Confused about what to eat? If you think nutritionists are always changing their mind, with every bit of new research seeming to negate previously established truths, you’re not alone.
Some 80 per cent of consumer respondents in a 2018 survey by the International Food Information Council Foundation said they were unsure about what to eat because they come across conflicting information about food and nutrition. About 59 per cent of those said that conflicting information made them doubt their choices. As a result, these consumers report experiencing heightened stress while shopping.
If anecdotal social media posts serve as evidence, residents across the UAE are using their extra time at home to refocus on eating healthily at home — whether it’s baking bread to cooking up meals from different parts of the world. But figuring out what to eat can be difficult at a time when everything in our supermarkets comes packaged and labelled, and an endless stream of studies and articles throw up new warnings about ingredients and how they’re modified, farmed, processed and packaged.
1.Eating well is intuitive
Despite all the food confusion, we really know what’s good for us. All of us have read enough articles or picked up the basics by osmosis as children, growing up: eat your vegetables, minimise sugary, deep-fried foods, pick whole grains over refined, and eat packaged junk as an occasional treat.
Whatever you’re hearing or reading, the nutrition community is more aligned than it appears. There is widespread consensus there about the fundamentals of eating. Dr David Katz, an American physician and director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, told the Sydney Morning Herald. “Science tells a very clear story and aligns perfectly with sense; as long as you mostly eat whole, minimally processed vegetables, fruit, whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds and mostly drink plain water when you’re thirsty — if you mostly do that you simply can’t go too far wrong. Sense says that, history says that, and all the science says that too.”
2. Give fad diets a hard pass
Tempting as it is to use all the extra time to cook up meals that comply with the principles of keto, Paleo, Atkins or juice diets, you’re best off with a common-sense approach. Dr Wafaa Ayesh, Director, Clinical Nutrition, Dubai Health Authority (DHA), advises skipping past the latest fad diet to come down the pike. “Highly restrictive diets depend on immediate weight loss to motivate you but may backfire entirely and leave you without essential nutrients,” she says. “The best eating plans promote inclusivity over exclusivity and rely on fresh produce. Remember that eating healthily and getting regular physical activity should be lifelong habits, not one-time events for the start of a year or to lose weight before or after a holiday.”
While there isn’t one single plan for everybody, a healthy regimen should feature foods you enjoy along with plenty of healthy, unprocessed foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean meats, beans and nuts, and low-fat dairy.
“The most satisfying foods have lots of fibre (such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and nuts) and/or low-fat protein (found in meat, fish, dairy and soy). Ideally, you want to slowly wean yourself off foods that are heavily processed and high in fat or calories and replace them with more nutritious options.”
Fad diets will only result in nutrition deficiencies, and while they may offer temporary weight loss, the minute you fall off the wagon, all the weight you have struggled to lose will pile back and your efforts will have been in vain. Instead, strive to consistently make healthy choices.
3. Choose local produce if possible
A good place to start when buying perishables, says Dr Remy Shanker, a UAE-based medical practitioner and nutrition advisor who is a Wellness Program Specialist at New York University Abu Dhabi, is to choose locally farmed produce over imported supermarket staples.
“Locally grown produce could very well be a safe bet for nutritional value as our gut bacteria — the microorganisms living in our digestive system that play an essential role in keeping us healthy — adopts to the soil and water terrain in the region,” she says. “Hence produce grown from these natural resources helps us cultivate good bacteria leading to good gut health and offers nutritive empowerment.
“The UAE has some pretty great local produce, which is now available in your regular chain hypermarkets and at fruit and vegetable markets. Most local produce has superior nutritional value.” So look for UAE-grown cucumbers, cabbages, cauliflower, broccoli, cucumbers, zucchini, eggplants, she says: they’re affordable and price matched.
4. Steer clear of fancy terms
Factory farmers, manufacturers and retailers understand the value of marketing, so expect anything you’re buying to be attractively packaged and beautifully photographed. This is particularly likely to be true of packaged foods and items that are purchased online, so flip the boxes and read the nutritional labels instead.
“I’ve had clients who come in and tell me, ‘I found a low-fat yoghurt in the supermarket, so I ate three of them as it has no calories’. But that’s absolutely incorrect,” says Nadine Aoun, Specialist Diet and Nutrition, Medcare Hospitals and Medical Centres.
“Patients need to learn how to read nutrition facts, especially when they are heading to the supermarket and many options are available. The nutritional label provides reliable information on which consumers can base their food choices and help them chose healthy options.”
Don’t be fooled by terms such as low-fat, low-calorie, low-carb, grain-free or natural, she warns. “Low fat doesn’t mean there are no calories, it means the product has three grams or less of fat per serving.
“When buying a low-fat product, double-check the calories it contains. Similarly, low-calorie indicates 40 calories or fewer per serving, while reduced-calorie indicates an item at least 25 per cent lower in calories than a regular or reference food. And to be labelled calorie-free, foods must contain fewer than five calories per serving. Read nutrition facts well before buying because even though you may be eating healthy, counting calories is important to keep your weight in check.”
Finally, she suggests running any new information past a doctor or dietician. “UAE residents should always take the advice of their physician, dietician before following any trend on social media or that is found on the internet as they are not always reputable sources, or may not be backed up with adequate research, and may cause harm to your health.”
What’s a healthy meal?
When planning meals, Dr Wafaa Ayesh, Director, Clinical Nutrition Department at DHA, suggests using the healthy plate planner as a guideline to ensure a balanced meal. “Ensure half your plate is filled with fruit and vegetables, a quarter with a protein source and a quarter with grains. Also, include a serving of dairy along with it.”