How to cheat at healthy eating

Article Jan 15, 2016

Eating well doesn’t have to be complicated and time-consuming. You just need to know a few simple shortcuts

We all want to eat healthily. But while it may be pretty straightforward if you have plenty of time and money on your hands, if you have a busy lifestyle and a tight budget, it can seem more of a challenge. 

Go shopping for an organic chicken and you’re likely to pass out at the price. Then, if you do buy it and get it home, you need the time and energy to start scrubbing, chopping and cooking the veggies to go with it. Much easier to stick something in the microwave.

However, there are some shortcuts you can use that make healthy eating quick and easy. The key is to know what to swap out and what to keep – which cheats work nutritionally and which are too much of a compromise. Frozen veg, instant porridge and bagged salads got you confused? Here’s our guide to the right way to cheat at healthy eating. 

Swap fresh veg for frozen

There’s no doubt that fresh vegetables taste great, but they require washing, peeling (sometimes), chopping, steaming or any variety of Gordon Ramsay style cooking techniques. It’s tempting to just buy a bag of frozen peas, but is that a healthy option?

The answer is: yes. Two independent studies, from the University of Chester and Leatherhead Food Research, have found that frozen fruits and vegetables can actually be higher in important disease fighting nutrients, including vitamin C, polyphenols, anthocyanins, lutein and beta-carotene, than fresh. 

Buy organic cheese instead of organic vegetables

When choosing organic, many of us opt for organic fruit and veg because, a) we may have seen footage of industrial crop spraying and b) the price gap between ‘normal’ and organic isn’t too great. In contrast, few of us buy organic cheese because it’s expensive, but this is actually a false economy.

Animals store toxic substances in fat. So, sheep, cows or pigs that are fed non-organic feed from crops that have been sprayed with insecticides, or have themselves been treated with antibiotics or growth promoters, can harbour all these substances in their fatty tissues, which we then, in turn, consume in our non-organic Cheddar. 

All animal products contain fat, but cheese is the highest in fat, so it makes sense to invest in organic cheese over other organic produce. In contrast, you may be able to remove any pesticide residue from non-organic fruit and veg by washing or peeling them.

Swap ‘real’ porridge for quick cook

Porridge is a great low-GI breakfast, but the research that links a porridge habit to lower cholesterol and reduced risks for heart disease and diabetes is based on ‘real’ porridge –  that is porridge made from whole, steel-cut oats. Not instant sachets! 

However, because the oats are whole, making real porridge takes time: 15-20 minutes, plus soaking the night before if you want a lovely creamy texture. It’s tempting then to take a shortcut and go the instant route with sachets and pots. Unfortunately, though, the fact they are ‘instant’ may mean the oats have been processed to cook quicker, which may also mean some of the low-GI benefits are wiped out. 

Add the fact that some instant porridges are sweetened with syrup or honey and your healthy brekkie doesn’t look so good. The answer? Make your porridge from scratch or read the label on your instant carefully and choose one without added sugar.

Swap fresh chopped tomatoes for tinned

It’s a time-saver many of us use. Rather than chopping our own fresh tomatoes for a sauce or soup, we open a can and tip in the contents. However, there are now concerns about a compound called Bisphenol A (BPA for short) that may be added to canned goods to protect the integrity of the can.

BPA has been shown to affect gene expression in rats and there are concerns that it could affect brain development in foetuses. With most canned goods, the levels of BPA should be quite low, but the acidity of tomatoes may mean more BPA can leach into them. If you’re worried about BPA, choose Tetra Paks of passata rather than canned tomatoes. They’re available in most supermarkets.

Choose tinned salmon rather than fresh

Yes, there are concerns about BPA in canned fish too, but these are trumped by the health benefits of the omega-3 fats they contain. Canned fish is also convenient, compared to fresh, and may be slightly better for you.

Mercury poisoning has become an issue in our fish stocks. As mentioned above in relation to organic cheese, animals (and fish) store toxins in their fatty tissues. The bigger the fish, the higher the fat content and the more likely it is to carry traces of mercury. Tinned salmon tends to be wild Atlantic salmon, which is smaller and less fatty than farmed, so there are fewer mercury concerns.

Plus, the bones are left in which provide a really good source of calcium. Whole sardines and mackerel are also good for you, but tinned tuna may not score as highly on the calcium front as it’s bone-free.

Substitute fresh lettuce for bagged salads

Every girl’s favourite lunch standby: open a pack of salad leaves and voilà! Dinner is served. However, this may be one healthy cheat that doesn’t work. American research has shown that the process used to keep leaves crisp in the pack (Modified Atmosphere Packaging) could reduce the levels of key nutrients, including vitamin C and the antioxidant quercetin.

There are other concerns, too. In 2013 there was an outbreak of cryptosporidium food poisoning that affected 300 people in England and Scotland, the source of which turned out to be bagged salads. And in 2011, an E.coli outbreak from infected bean sprouts in Germany affected thousands of people across Europe. This is not to say bagged salads can’t be good for you, though. Buy them fresh, wash and use quickly.

Buy the bigger bottle of olive oil to save money

Extra virgin olive oil is expensive, so many of us opt for bigger bottles in the belief we are saving money. However, you’re better off paying more for a smaller bottle. Why? Oils go rancid quickly, especially if they are not stored in a dark glass bottle and/or in the fridge. While fresh olive oil has health benefits, rancid oils can actually be inflammatory and cause disease.

The same rule applies to your nuts and seeds. Don’t just go for the jumbo bag for an instant saving, go handbag-sized instead! Nuts and seeds are high in natural oils that can also go rancid if they’re left for ages.