Can quick food be healthy food?
Well, some would say emphatically “no”, but let’s be real about this. It’s all very well to say: eat organic, eat slowly, use whole foods and fresh produce, when in reality many of us just simply don’t have the time, money or inclination to do that. We are too exhausted after a day with the kids or don’t have the energy at 9 o’clock at night after a full day of work to slave over the stove. But does this mean we are left fearing for our nutrition and health?
Not at all, the endless array of quick cookbooks is testimony to healthy but quick meals. More over, many of the foods once touted as nutritionally inferior to fresh food options, such as tinned and frozen foods today, in some cases offer good nutritional quality.
Why bother at all?
Let’s not harp on about the importance of each nutrient, suffice to say that your body will function better physically, mentally and emotionally if it is well nourished. Avoiding nutrient deficiencies can help you avoid those nasty bugs, as well as give you more energy and mean you live a longer healthier life.
Here are just a couple of basic points to work from, when shopping and cooking, in order to cover a few important nutritional bases:
- Complex carbohydrates offer you sustained energy, and are a better alternative to simple sugars and, even more so, added sugars that are linked to obesity, tooth decay and some cancers.
- Protein is important for your mood; it is essential for making hormones (including some that the brain uses for your emotional state) and protein also makes you feel full.
- Eating regularly means your brain is less likely to run low in glucose, preventing those foggy, brain-lag times.
- And, of course, it’s important to eat the right balance of fats and watch out for excessive salt for our heart and blood vessels’ sake.
Top tips for reducing time but not nutrition
So, with all this in mind, here are a few tips for your next dash to the supermarket:
- Keep canned or frozen fruit and vegetables in stock. They can be nutritious and very convenient. Many brands are snap frozen and can have better nutrient retention than some of the “fresh” options, which may have been transported and processed in less than ideal fashion.
- Have a good pasta sauce (if you look hard you can find ones low on harmful additives and sugar and low in salt, but packed with real veggies and herbs). This helps in making quick and easy bases for many meals, such as pasta, gourmet pizza, stews etc. Plus it seems that cooked tomatoes lose a lot of their antioxidant properties.
- Consider keeping some ground-up nuts and seeds in the fridge (you can buy them pre-prepared or grind them up yourself for an even better result). Sprinkle over your cereal or add to your smoothie for a “food supplement”.
- Opt for fortified milks and cereals if you believe your diet is inadequate, look for ones containing extra calcium, iron, iodine, omega-3 and B vitamins.
- Try to buy different coloured fruit and vegetables. The colour difference generally means you are getting a different mix of nutrients and lesser concentration of the unwanted stuff.
- Experiment with exotic fruit and berries; organic dark chocolate-covered goji berries are a great example and available in many supermarkets.
- Fish is much faster to cook than meat and according to a number of reports a healthier option all round.
- Canned fish (unless you are vegetarian or allergic) as a quick and healthy filling is a convenient alternative to fresh where time is short. Even some tinned salmon has reasonable levels of omega-3, and if you opt for brands with the bones you’ll also get extra calcium.
- If you use muesli bars and protein shakes opt for ones with a good level of protein per 100 g. Just a few grams probably won’t be a big help, they will last in your tummy longer and tell your brain you are full. Another important thing to look for in any protein supplement is that all the essential amino acids are present (ask around at a good health food shop). If any are missing in your diet your body won’t be able to use as much of the protein.
What to look for in products
It is a very handy skill indeed to be able to understand nutrition and ingredients labels, but just as a quick check here are a few pointers:
- Check the sugars figure and compare it to the total carbohydrate figure (which includes both natural and added sugars). The greater the sugars figure is, the more simple sugars you will be consuming.
- Opt for products that have sugar well down on the ingredients list or with none at all.
- A rule of thumb for a reasonable product is if the potassium is greater than the sodium (in the 100 g panel).
- Opt for products with little or no added salt. A low-sodium product is considered one that has 120 mg or less per 100 g.
- Check for additives in the ingredients panel and opt for brands with less or none at all.
- Opt for brands that use wholemeal flour and wholegrains over white baker’s flour.
- You can now buy loads of organic canned products; try these instead of other brands.
Something you didn’t know
- Frozen fruit and vegetables can have more nutrients than fresh produce.
- Tinned salmon is still a great source of omega-3 fish oils.
- Sugar doesn’t turn to fat, it makes you store fat.
- Adding herbs like garlic can really help the benefits of an ordinary meal.
- Consider a smoothie made with frozen fruit, natural yoghurt and your choice of milk instead of going to bed hungry, this will help with fluid, nutrition, sleep and even with waking up feeling refreshed in the morning.
- If you opt to use prepared low kilojoule frozen meals, then add a quick green salad and a little extra something, like cheese, yoghurt, ground nuts and seeds, tinned fish etc. Many of these frozen meals lack enough energy for the average person and can leave you hankering for a little something extra soon after. We tend to make our worst eating decisions when hungry, so a bar of chocolate or that pack of crisps can seem to be begging to be eaten after a low kilojoule meal.
- Have real juice. Freshly juiced vegetables and fruit can be a great way of adding nutrients to your diet, just remember that you don’t want too much fruit, as it can give you a lot of sugar all at once. Trying adding this to your diet, rather than swapping it for fresh fruit. And remember, there is little fibre in juiced produce.
- Try to include herbs, onions and garlic in your cooking wherever possible; they are great antioxidants.
- Home-made pizzas can be a tasty and convenient way of covering many of the food groups and could be ready in a short time.
- Strongly-coloured fruit such as an array of berries (also available in the freezer section) tend to have good levels of antioxidants and are often nutrient-rich.
- Cook in large batches. When you do it, do it big, so you can freeze in bulk and defrost when you need to.
- Miso soup is a quick, healthy and easy option for dinner, look for it in the Asian section of your local supermarket. It is a ready-made soup, so you just add water.
- Invest in one of the many quick meals recipe books.
- Always wash your fruit and vegetables to reduce exposure to pesticides.
- Invest in some proper fruit and vegetable plastic fridge containers; you can almost double the life of your produce and it is very handy if you are an occasional shopper.
- If you really feel your diet and you are in a bad way, consider a visit to a nutritionist or dietician to get motivated on how to make changes.
Keep the drinks under control
It would be remiss to not mention alcohol. There is little doubt that limiting alcohol or abstaining can reduce your risk of diseases, including diabetes and cancer. Now, it may also be worth saying here that alcohol and sugar don’t turn to fat in the body, but they do help you get fat by encouraging your body to store fat and prevent it from using fat for energy.
So how is this for an incentive to reduce your intake? Most of us watch our waistlines, some with despair of their increasing circumferences. If this is you, alcohol and sugar are not your friends, both cause you to release a “fat storage” hormone; the more you drink the more likely you are to store body fat. If you are already somewhat on the inactive side, then this can add insult to injury.
But you don’t have to go without.
We are not suggesting you become a teetotaller. Instead here are some tips for incorporating alcohol:
- Before you start drinking have a full tummy from a good meal.
- Go 1 for 1 (water and alcohol, start with the water first if you can).
- Go for singles instead of doubles and add a mixer in instead.
- Opt for low kilojoule beverages where possible.
- Use lots of ice wherever you can.
So, it doesn’t have to be more work to eat a quick but healthy meal, but it certainly will mean your body will function better, physically, mentally and emotionally.