Good food vs bad
Most of us know the obvious when it comes to good and bad foods, but do we really know how many calories were putting in our mouths?
It isn't always easy to make the best food choices, particularly if you lead a busy life. Fast food can keep you going, but often lacks the essential nutrients needed for a healthy diet. It can also be loaded with excessive amounts of fat, sugar and salt.
Cooking for convenience
Many people regularly find themselves cooking for one and it often seems simpler - not to mention cheaper - to pick up a ready meal or takeaway than cook a meal from scratch. But it's not always simple to work out what we're getting from these foods. While most ready meals purchased in supermarkets will contain nutritional information, much of the food purchased from restaurants won't.
A Which? investigation into takeaway dishes found that a standard Indian meal can contain more saturated fat and a Chinese meal more sugar than a person should eat in a whole day. The consumer body purchased 10 portions of chicken tikka masala, pilau rice and a plain naan from independent Indian delivery outlets and found that on average, the meal contained 1338 calories and 55.8 grams of fat. That's a pretty big slice of the recommended daily calorie intake of 2000 calories for women and 2500 for men.
Making healthy choices
There is some good news on the horizon, however, as the Food Standards Agency has introduced a pilot programme to encourage restaurants and takeaway providers to provide nutritional information and a host of outlets, including Pizza Hut, Burger King, Pret A Manger and The Real Greek, have already signed up. Unfortunately, your local Chinese takeaway or chippie is unlikely to follow suit.
Even where facts and figures are absent, simple steps can be taken to make takeaway food healthier, says Azmina Govindji, spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association and author of several healthy eating publications. "If you do opt for a kebab, try a chicken one instead of a doner, which are full of salt and fat," she advises. "Ask them to put less meat and a bit more salad on it for you. If you are going for a takeaway three times a week, try having it once a week without the chips."
The BDA recommends following a diet based on the eatwell plate, but Azmina is quick to point out it isn't as complicated to follow as it may look. "Get into the habit of adding vegetables or a side salad to a ready meal," she says. "Open a can of chickpeas and throw them into a soup you've bought, or have a tin of sweetcorn on the side of a shepherd's pie. Canned veg also count towards your five a day."
The good news is you can find out the number of calories in almost everything online these days. The bad news is that you'll have to get off that computer to start burning them off.
It's easy to get into bad habits, especially when you're away from home for the first time. Emma Williams, 23, gained about two stones in her first year at university. "Everyone goes to uni with the best of intentions, but when you're buying food you don't think about health, you think about the price," she says. "We ate a lot of pasta and ready meals because they were cheap, and not a lot of fruit and vegetables because they were much more expensive."
Emma lived in halls on campus and also relied heavily on takeaways. "I fell into the convenience food trap because they littered our halls with brochures," she says. "You also tend to go out drinking a lot more when you start university and alcohol was another of the reasons I gained weight."
Glenys Jones, nutritionist at the Medical Research Council's Human Nutrition Research centre, says liquid calories are often overlooked, even by the calorie conscious. "If you go to a fast food joint some of their milkshakes have 800 or 900 calories," she says. "A lot of the time people are just completely unaware as they think of calories in food and they don't always think of calories in liquid."
Given that a pint of beer contains about 200 calories and a small glass of wine about 120, it's easy to see how a night out can have a serious impact on your waistline.
Counting the calories
But just how much does it matter if you overconsume now and again? Roughly speaking, to gain one pound you'd have to overeat by 3500 calories, and likewise to lose a pound you'd have to save 3500 calories. This sounds like a lot, but if you ate an extra 500 calories per day, you'd gain a pound every week.
According to Glenys, modern lifestyles make it easy to put away more than we should. "Our portion sizes have grown and we can't get any more inactive than we are now, we can even order our shopping online so you don't even have to go out."
Some people are more active than others and determining one's daily calorie needs is not an exact science. However, if you're finding your trousers getting tighter, it's probably a sign you're either eating too much, or simply choosing the wrong kinds of food. The good news is you can find out the number of calories in almost everything online these days. The bad news is that you'll have to get off that computer to start burning them off.
Written by Joanne Christie
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