Thursday, November 6, 2014

Is raw food the way to go?

Raw food has become a bit of a thing lately. You can’t turn around online without finding recipes for ‘raw carrot cake’ and ‘raw power salad’. There are raw food cafes and even in regular cafes, raw sweet treats are popping up in cabinets everywhere. So what’s the story with raw food from a nutritional point of view? Is a raw carrot cake really any better than a cooked one?

For a start, some raw food is really good for us. A big salad full of raw leafy greens and other crunchy, colourful vegetables is not only delicious, it’s also satisfying to eat and full of nutrients. Fruit is the same – often the best and healthiest way to eat it is in its natural state. It’s a great idea to include some raw veges and fruit in your day.

On the other hand, some foods are actually better for us when they are cooked. Tomatoes are an often-used example; the antioxidant compounds they contain, especially lycopene, are more easily absorbed in cooked tomato products than from raw. The same is true of the beta-carotene in carrots and pumpkin. And some foods really can’t be eaten without cooking; think of chicken, red meat, potatoes and most grains.

People eating a strictly raw diet don’t eat anything that’s been heated beyond about 46 degrees. That rules out most meats, anything baked, cheese, coffee and tea. Strictly speaking it rules out anything pasteurised too, such as milk, yoghurt and other dairy products, which have been heated as part of their processing. Raw foodists claim that cooking destroys nutrients and enzymes in food. While this is true, it’s questionable how much impact this has on our overall health. Eating lots of vegetables is a good idea, and whether they’re cooked or raw you’re still going to get lots of goodness from them.

So what about those sweet treats? Many of the slices, cakes and ‘cheesecakes’ in raw food cooking are made from combinations of nuts, dried fruit, coconut and coconut fat, along with fruits and honey. Although they have a lot of good things going for them – they’re often high in fibre, for example – raw sweet treats are often just as energy-dense as their cooked counterparts, if not more so. A recent recipe I saw for a raw strawberry cake had more calories per slice than an average main course. So just because they’re raw, doesn’t make them diet food. If you’re eating an exclusively raw diet, there’s probably room for a high-energy sweet treat. If you’re just popping into a raw cafĂ© every day, it could be worth limiting the treats.

The other thing to note is that for people prone to IBS, concentrated amounts of coconut, dried fruit such as dates or sultanas, and nuts – especially cashews and almonds – may cause unwelcome problems. That’s because they’re high in FODMAPs – types of sugars which are poorly absorbed by some people. For you, a raw treat could be more trouble than tonic. 

First published in the Sunday Star Times, 28 September. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Should we be quitting all sugar?

This column was first published in the Sunday Star-Times, Sunday 21st September. 

I have a piece of toast with Marmite most mornings as part of my breakfast, with my eggs. I enjoy the flavours together. But regular Marmite eaters like me have started to doubt ourselves lately, after talk of the spread’s sugar content. It comes in the wake of the (otherwise excellent) programme by Nigel Latta on sugar in our diets, broadcast a few weeks ago. In it, Latta highlighted the abundance of sugar in our food supply, and the potential harm this is doing to our health. He went through the supermarket showing how much sugar is in various foods, including obvious things like cereal and less obvious ones, like Marmite. I’ve had some correspondence from readers, alarmed at this, declaring they are clearing their cupboards of all the sugar and tossing out the Marmite along with anything else with sugar in it.

It’s a good idea to keep an eye on the added sugar in your diet. That’s because it’s often in processed foods, many of which are not ideal for our health. In these foods, sugar comes packaged up with other things that are not good for us, like saturated fat and salt. And some foods, like sweet fizzy drinks, are really just sugar delivery systems which none of us really need at all. Sugar can also lurk in foods where you wouldn’t expect it to be. Peanut butter, tomato sauce, bread, stir-fry sauces – they all contain sugar, sometimes at quite high levels.

The idea of ‘quitting sugar’ has had a lot of airtime in the past year or so, and there are certainly people who’ve made careers and presumably a lot of money out of this idea. I don’t have a problem with this – it’s a simple message that has resonated with a lot of people. I do have a problem with where some of the more extreme advice in this area might lead vulnerable people.

If cutting sugar from your diet means you replace the processed sugary foods with whole, fresh, healthy foods like vegetables and fruit (I don’t think fruit should be demonised for its sugar content), that is great. It can only be a good thing for your health. But if the desire to cut sugar leads to obsessive thinking – checking every label, being preoccupied with what is and isn’t ‘allowed’- then I question whether that is good, healthy or sustainable long term. One of the things that really breaks my heart is when (non-allergic) people talk of food in terms of what they can’t eat.

Also, don’t forget context. Yes, that jar of Marmite contains seven teaspoons of sugar. But no-one’s eating the whole jar in one sitting! There’s less than a fifth of a teaspoon of sugar in the smear on my toast. I can live with that, just like I can live with the delicious (small) piece of sweet slice I ate this morning for a colleague’s birthday. Part of enjoying life is finding a balance that works for you.  

Sunday, October 19, 2014

10 rules for healthy eating

I just had a call from a lovely dietitian saying how sad she was to hear that I'm leaving the Sunday Star Times, and also wondering if I'm leaving Healthy Food Guide too! 

So, this is a bad news/good news situation. Yes, my column has finished in the Sunday Star Times. The paper is re-structuring, taking the food out of the Escape section and they don't wish to continue with my column. Which is totally fair enough, although disappointing for me, since I really enjoyed writing it. 

The GOOD news, is that I'm not leaving HFG - in fact I's sticking around, but coincidentally in a new and exciting role, as Editor-in-Chief. That means I'll be overseeing all of the magazines in the Healthy Life Media stable, as well as being able to work on new projects for HFG and get out there in the world more to talk about healthy eating. I'm going 'bigger picture' which is a good thing for me to be doing now. 

I'll be keeping up the feature, blog and recipe writing as part of my new role, and hopefully doing more of it - that's one of my favourite things to do. 

So here is my final SST column. In it, I've tried to distill all the messages I've tried to get across over the past few years in that 450-word space. 

I’m on record (more than once) saying I hate rules about healthy eating. But since it’s my last column here, I thought I should leave you with some thoughts – call them rules if you must – to summarise what I’ve hoped to communicate over the past four years. Here are ten ways to truly eat healthier.

1.       Food is just food. It shouldn’t be a cause of emotions like guilt and shame. If you’re going to feel emotional about food, be joyful, having savoured something absolutely delicious.

2.       Eat your veges – the more, and the more colourful, the better. Base every meal on these.

3.       Remember the ideal plate. It’s half full of colourful veges, a quarter quality carbohydrates and a quarter protein. 

4.       Cook as much as you can, and if you can’t cook, try to learn. And then apply numbers 2 and 3 above. Do this and you’ll almost certainly get healthier without even trying.

5.       There is no such thing as one ‘perfect’ diet for everyone. There are lots of ways to eat healthily. The best way of eating for you is one that suits your life, your family situation, your budget and your personality. (Anyone who says they have the perfect solution is trying to sell you something, probably a diet book.)

6.       ‘Processed’ food is not all evil – freezing and canning are ways of processing, don’t forget. But none of us needs too much highly processed brown and white food in our lives. Choose wisely, and eat as much whole, fresh, minimally processed food as possible.

7.       Diet theories come and go, but most nutrition professionals agree on the basics of a healthy diet (see above). Try not to get distracted or confused by the latest trend.

8.       Be suspicious of any diet that divides foods into “allowed” and “not allowed”. It’s probably not a diet you can stick to long term.

9.       A little bit of sugar (or fat, or salt) will not kill you. Treats make us happy. Just recognise treats are not everyday foods.

10.   People eat for lots of reasons that have nothing to do with hunger. Don’t judge others for what or how they eat. Pay attention to your own choices and make them as good as you possibly can. You only have one body and it deserves looking after.

It’s been a pleasure writing this column; thanks for all your feedback. You can read my regular blog at, and connect with me at

PS: I'll publish some of my previous columns here over the next few weeks. To save them for posterity! 

Common bloody sense about healthy eating

First published in the Sunday Star Times, 16 August 2014. 

In all the noise about nutrition that’s around, it’s easy to get bogged down in ‘my diet is better than your diet’ arguments. There’s a lot of passion and conviction out there about what and how we should eat, from the paleo people to the low-carbers to the raw vegans to the ‘clean’ eaters to the gluten-free. All have different lists of what not to eat, and many have an evangelical zeal to tell us why we are doomed if we don’t follow their way. It can be pretty confusing.
What it’s easy to lose sight of, though, is that in general, despite these varying messages, we actually already know, and agree on, what is healthy to eat. We know, for example, that whole, unprocessed foods are best. We know to eat lots of colourful vegetables. We know that too much junky food full of saturated fat, sugar and refined carbohydrate is bad for us, and so is any more than a little alcohol. No matter what else we believe, we have to agree that if more of us were to live by these things, we would be healthier.

But when it comes to healthy eating guidelines for whole populations, keeping it simple (and understandable) does not seem to be easy for health authorities the world over. Our own Ministry of Health is working on new guidelines for Kiwis at the moment; a process which looks likely to last until the end of the year. The Heart Foundation revised its old ‘food pyramid’ last year; its guidelines are now in the form of a Healthy Heart that’s nicely visual and easy to understand. It’s nice to see a movement towards food-based, rather than nutrient-based eating advice.

One country that’s really taken this to heart is Brazil. Its new healthy eating guidelines are a great example of rules anyone can understand, and they make instinctive sense to us when we read them because they also take into account the social and cultural aspects of eating. Here they are:
  1. Prepare meals from staple and fresh foods.
  2. Use oils, fats, sugar and salt in moderation.
  3. Limit consumption of ready-to-consume food and drink product.
  4. Eat regular meals, paying attention, and in appropriate environments.
  5. Eat in company whenever possible.
  6. Buy food at places that offer varieties of fresh foods. Avoid those that mainly sell products ready for consumption.
  7. Develop, practice, share and enjoy your skills in food preparation and cooking.
  8. Plan your time to give meals and eating proper time and space.
  9. When you eat out, choose restaurants that serve freshly made dishes and meals. Avoid fast food chains.
  10. Be critical of the commercial advertisement of food products.

Notice the emphasis on mindful eating, cooking and sharing food? Even if we’re not Brazilian, these are not bad eating rules to live by. I might add something specific about veges (ie eat lots). But otherwise I say hear, hear. 

Let's make a plan (before it's too late)

First published in the Sunday Star-Times 10 August 2014. 

I recently attended the launch of Diabetes NZ Auckland’s mobile diabetes screening van. This is an excellent service which will take screening for diabetes into at-risk communities. They’ve already identified people with diabetes – both type 1 and type 2 – who did not know they had the disease. About 30% of the people getting tested are found to have diabetes or prediabetes.

That’s pretty scary. Diabetes is at epidemic levels in NZ, and it’s only getting worse, despite the excellent work being done by organisations like Diabetes NZ. Fifty Kiwis every day are diagnosed with diabetes. Within seven years it will cost the country a billion dollars a year. We could use 50 more vans like the Auckland one around the country.

Unfortunately, there is no funding for this. Like many of the fantastic grass-roots projects going on around the country to try and fight the obesity epidemic, this diabetes screening programme is not government-funded. Nor is it part of any overall nationwide government-led strategy. That’s because we don’t have one.

Prime Minister John Key spoke at launch event for the van, and emphasised again that he sees education as the only solution for our obesity crisis. I couldn't help thinking that not many of the people at the coal face of health would agree with him about that. Yes, education is important. But education and awareness programmes can work so much better when they are just one part of an overall strategy – a strategy that includes funding for education along with sensible policies aimed at making our obesogenic environment less so. It’s great to identify that you’ve got prediabetes and learn about how to manage that – but trying to do it in an environment that’s designed to make us unhealthy is an uphill battle.

On the positive front, overseas there are some countries taking huge steps forward in starting to solve this problem.

Ireland recently introduced its ‘Healthy Ireland’ plan – a whole-of-government approach to helping Irish people become healthier. Along with education and community support, priorities include a 20% tax on sugar-sweetened drinks; front-of-pack nutrition labelling and restrictions on marketing of food and drinks to children. Ireland and NZ have a lot of parallels – including a similar-sized obesity problem.

Elsewhere, Brazil recently unveiled new easy to understand, food-based healthy eating guidelines (see last week’s column) along with a comprehensive policy on healthy food in schools which includes making sure schools source their ingredients from local farms. They also have a complete ban on advertising aimed at kids. What both countries have done as a cornerstone to their plans is to set national targets. Brazil’s are to halve obesity in kids by 2022; to stop the rise of obesity in adults; to increase fruit and vegetable consumption and to reduce salt intake.

If policymakers are looking for ideas on where to start in dealing with this crisis, here are two fantastic examples. I’d love to see us make a plan, set some targets and get on with doing the same here. 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Is 'clean' eating really better?

This is my Sunday-Star Times column, published 18th May. 

When did healthy eating become so competitive? It’s hard not to feel like that these days, especially in certain sections of our community. There’s so much ‘noise’ around nutrition. Should you be eating grains? Is dairy good or bad? What about legumes? Have you gone paleo yet? Are you still eating gluten? Surely you’ve given up sugar…?!
An example of this is a newish dietary label known as ‘clean eating’. No, this is not about washing everything in soapy water before we eat it. The rules of clean eating seem to vary, depending on which website or Instagram feed you consult (as with many competitive eating trends, this one has its origins online). At its simplest, it’s about avoiding processed foods, eating whole foods, cooking your own meals and cutting out refined sugar. Sounds like a regular, healthy diet, right?  Which is great. At the more extreme end though, advocates advise avoiding ‘anything with a label’, not eating rice, bread or pasta (even wholegrain varieties) or cutting out all grains and dairy.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to eat less processed and more home-made, whole foods. That’s what I want, too. What I don’t like here is the labelling; the implied judgment; the idea that one diet is ‘cleaner’ - and therefore better - than another.  I also really dislike the demonising of different foods and sometimes whole food groups. Australian dietitian Glen Cardwell describes this as the “Component X” syndrome.

“Now, possibly more than any other time, self-proclaimed experts are in your ear telling you how bad a certain component of your diet is for your health. In fact, if you completely eliminate Component X you will avoid heart disease, cancer and in-growing toenails”, he says, tongue somewhat in cheek.

He has a point, though. In a way, the ‘component X is killing you’ argument is easier for people to understand than the more sensible but far less sexy argument that we should all just eat less rubbish and more vegetables. Many of us would rather go on a drastic short-term  ‘no component x’ diet than commit to making small but lifelong changes to what and how we eat all the time.

Unfortunately, if we keep cutting things out of our diets, we can easily veer off into disordered eating territory. I have had several conversations recently with nutritionists who say they’re seeing more young women, particularly, who have gradually reduced their diets down to a very limited range of foods, eliminating some things  because of peer pressure, whether in real life or on social media. When the perception is that ‘everyone’ is giving up dairy and carbs, surely I should, too? Who wants to be the odd man out, still eating a bit of everything? This kind of thinking is particularly dangerous for someone who’s already vulnerable to disordered eating; it can give them license to follow a very restricted diet, in the name of ‘health’. And whether it’s classified as ‘clean’ or not, that’s far from healthy.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Which food is better...?

My Sunday Star-Times column from 13th April. 
I’m always being asked which is ‘better’ between two foods. Which is better: butter or margarine? Milk or soy milk? Sugar or honey? Olive oil or coconut oil?

We always want to know the definitive answer to this question. But unless the question is burgers versus broccoli or water versus cola, the answer is usually “It depends”. It all depends on context – the context of your day, your overall diet and your personal situation. 

For example; you may see a lot of stuff online about how butter is ‘better’ than oil spreads or margarine because it is more natural and less processed. You could certainly say that butter is less processed and has fewer ingredients than your average margarine. Personally I prefer the taste of a scrape of butter on my toast. But does that make it ‘better’? 

Margarine is not necessarily the terrible evil you might think from reading stuff on the internet. (In fact for something to technically be called ‘margarine’ it has to be 80% fat, just like butter, so you don’t see a lot of actual margarine on the shelves these days). It is all about context. If you are eating a fabulously healthy diet and don’t have weight or cholesterol issues, a little butter won’t hurt. You may prefer the taste and be happy keeping the quantities low. But if you’re loading up on butter and are overweight or have high cholesterol, you’re probably better off switching to a reduced-fat spread for your toast, which has far less saturated fat and is lower in kilojoules. Or swap to avocado or nut butter so you’re getting some healthy fat. Context is everything. Margarine is a more manufactured product, and that can be a turnoff for some. But it doesn’t mean it’s ‘bad’ for everyone. We have to choose what works for our own situation. 

It’s the same with all the other ‘either/or’ questions about food. Milk is a nutritious and useful food for most people. But soy milk may be better for you if you can’t tolerate dairy. Too much sugar is not good for anyone – but neither is too much honey. It’s the same with oils – all are energy dense so too much of any oil, whether it’s coconut or olive or canola, is not a good idea. Coconut oil is high in saturated fat, so it’s a good idea to treat it like butter and use sparingly, if at all. But if your diet is full of healthful whole foods and tons of veges and you like the taste of coconut oil, a little bit is not going to hurt. 

It’s very easy to get caught up in all-or-nothing arguments when it comes to healthy eating. But as in many areas of life and given our human nature, all-or-nothing solutions seldom work for long. 

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Are low-carb diets the way to go?

Here's my most recent column, published in the Sunday Star Times on 30th March 2014. 

Compared to many areas of science, the science of nutrition, in the scheme of things, is only in its infancy. That’s probably why it often feels like scientists ‘change their minds’ all the time about what’s healthy and what’s not. Over the years some very plausible theories have been debunked, and new ones have been introduced. And there’s always a new theory around the corner.
One popular theory at the moment – although not new – is that eating a low carbohydrate diet is the key to good health. It’s the basis for the old Atkins diet, and the newly popular paleo-style diets, (although some paleo followers do include more carbs). It’s also the basis for a low-carb diet with a twist – the low carb, high fat diet, or LCHF diet, being proposed by a group of scientists as potentially the key to fighting type 2 diabetes and obesity. On this diet most (about 80%) of the energy comes from fat. That means eating eggs, fatty meat, fish, cream, coconut oil, butter, cheese and plenty of non-starchy veges, topped off with extra shots of oil and butter in your coffee.
Whether that appeals or not, it’s an interesting theory, and it will be interesting to see what comes from research on it, which is needed before we can really know if the theory is correct. At this stage it seems likely that a LCHF diet could work well for some people, although even advocates of the diet say it’s not for everyone, and the long-term effects are not yet known.
A common problem with many dietary theories, whether low-carb-high-fat, or - as has been recently proposed as another ‘best’ diet, high-carb, low-protein – is that it can be tricky to apply them to our real lives. Most of us don’t think of our food in terms of percentages – counting grams of carbs and fat. We think in terms of foods. If the only message we took from a theory like LCHF was ‘eat more fat’ and we didn’t change anything else in our diets – it could be disastrous.
However, there’s little doubt that poor-quality, refined carbohydrates are bad for our health. They’re especially bad when combined with saturated fat and salt - probably the worst case scenario, especially for people with insulin resistance or diabetes. But it’s worth remembering that all carbs are not equal. We could all probably improve our health by looking at the quality of the carbs we eat. Ditch the cakes and biscuits, white bread, white rice and mashed potato. Concentrate on true whole grains (not just things that say ‘wholegrain’ on the packet) and low-GI carbohydrates from legumes and colourful veges. Stick to fresh whole foods and it’s hard to go wrong, carbs or no carbs.
Personally I think I would find a very low-carb life difficult. As a food lover, the idea of a life where I could never eat crisply roasted potato or kumara, fresh sweetcorn, nutty quinoa, or a warm bowl of porridge on a cold morning – feels like a hard life. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Should we ban sugary drinks?

Here's my most recent column from the Sunday Star Times. 

Sugary drinks have been all over the news lately. At a two-day symposium recently held to discuss their impact, we saw calls for sugar-sweetened drinks to be taxed and even banned altogether.

Where these were once dismissed as fringe demands from the fun police, and all anyone in government had to do was whisper the phrase ‘nanny state’ to shut down any debate, the pressure is mounting for a serious conversation to be had.

The FIZZ group is made up of researchers and public health doctors who’ve banded together because they believe sugar-sweetened drinks are a major contributor to poor health in New Zealand. They’re advocating for the phasing out of sugary drinks from New Zealand, pointing out many studies linking the intake of sugary drinks with obesity, type 2 diabetes, rotten teeth, gout and other risk factors for cardiovascular disease and premature death. They say “the tide of evidence which implicates sugary drinks with these common diseases is so strong now that ending the sales of these products is justified”. They liken sugary drinks to tobacco, and say similar strategies should be used to phase them out, including raising prices through taxes, restricting advertising and sales, and having ‘sugary drink free’ workplaces and public institutions.

Whether or not you believe that sugary drinks are addictive in the way that tobacco is – and the evidence does not seem to be quite there yet – it is hard to argue that anyone needs sugary drinks in their life. I find it very hard to see the harm in taxing something that really does no good at all in our food supply, and probably does harm. Yes, life is about personal responsibility, and we all have to take ownership of our own health. But sometimes we also have to think of the greater good. For people who don’t have the awareness, education or knowledge about healthy eating, couldn’t regulation be a nudge in a better direction? Right now there is a group of people out there who are drinking enough sugary drinks to do them a lot of harm.

If you are someone who can’t do without a sweet drink in your day, now could be the time to try and wean yourself off the liquid sugar. You might start by switching to a sugar-free variety of your favourite drink. Whatever you think about alternative sweeteners, most experts agree these are a better option, even as an interim step. There are more and more drinks now available sweetened with the ‘natural’ sweetener, stevia, and these are also worth a try. 

They won’t, however, take away the craving for a sweet taste. Only gradually reducing the sugar in your life will do that. It takes time, but it is do-able. Just as with salty tastes, our taste buds gradually adapt to less sweet tastes when we cut down. If you can get to a place where you choose a nutrient-dense piece of naturally sweet fruit instead of an energy-dense, nutrient poor sugary drink, you’ll definitely be on the right track.