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Nathan Khider Sleep Podcast 2019

Nathan Khider Sleep Podcast 2019

This is a new podcast hosted by my lovey mate Nathan Khider.

Nathan’s YouTube channel is fantastic and involves him interviewing guests that have many interesting stories to tell to hope to inspire and educate his listeners.

My new book, ‘The Art of Sleeping’ is due out today (14th Nov 2019). I talk with Nathan about the reasons why I chose to write this book which revolve around my own persona interest in sleep and my experiences of sleep deprivation and insomnia.

While some of you may sleep well, the reality is that we are a nation of non-sleepers.  Some people believe they can survive on hardly any sleep, but I disagree.  From personal experience of insomnia, I know first-hand how the effects can negatively impact on every aspect of your life.  I’m also guilty of telling people how tired I am rather than taking the action required to tackle the issue head on.

We all need to take sleep seriously as the long-term consequences of not sleeping well are scarier than you think.  For these reasons I decided to write my new book ‘The Art of Sleeping’.  I share my experiences with Nathan and discuss the positive steps we can all take to improve our sleep which in turn will help us to achieve optimal health and wellbeing.

 

Whats the deal with free radicals and antioxidants?

Whats the deal with free radicals and antioxidants?

The world of nutrition has evolved hugely over the last few decades as interest in the topic has grown.  Basic dietary advice is no longer enough for many people as they seek out other ways to optimise their health, combat ageing, lose weight and maximise exercise performance.

The desire to learn more has helped drive this evolution but has also exposed us to information that may be lacking in reliable science.

One topic that has always been popular is that of free radicals and antioxidants.  These terms are frequently chucked around and often oversimplified as being either good or bad for us but is it really that simple?

A little too much knowledge can be dangerous

One of my old bosses many years ago once said to me that a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing and this is something that always rings true when I listen to people talk about nutrition.

How has dietary advice evolved over the last couple of decades?

Not long after I started out as a nutritionist the Department of Health had just launched the five-a-day campaign (2003) to promote the health benefits of eating more fruits and vegetables in the diet.  This campaign was driven by the science which proved fruits and vegetables had a key role to play in the prevention of cardiovascular diseases, cancers and diabetes.

The conversation around diet and nutrition at this time was heavily focused on key public health messaging to help tackle obesity and heart disease.

In 2007 the Food Standards Agency launched the ‘Eatwell Plate’ to help people to understand how the five key food groups form the basis of a balanced diet. This has since been replaced with the updated ‘Eatwell Guide’ (1).

When did the conversation start to change?

After this is when the conversation began to change as more people took an interest in the topic of nutrition.

Reporting in the media began to focus more on research findings linking diet to disease (many of which were contradictory), food companies started to coin phrases such as ‘superfoods’ and many books and TV shows on the topic became hugely popular.

During this time the quality of advice given out was questioned by qualified health professionals and authors such as Ben Goldachre putting much of it down to bad science.  This also saw the demise of well-known ‘health experts’ who dominated our screens at this time.

Around this time was also when the food industry became more regulated as they had to provide evidence to support any health claims made on their products (2008).

In 2007 the UK regulator Ofcom introduced regulations banning the advertising of foods high in fat, salt and sugar on children’s TV channels.  Bans were also introduced on the advertising of these foods on non-children’s channels during, before and after programmes aimed at those aged between four and fifteen.

The UK was the first country to introduce statutory scheduling restrictions of food advertisements to children.

The birth of social media

Around the same time came the social media explosion with the birth of Twitter in 2006 and Instagram in 2010.

These social media platforms are now home to many health and wellness ambassadors who churn out advice and represent food and wellness brands in the media.  This has raised many issues as to the quality of nutrition and diet advice as people turn to unqualified influencers for information over experts (although there are now many trusted voices on these platforms).

The topic of free radicals and antioxidants

As our interest in the nitty gritty of nutrition has grown one of the topics that has continued to come up is that of free radicals and antioxidants.  The terms are chucked around willy nilly and while most people may be familiar with them, very few actually know what they are.

The problem of oversimplification

The science behind free radicals and antioxidants is actually quite complex.  One problem with delivering these concepts to people has been an oversimplification of the science which has led them to be classed as either being good or bad for you.

The idea that free radicals are bad and antioxidants are good is one that is used to sell myriad of products in the wellness market, but the science is not that straight forward.  Antioxidants are normally depicted as the superhero defending our body against ageing and chronic disease risk caused by free radical damage.

There is of course truth in this depiction but unfortunately biology is never that simple.

What are free radicals?

Free radicals are very reactive chemicals, which are created when an atom or molecule (chemical that has two or more atoms) either gains or loses an electron.  The most common type of free radicals produced in living tissue are called reactive oxygen species or ROS for short and these contain oxygen.

We produce free radicals naturally through chemical processes that occur in the body such as the breakdown of food and its transformation into energy used by cells.

We are perfectly equipped to deal with free radicals but they may become an issue when they build up in high concentrations.  This can put the body in a state of oxidative stress (when free radicals outweigh antioxidants), which has the potential to damage every major component of cells when it occurs over a prolonged period of time. The most significant damage is that caused to DNA, which is thought to play a role in the development of many health conditions including heart disease and cancer (2).

The most likely cause of excess free radicals in the body are due to a combination of environmental, lifestyle and dietary factors which include pollution, stress, smoking, alcohol, sun exposure, infection and overconsumption of foods high in bad fats and sugar.

What are antioxidants?

Antioxidants are essential for the survival of all living things.  These chemicals are able to interact with free radicals and neutralising them without getting damaged or becoming a free radical themselves. Whilst the body relies on external source of antioxidants, which are gleaned from the diet, it’s also able to make some such as the cellular antioxidant glutathione.

Dietary antioxidants are found in fruits, vegetables and grains, which are all a rich source.  Examples of dietary antioxidants include lycopene and beta carotene found in red, orange and green vegetables as well as vitamins A, C, E and minerals such as selenium.  Plants also contain compounds such as polyphenols, which act as antioxidants and are found in foods such as berries and raw cacao.

Are free radicals always bad for us?

Most people equate free radicals to poor health but there is more to the story as they also play an important role in many normal cellular responses.

The immune system uses free radicals to help kill foreign invaders (phagocytes) in the body, which are just one of many ingredients in a cocktail of chemicals released in this defence mechanism, which is known as an oxidative burst.

Another interesting example of where free radicals may be beneficial is linked to exercise, particularly amongst athletes. Free radicals may play a key role in the benefits gained from exercise, which goes against much of the information provided on this topic.

One of the benefits of exercise is that it helps to improve insulin sensitivity, which is a good thing as the body becomes more attuned to maintaining blood sugar levels. Insulin resistance has the opposite effect resulting in higher insulin and blood sugar levels, which form part of the aetiology of diseases such as diabetes.

Research has shown that the oxidative stress (excess free radicals vs antioxidants) induced by exercise actually promotes insulin sensitivity and triggers an internal mechanism to protect the body against the potential damage from free radicals (3).  Interestingly, the same research has also shown that flooding the body with antioxidants (mostly in the form of supplements) may inhibit this health benefit from occurring.

These and similar findings have prompted experts in the field of sports nutrition to question the use of antioxidant supplements as part of their prescribed diet regime.

Are antioxidants always good?

The reputation of antioxidants has evolved over the decades into something of a panacea for good health.  Early research many decades ago identified their role in the ageing process and their association with health has stuck.

There is no doubt that antioxidants have a key role to play in the aetiology of disease and cell ageing, but this doesn’t mean that overdosing on them will help you to live longer, stop you getting sick or prevent wrinkles.

Antioxidant supplements

Supplements containing antioxidants have always been popular but the evidence to support their use in the reduction of disease risk is often lacking and often contradictory.

Supplements have their place and as the name suggests this is to supplement the diet to make up for any shortfalls that may exist when your diet may be compromised for whatever reason.  Public Health England currently recommend we supplement our diet with vitamin D during the winter months in the absence of sunlight and it has long been advised that women take folic acid during the early stages of pregnancy.

Supplements are also useful for young children, older adults and those following strict diets such as veganism.  In such cases there may be a greater risk of deficiency.

In some cases, supplements could do more harm than good and especially high doses of antioxidants.

One example is the link between beta carotene supplements and lung cancer as shown in the World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research Third Expert Report Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity and Cancer: a Global Perspective. This report found that there was strong evidence to show that taking high-dose beta carotene supplements increased the risk of lung cancer in both current and former smokers (4).

It’s all about balance  

Adopting a healthy diet which includes plenty of plant-based foods, especially brightly coloured fruits and vegetables, will ensure a good intake of antioxidants. Leading a healthy lifestyle which involves being active, maintaining a healthy body weight, not smoking and addressing stress and sleep issues can help to reduce excess free radicals.

I get that this may be easier said than done and behaviour change is a tricky thing that often challenges our ability maintain a healthy way of living.  However, focusing on the information and advice which is supported by science is always going to be a better long-term option than seeking out quick-fix fads.  A faddy approach to your health is  not only likely to be short-lived but may in fact be more detrimental to your health.

References  

  1. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-eatwell-guide
  2. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2231253611110048
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2680430/
  4. https://www.wcrf.org/dietandcancer
Could sleep deprivation contribute to weight gain??

Could sleep deprivation contribute to weight gain??

Sleep is a key pillar of good health

Sleep is becoming more widely recognised as one of the key pillars of good health alongside diet and exercise.  Diet and exercise are directly linked to our ability to maintain a healthy body weight, but it may be that sleep also has a role to play.

How well are we sleeping?

The optimum number of hours of sleep is thought to be just under eight, but research carried out by the Royal Society for Public Health has shown that most people manage less than seven (1).

Over the course of a week this deficit equates to a whole night’s sleep, and research by The Sleep Council has shown that 33 per cent of people only manage 5–6 hours, while 7 per cent get less than 5 hours (2).

“Sleep derivation causes fatigue and can impact on our ability to perform daily tasks as we struggle with attention, concentration, creativity, insight, memory and decision making” 

How is diet linked to sleep, disease and weight gain?

Research has suggested that poor sleep may increase the risk of diabetes, elevated blood pressure, poor mental health and even our ability to maintain a healthy body weight (3).

“A lack of sleep may increase your energy intake by 300 calories per day”

It has also been shown that if you continually lose sleep at night then this may affect your ability to lose weight. 

Studies carried out by Loughborough University found that those who habitually sleep for less than six hours each night tended to have a higher BMI than those who managed to get the recommended eight nightly hours (4).

Sleep deprivation may affect our hormones that regulate appetite

Research has suggested that a lack of sleep may impact on the hormones leptin and ghrelin which control appetite. 

Leptin sends signals to the brain to help inhibit hunger while ghrelin is released by the stomach to stimulate appetite.  The research, which is not yet definitive, suggests that a lack of sleep reduces leptin and increases ghrelin (5).

This hormonal effect may explain the correlation between obesity and sleep deprivation highlighted by certain studies.

Insulin and sleep

Insulin, the hormone that regulates blood sugar, may also be affected by sleep.  This hormone also promotes the storage of fat and as such it has been suggested that higher levels may impact on weight gain.  Research has suggested that sleep deprivation may increase the release of insulin as well as another hormone called cortisol which has also been associated with fat storage in the body (6).

There may also be a simpler explanation

Sleep deprivation causes fatigue and tiredness which can impact on our motivation to exercise and stick to healthy eating habits.

Sleep deprivation can also lower mood and could contribute to depression and anxiety both of which may lead to comfort eating and weight gain.

Adolescents are at particular risk if depression as a result of sleep deprivation which is compounded by the overuse of electrical equipment at night and the psychological effects of social media (7).

“A prolonged lack of sleep can eventually filter into our emotions and relationships”

Avoid quick energy fixes

Trying to overcome the fatigue associated with sleep deprivation may also affect eating patterns as well as the temptation to rely on ‘pick-me-ups’ during the day such as sugar laden energy drinks or sweet snacks. These may not only promote weight gain but could further inhibit your ability to sleep well at night.

How does being overweight affect our ability to sleep?

Being overweight can affect our ability to sleep in a couple of ways.  Sleep apnoea is a condition that affects breathing during the night which can disrupt sleep. If this is an issue, then make sure you sleep on your side to help open up the airways.

Indigestion is another problem that interrupts sleep and is more common in people who are overweight. Heartburn is a common symptom of indigestion as stomach acid rises into the oesophagus and throat.

Try eating a light low-fat meal a few hours before bed and include a good source of protein as this help the gall bladder to produce more bile acids that aid digestion.

The power of herbs to help with sleep

If you want to help promote sleep, then try herbal drinks. There are many herbs associated with relaxing the body and easing anxiety, which is a leading cause of sleep deprivation. 

Herbs such as chamomile, passionflower and lavender are good but the most potent is valerian root.  Look for herbal teas with a high percentage of valerian root for maximum effect.

References

  1. https://www.rsph.org.uk/uploads/assets/uploaded/a565b58a-67d1-4491-ab9112ca414f7ee4.pdf
  2. https://www.sleepcouncil.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/The-Great-British-Bedtime-Report.pdf
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2845795/
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29526681
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC535701/
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16227462
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26141007

Food For Thought podcast with Rhiannon Lambert

Food For Thought podcast with Rhiannon Lambert

How foods and sleep can change your life

My chat with Nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert on her podcast Food For Thought is now available.

It was great chatting with Rhiannon who I have known for quite a while now.  We talk about the importance of sleep and in particular the role of diet.

Here is just one of the questions I was asked…

With two-thirds of adults in the UK failing to get the recommended quality and quantity of sleep, could our nutrition be more as effective than getting an early night?

Interesting question….  The first point to make here is that there are many factors that impact on our ability to sleep well both in terms of the number of hours we get and equally as important, the quality of sleep.  As we both say when it comes to many areas of health, there is no one size fits all and this mantra can be applied to sleep.

Modern lifestyle

Our modern lifestyle is fast paced, and this is not just work related as everyone is affected by the pressure, we put ourselves under to be and be seen as achieving and this looks different for every individual whether it involves work goals or doing the best for your family.

Anxiety

The reasons for not sleeping are common amongst all groups and include things like anxiety which could be linked to lifestyle or other behavioural habits associated with overuse of modern technology.

Addressing diet

I would say that addressing your diet can help you to sleep but you also need to address behaviours and the environment you sleep in.  In my new book, I use these three pillars (BED) as a way of helping people to really think about how they can tackle their sleep issues and form their own personal sleep ritual.

Foods that harm and foods that heal sleep

When it comes to diet, it’s about looking at the foods and drinks that both help and hinder sleep as well as also looking at your eating behaviour and pattern of eating which also play a role.  This may link to micronutrient deficiencies, food and drinks that stimulate our bodies or the effect of food on digestion which can all keep us awake in some way.

Diet plays a role but is just a contributory factor that should be considered alongside other things as part of addressing and understanding the bigger picture as to why you’re unable to sleep.

There is also another angle here in that sleep deprivation can cause depression, anxiety and fatigue which can lead to erratic eating patterns and impact on the food choices we make which may exacerbate the issue of sleep deprivation.

You can listen to the podcast here.

The Art of Sleeping

The Art of Sleeping

New book!

This month on the 14th (November) sees the release of my new book called The Art of Sleeping.  This little book explains the concept of sleep, why we need sleep, the consequences of sleep deprivation and advice on how we can tackle our lack of sleep.

My expertise is nutrition but this is only a small section of this new book which has been written as a result of personal interest and experience.

Here I explain more…..

 

Why have I ventured from nutrition into sleep?

When I started out in the world of nutrition, we had only just established the 5-a-day guidance.  I clearly remember my tutor at the time saying that when she trained, vegetables were considered to be a decorative part of the meal as we focused more on protein and starchy carbs for good health.

Fast forward more than 15 years and our understanding of health/nutrition has radically evolved thanks to the advances in research.  As a result of this we are establishing a more comprehensive understanding that in order to maintain good health and a life free of disease many other factors play a role which goes way beyond the basic message of eating well and keeping active.

Mental health 

Mental health is now a major public health issue and sleep is regarded as being a key pillar to achieving optimal health. The greatest revelation that interests me and is likely to influence how we talk about health in the future is how all of these factors are so closely interlinked. This will inevitably make the delivery of messaging to the public a little more complicated.

Optimal wellness

I have never slept well and even though I eat well and lead a very active lifestyle I have become very aware of the impact that sleeping badly could be having on my health.  There is a fine balance to achieving optimal wellness, but the Achilles’ heal for many people, including myself, is sleep.

Burning the candle at both ends

Many of us put a lot of pressure on ourselves to achieve our goals whilst also being viewed as competent and successful in what we do, but the one thing that is often compromised is sleep. 

Burning the candle at both ends as we work hard, train hard and play hard has resulted in an increase in anxiety and behavioural traits (mostly an over-reliance on technology and social media). This all affects our ability to sleep.

Too much time dwelling and not enough action

After looking at the research, speaking to experts and other people that have issues with sleep it became clear that not only do we not get enough sleep, but we spend more time dwelling on the issue rather than taking action.  This is also an area of our health that is difficult to control as we all have the power to dictate whether we get up and go to the gym or choose to eat a quinoa salad over a burger, but sleep is a little trickier to get a grip on.

Why did I write this book?

Given all of this insight and my personal experience, I decided to write a book on sleep.  I’m not a sleep expert in terms of the psychologists and researchers that investigate the science on this topic.  However, I am a trained health professional that understands how to read and interpret the research. 

I hope I can also relate to readers as genuinely being someone that has personal experience of what it feels like to sleep for just 4 hours every night burdened by your thoughts that repeat over and again on a continual loop.

The personal sleep ritual

The crux of this book is about establishing a sleep ritual that is personal to you.  As with everything to do with health, one size does not fit all as we all lead very different lives.  Whilst similarities do exist, we all have our own way of dealing with things.

Change the narrative around sleep

Once I changed my daily narrative around sleep (“I slept so badly last night”, “I’m so tired”) and took action, I started to sleep much better.  It sounds simple, but it’s not in some cases and there are those who suffer greatly with insomnia that may need to seek help professionally.

There is a lot of information about sleep out there! What I hope to achieve with this book is to share useful insight and structure the relevant information in a way that helps you to put the basics into practice so you can create a consistency in the way you tackle sleep rather than freaking out and counting sheep.

The BED method

The acronym is BED, which stands for Behaviour, Environment and Diet.  Much of this is common sense but if it was that easy, we would all be sleeping well, right!  

In simple terms I hope to help readers to understand the basic concepts of sleep and then complete their own sleep diary to offer insight into their own sleep landscape. 

From here it’s about taking what is pertinent to you whether that means decluttering your bedroom, investing in new bedding, taking a bath before bedtime or investing in a dietary supplement to help you to sleep better.

Have I always struggled with sleep?

I consider myself to be very healthy, but sleep has always been my enemy. 

Surviving on very little sleep

The body is an amazing thing that adapts to survive but our strong will and determination to cope can only override the natural balance of things for so long. I have gone for months at a time in the past surviving on as little as 4 hours sleep a night.  Luckily, I work for myself at home which made using coffee and napping an easily accessible way of functioning on little sleep.

Nodding off

Nodding off has always been the issue for me.  Most frustrating are those moments when you finally get to sleep but then wake up feeling ‘refreshed’ only to realise it is just a little past midnight which is never a good feeling.

How did my poor sleep pattern occur?

Not sure where this developed but I spent many years working unsociable nights in bars, restaurants and clubs. I was also getting up early to study or work a day job that inevitably fought against my circadian rhythm.  I’m also not one to complain and would much rather ‘push on’ to achieve my long-term goals.

Anxiety

Like many people that struggle to sleep, anxiety has also contributed at times.  Opting to work freelance comes with a degree of anxiety but the upsides to this way of life have always outweighed any of the negatives for me. 

Like many non-sleepers I also had to battle with the anxiety that occurs at 2am when you’re still awake daunted by the prospect of having to get up at 6am to complete a day jam packed with meetings and deadlines.

Visualisation and meditation

I have learnt useful ways to deal with anxiety when it rears its ugly head such as breathing and visualisation which I touch on in the book. 

Try not to shun these techniques as ‘hocus pocus’ as they really do help if you dedicate a little time to practicing them and include them in your personal sleep ritual if you have to. 

Phone apps can also help with meditation/breathing/visualisation. Aside from this, and I’m a big fan, podcasts and audio books are also useful ways to help you to settle the mind and promote sleep.

Taking control 

I sleep much better now which is only after I took control of my sleep habits and established my own personal sleep ritual.  I still have my moments of poor sleep but understanding what it is that is causing this and knowing what to do to tackle it helps me to get back on track pretty quickly.

What disturbs my sleep the most? 

Again, everyone is different but mostly my issue is nodding off which is usually the result of an overactive mind. If things are totally manic with work and the flat gets untidy and cluttered this also prevents me from sleeping well.

I do wake occasionally through the night which is a real bummer as trying to get back to sleep in the early hours of the morning also creates anxiety about how little sleep you are going to get before you have to get up and perform your daily tasks.

What is the link to food and nutrition? 

The link between diet and sleep does exist but other factors can compound the issue. 

Food and drinks that harm sleep

What you eat and drink can keep you awake, and the culprits are normally stimulants such as caffeine and alcohol, but sugar can also play a role.  Eating too close to bedtime or indulging in very rich foods can also make it difficult for some people to get to sleep as they impact on digestion and may exacerbate heartburn and reflux.

Supplements

Supplements may help some people such as magnesium, but this is often in those that do not get enough from their diet. 

I often take valerian before bed, which is a traditional herbal remedy to help with mild anxiety, and also used to help aid sleep.

What’s my go-to for sleep? 

We’re all different, but this is my personal take on the topic.

Nothing induces a good night sleep more than the state of my bedroom.  I am naturally quite a messy person, but my bedroom has to offer the perfect sleep oasis. 

 

Fresh bed linen  

I invest in really good quality bedding that is crisp and white and quite anally I wash and make the bed fresh twice a week as nothing feels better than getting into a freshly made bed.  

I would always recommend that you spend as much as you can on good bed linen even if that means just having one set.  I always buy mine in the sales and choose a nice high thread count cotton that is breathable and hypoallergenic.

Lavender

I use lavender bed sprays and burn a candle before going to sleep.  My favourite pillow spray is Deep Sleep by the company This Works. My go to for lavender candles is Diptyque but another fave if I’m not feeling quite so flush is True Grace.  

 

Bedroom lights

It’s not to everyone’s taste but I have a string of red lights (chilli lights actually!) on the headrest of my bed that provide enough light for me to read but do not upset the production of melatonin (the sleep hormone).

Keep your room free of clutter

I keep my bedroom clutter-free and make sure everything is put away and set my clothes out for the following day as even this in the past has provided a mental distraction preventing me from getting to sleep.

I also keep the window open all year round, as I would rather have a cold room and snuggle into the duvet to get cosy.  This may sound weird, but my partner and I also have separate duvets as the weight of a whole duvet to wrap myself into helps me to sleep.

What’s my one sleep tip you must do no fail? 

Aside from bedroom hygiene I would say that you shouldn’t torture yourself rolling about for hours in bed if you can’t sleep.  I know when it’s game over, so I just get up, make myself a warm drink and sit in the living room with the lights dimmed low.  Often what keeps me awake is thinking about work. 

Jot things down

Positively, some of the best ideas come about at this time so I either jot my thoughts down in a workbook (never the laptop or phone! – blue light does you no good and the temptation to check emails and social media is not great either) or I read until I feel sleepy and ready to get back to bed.

Believe me, this really is the best way to tackle this issue as again it’s about taking action! It can feel weird being up out of bed in the dead of the night but why spend 4 hours rolling around when you could strategically spend 1 hour using the techniques you have established work for you to help you to get back to sleep.

I can’t guarantee sleep as disrupted sleep can come in waves.  What I can assure you of is that by reverting and sticking to your established sleep ritual you will have a much better chance of tackling the issue head on rather than putting up with it and looking for short-term coping mechanisms.

 

You can listen to me chatting to Rhiannon Lambert about sleep on her Food for Thought Podcast here

How to tackle the issue of migraine

How to tackle the issue of migraine

What is migraine?

This is a complex neurological condition which affects the whole body and can be both debilitating and disruptive to the day-to-day life of sufferers.  The cause is not fully understood and as of yet there is no diagnostic test of cure for the condition.

What do we know about the cause of migraine?

What we do know is that migraine starts deep in the brain and that a glitch in the release of neurotransmitters (chemical substances released at the end of a nerve fibre) set in place a chain reaction which causes a number of symptoms.  These symptoms can differ between individuals and include visual disturbances (flashing lights, blind spots in the vision, zig zag patterns and many more), nausea, vomiting, debilitating head pain, pins and needles, numbness in the limbs and even paralysis.

Key facts about migraine

  • 1 in 7 people in the UK suffer from migraine.
  • Migraine costs the UK around £2.25 billion every year.
  • The World Health Organisation has classified headache as a major health disorder and found it to be the sixth highest cause worldwide of years lost due to disability.
  • Migraine affects twice as many women as men.
  • Migraine affects people from all age groups (even young children).
  • A migraine attack can last for between 4 and 72 hours.
  • Sufferers experience an average of 13 attacks each year.

What triggers migraine?

Migraine can be triggered by many different factors and these are specific to the individual.  The onset of a migraine is normally the result of several factors which individually can be tolerated but when occur together or accumulate can pass a threshold at which an attack is triggered.

Common triggers are related to lifestyle, environment and diet.  Whilst some of these triggers are easily recognised you may be unaware of other that could be making your migraines worse.

There is no definitive list of triggers but some of the more common ones are listed below.

Emotional stress Anger Tension Worry Shock Depression
  Excitement
Physical stress Over-exertion Tiredness and fatigue Late night Irregular sleep pattern Tension
  Travel
Foods Caffeine MSG Citrus fruits Marmite Cheese
  Red wine Onions Chocolate Pork Seafood
  Wheat Aspartame
Environment Flickering lights Bright lights Loud noise Change in climate Intense smells
  Smoking Stuffy atmosphere
Hormones Menstruation Puberty Pregnancy Contraceptive pill HRT
Others Eye strain Medication Congestion Toothache

Keep a diary

Keeping a dairy can help you to identify any triggers that are causing symptoms. Once these have been identified you can start to remove them one at a time to see if there is any improvement in the intensity and frequency of your migraine.  Whilst this may seem simple, don’t be disheartened if you cannot identify any specific triggers as they are often difficult to pinpoint.

You can download a migraine diary from Migraine Action.

How does diet affect migraine?

Dietary triggers only occur in a small percentage of migraine sufferers and it’s advisable to start cutting out large swathes of food groups from your diet unnecessarily. Interestingly, sweet cravings can occur in people before the onset of migraine so don’t automatically assume that foods such as chocolate are a trigger.

What affect does blood sugar have on migraine?

It may not be what you eat but the time between meals that could be triggering your migraine as fasting (more than five hours between meals during the day or 13 hours overnight) has been identified as a major factor for sufferers.

The body uses glucose to supply energy to all the major organs including the brain whose function is impacted on when blood sugar levels are low.  One response to low blood sugar is an increase in the flow of blood to the brain, which is thought to contribute to the pain of headaches and migraine as nerve tissues become more sensitive to the dilated blood vessels.

Try to eat every 4 hours during the day and no more than 12 hours overnight.  If you have a very active lifestyle that also includes vigorous exercise, then you may want to introduce small healthy snacks between meals to account for the energy used and to help keep blood sugar levels balanced.

What should you eat to keep blood sugar levels balanced?

Plan your meals around foods rich in protein (lean meat, poultry, Quorn, tofu, beans and pulses) alongside wholegrains (brown rice, wholemeal pasta, oats, wholemeal bread), healthy fats (oily fish, olive oil, nuts, seeds and avocado) and plenty of vegetables.  This combination of protein, healthy fats and foods rich in fibre can help to maintain steady blood sugar levels and keep you feeling full between meals.  Try to avoid sugary snacks and drinks as these can cause rapid spikes and dips in blood sugar levels.

Are there any alternative remedies?

Herbal remedies such as Feverfew have traditionally been used to help tackle migraine as have supplements such as vitamin B2 and magnesium (low levels of which have been associated with migraine).  These offer a natural alternative that may work for some and if you want to explore these options then take for a few months to establish whether they have any effect.

Migraine can seriously impact on the day-to-day life of sufferers and whilst there is no definitive cure, there may be areas of your lifestyle that can be addressed to help tackle the condition.  There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to treating migraines as the factors that encourage the onset of an attack can differ between individuals.  Understanding what the common triggers are and taking the time to monitor your lifestyle may be a useful approach to proactively dealing with the condition.

My essential curry formula

My essential curry formula

I have been interested in food and cooking since my early teens and Indian cuisine has always been a favourite.  Early recipes involved a simple cook-in-sauce with the addition of meat and veggies.  This evolved into an exploration of ready prepared pastes and powders.  Since then I have perfected my own personal formula to make ‘curry-in-a-hurry’, whether made with meat, fish or an alternative protein such as beans, pulses, tofu, Quorn or paneer.

Health benefits of curry

Whilst some people may view curry as somewhat of an unhealthy food synonymous with boozy nights out or take-away nights in, I actually think they can be hugely healthy if prepared in the right way.  Dried spices have been shown to be beneficial to heath in many ways including their ability to help reduce inflammation.  Spices are also a rich source of minerals such as iron.  Using spices in foods such as curries also helps with the bioavailability of certain compounds found in spices – fat helps the body to absorb the active compound in turmeric called curcumin. 

(You can find out more on the health benefits of curry here

My curry preference

This is my take on what makes a good curry and once you get to grips with the formula you can whip up a curry in no time at all.  Everyone’s tastes differ but for me this basic formula works every time and delivers on what I want to get out of a curry.

My preference is a recipe that delivers on freshness and has a rich umami taste that satisfies the savoury flavour I desire from a curry.  You can enhance this richness of flavour by cooking the curry down for longer time before adding the yoghurt.

The basic elements

The basics are onion, garlic, chilli and ginger.  My favoured blend of spices is a good curry powder, ground cardamom and turmeric.  I like to add blitzed cherry tomatoes (these add to the umami flavour).  After that it’s up to you.  Chuck in a protein which may be meat, fish, beans, pulses, Quorn, tofu or paneer.  Add plenty of vegetables – those that work best for me are peppers, okra, cauliflower, potato and squash.  I like to thicken the curry with spinach and add a subtle creamy texture with Greek yoghurt.  Coriander is my herb of choice for any curry.

My fancy ingredient!

My fancy ingredient is always fresh curry leaves, which are available in larger supermarkets or health food stores.  To get the best out of curry leaves I like to fry them in oil at the very beginning of the recipe before adding the onions, garlic, chilli and ginger.  You only need to add a handful of curry leaves to a recipe and any left over can be placed in a container and frozen.

My basic curry formula

Serves 4

Ingredients

2 onions (peeled)

2 large garlic cloves (peeled)

250g cherry tomatoes

1 tbsp oil (light olive, coconut or groundnut)

1 inch piece of ginger, peeled and cut into thin strips

1 fresh chilli (chopped)

1 tbsp curry powder

1 tsp ground cardamom

½ tsp turmeric

400g protein (meat, fish or veggie alternative)

500g chopped vegetables such as peppers, cauliflower, squash, sweet potato or green beans

500ml stock (meat or veggie)

100g spinach leaves

1 heaped tbsp Greek yoghurt

1 handful fresh coriander, chopped

Sea salt

Method

  1. Blitz the onions and garlic in a food processor. Transfer the mixture to a bowl.
  2. Blitz the cherry tomatoes in the same food processor.
  3. Heat the oil in a large, deep-sided frying pan set over a medium heat.
  4. Add the onion and garlic then fry gently for 5 minutes until soft and translucent.
  5. Add the ginger and chilli then fry for a further 2 minutes.
  6. Add the processed cherry tomatoes and fry for another 3 minutes.
  7. Add the spices and cook for 2 minutes as they become fragrant.
  8. Now add your protein of choice and cook for 3 minutes, stirring regularly.
  9. Add the chopped vegetables and then pour in the stock. Cover and cook over a medium heat for 15 minutes.
  10. Remove the lid from the pan, add the spinach leaves and turn up the heat then cook for another 5 minutes to reduce down (you can decide how ‘wet’ or ‘dry’ you prefer your curry).
  11. Take the pan off the heat and stir through the yoghurt and coriander.
  12. Check for seasoning and add salt if needed.
  13. Serve with wholegrain rice, quinoa or wholemeal pitta bread.

Join Cancer Research UK in giving up sugar for February

Join Cancer Research UK in giving up sugar for February

Addicted to sugar? Learn more about how you can ditch the sweet stuff!

Sugar is the villain in the world of nutrition and most significantly those added to foods, which are referred to as being ‘free’.  We all eat too much of it and it’s supposedly more addictive than class A drugs.  So, what’s the deal with sugar and how can we start to cut it out of our diet?

This month we’ve been challenged by Cancer Research UK to ditch the white stuff in the name of charity but why is it so bad for our health, how much are we eating and how can we reduce it?

What are free sugars?

Free sugars are considered to be the ‘bad guys’ and have been defined by Public Health England as all added sugars in any form which include (1):

  • All sugars naturally present in fruit and vegetable juices, purées and pastes
  • All sugars in drinks
  • All sweeteners including table sugar, honey, barley malt, maple syrup, coconut nectar, palm sugar, agave nectar, date sugar and brown rice syrup

Other sugars found naturally in foods such as whole fruits, cereals and dairy foods (not flavoured milks) are not as damaging to health.  Blood glucose levels are less affected by the sugars in these foods as their fibre, fat and protein content slows down its release into the bloodstream.  Foods containing these sugars are also much more nutritious and contain many other nutrients which are beneficial to health.

How much free sugar should we be eating?

Sugar is high on the health agenda with both the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) urging us to reduce free sugars to just 5% of our daily calorie intake.  Guidance from Public Health England is to limit free sugar intake to no more than 30g (6 tsp) per day.

How much free sugar are we eating in the UK?

Findings from the UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey (2018) have shown that most of us consume too much free sugar (2).  The greatest contributors come from the sweeteners we add to food and drinks, soft drinks and then the usual suspects of confectionary and other sweet treats.

Sugar and heart disease

The relationship between sugar and heart disease has been widely researched and a recent study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that a high-sugar diet was associated with a greater risk of dying from the condition.  Researchers not only found a strong association between sugar intake and heart disease but that the higher your intake of sugar the greater your risk of disease (3).

It’s not fully clear how sugar and heart disease are related but several indirect pathways have been implicated. The liver converts excess sugar into fat and when overloaded this may increase the likelihood of fatty liver disease, which contributes to diabetes risk (a key factor in the aetiology of heart disease).  Other risk factors for heart disease such as high blood pressure and inflammation have also been associated with diets high in sugar (3)

Sugar and cancer?

Sugar is often talked about with respect to cancer but according to Cancer Research UK, there’s no direct link between the two.  Saying that, the two may be indirectly associated with one another, which has more to do with the impact of obesity.  An unhealthy diet, which may include an excess of sugar in the diet has the potential to cause weight gain and evidence from research has shown that being overweight or obese can increase the risk of many different types of cancer including breast, bowel, oesophageal and pancreatic (4).

Beyond smoking, obesity is one of the greatest preventable risk factors in the development of cancer.  It’s been predicted that by 2035 almost three quarters of the UK population will be overweight or obese, which may cause a further 670,000 new cases of cancer over the next 20 years.

Exactly how being overweight or obese causes cells to become cancerous is not yet fully understood but is thought to be triggered by chemical signals released from excess body fat. We need some fat for the body to function properly, but excess may be harmful as it releases hormones and growth-promoting signals in the body, which encourage inflammation and influence how often our cells divide. These changes in cell division are thought to be one of the most likely reasons why carrying excess fat increases the risk of cancer (5).

How to start cutting free sugars out of your diet

Food surveys have shown we all eat too much of the white stuff and yet most of us find it impossible to cut it out of our diet.  Ditching free sugars for good is probably an unrealistic goal for the majority of people, but this current campaign led by Cancer Research UK offers an opportunity to kick-start new eating habits and explore ways to reduce them from your diet.

Top tips to tackling sugar in your diet

Try and make simple changes to your diet that involve cutting down on the amount of free sugars you consume.  The tips below can help you to reduce the amount of free sugars in your diet and beat the cravings that act as a key barrier to change.

Understand sugar on the label

Many of the foods typically high in free sugars are obvious to spot, but a significant amount of those we consume are hidden in salad dressings, condiments, breakfast cereals, soups, cook-in-sauces and ready meals.

The front of pack labelling highlights the amount of sugar in a food product so opt for green or amber traffic lights. This labelling can be misleading as it represents all the sugars so also refer to the ingredient list.  To identify free sugars, look for anything that ends in ‘ose’ (sucrose, glucose, fructose) as well as any healthier sounding alternatives, such as raw sugar, barley malt, maple syrup, coconut nectar, palm sugar, agave nectar, date sugar and brown rice syrup.  These are all classed as free sugars.

Switch to sweet snacks lower in free-sugars

To reduce the amount of free sugar you add to food you can opt for dried fruits or homemade compotes.  If you’re looking for something sweet to snack on, then try fresh or dried fruits alone or topped onto plain yoghurt.  You can also control the amount of sugar you add to homemade fruit breads, which can be topped with nut butters.

Include plenty of protein in your diet

Protein helps to keep you feeling full and can lessen the desire to snack between meals.  Structure your meals by teaming proteins with healthy fats (olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds), fibre (wholegrains) and plenty of vegetables.  If you need to snack between meals then something protein-based such as boiled eggs, pulse-based dips (hummus) or lean meat proteins are a great option.

Get a little spicy!

Sweet spices such as ground ginger, allspice, nutmeg and cinnamon can make a great substitute for sugar.  These spices can be added to hot beverages and smoothies or sprinkled over porridge and yoghurt in place of sweeteners such as sugar or honey.

Ditch sugary drinks

Soft drinks are one of the biggest contributors to sugar in the diet and even so-called health drinks can be loaded with sugar in one of its many forms.  Try flavouring sparkling water with fruits, vegetables and herbs such as lemons, limes, strawberries, mint, cucumber, rosemary, fresh ginger and basil. Herbal teas are also lovely when brewed, chilled and sweetened with a little honey.

Keep occupied

Research shows that the desire for something sweet after you have eaten is more likely to stem from habits formed during childhood as opposed to anything more biological (6). Evenings are the downfall of most people when it comes to snacking, so the first step is to keep sweet treats out of the house.  The next step is to find ways to occupy your time such as going out for a walk, doing something around the house or having a nice bath with a good book rather than flopping in front of the TV with a family pack of minstrels.  There’s some truth in the saying, “Idle hands make for the devil’s work”.

Gum

Research findings are mixed but have shown that chewing gum may help overcome sweet cravings in some people (7). Make sure you opt for sugar-free varieties!

Learn to chill

We’re more likely to seek out sweet treats and comfort foods when under stress.  Try to adopt other ways to manage your stress rather than relying on food. Magnesium helps to relax the body and can be found in foods such as nuts, seeds and even a little high-cocoa dark chocolate, which is also rich in the compounds phenylethylamine that acts as mild mood booster.

Try chromium

This mineral has been shown to help manage blood glucose (sugar) as part of something called the glucose tolerance factor (GTF).  This factor increases the effectiveness of insulin, which is a hormone that helps to control blood sugar levels by transporting glucose into cells.  Chromium also helps the body to process the carbohydrates, fats and proteins in the foods we eat.  Whilst not conclusive, research has suggested that chromium supplements may help with cravings (8) and anecdotally, some people find these a useful way to reduce sugar cravings by taking with meals.

References

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29587886
  2. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/ndns-results-from-years-7-and-8-combined
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24493081
  4. https://scienceblog.cancerresearchuk.org/2017/05/15/sugar-and-cancer-what-you-need-to-know/
  5. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/obesity/obesity-fact-sheet
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2531152/
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17118491
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16184071
Can you cure a hangover?

Can you cure a hangover?

Can you cure a hangover?

So, it’s that time of year again when all good intentions go to pot as we succumb to the excitement of the festive season and even the most ardent ambassadors of sobriety get swept up in the moment.  This time of year is synonymous with overindulgence and to be honest, why not enjoy yourself.  However, the fun times can come at a cost as we are left nursing the effects of a hangover the following day. For those with a more engaging social diary the whirlwind of events can start to take their toll as the festive season unfolds and heavy drinking over a long period can cause problems further down the line.

Research shows that we tend to drink more during the festive season and according to a survey commissioned by Cancer Research UK, young adults consume an average of 63 units in the run up to Christmas, which is the equivalent of 30 glasses of wine or 22 pints of beer.  As well as causing hangovers, this excess of booze can also affect our waistlines as these units contribute an extra 4000 calories (1).

What is a hangover?

The effects of drinking too much include headaches, dehydration, nausea and stomach ache as well as that non-descript feeling of anxiety experienced by some people and the lack of good quality sleep.  Alcohol is broken down in the liver and produces a compound called acetaldehyde, which is responsible for the unwanted side-effects of alcohol consumption. These effects become worse as you drink more, which leads to greater the build-up of acetaldehyde.

Whats the cure?

Everyone has their own take on the ultimate hangover cure but according to a large systematic review published by the British Medical Journal, researchers concluded that there was no convincing evidence for any conventional or complimentary interventions to prevent or treat them (2).  However, getting the basics right such as keeping hydrated, eating before drinking and choosing or avoiding certain foods and drinks may go some way to ease your pain.

Never drink on an empty stomach

Drinking on an empty stomach can be a recipe for disaster as this allows alcohol to be absorbed into the bloodstream more quickly.  According to the survey carried out by Cancer Research UK, a third of Brits aged 25-34-year olds said they skipped a meal to account for the extra calories (1).   The approach of avoiding food is seriously misguided as it not only increases the effect of alcohol but makes you more likely to nibble on bar snacks, buffets or visit the kebab house on the way home by stimulating the appetite.

Try to eat something before you go out even if it’s a sandwich on the way to the pub and choose something substantial with a good source of protein and healthy fats such as tuna sandwich, which will have more impact than a light salad.

Avoid dark coloured drinks

Dark coloured drinks such as brown spirits and red wine are rich in compounds called congeners.  These are impurities produced during the fermentation process, which add to the taste, aroma and appearance of dark coloured drinks.  The higher the concentration of congeners the more intense the hangover is likely to be the following day.

Hydrate!!!!

Few of us appreciate the impact of dehydration on the body, which can leave you feeling lightheaded, tired, confused and irritable. The body can survive for some time without food but not without water, which is why the effects of dehydration are felt more quickly.  Dehydration is a key driver for hangovers, especially as alcohol inhibits the production of anti-diuretic hormone, which is used by the body to re-absorb water.  Falling ill from drinking and vomiting only adds to the impact of dehydration.

To keep hydrated throughout the evening, alternate your alcoholic drinks with water and increase the length of your drinks with soda water or low-calorie mixers.  Drink plenty of fluids before bed and the following day and adding in electrolyte sachets can help to rebalance your system and replace nutrients commonly depleted by alcohol such as magnesium, potassium, calcium and B vitamins.

Avoid the greasy fry-up

The greasy fry-up is ubiquitous with hangovers but can actually leave you feeling much worse.   Fatty foods such as fried eggs, fried bread, sausages and bacon can put a strain on your digestive system as they take longer to break down and may encourage indigestion as well as leaving you feeling sluggish during the day.

Try something lighter such as boiled, poached or scrambled eggs on toast.  Eggs are nutritional powerhouses and contain a good source of the amino acid cysteine, which helps the liver to breakdown acetaldehyde.  Low blood sugar also contributes to the hungover feeling so team your breakfast with a glass of fresh fruit juice as a natural source of sugar as well as vitamin  C.

Think twice before reaching for the coffee

Coffee is a great pick-me-up but caffeine can leave you feeling jittery and upset sensitive tummies. Not everyone is as sensitive to the effects of caffeine so it’s a matter of personal choice.  Herbal teas are a good way to hydrate and ingredients such as ginger can help with nausea as well as providing an invigorating zingy flavour.  Ginger can be enjoyed as a tea by adding 1-2 tsp of ginger powder, ½ a lemon and 2 tsp of honey to a teapot, topping with hot water and leaving to brew for five minutes before serving.  The addition of a little honey can provide a gentle way to rebalance blood sugar levels.

Avoid energy drinks

Don’t be tempted by energy drinks as they are often high in sugar.  Some brands contain as much as 45g or 9 tsp of sugar per 500ml can, which will cause a serious sugar rush followed by a major crash, especially if drunk on an empty stomach.  These drinks, even if sugar- free are also loaded with high amounts of caffeine and other stimulants that can leave you feeling jittery and increase bowel spasms, especially in sensitive hungover guts.

Artichoke supplements may help

This supplement stimulates bile production and can help to relieve bloating and other symptoms of indigestion associated with alcohol consumption.  If you know you have a hectic month of over-indulgence ahead of you then try taking this supplement daily.

Foods that may help to promote good liver function

Certain foods may encourage greater bile flow through the liver, which helps to remove toxins more efficiently.   These include bitter and dark green vegetables (rocket, cabbage, kale and cabbage) and  globe artichokes.  Beetroot has also been traditionally associated with liver health by way of a plant compound called betaine.  All vegetables are hugely beneficial to health so the message here is just to eat more of them in general!!

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the reality is that there is no miracle cure when it comes to hangovers and how rough you feel is largely dependent on how much you have drunk.  Whilst there are plenty of useful tips such as those above to help you feel a little less shabby the following day, it’s important to always drink sensibly.

 

References 

  1. Cancer Research UK Dryathlon 
  2. https://www.bmj.com/content/331/7531/1515

 

Time saving mealtime tips for carers

Time saving mealtime tips for carers

Time saving mealtime tips for carers 

I’m hugely passionate about the health and welfare of older people and continue to provide training to care homes and carers about the importance of nutrition.  This passion extends to the heath of carers and whilst I know there’s always so much going on when it comes to caring for older people, you should never overlook the importance of diet and nutrition.  This applies to yourself as well as those you care for.

Food has the power to do so much more than just nourish the body

Aside from the physical benefits of eating well, mealtimes are often the only opportunity many older people get to interact with someone and is a way for those with dementia to navigate their day. Food has a unique way of stimulating thoughts of the past and certain dishes/foods have the wonderful ability of conjuring up an association with occasions during the year such as strawberries for Wimbledon, pumpkins for Halloween, mithai for Diwali and sprouts for Christmas.  Amidst the current wellness landscape, I hope we never lose these associations between culture and food as they’re so much more important than the latest protein powder or green juice!

Carers in the UK

My hat goes off to carers in the UK and so should yours.  Aside from the huge commitment and impact it has on their health and wellbeing the economic contribution is estimated at £132 billion each year according to research carried out by the charity organisation Carers UK.

There’s no carer stereotype, but it can be defined as anyone (child or adult) who looks after a family member, partner or friend because they need help as a result of illness, frailty, disability, mental health problem or an addiction, and is not paid for their work.  There are around 7 million carers in the UK equating to one in ten people and this figure is predicted to rise by 3.4 million people over the next 15 years (1).

I’m focusing on those that care for older people and the majority of these carers in the UK are women, many of whom are considered to be part of the ‘sandwich generation’ caring for children and older parents at the same time (2).

I will write another blog on the impact of caring on health and the little attention they pay to their own self-care, which puts them at risk of both physical and mental health issues.

Financing the cost of care

The impact of caring can take its toll on those that still have to work at the same time, which is estimated to be one in eight carers.  Many carers have to sacrifice employment to fulfil their caring responsibilities, which can add to stress and financial commitments with surveys showing that 53% of carers have had to borrow money as a result of their caring role with 61% borrowing from friends or relatives and 41% having to use overdrafts.  It’s also been shown that 60% of carers have had to use all of their savings, whilst 23% have had to re-mortgage their homes or downsize to smaller properties to cover the costs (3).

The older carer

Another group of carers often not considered by those with little knowledge of this environment are those who are older themselves.  Research shows that 65% of carers aged 60-94 years themselves have long-term health problems and that 68% of such carers say that their caring role has had an adverse effect on their health with a third saying they have cancelled treatment or an operation because of their responsibilities (4).

Why is diet so important for older people being cared for?

The food we eat provides the energy and nutrients that the body needs to maintain good health.  Good nutrition is particularly important as we get older as it helps to support the immune system (which protects against infection) and offers nutrients that help with many other areas of health.

Nutrient deficiencies are not common in the general population but can occur in this age group and can lead to fatigue and low mood, and many other symptoms that can impact on day-to-day wellness.  Malnutrition is common in older people, especially those with dementia and this can not only make life more difficult for those that you care for but also for carers that have the added burden of dealing with the symptoms as a result.

We absorb nutrients less efficiently as we age and medication as well as lifestyle can also impact on this. There are also many other things that carers may have to consider when helping older people to eat well such as dentition or the changes brought about by dementia that affect all of the senses and the desire to eat.

Mealtimes are just one of the responsibilities of carers and aside from cooking food can be a lengthy process if they have to put time into helping someone to eat.  For those also supporting a family, it doesn’t take a maths genius to see how much time needs to be committed to mealtimes, especially if the person your caring for needs a lot of support.

Time management is essential and even more so to insure carers are taking time out for themselves, which many fails to do.  Mealtimes don’t have to feel like a burden and there are shortcuts that you can take to reduce the time spent in the kitchen without having to sacrifice good nutrition.

Get the basics right first

To insure every meal counts nutritionally you just need to get the basics right.  Meals should include a good source of protein (meat, fish, Quorn, tofu, beans, pulses, cheese), source of carbohydrates (pasta, bread, potatoes, rice or other grain) and plenty of vegetables, whilst bursting with flavour to encourage appetite.  This doesn’t need to be expensive or complicated as you can create some very simple meals using this principle, whilst making the most of time-saving preparation techniques and quick-fix foods.

Useful tips

I have put together this list of tips but there are probably many more that you already use and I would love to hear from you to share these ideas.

Breakfast smoothies 

Smoothies are a great way to provide a very quick breakfast or snack if you’re feeling rushed for time.  Use any milk as a base and throw in fruits (frozen or fresh), spinach and oats then sweeten with a little honey.  You can also prepare single smoothie packs in individual sandwich bags and keep them in the freezer to save a little more time. This is a great option if you’re trying to deal with malnutrition as you can easily whack up the calories by adding other ingredients such as oils, tofu or protein powders.

Batch cooking 

Cooking in batches once or twice a week is a great time saver.  Dishes such as stews, curries, casseroles, hearty soups and other one-pot dishes are perfectly suited to this and can be packaged individually and stored in the freezer.  Try adding in plenty of veggies to your dishes (frozen is fine) or pulses (canned) to maximise the nutritional content.  You can also add foods such as chicken livers to batch cooked meals to boost their nutritional content.  You can buy ready cooked grains in ambient pouches that can be microwaved to save time boiling grains.

Lunch platters

Mealtimes can be made up of lots of small food items, which can be taken straight from the fridge to create a lunch or supper platter.  Dips, vegetable sticks, chopped fruits, pitta breads, cooked meats, samosas, dim sum, sushi, scotch eggs, hard boiled eggs, cheese and biscuits are just a few examples and if stocked up can offer a meal in minutes.

Healthy ready meals 

You don’t have to be a slave to the stove when preparing meals and there are plenty of healthy ready-meals available that can be microwaved in minutes to provide a quick meal option. Foods such as fish pie, cottage pie or beef stew always go down well and can be teamed with a serving or two of frozen veggies such as carrots or peas to help boost the nutritional content of the meal.

Learn a repertoire of simple five-minute-meals 

Creating a quick repertoire of nutritious quick meals can be a great standby when you’re struggling with what to cook.  Eggs are perfect (omelettes or scrambled) as is wholemeal toast topped with canned fish or baked beans, pasta with canned tuna tomato sauce, soup with wholemeal toast and grilled salmon fillet with ready-made mashed potato.  Try teaming each dish with vegetables by either serving them as a side or adding them into the dish.

Nourishing soups 

Soups are a great way to cook up a meal in a flash and when served with wholemeal bread provide a good balanced meal.  Try and boost their nutrition potential by adding in canned pulses, lentils or other frozen vegetables before cooking.  Soups can be low in calories so try drizzling with a little olive oil after cooking or topping with parmesan shavings.

Make use of canned and jarred foods 

There’s nothing wrong with canned and jarred foods as they can be hugely nutritious and essential time-savers.  Canned tuna is a great protein booster and jarred sauces can be a life saver and reduce the time required to batch cook.  You can add fresh or frozen vegetables to these foods to boost their nutritional content.  A simple Bolognese sauce takes little more than mince, tomato sauce and some chopped vegetables to create a nutritionally balanced meal.

Create a list of weekly essentials

Take some time to get a grip on the foods that you use on a weekly basis to create healthy meals. If you have the essentials in stock, then you will never get caught short.

Keep snacks in stock

There will be times when you need snacks, which may be needed to help someone in your care to gain weight or for those moments when someone’s appetite is not strong enough to face a whole meal.  Foods such as cold meats, yoghurts and cheese are useful to keep in the fridge as are sweeter foods such as custard and fruits like bananas.

Don’t waste the left-overs

It’s amazing what you can create from leftovers and these can save a lot of time the following day when preparing meals.  Sunday roast leftovers can easily be whipped up into a nutritious hash the following day and spaghetti bolognese tastes great when re-fried.

Find ways to make sweet foods more healthy

In some instances the person your caring for may develop a sweet tooth, which is common in those with dementia.  If something sweet is the only way to get someone to eat then think of ways to add a little extra nutrition to the food your preparing.  Chopped fruit is good on custard and ice-cream, whilst fruit-based puddings made using fresh fruit such as pies and crumbles contain the benefits of the fruit and switching traditional crumble for something oat-based is good.

There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to helping an older person in your care to eat well.  Providing those in your care with a healthy nutritious diet is important but you also have to do the best you can within the moment in time.  Don’t make mealtimes stressful and try to use the tips above to take the strain off this area of your responsibilities. It goes without saying to figure out the foods that the person your caring for likes to eat as this can be a game-changer when their appetite is compromised.

My only final note is that carers don’t forget the importance of self-care and this means taking time out for yourself to eat and live well.  It can be difficult to see the woods for the trees with such responsibility but I for one think you are all amazing.

x

References

  1. http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20160109213406/http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171766_300039.pdf
  2. https://www.carersuk.org/for-professionals/policy/expert-comment/4604-sandwich-generation-concern-is-growing
  3. https://www.carersuk.org/for-professionals/policy/policy-library/caring-family-finances-inquiry
  4. https://www.carersuk.org/for-professionals/policy/policy-library/in-sickness-and-in-health