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Back to basics: a healthier you in just 4 weeks


Health & Living resident dietitian Orla Walsh kick-starts your healthy new year. Photo: Marc O’Sullivan

Health & Living resident dietitian Orla Walsh kick-starts your healthy new year. Photo: Marc O’Sullivan

Porridge bread

Porridge bread

Stir fry

Stir fry

Getty Images


Health & Living resident dietitian Orla Walsh kick-starts your healthy new year. Photo: Marc O’Sullivan

The New Year is well underway and now it is time to take control of our eating habits. So over the next four weeks, I will bring you some practical tips to enable you to feel great and maximise your health.

Week 1

We will start with some easy food swaps. Secondly, as life doesn't stop when you're trying to turn over a new leaf, I have some great ideas to make quick and tasty meals that can be thrown together in minutes.

Week 2

Although the focus of healthy eating is on what you eat, the importance of when you eat will be highlighted.

Week 3

For many, evening eating is destroying efforts achieved in daytime. Some simple, practical solutions to this common issue will be provided. After all, food is fuel, not therapy.

Week 4

Perfection isn't necessary, consistency is. It's true, we are what we repeatably do. Therefore help will be given so that healthy rituals can be created, rather than temporary restrictions.

Healthy food swaps

Diets and hardcore regimes are not sustainable. If they were, we'd all be at least half a stone lighter. Truth is, unless you change your less healthy ways for new healthful rituals, you won't stay on the path to leanness for long. To be healthy, you have to do as the healthy folk do. With every healthy habit you form, the statistically more likely you will become leaner.

Simple food swaps add up. A pound of fat is about 3,500kcal. If you want to lose one stone by next year, you need to reduce intake by about 135kcal each day. So it's doable. By choosing foods that have a lower calorie density, you are able to achieve this while eating the same volume of food.

Trade 1: Swap fruit juice for fruit

Scientific evidence indicates that we need to be hitting at least five, if not seven, portions of fruit and vegetables each day. Not only would this help us to achieve and maintain a healthy weight, it would reduce our risk of dying, from anything, by about 40pc. The focus is on whole fruits and vegetables, especially fresh or frozen.

Although fruits are great for you, vegetables have been shown to be more protective. Generally speaking, they also tend to contain less calories per serving, particularly the ones grown beneath the ground.

To put it in perspective, a piece of fruit has a similar amount of calories and carbohydrate as a slice of bread.

It's easy to drink down the juice of four oranges in a glass, but more difficult to eat four oranges. So fill half your trolley with lots of fresh and veg as well as some fruit, and keep it colourful.

Trade 2: Eat more white fish and meat than the darker coloured varieties

When you're trying to reduce body fat, protein becomes very important. Protein helps feed the metabolism, stabilise blood sugars, make us feel full and keep us feeling fuller for longer.

Protein sources are best served natural. To choose the naturally leaner option, the whiter proteins are often leaner.

If you have white fish or white meat more often than red meat, you're on the right track. Try and build in a meat-free day once a week to avail of the health benefits plant proteins such as beans, peas and lentils have to offer you.

Trade 3: Swap low fat flavoured yoghurt for natural yoghurt

Milk and yoghurt are an absorbable and rich source of calcium needed for bone health. Although the guidelines suggest that people choose low-fat products, full-fat natural yoghurt contains about 5g of fat per portion, while low-fat contains about 2g of fat. So by choosing low-fat instead of full-fat yoghurt, you're saving about 3g of fat (4pc of your daily quota). This isn't much. You would save far more by changing cooking methods, using less butter or picking leaner cuts of meat.

Often when fat is removed from a product, sugar is added in to help with flavour. This is not an ideal scenario as most people need to aim to keep their sugar intake below 6 tsp per day. A flavoured yoghurt can have 2-3 tsp of sugar added per pot, therefore providing 33-50pc of your daily quota. Therefore natural yoghurt is the favourable choice.

Trade 4: Swap breakfast cereal for oats

Not only are flavoured yoghurts and fruit juice supplying lots of sugar to families across Ireland (of course 'treat foods' are supplying a heck of a lot more) breakfast cereals can be awfully high in sugar too. Our intake really should be kept below 12 or preferably 6 tsp of sugar per day.

If you're looking at the back of the pack of cereal, you're aiming for the 'of which sugars' to be less than 5g per 100g. It's not uncommon for breakfast cereals to contain 20g of sugar per 100g, which would mean that they are 20pc sugar. In fact, if you stuck to the recommended portion size, you'd be chewing down on 2 tsp of sugar. Be wise about which product you choose.

Or better yet, swap a high-carbohydrate breakfast for a high-protein breakfast. Research strongly shows us that eating protein prevents the secretion of the hunger hormone ghrelin, and stimulates the secretion of the 'feeling full' hormones PYY, GLP-1 and CCK.

Protein at each meal, including breakfast, helps to preserve metabolism-boosting muscle during weight loss, thus losing only excess fat. When this was tested, a high-protein breakfast prevented gains in fat compared with skipping breakfast, whereas eating a typical low protein breakfast.

Trade 5: Swap spread for pesto, hummus, avocado, seed or nut butters

A low-fat diet doesn't equal a low-fat you. Nonetheless we are encouraged to be mindful of how much fat we include in our meals as fat has twice as many calories per gram when compared to protein and carbohydrate.

However some forms of fats are essential to health. For example, unless you eat the specific omega 3 fats that come from oily fish, your body won't have access to them. So do include healthy fats with each meal. Why not swap butter and jam for peanut butter and banana? Or vegetable oil for olive oil, as well as spread for avocado, pesto, hummus or mackerel pate.

Trade 7: Swap some carbohydrate at each meal for vegetables

When it comes to carbohydrates, we need to tailor our intake to our gender and activity levels. To understand this, consider yourself a car. Our tank is our muscles. The further we drive, the faster we go, the larger the tank of the car and the more frequently we take the car out, the more petrol we need.

So if you're muscular, have an active job and train hard, the more carbohydrate you need to consume. When choosing carbohydrates, it's best to go for the natural wholefood option. Put this is simple terms - it grew out of the ground looking similar to how it ends up on your plate. For most people, there should be the same amount of carbohydrate as protein on their dinner plate.

Read more: Mayday meals

Orla’s Recipes



Stir fry

Stir fry

Getty Images

Stir fry



From the freezer:

• bag of stir fry mixed veg

• bag or Quorn chicken- style pieces / mince (can be cooked from frozen)

• diced garlic

• grated ginger

• diced chilli 

From the cupboard:

• 1 pouch of microwavable puy lentils or brown rice

• 1 tbsp sesame oil

• 3 tbsp crunchy peanut butter

• 2 tbsp soy sauce,


Pour 1 tbsp sesame oil into a saucepan. Once hot, add the garlic and ginger. Next cook the Quorn for about 10 minutes. While it’s cooking, mix the peanut butter, chilli sauce, 100ml water and soy sauce to make a satay sauce.

When it hits the 10-minute mark, add your bag of frozen veg and stir in. After a couple of minutes, place the rice or lentils into the microwave as they usually take 2 minutes. Pour on your satay sauce before serving.

Read more: Who decides what we eat?



Porridge bread

Porridge bread

Porridge bread



From the cupboard:

• Bag of oats

• 1 tsp salt

• 2 tsp baking soda

From the fridge:

• Tub of natural yoghurt/ soy yoghurt


Simply place 500g of natural or Greek yoghurt into a bowl (the large tub). Fill the tub with oats and place into the bowl too. Now repeat this second step again so 2 tubs-worth of oats are in the bowl with the yoghurt.

Add 1 tsp of salt and 2 tsp of baking soda. Mix well and put into a greased bread tin. Cook for 50 mins at 180 degrees C.

Health & Living