One minute it's good for us – the next it's bad. So what food should we be putting on our plates? We go behind the headlines and sort food fact from fiction.
Cutting saturated fat is the key to a healthy heart
Experts have warned us to eat less saturated fat, the type found in meat, butter and cheese, for decades - but new research suggests it's sugar we should really be worried about. Scientists looked at the link between diet and heart health in nearly 80 studies involving more than half a million people. The research, published in the March issue of Annals of Internal Medicine, found that low consumption of saturated fats does not decrease the risk of heart disease.
However, this shouldn't be taken as a green-light to eat more butter, steak and cream. What this study shows is that when saturated fat is replaced with sugar and refined starch in the diet, it has an adverse effect, increasingly low-density lipoproteins (bad cholesterol). It's advisable to swap saturated fats for healthy monounsaturated fats found in the typical Mediterranean diet, like nuts, fish, avocado and olive oil, but it's important to cut sugar too.
Do you knock back orange juice in the hope it will help ward off a cold? While oranges are undoubtedly good for you – a single orange provides 207% of the Recommended Daily Allowance of vitamin C – they're not likely to keep the sniffles at bay.
While vitamin C has been shown to boost immune response, its ability to prevent a cold remains controversial – and oral doses of 1.0g per day (the equivalent contained in about eight cups of orange juice) has not been proven to have any consistent beneficial effect on preventing the common cold.
Carbs are bad for you
Carbohydrates have had a bad press in recent years, thanks to the popularity of weight loss plans, such as Atkins and the Dukan diet. While sugar and refined carbohydrates, such as white bread and pasta, should be limited, there's no need to eliminate carbs completely.
Carbohydrates are metabolised into glucose which is the primary source of energy for the body and so to limit them as a group would sabotage health. Not all carbohydrates are created equal though. While over consumption of refined grains can lead to weight gain, insulin resistance and other health problems, favouring low GI fruits, vegetables and whole grains can actually promote fat loss and have a beneficial effect on overall health and wellbeing.
Raw vegetables are best
The raw food diet, which involves eating only uncooked and unprocessed foods, has increased in popularity in recent years, in part thanks to celebrity followers. While eating more fruit and vegetables is a good idea, there's no need to only eat them raw.
Besides making vegetables more palatable, cooking can also unlock the nutritional value of certain foods. Cooking tomatoes improves the bioavailability of lycopene while cooking sweetcorn releases ferulic acid compounds and may enhance its antioxidant effect by up to 53%, despite the loss of vitamin C.
Having said that, there are benefits to eating uncooked vegetables too. Raw vegetables are higher in enzymes which facilitate biochemical reactions in the body. Certain vegetables, for example cabbage, have also been shown to retain higher phytonutrients in their raw state. This is believed to give them their unique cancer-protective qualities. To cover all your bases, eat a variety of vegetables – both raw and cooked.
Sprinkling on less salt keeps sodium in check
A little seasoning brings out the flavour of food but eating too much salt can lead to high blood pressure, increasing the risk of heart disease. Health officials suggest we should eat less than 6g of salt per day – yet most of us eat far more than that. Cutting back how much you add to cooking or sprinkle on your dinner can help – but not as much as you might think.
Many pre-packaged foods, including cereals, bread, soups, sauces and ready meals, contain "hidden" salt which means you could be eating far more than you realise. The British Heart Foundation estimates that 75 per cent of the salt we eat has already been added to our food before we even buy it. To keep your sodium levels in check, be sure to read the back of food labels carefully.
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