If you can't be good, be careful

You're hooked on junk food, regularly drink more than your limit and prefer the sofa to the gym. What can you do to limit the damage?


Drinking alcohol

Much is made of the benefits of red wine and one 175ml glass a day has been proven to lower the risk of a heart attacks or stroke and increase levels of protective HDL-cholesterol. But too much alcohol can damage the liver. If you can't resist another glass or few, avoid drinking on an empty stomach. Slower absorption of alcohol, and therefore the effects of too much of it, can be achieved by eating a meal before or during drinking. Multivitamins can prepare the body for the depletion of vitamins experienced later as a result of frequent urinating – as can having a glass of water for every alcoholic drink you order.

"It is hard to emphasise strongly enough how important a healthy vegetable-rich diet is for anyone who consumes alcohol," says Professor Roger Corder, who researches heart disease at Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry and is author of The Wine Diet. "The EPIC study (a Europe-wide study of cancer), showed an increased risk of colon cancer in men and women who had only one drink a day, but those with a folate-rich diet had no greater risk than non-drinkers."

Check the alcohol content, advises Professor Corder. "Some wines now have 16 per cent compared to 12 per cent in the 1980s. If you have a large glass in a pub, that's four units of alcohol." Stick to good quality wines. "They tend to have much fewer of the nasty chemicals that give you a hangover."

And choose wines that are high in procyanidins. "I found that in France those in the south-west didn't have the best health care but had the highest level of 90-year-olds, despite eating food high in saturated fat. They drink wines much richer in procyanidins, which help to reduce blood pressure, lower cholesterol and protect against hardening of the arteries."

Such information is seldom seen on wine bottles, but if a wine producer's website says the grapes, including skins and seeds, remained in contact with the wine for at least 10 days during fermentation and afterwards, there's a good chance it contains up to ten times more beneficial compounds than typical supermarket wines.

Couch potato lifestyle

If running and the gym really aren't for you, don't underestimate the benefits of walking. One brisk half-hour walk a day aids weight control and cuts the risk of 24 illnesses, from cancer and heart disease to dementia, according to East Anglia University.

Can't tear yourself away from the telly? Research shows that video games can be as effective as running, aerobics classes and bike rides. "It's not any better than conventional aerobic exercise, but it's as effective," says Alasdair Thin, lecturer in human physiology of Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, who has studied their effect. The Kinect Sensor for Xbox 360 is recommended by health experts as particularly good for exercise novices as it monitors your body during exercise and tells you how well you're doing.

Other home-fitness equipment worth considering is the Leg Master, Thigh Glider, Shake Weight or a good old-fashioned exercise bike. Housework can also be turned into a workout. In one hour, you can burn 193.7 calories by hoovering, 173.6 dusting, 193.7 mopping the floor and 113.1 ironing.

Smoking

The only safe cigarette is an unlit one. Even cutting down won't spare you from the health risks that lead half of all smokers to die from smoking- related diseases. "It's frustrating because even health professionals, and particularly GPs, collude with the idea that cutting down can help," says Andy McEwan, assistant director of tobacco studies at University College London (UCL). "Smokers are so used to regular doses of nicotine that the body will make sure it gets it. This leads to the smoker subconsciously taking more puffs, inhaling deeper, keeping the smoke in the lungs longer and smoking it closer to the butt."

Roll-ups and menthol cigarettes are often assumed to be more natural and lacking some of the additives in manufactured cigarettes. Not so, found UCL. "In fact, it's harder to keep count how many roll-ups you smoke and often, no filter is used."

Smokers can help to minimise overall health risks by eating well and exercising, says Ellen Mason, of the British Heart Foundation. "There's even more reason for smokers to exercise because their other health risk factors are higher," she says.

Eating junk food

"Learn to read food labels," advises Sian Porter, of the British Dietetic Association. "It will enable you to have your favourite things, but within the recommended daily limits – 6g of salt and 70g of fat."

And don't use the excuse that junk food is cheaper, she cautions. "Nowadays, it's easy to pick up bags of prepared fruit for as little as £1 in most supermarkets."

With take-aways, ask them to do things such as tip the fat off, and choose grilled options. "Also think about portion control. You can usually make two portions of fish and one large chips easily stretch to four people."

Home cook, she suggests. "You can still have a burger or bacon, but you can avoid excess fat by grilling and placing them on kitchen roll afterwards. With fish, you can steam or poach. Whatever you eat, fill half the plate with vegetables or salad." When cooking with oil, put it in a teaspoon before it goes in the saucepan. "We've found that people who just pour it straight in use far more than they think they are."

Think about the types of fat you eat, adds dietician Azmina Govindji. "Look for those high in poly or mono unsaturates and avoid the ones higher in saturated fat. And, as an extra tip, munch through an apple or banana before you visit the burger bar."

Drinking coffee

It's not clear whether coffee is bad for you. While some studies suggest caffeine can lead to cancers, and to premature births if drunken to excess in pregnancy, other research shows it can reduce headaches and protect against diabetes, prostate cancer and heart disease.

What is clear is that there are ways to consume coffee to stay healthy. Most research suggests that up to three cups a day (up to 300mg) doesn't have any negative effects. But be aware that caffeine content of coffee varies widely depending on roasting and brewing methods, as well as the size of cup. If you're making coffee at home, remember that ground coffee beans go stale within 30 seconds, so you'll get a tastier, lower-caffeinated cuppa if you grind your own.

Newer coffee machines, such as the Miele Barista, do it as part of the coffee making process, whilst Krups makes stand-alone coffee grinders.

As for those who enjoy the "caffeine high" in a cup of coffee, the reality is they're probably suffering from caffeine withdrawal. The sensation is simply a reaction to their body having craved the drug. Withdrawal symptoms of headaches and tiredness can disappear within a few days if you cut down. Try switching to decaf, and organic coffee, which lacks pesticides.

Also think about milk and sugar. A report in The Journal of the American Dietetic Association said that non-alcoholic beverages accounted for almost one quarter of Americans' calorie intake and half of all their added sugar, and figures are much the same here.

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