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 www.healthyfood.co.nz, and connect with me at www.facebook.com/nikibezzant

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.