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Ever wondered what the nation's diet really looks like? How much fat and sugar do we really eat? And are we lacking key nutrients? These are just some of the questions answered by the annual National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS), funded by the UK Department of health and Foods Standards Agency.
Nutritionist Robert Hobson analyses the results and pinpoints the dietary improvements we could make:
The number of calories we eat each day (according to the NDNS) is below current recommendations, with adult men consuming an average of 2,111 kcal a day (guidance is 2,500 kcal) and women, 1,613 kcal a day (guidance is 2,000 kcal). This doesn't seem logical given the high rates of obesity in the UK. It does, however, indicate that, as with all food surveys, this figure has been underestimated as often people don't report everything they have actually eaten, and have a habit of underestimating portion sizes.
Most importantly, it has been revealed that the main source of calories in our diet comes from cereals and cereal products; particularly in the form of white pasta, white bread, rice and pizza, with dairy and meat-based foods being the second largest source of calories.
Intake of wholegrain foods such as brown bread, pasta and rice is still low in this country, which is why fibre intake is below the current recommendation of 18g per day. It is important we get plenty of fibre in our diets to maintain a healthy digestive system and reduce the risk of developing bowel cancer.
FIX IT: BOOST FIBRE INTAKE
Rob says: " Try switching from white to brown cereal foods and include pulses in your diet by adding them to soups, stews and salads. Try snacking on nuts and seeds, and if you're looking for a sweet treat opt for an oat-based biscuit or flapjack instead of chocolate."
While total fat intake is in line with the recommended 35 per cent or less of our daily calories, we still eat too much saturated fat. Consumption should be less than 11 per cent of energy intake but for adults is closer to 13 per cent. Most of this type of fat comes from milk (and milk products) and meat (and meat products), and has particularly negative implications on heart health, which is still the leading cause of premature death in the UK.
FIX IT: AVOID PROCESSED FOODS
Rob says: " Try cutting back on processed and convenience foods and check the food label on those you do eat. Switching to low fat dairy foods and lean cuts of meat or removing visible fat from foods such as steak will also reduce your saturated fat intake. Cheese is a popular addition to dishes for many of us; try opting for smaller quantities of stronger tasting varieties for flavour."
Sugar intake in the UK is high; especially amongst children. It is recommended that added sugars (the type found in drinks and sweet puddings) make up no more than 11 per cent of our daily energy intake, and yet the average adult intake is more like 12 per cent, with figures amongst teenagers sitting at around 16 per cent. Sugar offers very little nutritionally and too much in the diet can lead to weight gain and poor dental health. Research is also starting to show the impact highly refined carbohydrate foods may have on heart health.
FIX IT: WATCH YOUR DRINKS
Rob says: " Try swapping high sugar drinks for low calorie options or flavouring water with fruits, vegetables and herbs such as lemon, cucumber and mint. Spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg or vanilla can be a flavoursome alternative to sugar in coffee. Replacing some of your sweet snacks with fruit or savoury dips, and sugary breakfast cereals with plain alternatives will also help to lower your daily intake of sugar."
Salt intake is also still high in the UK, which has implications on circulatory health especially blood pressure. Seventy per cent of us eat too much, with the average intake currently standing at 8.1g per day; more than 2g more than the recommended 6g.
FIX IT: CUT BACK ON SALT
Rob says: " Reduce the salt in your cooking by replacing it with herbs and spices. Including small amounts of strong-flavoured foods such as sun-dried tomatoes, tomato puree and dried mushrooms will also improve the taste without the need for salt. Avoid adding extra salt to food when eating out."
The NDNS shows that on average, the Recommended Nutrient Intakes (RNI) for vitamins appear to be met by the diet with the exception of vitamin D, which is mostly obtained from the action of sunlight on skin.
The survey showed that towards the end of the winter months (Jan-Feb) more than 40 per cent of us have inadequate levels of this essential nutrient. A supplement during the winter months is a good way to ensure you get a good supply.
Certain minerals, however, do appear to be lacking, with average adult intakes below the RNI for magnesium and selenium. Women also have low iron and iodine intake. Selenium levels were particularly low with 26 per cent of men and 51 per cent of women below the lower reference nutrient intake. Investing in a daily multivitamin and mineral supplement is a useful way to bridge the gap.
FIX IT: FOCUS ON VARIETY
Rob says: " Add more variety - particularly fruits and vegetables - to your diet as every food has its own unique combination of nutrients. Try snacking on nuts, which are rich in minerals such as selenium and magnesium, as well as a useful source of iron and zinc. Include pulses too, as they are a good source of iron, magnesium and zinc. Spices and dried herbs offer a highly concentrated source of minerals that can easily be added to dishes."
Rob Hobson MSc RNutr is a Registered Nutritionist who has worked with some of the UK’s largest food and health companies and performs training in the public health sector (including government agencies and the NHS). Rob contributes regularly to UK press publications and has a monthly column in Women's Health magazine.
Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn't possible, supplements can help. This article isn't intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.