Healthy habits – For life, not just for New Year!

With the festive feasts and treats behind us, 2014 brings a fresh start as many of us consider a healthier approach to our diet and exercise habits. This New Year Caroline O’Donovan, Nutritionist at the National Dairy Council, provides some helpful hints for sensible slimming.

Eating wisely for your waistline

This time of year, ‘fad’ diets which promise quick-fixes for weight loss tend to do the rounds – but be sceptical – especially of those which encourage the elimination of entire food groups. While a certain reduction in calorie intake is advised for weight loss, it is essential that the diet remains balanced and that nutrient requirements are still met. Compliance with and sustaining fad diets can also prove difficult; therefore, a balanced approach is wiser for long-term goals and for overall health.

The Department of Health’s Food Pyramid provides healthy eating guidance for adults and children over the age of five years, and is a helpful tool for achieving a balanced diet. Foods are categorised into six different groups with guidelines on the number of servings to be eaten from each food group on a daily basis. It is advised to choose a variety of foods from each of the bottom four shelves every day to get a good range of vitamins and minerals, limiting foods from the top shelf which are high in fat, sugar and salt. Further details on the Food Pyramid are available at

Dairy myth-buster: not a gut-buster!

The Food Pyramid recommends three servings per day from the ‘milk, yogurt and cheese’ food group, with five daily servings recommended for those aged nine and 18 years. Unfortunately, the relationship between dairy foods and body weight is often misunderstood, with many people mistakenly thinking they should avoid or limit their intake from this food group when ‘watching their weight’. However, you may be surprised to hear that Irish whole milk typically contains just 3.5 per cent fat, semi-skimmed milk contains no more than 1.8 per cent fat and skimmed milk has no more than 0.5 per cent fat.

What’s more, all are important sources of nutrients such as calcium, protein, iodine, vitamin B2 and vitamin B12. There are also a wide range of lower-fat yogurt and cheese varieties on our supermarket shelves to choose from, providing variety and choice to suit different tastes and lifestyles.   

Controlling calories: some tips to try

  • Be mindful of portion sizes
  • Boil, grill, steam and bake foods instead frying them
  • Healthier snacks include: fresh fruit; yogurt; small wholemeal scone; bite-sized vegetable sticks; handful of unsalted nuts
  • When dining out, try to choose healthier options such as salad or vegetable side orders and ask for sauces and dressings to be served on the side.
  • Before you go to the supermarket, make a list and try to stick to it. If possible, don’t shop on an empty stomach as this may tempt you to the treat aisle!

Putting fun into fitness

The National Guidelines on Physical Activity for Ireland recommend that adults take part in at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise a day, five days a week (or 150 minutes a week). To maintain a healthy weight about 60 minutes of brisk walking / 30 minutes of jogging per day is recommended; to lose weight about one third more activity than the adult guidelines is advised e.g. brisk walking for at least 60 – 75 minutes per day. Reassuringly, if time to exercise is an issue, shorter ten minute bouts of activity can contribute towards the guidelines.

Joining a gym may not be feasible or enjoyable for everyone, and there are many other ways to incorporate exercise into your day –the top tip is to choose an activity you enjoy as you will be more likely to stick to it. Why not benefit from a brisk walk in the evening or a light morning jog? Sport or fitness/ dance classes can be a great way to meet new friends with a common interest. Putting extra effort into daily chores such as housework can also count -a gleaming home as a result, as well as gleaning the benefits of a housework workout!

Further information on the physical activity national guidelines can be found at Remember, if you are considering making significant changes to your lifestyle, your GP can provide advice which is specific to you.

Maintaining motivation

With persistence, positive lifestyle choices will soon become part of your everyday routine. Give yourself time to instill changes gradually, and don’t be discouraged if old habits creep in; simply treat as a temporary set-back and not a reason to give up altogether! As well as your own motivation, benefit from the support of family and friends – even better; encourage them to join you in making positive changes to their own lifestyles.