5 tips on how to eat more whole foods

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According to the experts, overweight, obesity and chronic disease linked to bad dietary habits are still on the rise in South Africa, despite what we know about the impact of food choices on our health.

And with so much conflicting information regarding healthy diets, as well as extreme diet trends, it’s often easier to simply plead ignorance than to try striving for a healthier lifestyle. We also have this notion in our heads that “healthy” foods should be expensive, exotic and only available from trendy health food stores.

But the 2019 National Nutrition Week wants to clear these misconceptions. The theme “Make eating whole foods a way of life” focuses on the importance of consuming a largely plant-based diet consisting of mainly unprocessed and minimally processed food. These include whole grains; fresh vegetables and fruits; nuts and seeds; and lean proteins.

Carol Browne of the Nutrition Society of South Africa (NSSA) points out that the risks of unhealthy diets and lifestyles start in childhood and build up over our lives. 

She says: “Approximately 13.3% of South African children under five years of age are overweight or obese, and according to the 2012 South African Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (SANHANES), 14.2% children aged 6 to 14 years are overweight or obese. The situation among adults is even worse, with the 2016 South Africa Demographic and Health Survey finding that 68% of women and 31% of men in South Africa are overweight or obese. Severe obesity, which is life-threatening, affects around 20% of women and 3% of men. Unhealthy diets and a lack of physical activity are contributing to a considerable burden of disease in our country.”

Luckily, there are some easy tips to help you shop for the healthiest whole foods:

1. Experiment with your food

Enjoy a wide variety of whole foods such as vegetables, fruit, whole grains and legumes, and ensure that this makes up at least 80% of your daily diet. Make at least one day per week meat-free, where you focus on plant-based foods as the main part of your meal. Not only is this good for your health, but also for the environment. 

2. Choose fruit and veggies

Choose seasonal fruit and vegetables that you enjoy. Not only will you commit to a healthy lifestyle when you really enjoy the taste and texture of fresh fruit and vegetables, but you will also save money and reduce waste. Don’t overbuy – choose five portions of fruit and veggies that you really enjoy and that you can use across several dishes during the week. A bag of carrots, for example, can be cut up as snacks, enjoyed in salads and used in casseroles and stir-fries for the rest of the week.

3. Make legumes a pantry staple

Beans, lentils and peas are not only high in dietary fibre, but also high in plant protein and several important micronutrients. And not only are these humble little legumes packed with nutrition, they are also budget-friendly and versatile. The hearty texture of beans and lentils makes for a wonderful meat substitute, or can stretch meat dishes further.

4. Plan ahead

Get into the habit of cooking at home and packing your own lunches, rather than buying ready-to-eat meals and processed snacks. Build a filling meal or snack by combining your macronutrients – carbohydrates high in fibre, protein and healthy fats. A slice of wholegrain bread with some peanut butter and a banana is for example much more nutritious than a sugary muffin from the coffee shop down the street.

5. Educate yourself about labels

Not all food will be unprocessed – some grocery items such as oats, bread, brown rice, canned items and condiments will be processed to a certain extent. But you can make healthier choices by knowing how to read a food label.

An ultra-processed food or drink is one that usually has five or more ingredients listed on the label, and typically a number of these are not recognisable as foods you would use in home cooking. 

Rebone Ntsie, Director of Nutrition at the National Department of Health says, “Ultra-processed foods typically contain a wide range of food additives such as stabilisers, emulsifiers, preservatives, flavourings and colourings. These are the opposite of whole foods, which are unprocessed like fresh vegetables or minimally processed such as brown rice.

Product ingredients are listed from the highest quantity to the lowest quantity, so be careful of foods that have sugar, salt or fats listed among the first three ingredients.

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