The nutritionist and television presenter tells us why "You are what you eat."
Raise Your Game: How important is your diet?
Amanda Ursell: Gosh! I could be here all day, but I'll try to keep this short. It affects absolutely everything. The old saying 'You are what you eat,' is absolutely true. It affects everything, from the quality of your skin, the way your teeth look, the way your hair looks, and how well you can concentrate in school. If you eat bad food you feel tired, sluggish, and you don't have enough energy to be active. It affects every single part of your life.
RYG: What kind of food should people eat if they want a balanced, healthy diet?
AU: It's incredibly simple to have a healthy, balanced diet. You don't need to overcomplicate things. We have to think about how our grandparents and great grandparents used to eat. They used to have breakfast, lunch and dinner. They ate simple food like porridge. If they had a sandwich for lunch, they'd have brown bread and they'd have a simple filling like a piece of chicken with some tomatoes. They wouldn't have crisps, chocolate and sweets everyday. For dinner they'd have something like meat and two veg. That is an incredibly healthy pattern to try and copy. Keep it plain and simple.
These days pizzas, takeaways and fast food are everywhere. You can't say to people 'Don't have those,' but I would say have that type of food less often and eat simple meals more often. Have the things that are a bit naughty in moderation.
RYG: There's a lot of conflicting advice on nutrition in the media, is simplicity the key for you?
- HFMA Health Writer of the Year (2003)
- Voted Most Influential Health Professional in the UK (1999 and 2000)
AU: Simplicity is very important. Nutrition has become a very contemporary subject. It's something that everybody wants to write about, and the trouble is that they're always trying to find new stories. If you take a little piece of research, that says one thing, out of context it blurs the bigger picture.
You just have to keep your diet very plain. I'm not saying never have a burger again, but if you have a burger try not to have it too often. Don't have a massive pile of chips with it, have a normal portion of chips. Don't have the added cheese and bacon, just have a simple burger. Have a glass of orange juice with it rather than having a fizzy, sugary drink. There are things you can do to even make fast food healthier.
RYG: For people who take a packed lunch to school or work, what kind of things could they take to make the lunch interesting and healthy?
AU: With packed lunches it's important to keep variety, so you're not having the same old thing every day. There are so many types of bread these days. You can have white, brown or granary bread. If you get fed up with sandwiches you can try white or brown pitta bread. You can have tortilla wraps and put your favourite filling inside. You can have things like a pasta salad as well.
There are so many different types of basic carbohydrates you can have to form the foundation of your packed lunch. Then you can have protein, like meat, fish or eggs to go with it. Then have some veggies like tomatoes or cucumbers. To make a packed lunch balanced you need some fruit. Have an apple, a banana, or a satsuma.
Eat food that you enjoy, because if you don't like it you're going to bring it home again, or swap it for something else. For a drink have some fruit juice, or just some water. It's good to have something with milk in it - maybe a yoghurt or fromage frais, because it's good for your bones. That way you get a good balance.
RYG: If diet affects performance, is it important that you think about what you eat so you can study well at school?
AU: You have to think very carefully about what you have for breakfast so that you study well in the morning. You also need to do the same at lunch so you stay awake and study well in the afternoon. Some studies have shown that children who don't have breakfast don't concentrate as well in the classroom. That's because they don't have enough energy.
If you don't have a proper lunch, you don't have a hope of concentrating in the classroom. If you have things like porridge for breakfast, it gives you a very slow release of energy. If you prefer granary toast, put some peanut butter on it. That will also give you a slow energy release. Scrambled or poached eggs are good if you've got time before you go to school. At lunchtime things like wholegrain sandwiches, pitta breads and tortilla wraps are good for keeping you going through the afternoon.
What's important in the long run is that you make sure you have enough of the mineral called iron in your diet. Again studies have shown that a lack of iron can cause poor concentration, and can actually affect GSCE performance. You find iron in things like red meat, eggs, some nuts and seeds and dark green vegetables. It's very important that you get enough of this nutrient, but a very large percentage of teenage girls simply aren't getting enough.
RYG: How important is it to drink water throughout the day?
AU: Drinking water is incredibly important throughout the day, because it keeps you hydrated. When you're dehydrated you can't concentrate very well. You get grumpy, stressed, and feel the urge to snap at your friends. If you're dehydrated, it makes exercise very difficult because you're tired. It's incredibly important to keep hydrated. Water is the cheapest and most natural way of doing that. When you start having things like fizzy drinks and squashes, they all add extra sugar which none of us need.
RYG: Is there a difference between sparkling and still water?
AU: Some studies have shown that if you have sparkling water before a meal you tend to eat less, probably because it's gassy and bubbly. There's no difference in calories, but it might keep you slightly fuller. Saying that, if you're about to do some sports it's probably better to have still water.
RYG: Is there a safe and sensible way to lose weight?
AU: If you're still growing, you shouldn't go on a strict diet. Sometimes you grow into your weight. If you're obviously carrying a lot of extra weight, perhaps it's time to think carefully about dealing with it. It's very important not to go on a crash diet. You should never cut out food groups and suddenly say 'I'm not having dairy foods anymore, I'm not having meat anymore.' It's important to keep your intake balanced.
If you're carrying extra weight and you want to lose it, jot down everything you eat and drink in a day, and you can very easily see things that you can cut out without compromising your overall nutrition. Often people don't realise how much they're eating, so it's a really good idea to keep a food diary. Get rid of the extra chocolate, get rid of the biscuits and try to have some home cooked food.
RYG: Why is it that after you've eaten one biscuit or a chocolate, you always want more?
AU: When you eat foods that contain a lot of sugar, like sweets, biscuits, cakes or sugary breakfast cereals, they send your blood sugar up very rapidly. The hormones in your body don't like your blood sugar to be too high, so they rush into your blood and bring the blood sugar down again. They do it very quickly, so you have a relative blood sugar low afterwards. At that point your body goes 'Help, it's too low.' That drives you to have more sugar to get it back up again. As a result you're on a bit of a roller coaster all day, craving sugary and refined foods. It's perfectly natural that, if you eat a few biscuits, you'll want to go on eating the whole pack. The best thing to do is to have some fruit in the first place.
You also get sugar in refined carbohydrates, which are broken down very quickly in your body and turned into sugar.If you're doing athletics or sports then having a refined carbohydrate before you perform can be quite a good thing, but if you're not doing a lot of sports and you're just sitting around all day, then sugar rushes can be a problem. They make you feel out of control, and they make you eat the things that make you gain weight and aren't good for your teeth.
RYG: How do we encourage people to eat more vegetables?
AU: If you've eaten vegetables from an early age, they'll just be part of your normal diet. If you've not done that, it can be a bit tricky because you may not like the taste of some of them. Those that are tricky to eat are the ones like broccoli and brussel sprouts, because they're very strong, and they have a bitter taste. That's because they have super-nutrients that give them the bitter taste. If you're not a veggie lover and you don't like those, don't bother trying because some people genetically just don't like them. There's no need to force yourself.
With vegetables like carrots, tomatoes and onions, you can put them into dishes like chilli con carne, or spaghetti bolognaise. That way you can disguise them a little bit, and you don't end up with a pile of carrots at the side of your plate. You could even put them on a healthy pizza, so it's not quite so daunting as having a massive plate of vegetables in front of you.
RYG: Any ideas for people who don't like fruit?
AU: If you don't like fruit I'd ask, which fruits have you tried? Have you really tried every single fruit that's in the supermarket? If you don't like bananas, why not try apples, oranges, pears, peaches? If you don't like those try things like berries, melons, pineapples. There's a good variety of fruit out there, and you're making a very sweeping statement if you say 'I don't like fruit.' There's probably something you enjoy. If you don't like fresh fruit, try some canned fruit, it's still got fibre and super-nutrients in it.
RYG: Which types of food should you eat if you're participating in lots of sports?
AU: If you're very sporty and active, it's even more important to eat healthily so that you feed your muscles. You should have a basic diet that has a lot of carbohydrate in it. You can find that in things like porridge, healthy breakfast cereals, bread, potatoes and pasta. They get broken down slowly and keep fuelling your muscles throughout the day.
If you're very keen on sports, you can get specialised sport nutrition advice. That will tell you exactly how much carbohydrate you need from those sorts of food. If you're doing a big run for example, then it's a good idea to have something about five to 20 minutes beforehand. That way you get a bit of an energy burst before you start. It's also very important to refuel your muscles after performing with carbohydrate foods.
RYG: Are there any foods you would advise people not to eat?
AU: What nutritionists try and teach people is moderation in consuming sugary and fatty foods. I wouldn't say 'Never have a chocolate bar again, never have a biscuit again.' It's a case of eating those foods in moderation. Base your diet around healthy food, like porridge, pasta, bread, things like that. Have lots of fruit and vegetables, and have a bit of protein, such as meat, fish, eggs and milk. If you want something sugary or fatty, only have it once a day.
RYG: To someone who says to you 'I've tried and tried but I can't lose weight,' what would you suggest?
AU: If you've tried to lose weight by going on wacky diets, I'd say give those up because they're bound to fail. If you follow a strange pattern of eating, you can't do it in the long-term, but don't give up. There's a registry in America that registers people's success at losing weight, and they've found that most people who have successfully lost weight, and kept it off for more than two years have had about 18 attempts at losing weight in the past. Just eat sensibly, stay active and the weight will fall off.
RYG: Do you ever advise people to take vitamins?
AU: In some cases vitamin and mineral supplements can be very useful. For example, if you're a young girl and you've decided you want to become a vegetarian, a multi-vitamin and mineral would be really useful. It contains the iron that you need to keep your energy levels up. If you don't like milk and dairy foods, then a calcium supplement can also be very useful.
If your culture is such that you don't expose your skin to the sun in the summer, you won't be making Vitamin D, so a Vitamin D supplement would be useful.
RYG: If someone comes home from school or work and doesn't have time to make a big meal from scratch, what would you recommend as a healthy alternative?
AU: If you come in from school and you haven't got time to make a big meal, I would say beans on toast are brilliant. Things like boiled eggs with a slice of toast, or peanut butter on toast. I'm a great believer in having things in the cupboard that you can use very easily. Plan ahead. If you've had some pasta the night before, put what you don't eat in the fridge and you can make it into a salad the day after.
RYG: How do you make your salad interesting?
AU: You don't have to have salads if you don't like them. Have vegetables instead. I think variety is the key. If you don't like one type of lettuce try another. If you go to a supermarket these days there's so much variety in the produce section. If you don't like limp lettuce try a crispy one, if you don't like big tomatoes try the little cherry ones, because they're sweeter. Try unusual things like beetroot and use a variety of dressings. Balsamic vinegar is an excellent dressing for salads.
RYG: A lot is being said at the moment about our young people getting bigger, how do we go about changing this trend?
AU: Young people are getting bigger, and it's a problem. An obesity epidemic is happening in our country. It's affecting our young people and that's profoundly affecting their health. It increases the risk of diabetes and heart disease. It even affects their feet. Children are becoming flat footed because their weight is pressing down on their feet. They don't have a proper foot arch, so it's less easy to do sports.
What can we do about it? People need to write down what they're eating every day in the form of a food diary. They need to cut out the food that's causing the extra weight to be piled on. Cut back on bags of crisps, cans of fizzy drink, biscuits and cakes. Save that stuff for treats, and try to go back to basics. Go back to eating plain, simple food regularly. Have breakfast before you leave for school and don't graze on crisps and chocolate throughout the day. Have lunch and dinner, and, if you want a snack in between, stick to things like fruit. It's very simple.
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