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From adding sage to embracing al dente, small tweaks that will make your eating habits healthier

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We're going to come out and say it - eating healthy is hard work. Organic fruits are expensive and the last thing we want to do after a strenuous day at work is stand by the kitchen counter chopping a dozen different vegetables. Beans on toast looks far more appealing.

For those moments when we're short for time or feeling demotivated, we've scoured advice from  dietitians, nutritionists and scientists and picked a few easy changes that ensure meals are as healthy as possible.

From throwing in a handful of herbs to cooking pasta in a way that's digestion-friendly, here are 10 tiny recipe tweaks and additions that make nutritional dining a piece of cake. 

Cook rice in coconut oil

Coconut oil

Health benefits: Did you know rice undergoes chemical changes depending on the way you cook it? Scientists at the College of Chemical Sciences in Sri Lanka recently discovered that adding coconut oil to boiling water and then allowing the cooked rice cool down gives it added health benefits and 50% less calories.

Most rice (particularly steamed rice) contains digestible starches which our bodies quickly turn into glucose and later glycogen. Excess glycogen builds up in our guts if we don't burn it off and can contribute to diabetes and obesity. But, coconut oil transforms the starch into a resistant starch that takes longer for the body to process. Cooling down the rice helps facilitate this conversion of starches. 

How to: “What we did is cook the rice as you normally do, but when the water is boiling, before adding the raw rice, we added coconut oil — about 3 percent of the weight of the rice you’re going to cook…after it was ready, we let it cool in the refrigerator for about 12 hours. That’s it," says scientist Sudhair James.

Flavour change: This technique makes no difference to the taste or texture of rice


Resist drinking water during a meal

Water

Health benefits: Drinking liquids while you eat complicates the digestive process in your stomach and intestines. When you drink in between eating solid foods, the stomach acids and digestive enzymes are dissipated making it harder for your body to breakdown solids.

How to: Drink water or other liquids 20 minutes before you consume food and wait at least an hour after. If you focus on hydrating yourself between meals instead of during, you'll be adequately hydrated throughout the day and when mealtime arrives. 


Add a dash of sage 

pasta

Health benefits: Sage has a longstanding reputation for enhancing memory. One study found that students who took sage extracts in capsule form performed significantly better on a test that required them to recall a list of words that those without sage extracts. It also improved their mood in general. 

How to: Sage has a very strong flavour, so a little goes a long way. Like most herbs, it's best to use fresh leaves and cook them with your meal (sage should never be eaten raw) but you can use dried sage as an alternative. Add it as a seasoning to pasta sauce, stuff it in meat (it tastes particularly great with pork) or sprinkle it over pizza.

Flavour change: minty, earthy, musky


Squeeze lemon juice on leafy greens

Health benefits: Vegetables such as spinach, broccoli and kale contain high levels of iron that contribute to your recommended daily allowance. However, it's in a form - known as non-heme iron - that is difficult for the the body to directly absorb. A dose of Vitamin C from a squirt of lemon juice helps to break it down.

How to: Roll a fresh lemon over a hard surface, cut it in half and squeeze a few drops over your salad. Trick done.

Flavour change: it brings a tangy, refreshing twist to your leafy greens


Chew your food more

healthy

Health benefits: A study found that the average adult Brit spends a only 23 minutes in total per day eating breakfast, lunch and dinner. While hour hectic lifestyles mean we often have to wolf down our meals, chewing your food properly is the simplest way to stay healthy. It helps your digestive system by breaking large pieces into smaller particles, allows more nutrients to be quickly absorbed into the body and ensures less nutrients are lost. In summary, the more you chew, the more goodness the body retains. It also prevents feeling bloated and gassy.

How to: The amount of chews varies for different foods; red meat will obviously require more chewing than mashed potato. The best way to slow it down is to really think about what you're eating. Ask yourself: 'What are my favourite flavours, textures and ingredients in the meal?'  


Cook pasta Al Dente

pasta

Health benefits: The Mediterranean diet is one of the most nourishing cuisines in the world, but it's easy to get it wrong with an ingredient list that largely consists of starch and oils. One of the most common mistakes is overcooking pasta. For the healthiest and tastiest pasta cook it 'al dente', which means “to the tooth” or “to the bite.” If overcooked, the lower glycemic (GI) index in pasta will rise, making it harder for the body to digest and absorbed the starch. 

Italian celebrity chef, Gino D'Acampo, also suggests you shouldn't allocate more than 120g of dried pasta per person. Often people make the mistake of throwing the whole bag of pasta in the pot and end up cooking and eating far too much, which can make it a healthy bloat-inducing meal.

How to: Fill a large, tall pot with water and place over high heat. When the water begins to boil, add salt to taste. Once the salt dissolves and the water is fully boiling, add pasta to the water and stir frequently the first two minutes. Al dente pasta is ready when there is a thin white vein at the centre and you can feel a slight resistance when you bite into it or cut it with a fork.


Make salad the day before you eat it

Health benefits: Author of Eating on The Wild Side, Jo Robinson, reviewed thousands of studies for her book and found that tearing romaine and iceberg lettuce a day before eating it will quadruple its antioxidant content. "The living plant responds to the insult as if it were being gnawed by an insect or eaten by an animal," she writes. "It produces a burst of phytonutrients to fend off the intruder." 

How to: Tear clean green leaves with your fingers, put it in a plastic bag with a paper towel to soak in extra moisture and store in the fridge. Serve 24 hours later and try to use the lot within a few days.


Incorporate red peppers into lunch and dinner

Health benefits

Health benefits: A cup of chopped red raw peppers provides more than 100 percent of the daily value of the antioxidant vitamin C (three times as much vitamin C as citrus fruit), which supports tissue health and immunity. They also have notable levels of pyridoxine (vitamin B6), which plays an important role in brain function and are one of the best sources of lycopene a powerful antioxidant that may help protect cells from damage.

How to: Bell peppers in Britain are full of water due to a combination of growing methods. Roast, grill or leave them in room temperature for a day to dry them off and concentrate their sweetness. Alternatively, go for the red elongated peppers which boast a richer flavour. There are endless ways to mix fresh peppers into your meals: chop finely and sprinkle into sandwiches, salads or bruschetta for an extra crunch, or stir them into scrambled eggs, risottos, pastas, meatballs and rice.

Flavour change: sweet with a mild kick


Cook carrots whole

carrots

Health benefits: A 2009 study by Dr Kirsten Brandt at Newcastle University found that when cooked whole, carrots contain 25% more falcarinol, a cancer fighting compound. “Chopping up your carrots increases the surface area so more of the nutrients leach out into the water while they are being cooked,” explained Dr Brandt. 

The team also carried out a blind taste test on almost 100 people comparing the taste of ‘boiled-before-cut’ versus ‘cut-before-boiled’ carrots. The response was overwhelming with more than 80% saying that carrots cooked whole tasted much better. The good news is, cooked carrots also allow the body to digest 60% of the vegetables nutrients, compared to 5% when it's eaten raw. 

Dr Brandt added: “We all want to try to improve our health and diet by getting the right nutrients and eating our five-a-day. The great thing about this is it’s a simple way for people to increase their uptake of a compound we know is good for you, all you need is a bigger saucepan.”

How to: Wash carrots and bring a large saucepan of water to a boil. Place carrots in whole and once cooked, drain and slice with a knife.


Cook vegetables faster to bring out their nutrients

Health benefits: Some nutrients break down when they’re exposed to heat, whether it is from a microwave or a regular oven. Cooking vegetables in water also robs them of some of their nutritional value because the nutrients leach out into the water. (For example, boiled broccoli loses glucosinolate, the sulfur-containing compound that may give the vegetable its cancer-fighting properties.) Harvard Medical School suggests a microwave does the best job of preserving vitamins in fresh produce because it uses the least amount of liquid and has the shortest cooking times.

How to: After cleaning, dry the vegetables with a kitchen towel. Place the vegetables in a covered, microwave-safe container. Heat at the recommended power as indicated in the packaging instructions or cook fresh vegetables for three to four minutes or until vegetables are tender. An exception to the rule is broccoli, which retains more of its nutrients when steamed. 

Images: ThinkStock, (main) Squash rotini with fried sage recipe from portandfin.com

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