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Weighing up a rigid diet of guidelines

THIS week, for a limited time only, I had something in common with Girls Aloud singer Nadine Coyle - food weighing.

I was aghast to read the tiny Derry singer allegedly produced digital scales in a posh London restaurant last year, and weighed the food on her plate before sending half of it back.

For normal folk who are concerned with staying healthy, is there a simple way to work out proper servings and nutrition? We are forever reading how portion sizes have increased; 20 years ago, crisp packets were between 17 and 20 grams, now the average sized bag is 35-50 grams, and this trend is rife across our supermarket shelves. It has become increasingly difficult to know what, and how much, one should be eating.

The media, and food packaging itself, bombard us with nutritional jargon, but do we understand it? "One portion delivers half of your daily fibre needs", "Reduced salt", "Low fat" . . . you'll be familiar with these terms, but they are only useful if we understand what our body's daily requirements are to begin with.

So for five days, I kept a food diary to see how well my diet matched up to the food and medical profession's recommendations. For the average women, the daily targets are: 2,000 calories, 70g fat (no more than 20 of which should be saturated), 90g sugar, 6g salt and 25g fibre. Not to mention vitamins and minerals.

On top of this, we should be incorporating five portions of fruit and veg per day into this plan, walking 10,000 steps, drinking two litres of water, and consuming no more than two to three units of alcohol. My head hurt already (but that may have been the four units of alcohol I had consumed the previous night).

BOOZE

I consider myself to be a relatively healthy person -- the odd boozy or takeaway night aside -- and I would have assumed that I wasn't too wide of the mark. How wrong I was. One pedometer, a digital scales and two days later, my food-and-exercise diary looked like it should have had the name Kerry Katona at the top (and I mean in the bad old days).

On the first day, I consumed too many calories and far too much salt (thanks to one of those giant packets of crisps), and on the second, I had under-eaten by about 25pc but drank too much. And so the challenge began in earnest.

This experiment had nothing to do with weight loss; the goal was to follow recommended GDAs (Guideline Daily Amounts) and RDAs (Recommended Daily Amounts) for good health. The difference between the two is that GDAs are only guidelines -- consider them general advice, as it is unlikely that anyone will achieve their GDA for every nutrient, and of course different people may need more or less depending on factors such as age or physical activity.

RDAs are a little different in that they are the recommended amounts of vitamins and minerals that the body needs to function, and these are set high to avoid deficiencies. But any nutritionist will tell you that if you eat a balanced diet including plenty of fruit and veg, deficiencies are unlikely to be a problem.

COOKING

Like most people, I have no idea what correct portion sizes should be. Unless you eat only pre-packed food and ready meals, you need to be aware of serving sizes when cooking at home. It turns out that I have been eating three times the recommended portion of cereal in the mornings. The trouble was, when I weighed out the actual recommended portion, it was about four tablespoons. No wonder you can drop a dress size in two weeks.

I wouldn't survive on the tiny portion they suggested, so I just adjusted my food diary to include three times the listed nutritional value. Which suddenly turned the sugar levels in this 'popular cereal aimed at women' from moderate to high. My mum told me I should just eat porridge, but it's a little too 19th century orphanage for me. I had the same problem when working out the nutritional value of my evening meals, my idea of a portion of rice was more than twice the recommended one.

On the fourth day, I went out for a big pub lunch as I wouldn't be eating a proper dinner. I asked the waiter if he could ask the chef for a rough assessment of the nutritional value of the food I had just ordered. He looked at me with the same kind of contempt as if I had asked him to shine my shoes. He came back with a message from the chef, and I am guessing he took the expletives out, but the gist of it was "a lot".

LABELS

That afternoon, I picked up a pre-packed salad and applied my new label-reading skills. But this salad simply gave the information per heaped tablespoon, not weight. So if I wanted to know exactly what I was eating, I would need a tablespoon and a calculator. I had to swap it for a sandwich. This was turning out to be a more difficult task than I had imagined. But there are some problems with food labelling; why can't manufacturers and supermarkets list the nutritional values for the entire product? Even on yoghurts and pre-packed sandwiches, the information is listed per 100g. Who eats four-fifths of a yoghurt?

On my last day, I realised that in order to do an assessment of the day's nutritional breakdown, I would have to buy healthy ready-meals. A near-perfect GDA day consisted of: cereal and milk, tea, mid-morning fruit, a wrap for lunch followed by a yoghurt, seven brazil nuts mid-afternoon, and a small plate of chicken and vegetable pasta with a mixed side salad for dinner. There was even room for a small chocolate bar and a beer. With regard to vitamins and minerals, they were all covered. On the downside, I found that 10,000 steps was equal to 90 minutes walking, and as the portions were less than I was used to, I went to bed hungry.

Food labelling can be as confusing as watching The Wire with the sound down, but there are useful elements that I have taken from my week's experiment. I know how to pick out low-salt products (less than 1g per 100g on the label), that a portion of nuts is a small handful (not a family pack), and that chips with ketchup doesn't count as two of your five a day. Oh, and you'd need a calculator to keep track of your daily allowances.

Keeping a food-and-exercise diary is a great way to see how healthy you are. But on the whole, as with everything else in life, common sense should prevail.

I did lose 2lbs over the week, but that could have been because reading labels ate into valuable eating time ...


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