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Martin Aston
November 2016.
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What should we all eat more of?
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Britain has the National Diet And Nutrition Survey, a cohort of people that’s very carefully chosen to give a representative example of here we are in terms of what we eat, which happens every two years. What is immediately reflected in that is we should eat more fruit and vegetables and dietary fibre. This is a really easy switch from, say, white bread to wholemeal bread, and white to brown pasta, and wholegrain instead of refined breakfast cereals –so try Weetabix and Bran Flakes rather than Corn Flakes

We should try really hard to meet this five-a-day fruit and veg business, which does seem to be quite challenging for a lot of people. And five-a-day is not an arbitrary number. The World Health Organisation and lots of august health bodies – not just the UK government plucking a figure out of the sky – looked at a lot of evidence. When they looked at fruit and vegetable consumption in populations that have lower rates of certain diseases, they found that you start to see some protection at around 500g of fruit and vegetable a day. If you divide 500 into bite-sized chunks, that gives you about 80g, which nicely fits fruit and vegetable portions. So it’s supported by evidence. 

"If you live anywhere north of Birmingham, and if you don’t expose your skin to sunlight each day between April and September...it’s hard to make enough Vitamin D to see you through the winter months."

Once you’ve covered off the top-line stuff of the National Diet and Nutrition Survey, you then get to see some holes in some people’s nutrition that really do need filling. For example the government advises us to have a Vitamin D supplement every day, because it’s very hard to top it up naturally. we make it through the reaction of sunlight on skin so it’s difficult to get as much Vitamin D as we need.

If you live anywhere north of Birmingham, and if you don’t expose your skin to sunlight each day between April and September, and if you slather your kids with suntan lotion, and if you have darker skin... then all these things make it very hard to make enough Vitamin D to see you through the winter months. Previously, that Vitamin D supplement recommendation was only for children under five, people over sixty, and pregnant women. 

"You only have until you’re 21 to optimise the density of your bones. We think that teenage girls are missing out on calcium because they tinker with their diets."

The other problem area is teenage girls not getting sufficient iron needed for growth and development, and also calcium, which is really important for bone growth. With calcium, you only have until you’re 21 to optimise the density of your bones. After that, you can only maintain what you have, so there’s this window of opportunity which is being missed by lots of girls. 

We’re not entirely sure why, but it’s probably because they’re shying away from dairy foods and tinkering with their diet. With iron, it’s really important because menstruation loses iron and they’re not getting enough in through their diet, which can leave to tiredness and lethargy, and lack of concentration. It’s been proven that if you improve young girls’ iron intake, they can improve by one grade in their GSCEs. Any parent of a teenage girl knows that the last thing you need is something that compounds the fluctuation of moods. 

"It’s been proved that if you improve young girls’ iron intake, they can improve by one grade in their GSCEs."

The best way to get iron is lean red meat and oily fish. If you don’t like either, you can get it from eggs, dark green vegetables like broccoli and dark cabbage – more than spinach, actually, because spinach contains the type of fibre that blocks absorption – and peanuts and peanut butter, dried apricots, and fortified breakfast cereals. If you’re vegetarian, you actually upgrade your absorption of iron through food.

Omega-3 is the other key area. There’s no recommended intake in the way there is for Vitamin C, but the advice is to reach a level equivalent to a portion of oily fish a week – which we as a country don’t tend to do. So look for eggs that are rich in Omega Three, where the chickens get feed that is rich in Omega-3 supplements, like flax seeds. And of course you can always get fish fingers fortified with extra fish oils, and therefore more Omega-3, too.