Of all the relationships you nurture, the one you have with food is both crucial and continual. What you eat (or don’t) will literally determine how well you look, feel and live. Despite all the delicious but nutritious options that have made their way to mainstream menus (from acai bowls to quinoa biryani), the idea of “healthy food” still conjures up images of low-calorie, flavourless fare. Meanwhile, drastic diets have a success rate of less than five per cent, and following these can lead to a vicious cycle of deprivation and overindulgence. Instead, consider making swaps that are both easy and effective. Here are 12 to try, courtey of the three experts we spoke to.
Chef Alessandro Montedoro is the executive chef at Ritz Carlton Abu Dhabi and author of Curative Cuisine, a cookbook that provides information about the healing properties of various foods, in addition to recipes. Montedoro says he's stopped taking any medication for some years now: "I solve all my problems by eating."
Here are the Italian chef’s top swaps.
Add water to oil for salad dressings
Instead of liberally pouring olive oil over your healthy greens, shake up 20 per cent olive oil, one spoon of mustard, 40 per cent lemon juice or balsamic vinegar and 40 per cent water using a squeeze bottle. You can add more protein to your salad because you just dropped nearly half of your dressing’s calories.
Halve the sugar in your coffee
The caffeine kick will be more effective without the sugar and, in the long run, you’ll appreciate the flavour of the coffee even better. Take a first sip without any sugar, and then add half your normal dose. The bitterness of the coffee that you’ve just tasted will help to feel the sugar more and, voila, half the calories gone. You save 25 calories for every spoon of sugar.
Switch to non-stick pans
Although olive oil is crammed full of vitamins and antioxidants, it contains more calories than butter: 100ml contains 900 calories. Non-stick pans are the solution. A few drops of oil are enough to cook anything you want and you can cut back on up to 100 calories per meal.
Go the Greek yogurt route
Many people trying to lose weight turn to zero-fat plain yogurt that, in addition to being low in flavour, is usually high in chemicals to get it to its 0 per cent fat status. I would suggest switching to Greek yogurt; both zero-fat and Greek yogurt have a similar calorie count (about 50 per serving). Add fresh fruit and almond flakes for an 80-calorie super-snack.
British nutritionist Victoria Tipper who lives in Dubai, is the nutrition and life-coaching expert for OSN boxing reality TV show Fighting Fit. Literal food swaps aside, Tipper says we need to change the way we interact with food, and be fully present while eating.
“This means removing distractions such as phones, television screens and laptops, and paying attention to the meal,” she says. We must attune our senses to the tastes and textures of food, chew properly and be aware of how hungry we are to get what Tipper calls “fullness cues”.
This process is known as the cephalic phase of digestion, through which the sight, smell and thought of food is converted to messages in the brain. The brain then communicates with the stomach to let it know that food is on its way, she says. “This signals for the gastric motor to be switched on and, as such, accounts for 20 to 25 per cent of gastric secretion at meal times thus aiding the body’s digestion.”
Here are Tipper’s top swaps.
Bone broth instead of bouillon cube or stock cube
Shop-bought stock cubes are very high in salt, with some brands containing up to 75 per cent of the daily recommended salt intake per cube. These cubes are also a source of flavour enhancers such as monosodium glutamate, which can cause flushing, headaches or weakness. Many processed stock cubes contain pro-inflammatory vegetable oils that are bad for heart health. Home or ready-made bone broth is a better alternative to add depth of flavour to meals. Bone broth is a natural source of collagen, which helps to keep hair, skin and nails healthy. It’s a good source of the amino acids glycine, proline, arginine, and glutamine, which help to reduce chronic inflammation. It also contains hyaluronic acid, glucosamine and chondroitin, which supports synovial fluid to help cushion joints and improve overall joint health.
Coconut water instead of sports drinks
Most ready-made sports drinks are high in sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, which will offer immediate energy followed by a crash in blood sugar levels, leaving a person fatigued and often moody. Sugars signal the release of the fat-storage hormone insulin and cause weight gain, and fuel inflammation, which you definitely want to avoid after a training session. Many sports drinks also contain artificial colourings and flavourings, which can exacerbate attention-deficiency issues in children.
A great alternative is pure coconut water, which is similar in structure to the liquid used to rehydrate a person when using an IV drip. It is a good source of potassium, which is important for rehydration as it replaces intracellular water after exercise. Coconut water also contains electrolytes such as magnesium, sodium, calcium and phosphorus.
To make an even more potent electrolyte-replacement sports drink at home, choose a base such as coconut water, herbal tea or plain water, add one-fourth of a teaspoon of electrolyte-rich Himalayan salt and some raw honey or watermelon for flavour.
Lentil or chickpea pasta instead of white pasta
The staple pasta is a tasty and versatile dish, but the gluten protein found in wheat causes digestive health issues and inflammation in many, and symptoms such as brain fog, headaches, skin rash and mood imbalance.
A chickpea or lentil pasta is free of gluten and a great source of fibre. It makes us feel fuller for longer and keeps the bowels healthy. Both chickpeas and lentils are also a great source of protein and cause a lower rise in blood sugar, so work well for diabetics and anyone looking to lose weight.
Vegetables feed the good microbes in our gut, so another great option to replace white pasta is to grab your spiraliser and make courgetti or zoodles – spaghetti from courgettes/zucchinis. This is a great way to increase your intake of vegetables, fibre and nutrients without consuming too many calories.
Paleo proponent Holly Smith was a flight attendant for 13 years before she founded meal-plan company Smith St Paleo in Dubai. She's followed the paleo lifestyle for 10 years now, and says its unprocessed, nutrient-dense foods have helped her "digest well, sleep better, clear the mind and benefit from a ton of energy". Here are her tips for a paleo palate.
Swap regular rice for vegetable rice
You can make your own veggie rice if you have a food processor or a Thermomix. It doesn’t just have to be cauliflower, either; you can choose carrots, broccoli, beets, zucchini, sweet potato, you name it. Remember to use small portions when blending to avoid the vegetables turning soggy.
Ditch the dairy
About 65 per cent of the human population is intolerant to lactose/casein in varying degrees after infancy. Try unsweetened almond, cashew or coconut milk. Be sure to read the labels if you’re buying ready-made; these alternative milks are also super-easy to make at home.
Coconut oil instead of vegetable oil
Vegetable oils (which contain no vegetables!) are generally highly processed. They are often made from GMOs, and contain high levels of omega-6 fatty acids linked to cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, asthma and arthritis. Coconut oil’s is a special kind of saturated fat that contains medium-chain triglycerides, which are easily absorbed into the small intestine and less likely to be stored in fatty tissue. Also, its nutrient value doesn’t decrease with heating.
Grain flours are not your friend
There are so many alternatives including almond meal, coconut flour, cassava flour, arrowroot and tapioca starch. I’ve experimented and baked all sorts of grain-free alternatives from cookies, cakes, and pancakes to scones, bread and pastry.
Natural sweeteners instead of refined sugar
Sugar is still sugar at the end of the day, but choosing an option that is unprocessed, unbleached, lower on the glycemic index and potentially lower in calories is obviously a better choice. Dates and date paste, coconut sugar, pure maple syrup, raw honey, blackstrap molasses and monk fruit are all paleo-approved sweeteners that can be used in moderation. You could also opt for green stevia leaf powder, which is a calorie-free sweetener; however, look for one that is pure stevia leaf, not the powder or liquid that is made from stevia extract.
Holly Smith shares free recipes for grain-free breads, dairy alternatives and more on www.smithstpaleo.com.