Dr Alex’s 5 healthy diet habits to start today
by Dr Alex George, A&E Doctor, the government’s youth mental health ambassador and ex-Love Islander
In the last year, many of us have reflected on how we can make more balanced choices and improve our health. The cumulative effects of small, positive changes help us make long-lasting meaningful change, so ask yourself what can you do today and not put off until tomorrow. Here are five things I find make real improvements to diet and health.
1. Set realistic goals
We are all different shapes and genetically more likely to be a certain weight, no matter how much we exercise or how healthily we eat. There is what I call a ‘happy weight’, when you exercise well and eat a healthy, balanced diet, but stay a constant weight. For some people that might look very lean, for others it’s different.
There’s so much pressure with social media to look a certain way. When training for Love Island, I was dieting hard and restricting what I ate because I felt I needed to be very lean and in great shape. But restricting food groups for a long period can have a detrimental effect, and looking back my relationship with food was unhealthy and I didn’t feel good.
Now I have a good level of fitness, with a pretty balanced diet, but I’m always slightly at the top end of the ‘healthy’ BMI range, on the edge of being slightly overweight. Genetically, I’m bigger and broader, so my BMI is never going to be low in that range. Set realistic goals for yourself and you might start to become more content. If you’re feeling happier, you’re more likely to make further positive choices.
It also helps to reflect about what drives your decision-making – this has been an important shift for me. Fuel yourself to do the things you want to do. I love walking and playing tennis, so for me protein is great for my recovery, and I need carbs for energy. Fats are important for the immune system, skin and hormones, among other things. When I eat well I feel good, and make healthier decisions, such as exercising, because of it.
We’re often creatures of routine, making life easy by doing similar things every day, like going to the same coffee shop in the morning. Think if you can make your everyday habits healthy ones.
I know myself, and where I make some consistent unhealthy choices is normally around convenience food. For example, in A&E it’s easy to run up to the canteen and buy food that’s not balanced or even tasty. I try to mitigate this by bringing in a box of food, quickly prepped the night before, with nuts and fruit. It takes literally two or three minutes, and saves money. When you get into that kind of habit, you eat well, feel better for it, and might continue that postive cycle into the rest of the day, for instance choosing to walk or cycle to work instead of driving or taking the bus.
3. Find middle ground where you feel healthy and enjoy food
There is no such thing as a bad meal, just an unhealthy diet. In the past, if I had a ‘bad’ meal I’d berate myself for it, but the attitude should be, ‘I really enjoyed that meal’. It’s all about finding balance in diet and life, so if you’re eating well most of the time, it’s fine.
If you want a takeaway, have a takeaway, then go back to slightly healthier choices afterwards. You can have too much or too little of most things, so find a happy middle ground where you feel healthy and enjoy food. I find food journaling helpful, to see how balanced my overall diet is, but this might not work for everyone and it’s not something I want anyone to become obsessive about.
One way to easily assess if your diet is healthy without counting micro and macronutrients is to make your plate like a rainbow of vegetables and fruit. If your food is usually quite brown and beige, it’s time to brighten things up.
5. Try to have good-quality sleep
We don’t realise how important sleep is to every aspect of our mental and physical health. When you’re knackered you tend to make food choices you wouldn’t if you were refreshed. With poor sleep, people may experience more weight gain and increased risk of diabetes, heart disease and strokes. If you have good-quality sleep, you’re more likely to wake up happy and energised and make positive choices throughout the day.
The relationship between sleep and diet is generally cumulative. For example, cut tingdown on caffeine in the afternoon can have a positive effect on your sleep. Then if you wake up refreshed in the morning, you might make healthier food choices and feel more like exercising and being active. One small action can make a big difference.
Dr Alex George is the author of Live Well Every Day.