Tonight: Food Facts and Fiction - Part 4: The Great British Diet

Ready meals along production line
More ready meals are in eaten in the UK than the rest of Europe combined Photo: ITV / Tonight

In the last of a four-part series on food in Britain, the Tonight programme looks at the "Great British Diet". On ITV at 7.30pm reporter Jonathan Maitland asks what the food we eat as a nation is doing to us – and how it’s affecting our health and wellbeing.

In a fascinating and revealing experiment, nutritionist Amanda Hamilton ditches her healthy, whole-food, vegetable-rich diet and lives for one week on the Average British Diet. In Britain, on average, we consume more salt fat, saturated fat and sugar than the maximum daily allowance recommended by the government. And we eat less fibre than we should.

So what impact will just one week of this “Great British Diet” have on how Amanda looks, functions and feels?

doctor at desk woman in background
Dr Arun Ghosh checks Amanda's blood pressure, weight, organ function, body measurements and iron levels Credit: ITV / Tonight
data in table
At the start of the week, this is how Dr Ghosh recorded Amanda's profile Credit: ITV / Tonight

Dr Ghosh planned to repeat the tests after a week and see if and by how much these measurements have altered because of her change in eating habits.

Breakfast

Amanda normally starts the day with yoghurt, porridge or eggs – but this week she’s joining the millions of Brits who start the day with, above all, cereal and white toast.

But do we always know what’s in our breakfasts? Jonathan Maitland joins a bunch of hard-working postmen for their breakfast and makes some surprising discoveries. One postman chooses a breakfast with as much fat in it as a hamburger, and another selects a drink with more sugar than five treat sized doughnuts.

3 people look at 5 doughnuts on a table
5 doughnuts - not the best way to start the day Credit: ITV / Tonight

Snacks

In the last 30 years we have dramatically changed our eating habits – as well as the traditional three meals a day we are grazing in between too.

In a normal week Amanda snacks on fruit and nuts but this week she’s digging into crisps, one of the nation’s favourite nibbles. Last year we crunched through 4.5 million tonnes of them. We know they are both fatty and salty but they seem to be extremely difficult to resist!

Jonathan Maitland teams up with Dr David Lewis to find out more about the psychology of snacking and to find out some simple tips about how to limit our snack intake.

They devise an experiment in which they ask two groups of students to eat crisps: one group from small bags and the other from larger bags.

Young lady opening pack of crisps
A Tonight experiment shows portion size has an effect on how much we choose to eat Credit: ITV / Tonight

To the participants’ surprise, the group eating from the bigger bags ate almost two thirds more crisps. Clearly a simple change in snack sizes can dramatically reduce our daily intake.

Jonny concludes: “So this is a very good argument really for getting supermarkets and food manufacturers to kind of downsize the portions.”

If you’re buying snacks, buy small portions rather than say, ‘wow that big jumbo size pack is really good value I’ll buy that’. Because if you buy it, you will eat it. When food is readily available we tend to eat mindlessly we don’t actually engage our conscious brain we just eat almost like zombies.”

– Dr David Lewis

Convenience

We’re a nation in love with convenience and eat more ready meals than the rest of Europe combined. The amount of time we spend cooking our main meal each day has halved in the past 15 years - the average Brit now spends just 32 minutes getting food on the table.

There has been concern about the nutritional content of, in particular, supermarket own brand ready meals. One recent study by the British Medical Journal analysed 100 supermarket own brand ready meals and found none complied with the World Health Organisation’s nutritional guidelines.

But the retailers say there is plenty of choice in their stores for customers to buy both healthy and less healthy products as part of a balanced diet. The key is to read the nutritional information on the back of the labels and make an informed decision.

So just how are ready meals made? To meet demand, massive factories are churning out tonnes of pre-packed and pre-cooked meals every week. This is an industrial process made quickly by machines and cooked even quicker in a microwave by us.

Jonathan Maitland visits one of the most successful ready meal companies in the world to discover if they really can replicate home cooking on a grand scale.

Results time

It’s the end of the week for Amanda on the Great British Diet and this week she’s been eating what the average Brit eats: an awful lot of what she calls “beige food” – cereals, bread, pasta, potatoes. She’s also tried bacon for the first time and chowed down on sweets, ready meals and a greasy takeaway, often washed down with sugary drinks. She’s been severely missing the fruit and veg that she’s used to.

So it’s time for Dr Ghosh to repeat the medical tests. She thinks the diet has affected her mental wellbeing: she’s feeling low and irritable. But has it affected her physically?

The test results are shocking.

data in table
There has been a worrying change for the worse in all of Amanda's measurements taken. Credit: ITV / Tonight

This is simply the result of Amanda ditching her healthy diet for a week eating what the typical Brit eats.

Personally as a nutritionist I feel vindicated from this experiment because I’ve been banging on about the importance of diet for well over a decade – about just how lacking the typical British diet is. And now it’s proven beyond a shadow of a doubt just what the average British diet is doing to our bodies.”

– Nutritionist Amanda Hamilton

At the end of ITV Tonight’s Food Facts and Fiction series Jonny Maitland shares what he’s learnt and concludes: “The more we read the labels, watch the programmes, and listen to the arguments, the more we know what we’re putting into our bodies. And that has to be good thing.”

AMANDA HAMILTON’S WHOLE-FOOD DIET

healthy foods laid out on table
Amanda's regular protein-rich whole-food diet Credit: ITV / Tonight

How Much Should I Eat?

The amount of food that we need to eat in order to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight while still having plenty of energy to live an active, healthy life - varies from person to person. Your daily calorie needs depend on:

  • Your height and weight - the taller and heavier you are, the more work it is for you to move your body around. It’s a myth that heavier people have slower metabolisms.
  • Your muscle mass - each pound of muscle burns a few more calories per day, even at rest, than each pound of fat. As we typically lose muscle as we get older, our daily calorie needs gradually decrease too. Men generally have more muscle than women, so their calorie needs tend to be higher. It is one reason why resistance training exercise to build lean muscle mass is so effective as an accompaniment to nutrition-based weight loss menus.
  • How active you are - this is really important. The more you move, the more you burn. So, desk workers don’t need to eat as much as people with manual jobs, for example. This not only applies to your job and how often you go to the gym, but how much you move throughout the day - from fidgeting, to washing the dishes, to walking.

So what is a portion?

It's understandable if you're confused over what a portion looks like - there's no standard guidance on portion size in the UK. The main reason for this is that energy requirements vary from person to person.

It can be helpful to use your own hands as a unique visual portion size guide at main meal times:

  • Cooked meat or fish: the size of your palm
  • Cooked pasta, potatoes, rice, etc.: the size of your clenched fist. You may need more than one portion if you are very active
  • Cheese, nut butter or salad dressing: the size of your thumb
  • Oils and mayonnaise: the size of your thumb tip

I suggest eating a lot of vegetables but avoid hidden calories in dressings or butter. Some fat is important for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, but try to get most of your fats from oily fish, nuts and seeds. Add a splash of oil if the dish requires it.

How often should you eat?

Just as different diets work for different people, there are no “one size fits all” rules on when to eat either.

You will sometimes hear it said that “breakfast boosts metabolism” but this isn’t backed up by scientific research. Studies show that people who eat breakfast do tend to be slimmer, but this may be because they have healthier habits overall. No matter what time of day you eat, some of the calories in the food you eat are used up by what’s known as the “thermic effect of food” - what this means is that the process of digesting and absorbing food actually burns off some of the energy.

The timing and size of the meal is less important than what’s in it. Some people do well eating “little and often” whereas others prefer two or three larger meals a day - the important point is that whenever you choose to eat, you must eat well!

Don’t eat on the run! If your body thinks it is under stress you are more likely to have digestive issues under pressure and stressed. Furthermore, your digestive system will be less efficient.

Much of our hunger and satiation is psychological. If we see a huge plate only half full we will feel like we haven’t eaten enough; but if the plate is small but completely filled, we will subconsciously feel that we have eaten enough. Also, throughout the day try drinking water even when you aren’t thirsty. This will help keep your body hydrated and your tummy satiated staving off any unnecessary eating.

Don’t deny a sweet tooth. If you tell yourself that you can’t have sweets then your body will crave them even more. It is better to have the occasional indulgence several times a week, and if you can, opt for a slightly healthier alternative.

Amanda’s meal suggestions

Breakfasts

  • Porridge made with half water, half milk, topped with a tablespoon of crushed nuts and a teaspoon of honey. Alternative, chop in half a banana and add a dollop of natural yoghurt.
  • Fruit salad with natural live yoghurt sprinkled with oats for extra stress-busting B vitamins.
  • Sugar free Muesli with semi-skimmed milk.
  • Fresh fruit and natural live yoghurt sweetened with honey.
  • Yoghurt based smoothie and a piece of fruit.

If you have a little more time:

  • Smoked salmon omelette made with 2 medium eggs, a handful of fresh spinach, 40g of smoked salmon, some salt and pepper. If there is no smoked salmon available, swap for tomato, mushroom - or whatever you prefer.
  • Two poached eggs, grilled tomatoes and grilled mushrooms.

Lunches

  • Large bowl of lentil or non-creamy soup (either homemade or supermarket ‘fresh'), serve with a slice of wholemeal bread with a thin spread of butter. Followed by a ½ punnet of berries and natural yoghurt. Use frozen berries or other seasonal fruit if fresh are too expensive.
  • Mash ½ avocado into a baked potato and top with small handful of crumbled feta cheese.
  • Baked sweet potato with protein based filling such as beans, tuna or chicken.
  • Poached egg on grilled tomatoes and bed of wilted spinach.
  • Wholemeal wrap, stuffed with roasted pepper slices, 1 small tub of cottage cheese, some chopped spring onions or a little red onion. Salt and pepper to season.
  • Two slices of rye bread and a tablespoon of low fat hummus. Serve with salad.
  • Two pan-fried fish cakes, served with salad drizzled with lemon juice. Add a small baked potato if you are hungry.

Sample recipe: Root Vegetable and Lentil Soup (serves 1)

1/4 Carrot Medium

1/2 Parsnip Medium

1/2 clove Garlic

1/4 Onion Medium Raw

30g Red Lentils - Dry/Uncooked

1/2 Vegetable Stock Cube - Low Salt

300ml Water

  • Dice the onion and fry it in a splash of oil in a large pan on a medium heat for 2-3 minutes.
  • Add crushed garlic and fry for another 30 seconds.
  • Dice all of the other vegetables and add them to the onions and garlic and fry for 2-3 minutes.
  • Then add the water, stock cube and dried lentils.
  • Bring to boil and simmer for 15-20 minutes until the lentils are soft.

Dinners

  • Chinese superveg stir-fry. Serve with non-wheat rice noodles.
  • Bean casserole. Fry a selection of typical casserole veggies like onion, carrots and parsnip in a little extra virgin olive oil with some garlic. When browned, add vegetable stock, black pepper and your favourite beans. Bring to the boil and simmer until ready.
  • Sweet and sour stir fry. Stir fry a selection of veggies like onions, peppers, baby sweetcorn and mushrooms. Add canned pineapple (in fruit juice), canned tomatoes, tomato puree, white wine vinegar and honey. Bring to the boil and simmer until ready. Serve with rice noodles.
  • Baked salmon with a small cup of cooked brown rice and a selection of steamed vegetables.
  • Fish parcel - heat some onion, garlic and diced tomatoes in a pan until soft. Place in a piece of tin foil with 100g of haddock (or another white fish), wrap in a loose parcel, and bake in the oven for 20-30 minutes at 200c/gas mark.
  • Stuffed peppers with brown rice.
  • Bun-free burger. Use lean mince and ditch the burger bun. Serve with plenty of onion and large side salad.

Sample recipe: Chicken and broccoli stir fry (serves 1)

100g chicken breast, sliced

½ clove garlic, chopped

1.5 tsp grated ginger

¼ broccoli head

1 tbsp soy sauce

1 tsp honey

30g rice noodles

  • Cook the rice noodles according to the pack instructions.
  • Heat a splash of oil in a wok and add the garlic and ginger, then add the chicken and stir fry until it turns white and is almost cooked. Add the broccoli and stir fry for a further two minutes, until the chicken is fully cooked.
  • Add in the soy sauce and honey, then serve with the noodles.

Snack ideas – up to two per day

  • Savoury - A handful of unsalted nuts or seeds, plain self-popped popcorn or ‘skinny' popcorn, crudites and a tablespoon of hummus, tzatziki, guacamole etc.
  • Sweet - Small natural licorice bar, 2 squares of dark chocolate, Natural plain yoghurt with added berries for extra nutrition, fresh fruit, oatcake biscuits (2)

Try to cut out or cut down on the following

  • Any fatty meat products like sausages and burgers unless they are lean and of the best quality
  • Cream, margarine, flavoured yoghurts, ice cream. A thin spread of butter is fine
  • Crisps and savoury snacks, including salted nuts
  • Sugar and sugary confectionary foods like chocolate, jam or sweets. Jam naturally sweetened with apple juice and high cocoa content chocolate are better suitable alternatives but stick with the portion guides
  • Takeaways
  • Alcohol - limit to a few small glasses of wine or a couple of beers a week if you are trying to lose weight
  • Coffee and tea - 2-4 cups of tea or coffee per day is around average and can be no problem at all. Opt for smaller portions with skimmed or semi-skimmed milk. Some takeaway coffees can be several hundred calories alone. Take your own healthy sweet treat with you rather than succumb to the muffins and cakes!
  • Table salt - switch to sea salt
  • Sugary fizzy drinks and keep diet drinks to a minimum.

Choosing the healthiest foods

Arguably, the healthiest foods are the ones that don’t need labels - but it simply isn’t realistic for most of us to eat only the things that are only sold in a farm shop or fishmonger!

Understanding food labels

Food labels can be very confusing, but the following information should hopefully make it a little easier for you to decide between products at the supermarket or on a short lunch break.

Ingredients list

The ingredients on a product label are displayed in order from the biggest quantity to the smallest. Scan the ingredients list - does it contain mainly things that you recognise as food, or does it sound more like a science experiment? If you see sugar, or words ending in -ose close to the beginning of the list, check the sugar content.