Starting a healthy lifestyle, part 2

The Healthy Living Guide – diet and weight management

by nutritional therapist Melanie Rust DipION mBANT CNHC

When seeking improvements in overall health and wellbeing, the areas of diet and weight management are a great place to start. In the second article of the series, we explore and expand upon these two important foundations of health and provide practical tools and fundamental nutrition advice for self-development.

Introducing the six basic pillars of health for those wanting to adopt a healthier lifestyle


Before approaching the vast topic of diet, it’s important to touch upon digestion. Digestion and absorption of the nutrients available in the food we eat is crucial, and addressing any conditions that negatively affect digestion or the integrity of the gut wall (the site of absorption in our small intestines) should enhance the benefits of any dietary improvement. Smelling, seeing and tasting food activates the digestive process before you even swallow your first bite. (1) This is why it’s crucial to be mentally ‘present’ during mealtimes. The action of chewing your food signals the release of digestive enzymes and gastric acid, promoting digestion and the absorption of nutrients and, helpfully, may also improve satiety and decrease hunger levels. (2,3) Stomach acid is fundamental to the breakdown of food, an excess of which is often considered responsible for heartburn and reflux; insufficient stomach acid is actually a more common cause of these symptoms.

Stomach acid production can be impaired by stress, as can the entire digestive process, so try to see eating as an important, unhurried element of your day, separate from your normal stresses wherever possible, not food as something to ‘grab and go’. (4) To improve digestion, become involved in the preparation of meals, limit distractions, chew each mouthful 30+ times and remain upright whilst eating.

Healthy Diet

Maintaining balance

The food we eat daily is usually divided into three meals: breakfast, lunch and dinner, with around 20% of energy intake coming from snacks. (5) Each of us requires basic macro- and micronutrient building blocks for our bodily systems to function; however, the amounts required by an individual may vary significantly. As a starting point, portioning your plate as per the example in figure 1. could help to ensure that a good balance and variety of nutrients is consumed in each meal. (6) Your first meal upon rising should be the largest (even if you are a shift worker), with your final meal before sleep being much smaller. (7) Having a larger breakfast upon waking and a smaller evening meal is also associated with a lower total daily energy intake and may help to reduce overeating. (8) Opting for food combinations with a low glycaemic load comprising lean protein, complex carbohydrates and healthy fats may help to maintain blood sugar balance and reduce inflammation. (9) Bitter food and drinks are known to activate the digestive process, which is why it is good practice to consume them before eating, or as a meal accompaniment. (1)

To obtain more balance in your meals, try the following:

1. Make breakfast your largest meal of the day.

2. Include a source of lean protein, complex carbohydrates and healthy fats with each meal.

3. Substitute crisp or biscuit-type snacks for healthier options (nuts, seeds, crudités and houmous, sliced apples and nut butter or cottage cheese and rye bread).

4. Eat bitter foods before meals to support digestion.

Fig. 1.

Planning your meals helps you to avoid poor choices as a consequence of last-minute decision-making, whilst preparing meals from scratch can ensure no hidden additives, sugar or fat. Cooking food more slowly and at lower temperatures may help you to avoid compounds associated with ageing and many health issues (commonly known as AGEs), often found in browned meat and convenience food. (10)

Foods that make an impact

Variety and nutrient density in the diet can help to ensure a robust intake of beneficial compounds to fuel the body and aid metabolism. Choosing nutritionally dense foods can be challenging initially; a good rule of thumb is to choose those that most closely resemble their natural state. Some examples of nutrient-dense foods are organic fruit and vegetables, oily fish, grass-fed, organic meat, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds and mushrooms. These foods are also rich in antioxidants and health-promoting compounds. (11,12)

Why consider organic produce?

Organic fruits and vegetables are often more expensive, perhaps making the benefits of switching difficult to justify. Organic plants have not been grown using artificial fertilisers or pesticides; they are exposed to more stress in the environment and as a result, produce more polyphenolic compounds and antioxidants for protection, offering benefits to human health. (13) They may be smaller and a little rough around the edges, but their nutrient density and taste are often superior. (13) Some fruits and vegetables take on more pesticide residues than others, due to their soft flesh or thin peel and are often referred to as the ‘dirty dozen’, so if you can only include one or two organic items in your shopping basket, the dirty dozen list might help you to decide which to prioritise. (14)


Many of us still make mental associations between dietary fat, weight gain and health risks. Whilst fats play a part in dysregulated fat balance, they are not the only contributor to obesity and metabolic health conditions. Fat is, in fact, essential and provides many physiological benefits; for example, cholesterol is the main substrate for sex hormone production, (15) whilst the brain is 60% fat, and myelin – the substance which envelops and protects nerve cells - is made of fat. (16,17,18) Examples of foods that contain healthier fats include avocados, oily fish and olives, certain plants, seeds, nuts and their natural oils. Less healthy TRANS fats can often be found in processed meat products, hydrogenated vegetable oils and margarine. (19)


Antinutrients is the umbrella term given to oxalates, phytates and lectins which are naturally occurring plant compounds. Whilst the health benefits of consuming plant-based foods mostly outweigh the drawbacks, if consumed in abundance, antinutrients may interfere with the absorption of certain minerals such as iron, magnesium, calcium and zinc, predominately affecting those who consume an exclusively plant-based diet. (20) To reduce the effects of antinutrients whilst still maintaining a diet high in plant produce, try soaking & sprouting your seeds, pressure cooking or boiling your vegetables or fermenting your fruits and vegetables before incorporating them into meals. (20)

The term ’antinutrients’ is also sometimes used to describe the refined grains and sugars found in commercially produced cakes, biscuits, bread and pasta, as these often create a nutrient deficit in the body whilst still being calorie-laden.


Additives are used to extend the shelf life of food, enhance its taste, appearance and consistency or for thickening, mixing and adding bulk. Many exist in nature and some are artificially produced. Individually, food additives must adhere to stringent safety evaluations and be approved for human consumption. However, the collective implications are mostly unknown and many are associated with side effects: some food colourings have been shown to promote hyperactivity in children and some individuals may experience adverse symptoms when consuming preservatives such as sulphites and the flavour enhancer MSG. (21,22) If this resonates with you, perhaps try keeping a food diary to narrow down the culprit(s) and then limit any additives which may exacerbate your symptoms.  


Fibre is a very undervalued tool in our healthy eating kit. Fibre is a carbohydrate naturally occurring in plant foods, which passes through the digestive tract unabsorbed. It can satiate without the calories, promote insulin sensitivity, aid in the elimination of toxins and may even reduce all-cause mortality. (23,24) Dietary fibre can also support microbial diversity in the gut and, in return, these microbial populations reward us with the production of anti-inflammatory metabolites called short-chain fatty acids and other health-promoting compounds. (23)


When increasing fibre intake, it’s important to remain sufficiently hydrated to support the smooth passage of waste through the bowel. Without it, you may experience constipation. Approximately 70% of the body is made up of water, so staying adequately hydrated may help to maintain peak mental and physical performance. (25)

When hydrating, consider the caffeine content of your fluids. Tea and coffee are typically antioxidant-rich; some individuals, however, can be sensitive to caffeine and others may take longer to clear it from their system. (26,27) This can lead to anxiety and difficulty in sleeping. If this is you, try reducing your caffeine content or switching to decaffeinated drinks and monitoring your symptoms. Despite many drinks being labelled as ‘sugar-free’, many still contain artificial sweeteners like aspartame which, as with other additives, can present adverse symptoms in some individuals. (22) If you like sweetened drinks, try to avoid fruit juice which is high in sugar and low in fibre, and look for those containing natural sweeteners, such as stevia, instead. (28)

Exposures in the environment

Certain industrial chemicals found in personal care products, pesticides and food and drink storage containers can be absorbed into the blood and exert action on the body, therefore they have their place in the subject of diet. Plastics may contain BPA and phthalates, commonly known as obesogens because of their ability to dysregulate fat balance and promote weight gain, particularly around the abdominal region. (29) For this reason, in maintaining a healthy diet you may wish to consider avoiding plastic food cooking and storage options, the use of bleached teabags or tampons, cosmetics containing harmful chemicals and inorganic foods.

The sun’s rays also play an important role in health. Whilst some vitamin D can be obtained from food, most vitamin D is synthesised in the skin on exposure to UV radiation. To support health, try to gain exposure to natural sunlight for at least 15 minutes every day, ideally soon after waking, and take a vitamin D supplement if you live in a region that doesn’t get strong sun year-round. (30)

Weight management

Almost half of Britons are unhappy with their weight, according to a government poll conducted in 2020, with 64% of UK adults being overweight or obese in 2019. (31,32) Issues with weight management also encompass those who are underweight.

Whether we consider ourselves healthy or not might depend on how we deal or keep up with everyday life requirements (i.e. it’s subjective), weighing beyond recommended ranges may sometimes indicate physiological imbalances and/or be associated with nutrient deficiencies and fatigue. (33,34) Carrying excess abdominal fat is often associated with common lifestyle conditions such as type 2 diabetes, CVD and metabolic syndrome, whilst chronic inflammation in larger individuals can often cause pain and fatigue, among other symptoms. This might lead to poorer dietary choices and decreased motivation, creating a vicious circle. (35,36,37)

As tempting as it may seem to participate in short-term diets promising to ‘shred’ body fat or ‘drop a dress size’, these methods are often restrictive and can lead to an unhealthy avoidance of certain foods or food groups. One very popular weight loss method is the low-carb diet. Reducing carbohydrates can be effective for short-term weight loss; however, a reduction in fibre intake (often accompanying low-carb diets) may contribute to metabolic and cardiovascular dysregulation long term. (38) Furthermore, any weight lost is often regained, with more added, when a person returns to their existing dietary habits. This might happen when a person’s metabolic rate has been downregulated during a period of restrictive eating and does not immediately revert. (40) Instead, try making small adjustments over a longer period, with an emphasis on reducing refined and heavily processed foods whilst maintaining the recommended 30g fibre intake per day.

An effective weight loss method is intermittent fasting (IF), or time-restricted eating, where a person refrains from eating for an extended period, allowing your digestive system to rest, repair and rejuvenate. As well as weight loss, this is thought to support whole-person health by modulating the gut, microbial flora and immune system. (41) When trying IF for the first time, perhaps try eating your last meal of the day at 7pm, so you are, essentially, fasting (helpfully using your hours of sleep) for 14 hours from 7pm until breakfast at 9am the next morning. If you want to extend your fast, bring your last meal forward in small increments until you are fasting for a maximum of 16 hours daily.

As mentioned in article 1, when it comes to weight loss, significant emphasis is often still placed on the calorie content of foods. While it is true that to lose weight you need to expend more calories than you consume, the quality of the food you consume is more important than the quantity. Furthermore, placing calorific restrictions on food may create a feeling of deprivation, making temptation more likely.

Instead of counting calories, try some of these simple swaps and challenges:

1. Put a chart on your fridge and give yourself a point for every different type of plant-based food you eat. Aim for 30 a week.

2. Eat the rainbow! Consume at least one fruit or vegetable from each colour of the rainbow, daily.

3. Introduce yourself to a new healthy food each week. This could be fermented food such as natto or sauerkraut, an unfamiliar herb or spice, or a variation of your favourite vegetable, such as purple sprouting broccoli.

4. Switch your daily latte to a herbal tea, keeping the latte for a special treat.

5. If you enjoy drinking alcohol, try to keep at least five days a week alcohol-free. Experiment with alcohol-free alternatives and on those days when you do indulge, maintain blood sugar balance by incorporating healthy meals and snacks and keep a glass of water close by so you can sip water between alcoholic drinks.

6. Switch from simple or refined carbohydrates to complex carbohydrates or high protein super grains.

The aim here is to make it interesting and achievable whilst nourishing your body. You might notice a mindset shift towards feelings of abundance and increases in energy and motivation which have a knock-on effect on other areas of your life. We will discuss these areas further in article 3 where we will cover activity, stress, lifestyle and health and provide more practical suggestions for improvement.


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The second in this series of articles focuses on two key areas of starting a healthy lifestyle - diet and weight management. If you require more support, feel free to contact our approachable team of nutrition professionals who will be more than happy to support you further or point you in the right direction.

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