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How to make healthier food choices

Eating is one of the quickest ways to comfort ourselves – food can calm, energise and nourish us, after all. And while most people occasionally turn to sweet, salty or fatty treats for a quick hit of comfort, such foods are often low in nutrients and can often leave us wanting more.

By making healthy food choices, you can give yourself both the comfort you’re craving and the daily nourishment your body needs to function at its best.

1. Opt for nutrient dense foods
Notice how certain foods always leave you wanting more? A doughnut for example, is high in calories, but contains hardly any nutrients. It’s also high in sugar and fat which leads to a quick high after eating, as your body is flooded with a dose of simple carbohydrates that shoot glucose into your bloodstream.

Your pancreas responds by releasing insulin to deal with the excess glucose in your blood. Then, when your blood sugar returns to normal, you may be left feeling drained and low, possibly wanting more sweet, salty or fatty snacks.

This cycle may provide quick comfort, but it isn’t giving your body the essential nutrients it needs to stay healthy. Instead you should choose foods that are rich sources of nutrients without being high in fat or calories. These are usually more filling than processed foods, keeping you satisfied for longer in between meals.

2. Eat for immunity
Now, more than ever, it’s important to make healthy food choices that can support your immune system. Recent research shows that you should aim to eat at least 30 different plant foods a week to support good health and immunity. Key nutrients for healthy immune function include, vitamins A, C, D, Zinc and selenium.

3. Choose foods that help your brain make the pleasure chemical
If you’re feeling stressed, worried or bored, it’s easy to turn to food as a source of comfort. Dopamine is one of the brain’s chemical neurotransmitters that stimulates the reward centre of the brain, creating a pleasurable sensation. If dopamine is low, you may be more likely to comfort eat.

To make dopamine, you need to eat foods that contain the amino acids tyrosine and phenylalanine. Foods rich in these amino acids include proteins such as meat, fish and poultry as well as dried seaweeds, Gruyère cheese, apples, bananas, blueberries, grapes, oranges, papaya, strawberries, prunes and watermelon. Vegetables, nuts and seeds also help with dopamine production.

4. Make healthy food swaps
Know which sugary, fatty or salty foods are sources of temptation for you. Then, prepare healthy alternatives for when cravings arise. Here are some suggestions:

Ice cream. Blend 1 chopped banana and some berries with 200ml almond milk; freeze Crisps. Eat spicy roasted nuts instead. Drizzle nuts with olive oil and sprinkle with chilli or paprika. Roast in a hot oven for 1-2 minutes Red wine. Have red grape, pomegranate or cranberry juice instead Dessert. Slice up a fresh pineapple, sprinkle with cinnamon and bake in the oven for 20 minutes

5. Ask yourself what your body really needs
Sometimes cravings can be your body’s way of signalling that it needs something. Here are some examples:

Salty foods. This may be a sign that you’re dehydrated, which can throw electrolytes out of balance. Electrolytes are chemicals in your blood, urine and sweat that help hydrate the body and regulate muscle and nerve function. So make sure you’re drinking enough water.
Sugary, sweet foods. This suggests your blood sugar levels are low. Eat foods with a low Glycaemic Index (this is an index of how quickly a food affects your blood sugar) such as pulses and wholegrains and include some quality protein at every meal (see examples above). This will keep your blood sugar levels balanced and help reduce cravings.

Chocolate. You may be low in magnesium, also known as ‘nature’s tranquiliser’. Rich sources include almonds or leafy greens. You could try taking a magnesium supplement.

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