Back To Basics: Q&A With A Dietitian

Is It Time To Ditch The Diet Trends?

Vegan, keto, pescatarian, intermittent fasting, paleo, vegetarian, mindful eating, plant-based, gluten-free, clean eating and flexitarianism are just some of the diet trends that have gained traction in 2020.

It seems what we eat has become a huge topic of discussion and interest. But with so many options, claims, scientific research and TikTok “what I eat in days”, it’s hard to know where to begin. 

So we’ve taken it back to basics and spoken to Registered Dietitian, Rania Salman. Here’s what she told us.

Q: Tell us a little about yourself and your background?

I am a Registered Dietitian with extensive clinical experience in nutrition therapy for illness and health. I have worked for some of the most well-known NHS hospitals in addition to working in the private sector and have also set up my own practice (The London Dietitian). I have a bachelor’s degree in biomedical sciences and a postgraduate diploma in Nutrition and Dietetics.

Q: What classifies as “junk food”?

Put simply, everyone has their own definition of what classifies as junk food but traditionally speaking, it would include foods that are high in salt, sugar and saturated fats, whilst offering limited nutritional value. 

Examples would include most confectionary foods (think crisps/chocolate/desserts etc), fried fast foods and carbonated drinks.  We often hear the phrase ‘empty calories’ and what this means is, the food would not offer very much in protein, essential fats, vitamins and minerals and most of the calories would be coming from sugar and saturated fats. Junk food is often highly palatable and easy to over-consume.

person holding a cheeseburger
Photo by Polina Tankilevitch on Pexels.com

Q: What effect does too much junk food have on the body?

Ultimately, it is important to classify what is ‘too much’ junk food to have. It is more important to look at the dietary pattern of your food choices as a whole rather than individual items.  For example, if your diet is mostly made up of a balance of wholegrain carbohydrates, protein, healthier fats, several portions of fruit and vegetables per day and then you incorporate a small amount of ‘junk food’ then this is not a problem.

On the other hand, if your diet is mostly processed foods, ultra-refined carbs, lack of fruit and veg and loads of confectionary, fried foods etc, then over the long-term and sometimes in the short-term, you would begin to see problems with your health that you may not associate with nutrition immediately.  For instance, in the short term, you may find yourself being tired often, catching colds easily, cuts and wounds not healing easily. In the longer term, a poor diet is associated with an increased risk of obesity, cancer, gut health problems and cardiovascular disease.

Additionally, a dietary pattern that is not supportive of good physical health can also have a negative impact on brain health.  Some research has shown an association between poor diets and increased risk of impaired memory and learning, dementia and can also have an influence on mood.

fruit salads in plate
Photo by Ella Olsson on Pexels.com

Q: Do you have any tips on how someone could try to make healthier food choices?

Generally speaking, a diet that is healthy for your body is one that will also have positive effects on your brain. Therefore, general advice to adhere to a dietary pattern includes the following:

Fruit & Vegetables

Aim for at least 5 portions of fruit and vegetable daily….most people in the UK are only managing 2-3 portions per day.  A portion of fruit would be 2 pieces of small fruit (ie mandarin/tangerine), 1 piece of medium sized fruit such as a banana/apple/pear etc or 1 thick slice of a big fruit such as melon/watermelon. One portion of vegetables is ~3 heaped tablespoon of cooked veg, 1 medium sized tomato, 5cm piece of cucumber etc.

Carbohydrate

Have a portion of carbohydrate at every meal- although carbohydrates are often being demonised in the media, they are actually the brain’s preferred source of fuel- not having enough can make us feel tired and lacking in focus.  However, try and opt for wholegrain versions when you can as they contain more nutrients and fibre than their refined counterparts.

Fat

Fat is also often demonised, which people sometimes don’t know that there are different types of fat found in food which exert different effects on our bodies. Generally, we want to try and limit saturated fats (often found in fast food/confectionery/desserts/red meat/butter/creams) and go more towards the unsaturated fats (found veg oils/walnuts/fish/olives/avocado/soya based foods).  

Omega 3

Omega 3 fats (EPA and DHA- most extensively studied that have been shown to have health benefits) are particularly important for brain and neurological health- these are fats mostly found in oily fish (140g is a portion, oily fish option include fresh (not canned) tuna, mackerel, canned and fresh salmon, trout, sardines, pilchards etc.) Try to have x2 portions per week. If vegetarian, another type of omega 3 fat (ALA) can make EPA and DHA although this conversion isn’t very efficient. Sources of ALA include walnuts, flaxseeds, vegetable oils and green leafy vegetables. Healthful benefits of omega 3 fats have been shown to come from mainly fish and studies using omega 3 supplements have been inconclusive. However, if someone does want to supplement, then I would advise to choose an omega 3 oil supplement (not fish liver oil) that has ~450mg of EPA and DHA per daily adult dose).

Protein

Building blocks of protein are called amino acids which are vital for brain health as they are used to make chemicals that the brain uses to help regulate our thoughts and feelings.  Good protein sources are also vegetarian sources such as peas/lentils/chickpeas/soya-based/eggs.  Additionally, fish and leaner cuts of poultry, though you should try to limit red meat consumption.

woman eating bruschetta
Photo by Adrienn on Pexels.com

Q: What are the worst foods for your brain?

There’s not necessarily any ‘worst food’ for your brain per se, it’s more about the pattern and dietary habits you have on a day to day basis.  So, if your diet is mostly made up of refined sugars, low amounts of fruit and veg, not enough fluid, too much saturated fats then that’s not going to be optimal for your brain health. On the other hand, if you enjoy having a slice of cake/biscuit on a daily basis but your overall dietary pattern is good i.e. opting for whole grains as much as possible, aiming for at least 5 portions of fruit and veg, at least 2 portion of oily fish per week etc then that would not be a problem.

Q: Does food have the ability to change your brain?

As studies have shown, our dietary patterns can impact upon memory, cognition etc, then yes any decline due to a poor diet would be secondary to changes in our neural circuits.

Q: How does hydration levels affect your brain?

Our brain is ~75% water and so being even slightly dehydrated can negatively impact our brain health.  Water is vital for optimal brain function and for the production of hormone and neurotransmitters.  Not being sufficiently hydrated throughout the day can lead to feeling tired, a lack of concentration, getting a headache, in addition to affecting memory and cognitive performance.

Q: How much water should you drink to keep your brain healthy?

Under normal circumstances, we are aiming for a minimum daily intake of about 2 litres, or 8 half pint glasses of water. This amount will vary, for example according to body size, age, sex and how active you are.  However, to keep yourself sufficiently hydrated, fluids other than water also count- i.e soups, milk, fruit juice/smoothies (although limit to 1 glass per day) and even fruit and vegetables whose weight is mostly water!

For more information, or if you’d like to reach out to Rania, you can find her here.

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Sajal Azam

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