In-season: the wonders of asparagus

English asparagus has just come into season and is delicious.  Rich in many nutrients, it is a very versatile vegetable whether boiled, steamed, roasted, cooked on the barbeque or grilled.  Plus, there’s no shortage of foods it can be combined with.

Clinical Nutritionist, Suzie Sawyer, gives us the reasons why asparagus should be on your weekly shopping list!

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Asparagus is a spring vegetable with the most edible part being the tips.  It is often more expensive than some other vegetables, even when in season, because of the work taken to harvest it and the fact that its natural season is very short.

 

As with many fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices, asparagus was used in traditional folk medicine to treat a number of symptoms, especially inflammatory conditions.  Whilst it’s no longer part of your GP’s medicine chest, asparagus remains a very good source of fibre to keep the bowels healthy and is also a natural diuretic which could help with water retention: it also helps liver detoxification so might be well-chosen for a hangover cure.  Even better, it feeds the good bacteria in the digestive tract, helping to stop bloating, boost immunity and promote healthy skin.

There’s just one little downside; after eating, our urine does acquire a rather strange smell and this comes from the amino acid, arginine.  However, it’s not a prolonged side effect and it also means that asparagus contains some protein, which is another plus!

NUTRIENT PROFILE

Asparagus is rich in folate – the food-form of folic acid – which is great for energy and producing healthy red blood cells; a 100 g portion of asparagus provides around three-quarters of the body’s requirement for folate each day.  It’s high in vitamins C and E which help to boost the immune system, together with beta-carotene which converts to vitamin A in the body – also great for immunity.

Asparagus is also high in vitamin K which is needed for effective blood clotting, strong bones and a healthy heart. As if that weren’t enough, asparagus also contains the minerals iron, calcium, magnesium, iodine and zinc.  Minerals in general are often deficient in the daily diet, purely because they are not present in highly refined foods which tend to make up a large percentage of the typical Western diet. So in this respect asparagus really is a mineral star!

ASPARAGUS MEAL IDEAS

Asparagus is delicious lightly steamed and served with some hollandaise sauce.  This can either be made from scratch using egg yolks, lemon juice, mayonnaise and a little cream or the shop-bought versions are generally really good.  Even better, it’s on many restaurant menus, so enjoy it as a starter.

Another really easy way with asparagus is lightly roasted with a drizzle of olive oil and some salt, pepper and garlic. Or why not try roasted and tossed with some parmesan cheese, or sprinkled with sesame seeds.

Asparagus works particularly well with eggs.  It’s great steamed and topped with a lightly boiled egg as a starter or as part of a salad with egg, avocado, peppers and spinach leaves.

For the more adventurous, it’s delicious in one-pot dishes such as chicken thighs roasted with garlic and rosemary, in a soup with peas, or in a stir fry with anything you fancy!

So catch asparagus while it’s in season right now; the taste and texture won’t be better!

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Everything you need to know about Vitamin A

 

Vitamin A was the first vitamin to be discovered hence giving it the name ‘A’!  And whilst every vitamin delivers their own health benefits, vitamin A really is one of the all-stars.

Clinical Nutritionist Suzie Sawyer delves a little deeper into the amazing health benefits of vitamin A!

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AN INTRODUCTION

Vitamin A is also known as retinol.  It was so-named because it’s crucial for the eyes; the retina at the back of the eye is key to good eyesight.  In fact, it’s essential for great vision – night and day.

Vitamin A was also once known as the ‘anti-infective’ vitamin because it has wonderfully positive effects on the immune system and helps to fight viruses and infections.  It’s also a powerful antioxidant which helps to hold back the years and protect us against some of the most prevalent degenerative diseases.

WHAT DOES PRO-VITAMIN A MEAN?

You may have heard the term pro-vitamin A.  This is because vitamin A can actually be produced in the body from beta carotene, as needed. Serious vitamin A deficiency is actually very rare in the Western World since the body has its own production unit.

Foods high in beta-carotene are generally fruits and vegetables that are red, yellow and orange in colour. This partly explains the ‘old-wives tale’ of carrots helping you to see in the dark!

WHERE CAN I FIND IT?

Vitamin A is available in animal foods, with fish liver oils being the richest source.  All types of liver, egg yolks and dairy are excellent sources.  There are many different fruits and vegetables that are pro-vitamin A, being carrots, kale, sweet potatoes, tomatoes and peppers.

Additionally, vitamin A is a fat soluble nutrient that can be stored in the liver so generally a ready-supply is available in the body, as required.

SUGGESTIONS FOR EVERYDAY EATING?

Since vitamin A is readily available directly in foods or in the form of beta carotene, there’s no end of choice for creating delicious vitamin A-packed meals. Think shepherd’s pie with sweet potato topping, liver and bacon with crispy kale side or chicken curry made with crème fraiche.

Even better, make your breakfast a real vitamin A treat with poached eggs and grilled tomatoes!  Eggs are actually the best way to start the day for many reasons alongside the vitamin A content; they’ll get your blood sugar levels well balanced so your energy levels will be sustained throughout the day.

IS VITAMIN A GOOD FOR THE SKIN?

Yes indeed. The reason being that vitamin A plays a key role in stimulating cellular activity associated with skin repair and protection of mucous membranes.  Vitamin A works at the base layer of the skin epidermis, healing and repairing.

A synthetic form of retinol, retinoic acid, has been produced, which is used to treat persistent and difficult skin conditions, particularly acne. However, because vitamin A is stored in the liver, care needs to be taken when using retinoic acid on a long-term basis because it may impede liver function.

WHAT ABOUT PREGNANCY?

You may have heard the advice that liver shouldn’t be consumed in large quantities during pregnancy.  This is because too much vitamin A can be harmful to the growing baby.  However, there is no cause for alarm.  Remember that vitamin A is absolutely essential for developing eyes.

The daily nutrient reference value (NRV) for vitamin A is 800 micrograms.  This is for supplementation purposes. Taking a supplement at this level is actually recommended during pregnancy.  It is perfectly safe (and indeed very wise) to eat plenty of colourful fruits and veg during pregnancy; remember the body only converts beta-carotene to vitamin A as needed by the body.

AM I GETTING ENOUGH?

We know that vitamin A deficiency is rare.  However, people suffering from malabsorption issues or liver problems can sometimes show slight deficiency symptoms such as poor immunity and susceptibility to infections.  Skin problems can also be a sign of deficiency and bumpy skin on the back of the arms can be a good indication that something’s up!

It’s worth also noting that people who have a high alcohol intake, who take cortisone medication for inflammatory problems, or have a high intake of iron may be low in vitamin A; iron competes with vitamin A for absorption in the body.  However, both work happily together when eaten or taken in supplement form at normal levels.

 

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Spice Advice: the health benefits of 5 common spices

Spices not only provide flavour and colour to a range of dishes, they also deliver a whole host of health benefits.

Clinical Nutritionist Suzie Sawyer, picks her top five favourite spices and tells why they’re so great for our health.

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CINNAMON

It has been said that many years ago cinnamon was actually more valuable than gold!  Slightly hard to believe, but what we do know is that cinnamon has a really positive effect on blood sugar balance; this needs to be kept under control to help prevent type 2 diabetes and to keep weight in check.

Cinnamon can help manage blood insulin markers; both insulin and glucose need to be kept well balanced, ideally through the right dietary choices, but these, together with blood cholesterol levels can be better managed when you’ve got some cinnamon in your diet.

Sprinkle some onto your porridge or breakfast cereal, add it to plain yoghurt or you can even sprinkle some over your cappuccino!  It also adds a real zing to many baking recipes such as flapjacks, muffins or apple strudel.

TURMERIC

Turmeric has reached somewhat iconic status in recent times.  Over the years it has been used for many things including liver disease, digestive problems, coughs, colds and wound care.  Turmeric is the spice that makes curries yellow; Asian populations have long known of its wonderful health benefits, as well as its delicious taste.

The active ingredient in turmeric is called curcumin and in recent times, research has mainly centred on its amazing anti-inflammatory benefits.[1] This is key in moderating any joint issues and also in preventing some of our most common and serious degenerative diseases.

Turmeric is actually quite difficult to absorb into the bloodstream.  Therefore, it needs to be used in dishes that contain some kind of fat such as meat, chicken, fish or eggs to benefit from it the most.  Alternatively, turmeric has been found to be better absorbed when eaten with black pepper, so any curried dish using both ingredients is certainly going to be beneficial to your health.

GINGER

Ginger is another very versatile spice that delivers so many health benefits, whilst adding a wonderful flavour to a wealth of dishes.

It is probably best known for its benefits to the digestive system; it appears to help with indigestion and also flatulence.  It also feeds the friendly bacteria naturally present in the digestive tract, so over a period of time its benefits become even greater.

Ginger can be very helpful with counteracting the nausea associated with travel sickness or morning sickness.  It is also great for the circulation, and it’s been traditionally used to cure colds. Ginger is also a natural anti-inflammatory; any niggling aches and pains can often be soothed by regularly eating ginger.

As well as adding a wonderful ‘zing’ to stir fries, curries and Thai dishes, it’s easy just to grate a teaspoon of ginger with some lemon juice, a teaspoon of Manuka honey and drink with some warm water every morning.  Many people quickly notice the benefits to their overall health from doing this regularly.

CAYENNE PEPPER

Cayenne pepper, also known as capsicum, comes from the capsicum plant which belongs to the nightshade family.  Its active part is called capsaicin, which gives the fruit its spicy heat and redness.  When it’s applied to the skin, capsaicin stimulates blood flow and promotes natural warmth to joints and muscles.

When cayenne is added to dishes (it’s great in curries and stews), it can help to balance blood fats (particularly cholesterol levels) whilst also regulating blood pressure.

Even better, cayenne promotes the release of endorphins – the body’s ‘feel-good’ brain chemicals.  So add it as much as possible to your cooking particularly where you want an extra kick – it can also give you a mood boost too!

CLOVES

Cloves have a very distinctive fragrant taste and smell and have long been used to improve the flavours of preserved foods.  They are an acquired taste and are not for everyone, but your body will certainly love them for their health benefits.

Cloves are known to promote healthy digestion, bowel movements and reduce flatulence.  In fact, if your digestion is needing a little helping hand, try making a tea with dried cloves and drink regularly.  Cloves are actually really gentle on the digestive tract, plus they can help break down fats in foods, which can cause digestive upsets in some people.

Interestingly, cloves were historically used for toothache and gum health so it might be worth gargling with some clove water if you’re struggling with any pain in the mouth.

So add some spice to your life, and your food, for an extra health boost!

[1] Srivastava S et al.  Curcuma longa extract reduces inflammatory and oxidative stress biomarkers in osteoarthritis of knee:  a four-month, double blind randomised, placebo-controlled trial. Inflammapharmacology 2016 Dec; 24 (6) 377-388

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Five nutritious snacks to get you through the afternoon!

For many people, the 3pm hunger pangs can often mean reaching for something not-so-good for you! But if you’re flagging what’s the best way to beat the energy dip?

Clinical Nutritionist, Suzie Sawyer, recommends her five top healthy snacks to get you through the afternoon.

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There are many possibilities for healthy afternoon snacks.  As with main meals, snacks should contain some protein in order to keep blood sugar levels in good balance and energy levels sustained for the rest of the day. Here’s some great suggestions:

 

WALNUT BUTTER HUMMUS AND OATCAKES

This is a great twist on traditional hummus with even more benefits! It’s so easy to mix up some walnut hummus using walnut butter, crushed garlic, chickpeas and the zest of an orange. This combination of protein and carbohydrates plus oat cakes release energy slowly, so you won’t get any unwanted blood sugar spikes.

Walnut butter is one of the healthiest nut butters, packed full of heart-healthy omega-3 fats. Garlic is great for the heart, chickpeas are an excellent source of protein and oranges of course contain Vitamin C.

CREAMY AVOCADO

Not only does avocado deliver a range of nutrients but it makes a very tasty and easily transportable snack.

Whilst they do contain around eight grams of fat, the bigger picture is that avocados provide good amounts of heart and skin-healthy monounsaturated fats, together with high levels of the mineral potassium, also great for the heart.  Potassium also helps regulate the body’s natural water balance, therefore avocados can also help manage any uncomfortable water retention.

An avocado can be mashed on many things! A slice of rye or wholemeal toast, rice cakes, or oatcakes.  Alternatively, it can be eaten with a few prawns or a little smoked salmon.

ENERGY BITES

These are fantastically easy to make and require no cooking and very little thought!  Plus they satisfy the criteria for balancing protein and carbohydrate. All you need to do is combine some peanut butter, ground flaxseeds, agave syrup, oats and some coconut flakes and make them into balls that can be left in the fridge and eaten as needed.

These balls will really rev up your afternoon energy levels; coconut is an excellent energy booster, flaxseeds are a great source of omega 3’s (also good for metabolism), whilst oats provide sustainable energy.  They’re real winners!

NATURAL SOYA YOGHURT AND FRUIT

Soya yoghurts are a great ‘go-to’ snack!  They also contain protein to keep you feeling fuller for longer, plus the combination of the carbohydrate-containing fruit, together with the protein will ensure your energy levels soar for the rest of the day!

All types of yoghurts, whether they be made from cow’s milk, sheep’s milk, coconut milk, goat’s milk or soya beans have become increasingly popular over the years.  However, soya yoghurts have a slight advantage as they generally have less calories and fat.

Add a handful of delicious berries of your choice, which are low glycaemic (or slow-energy releasing) and packed full of vitamins, and you’ve got the perfect afternoon snack.

OATS AND CINNAMON

Oats don’t always have to be for breakfast -they also make an excellent afternoon snack.  Oats are low on the glycaemic index, and if you add a little coconut milk to provide even more energy, together with some sliced apple, you’ve got a really balanced snack.

However, the real show-stopper is a generous sprinkling of cinnamon over the top!  Cinnamon is great for blood sugar balancing, therefore keeping energy levels sustained, and is also a powerful antioxidant, to help hold back the years.

This is a really portable snack; the oats can be soaked in apple juice and ‘potted’, making them more digestible later in the day.  Just add your milk, sliced apple and cinnamon.

So enjoy these afternoon treats and pack some energy into your afternoons!

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Vitamin K: everything you need to know!

There are a wealth of nutrients which are essential for health, one of them being vitamin K. However, vitamin K sometimes gets forgotten about, since deficiency is quite rare. But this does not diminish its importance for overall good health.

Clinical Nutritionist, Suzie Sawyer, provides the low down on what vitamin K is needed for in the body, and how it works alongside other vitamins and minerals.

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DID YOU KNOW?

Did you know that vitamin K is actually a group of three related fat-soluble vitamins? Vitamin K1 (phylloquinone), vitamin K2 (menaquinone) and vitamin K3 (menadione). This is important to understand because they are sourced differently and hence their roles and therapeutic uses are varied. For example, K1 is food-sourced, K2 is mainly produced by our intestinal bacteria and K3 is a synthetic compound used therapeutically.

WHAT DOES IT DO?

Vitamin K is a fat soluble vitamin which means that it needs to be absorbed by other fats naturally in the body or through the diet. Its main claim to fame is for effective blood clotting; it’s needed for the formation of several proteins called clotting factors. New born babies are often given vitamin K injections to prevent any haemorrhage in early life.

More recently, vitamin K has been found to be important in building healthy bones because it helps to convert a key bone protein from its active to its inactive form. It works alongside other key bone-building nutrients, especially vitamin D.

Vitamin K also exerts a really protective effect on the heart; it’s part of a vital function that helps prevent calcium from depositing in the arteries. This can be a risk factor for atherosclerosis – hardening of the arteries.

WHAT IS IT USED FOR?

In daily life, vitamin K can be used therapeutically for protecting the heart and helping prevent osteoporosis. For both these conditions, eating a diet containing good amounts of green foods is beneficial for all-round good health. However, if you’re at risk from either of these, either due to family history or a medical condition, then it’s a really good idea to take a daily multivitamin and mineral supplement containing vitamin K.

WHERE IS IT FOUND?

Vitamin K1 is predominantly found in plant-based foods; for example dark green leafy vegetables such as broccoli, lettuce, cabbage, spinach and green tea. Soft cheeses and meats from grass-fed animals also provide some K1.

One of the best sources of vitamin K1 is fat-soluble chlorophyll, the green pigment in plants that delivers so many wonderful health benefits. Chlorophyll is the part of a plant that absorbs sunlight to make food – remember photosynthesis at school? It’s this effect, and its function as an antioxidant that makes it so valuable to health and in helping to prevent degenerative diseases. Chlorophyll is readily available in health food stores, generally in its water soluble form.

Vitamin K2 is naturally produced by the beneficial bacteria we all have residing in our digestive tracts. It’s for this reason that vitamin K is rarely deficient in the body. However, it can also be produced by fermented foods, more widely eaten in Eastern cultures, such as natto; natto is a form of fermented soya beans, very popular in Asia. K2 is more pro-active in the body in preserving and improving bone density.

Vitamin K3 is the synthetic form used medicinally, often for babies and in some multivitamins.

So, as with all vitamins and minerals, Vitamin K plays a key role in daily health.

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Sleepy foods: five foods to eat for a great night’s sleep

For many of us, trying to get a restful night’s sleep can often be challenging; stress, long work hours, erratic eating patterns, health issues and a lack of routine can all contribute to poor sleep.  However, what we eat can have a really positive effect on sleep patterns.

Clinical Nutritionist, Suzie Sawyer, shares her five top foods for aiding restful and restorative sleep.

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OATS

Oats not only make a great breakfast but they are a wonderful choice if you’re struggling to sleep!  They’re high in the amino acid tryptophan and vitamin B6 which are essential for the body to produce melatonin – and why is this important?

Melatonin is the sleep hormone. It’s naturally produced in the hours of darkness, which is why having a dark room for sleeping is so important.  Melatonin is produced from the amino acid tryptophan, therefore foods containing high levels of tryptophan, such as oats, are great for aiding sleep.  Even better, because oats also contain vitamin B6 (which is also needed for making tryptophan) it’s a win-win situation!

Not only that, but if you eat your oats with milk (as you normally would), milk is also high in tryptophan, which is why having a glass of milk before bed is also a good idea.  So, why not think about swapping what you might eat for breakfast and having it as a snack, an hour before bedtime?

ALMONDS

If you’re struggling to get a restful night, then having a few almonds as a snack before bedtime might just do the trick.

As with oats, almonds are high in tryptophan.  They are also packed with omega-3 fats which are needed for hormone balancing.  This is important because the sleep hormone melatonin is part of our whole body’s hormone system, and all hormones need to be in balance for optimum health.

Almonds also have a great mineral profile; they are high in magnesium which has been indicated to help insomnia. In fact, many people find their sleep is improved by taking a magnesium supplement before bedtime.  However, with almonds containing around 20% of your daily recommended magnesium needs, eating the real thing is always the preferred option. Eat around six almonds half an hour before bedtime.

CHERRIES

Tart or sour cherries, properly called Montmorency cherries, are high in melatonin and also tryptophan.  In a recent study[1], older adults were given tart cherry juice twice a day for two weeks.  Results showed that their time asleep increased by around 90 minutes, which was a significant improvement.

Of course, it’s not just older people who struggle to get some rest as night.  The beneficial effects of tart cherries on sleep have been vigorously studied in a number of different age groups, and positive results have been reported.

Cherries also contain high levels of anthocyanins, packed with antioxidants which help stop the ageing process. It’s the combination of these and melatonin that provide the beneficial effects on sleep.  The most palatable way to have tart cherries is in juice form.

BANANAS

Delicious and nutritious bananas are a great snack at any time plus they can help you to get some shut-eye!  Their amazing nutrient profile contains both magnesium and potassium – muscle-relaxing minerals – and just like Oats they are high tryptophan and vitamin B6.

If you’re having trouble falling asleep then a snack of a warm milk drink (high in calcium, which is another relaxing mineral) with a banana an hour before bedtime, could provide the answer.

CAMOMILE TEA

There are a wealth of herbal teas available in supermarkets, many claiming to help you to sleep.  Whilst there’s not too a huge amount of evidence to support this, anecdotal reports on camomile are extremely positive.  Many teas also contain hops which appear to have a relaxing effect.

Camomile seems to work by calming and relaxing the nervous system, which is key to achieving restful sleep.  Camomile tea is caffeine-free and as we know, all caffeine should be avoided for at least four hours before bedtime if you’re struggling to get some rest.   Drinking a cup of camomile tea, without any sugar, an hour before bedtime can really help the body to wind down before climbing into bed.

As with so many things in life, what works well for one person may not work so well for another – we’re all individuals! It’s simply a question of trying these different foods and drinks to see what works for you.  The great news is that there are so many options, and with perseverance you’ll be sure to find the right combination for you!

[1] Lui AG et al.  Tart cherry juice increases sleep time in older adults with insomnia. Experimental Biology April 28 2014

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Easy ways to your ‘5-a-day’: top fruit and veg tips for maximum nutrition

We all know we need to get at least five portions of fruit and vegetables into our daily diet. In fact recent studies suggest this should be closer to ten!  Sometimes even five can be a bit of a challenge but to help you on your way, Clinical Nutritionist, Suzie Sawyer takes the stress out of getting your ‘five-a-day’; you’ll have eaten them before you know it!

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To start with, it’s worth reminding ourselves of what exactly constitutes a portion; it can often be confusing as it does vary with every fruit and vegetable.

Here are a few examples:

ONE PORTION

The more you eat, the healthier you’ll be. Every meal or snack time is a brilliant opportunity to load up!

 HAVE A FRUITY BREAKFAST!

It is very easy to include two portions of fruit with your breakfast.  Whatever cereal you choose (porridge being one of the best for sustained energy), you can quickly add a handful of blueberries and a handful of raspberries as a delicious topper.

If you’re on the run in the mornings, you can always take a small pot of natural yoghurt to work, together with a tub of mixed fruit – this will also cover two portions.

HOW ABOUT LUNCH?

How about making a vegetable soup?  With a wealth of vegetables to choose from you will certainly achieve two portions from a good-sized bowl. Remember potatoes don’t count as one of your five a day, but can still be added to create a delicious soup – just make sure to add enough other vegetables to hit at least two of your five a day.

Sweet potatoes (one medium-sized = one portion) however do count and are great in their jackets with some tuna. Sandwiches can be filled with avocado (one portion) and prawn, or cheese and tomato (one medium tomato = one portion), or mashed banana (one portion) with some nut butter on toast.  All are great and easy lunch ideas.

HEALTHY SNACKS

Snacks can be both healthy and kind to your waistline if you choose the right foods!  It’s so easy to slice some cucumber (around 5 cm counts for one portion) and add some low fat cream cheese and smoked salmon.

Alternatively, three sticks of celery (one portion) and some hummus, along with some chopped carrots (1 cup) with nut butter or sliced peppers (half a pepper = one portion) are all easily transportable and deliciously healthy.

If you want a really quick mid-morning or afternoon snack, then an apple (one portion) and a few Brazil nuts is fulfilling and energy-sustaining.

Dried fruit also counts towards your portions (assume around 30g for one portion), but as they’re really high in sugar, try to keep to a minimum; it’s much better to have fresh or frozen fruit rather than dried.

PORTION-PACKED DINNER

If you’re ever low on fresh vegetables when you get home, don’t worry.  Frozen vegetables are a great alternative: as they are normally frozen at the time of picking, rather than being stored fresh for a while in a supermarket warehouse, the levels of nutrients are still good. Although some of the flavour and texture can be lost in the freezing, they are a good back-up to always have ready in the freezer.

Canned vegetables also have their place. Tinned tomatoes can really help towards your five-a-day:  two tinned tomatoes count as one portion.  They’re great added to chill con carne, spaghetti bolognaise or pasta dishes. A tablespoon of tomato passata also counts as a portion, so adding both of these to your dish provided two portions before you’ve even added anything else! Pulses such as kidney beans also count.

Even if you have to succumb to a pre-packed ready meal, it takes a few moments to chop up some broccoli and add some frozen peas on the side; you’ll still be achieving two portions from your meal.

If you have a bit more time, a stir fry should deliver at least two portions of vegetables; a traditional Sunday roast with all the trimmings will generally provide two to three portions. A tray of roasted vegetables is a nutritious side dish for any main meal and should also provide two to three portions.

A QUICK NOTE ON FRUIT JUICES

 Shop-bought orange juice will generally provide one portion of fruit.  However, these types of fruit juices are generally high in sugar which can have a negative impact on blood sugar levels. A home made juice or smoothie will contain far more nutrients because it’s fresh and you know exactly what you’re putting in it: assume one glass equals one portion.

 So hopefully you can see how easy it is to achieve your ‘five-a-day’ and get even closer to the ‘new’ recommendation of ten a day!  The more portions you eat, the more you will benefit from the huge range of nutrients provided by fruit and vegetables.

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