Eating: getting it right…most of the time

1 February 2013

Eating healthily ain’t rocket science. And it isn’t about fad diets either. But it does take organisation. Nurse-turned-life coach Jan Aitken shares tips for becoming a healthier eater.

You’ve returned home tired to hungry kids or a complaining cat and the only thing catching your fancy in the fridge is a nicely chilled bottle of wine.

You aspire to be able to rustle up a healthy balanced meal – high in fresh vegetables and low in fat, sugar, and salt.

But short on time, ingredients, and fuse, you reach into the freezer and store cupboard for a couple of packets and tins whose highly processed contents will never get a healthy ‘tick’. Or you dial a pizza or head to the local fish and chip shop. Anything to get yourself or the family fed with a minimum of fuss.

We all do it some of the time. It’s when it becomes too much of the time that the guilt sets in. You’re a nurse and you know better than most what a balanced diet looks like.

Weekly menu to avoid peanut butter & toast diet

With 25 years nursing experience behind her, Dunedin life coach Jan Aitken says it was working shifts that first forced her to become organised about food.

“I’ve been really dull – I’ve done a weekly menu for years because I knew it was the only way I could feed myself without resorting to toast and peanut butter every night.”

Each week the menu goes up on the fridge as a visual reminder of what she’s bought, what she’s planned to do with it, and when.

She then follows and advocates the ‘80/20’ rule. “If you eat well 80 per cent of the time, then in the other 20 per cent you have room for some treat times and celebrations,” says Aitken.

“So you are not just living like a monk with a hair shirt, having only bread and water, which would be awful. Nurses do tend to like their food. We’ve got to find a balance.”

As good a maxim as any to follow for sensible healthy eating is what your grandparents told you: ‘moderation in everything’.

Motivating yourself to get organised

To get it right 80 per cent of the time, you need to be organised. The makings of a healthy breakfast, lunch, snacks, and evening meal need to be ready to hand or pre-prepared the vast majority of the time.

Yes, advanced planning, shopping, and pre-preparing some meals can come across as rigid and boring, agrees Aitken, and being organised can be the stumbling block for many to changing their eating habits. She says a key to help you to follow through your good intentions is to be aware of what is motivating you to eat more healthily.

For some it is the ‘push’ of wanting to avoid bad things happening to them – i.e. “I don’t want a heart attack” or “If my cholesterol gets any worse, I’m heading for a stroke”.

For others it is the ‘pull’ of improving their overall health – more energy, improved immunity, lower blood pressure, and regaining or maintaining a healthy weight.

Either way, remind yourself of your eating goals to help your family get you into a shopping/cooking routine that makes sensible eating an easier option.

Be aware of why and how you eat

Most nurses know what they should or shouldn’t be doing when it comes to food –but along with motivation, Aitken sees a need for more awareness of what, when, and why people actually eat what they eat. To think about why they quaffed down that chocolate bar – were they hungry, angry, bored, or feeling down? To be aware of how much they are eating by being mindful of the portion size and not casually grazing out of a packet of chips until only crumbs are left. To be mindful of what they are actually eating.

Aitken advises checking out how much sugar is in that ‘99 per cent fat-free’ snack? And how sporty is that ‘sport’ drink?

People should also get to know their body clock and when they usually need a pick-me-up to get them through to their next meal. For Aitken, it is about four-ish in the afternoon.

“Make sure you have something with you, such as nice fruit, a healthy muesli bar, or a handful of nuts, so you make a good choice.”

Aitken says nurses shouldn’t beat themselves up when a stressful shift sees them ‘fall off the wagon’ for a day or so and eat badly. “That’s just normal.” Just dust yourself off and get back on the wagon the following day.

“Because we’re only human.” And we’re just aiming to get it right most of the time. ✚

Shopping tips for healthy eating – oldies & goodies

• Make a weekly menu and shop with a list.

• Don’t shop when you are hungry.

• Don’t put treat foods into the trolley as a matter of course.

• Do put in healthy snacks for those in-between meal munchies.

• Always compare the “per 100g” column on food labels rather than “per serve”.

• General rule of thumb per 100g*: is less than 10g of fat, less than 10g of sugar, more than 6g of fibre, and less than 450mg of salt* (e.g. 100g of weetbix has 1.4g of fat, 2.8g of sugar, 10.5g of fibre, and 285mg of salt).

*Rule of thumb suggestions based on Diabetes New Zealand and Heart Foundation healthy eating guides.

Other old and new quick tips for eating well

• Put your weekly menu plan on the fridge and stick to it.

• The healthy meal guide is to aim for about ¼ of your plate to be protein (about 100g or the size of the palm of your hand), 1/4 carbohydrates (preferably high fibre/low GI), and the remaining 1/2 vegetables/salad (excluding potato and kumara)

• Don’t forget to drink plenty of water – it keeps you hydrated and helps you to feel full.

• Use the Internet to seek out eating guidelines from the likes of Heart Foundation and Diabetes NZ or just Google healthy recipes and 180 million options pop up.

• If money is tight, check out websites or books such as Sophie Gray’s Destitute Gourmet on how to eat well on a budget.