask itself as hunger. Up your water intake and avoid drinking your calories as smoothies. A recent study found that post-meal hunger and the desire to eat were greater when participants drank liquid calories compared with taking in the same number of calories from food. Researchers found that levels of ghrelin, a hunger-boosting hormone, were higher in the liquid-calorie group.
See my recipes for some fresh ideas.