Rob Hobson, a London-based nutritionist and Head of Nutrition at Healthspan, explains why food pairings are so important for a diet
The long-held saying ‘you are what you eat’ has had an upgrade.
For research increasingly shows that it’s not just what you eat, but what you pair with it that can have a dramatic effect on your weight, food cravings and energy levels.
Earlier this month, researchers at the Illinois Institute of Technology revealed that avocado could be doing wonders for our waistlines and diabetes risk – but not if we eat it on toast.
Specifically, in the study of 30 people with a body mass index (BMI) over 30, the buttery fruit was best used as a replacement for processed carbohydrates such as white bread.
The study found avocado helped to control blood sugar, suppressed hunger and therefore helped with weight loss.
Why? Because processed carbohydrates are broken down quickly in the body, leaving you feeling hungry shortly afterwards. Fats, however, take much longer to be digested.
Overall, this study showed two main things:
- Contrary to popular belief, fats have a beneficial role to play in the diet and do not necessarily make you fat.
- Cutting back on carbohydrates – especially highly processed ‘white’ ones – is a good way to help with weight loss, and that the carbs you [itals] do [end itals] still eat should be higher fiber options such as wholegrains.
WHY PAIRING THE RIGHT FOODS IS SO IMPORTANT?
The food pairing choices you make will have a very real effect on your energy, how quickly you feel hungry again after eating – and therefore your weight.
The key is to pick foods that will keep you fuller for longer – and avoid those which cause your blood sugar to shoot up and then crash down again – triggering hunger pangs.
THE SCIENCE OF FEELING FULL
Satiety is the full feeling you get after eating a meal and the suppression of hunger for a time afterwards.
It’s particularly important for weight management as it can help to ward of hunger pangs and the temptation to snack between meals.
Therefore, understanding which foods are more satiating and how to put meals together using them will help you to control how much you eat later on in the day.
How does the body know when it’s full?
There are several signals that contribute to satiety once you have started to eat.
These include the sensory experience of eating (sight, smell, texture and flavor), stomach expansion and effect of hormones which are released when we digest and absorb foods and drinks.
Other hormones indicate to the brain how much fat is stored in the body, which impacts on longer term satiety. All of these signals come together in the brain to help control how much we eat.
Which foods are the most filling?
Foods high in protein appear to be more satiating than those high in fat or carbohydrates.
Fiber is also satiating as it helps to bulk out the diet and can slow down the breakdown of food in the gut (high-fiber foods include whole grains, beans and pulses).
Foods such as soups and stews made with vegetables and pulses are another good option.
High in filling fiber, this means you can reduce your calorie intake without having to choose smaller portion sizes. The high water content of these dishes also stimulates the stretch receptor lining in the stomach, signalling to the brain that you are full.
REVEALED, THE BEST AND WORST FOOD COMBINATIONS
1. THE FOOD-PAIRING MISTAKES I SEE MOST OFTEN
Croissant and fruit juice for breakfast
This combination of foods is high in quickly-digested carbohydrates that may impact on energy and hunger levels shortly after eating as your blood sugar peaks and then quickly drops.
To make this a more satisfying partnership, you should try adding a lean protein to the croissant – such as ham – or better still, opt for something more similar to wholegrain toast.
Adding fiber and protein can help to slow the breakdown of carbohydrates having less impact on blood sugar levels and energy.
Instead of fruit juice, which is basically sugar in a glass, you could opt for a smoothie made with oats which will contain more protein and take little while longer to be broken down in the body. Ingredients such as yogurt in a smoothie will also add to the protein content.
Beef with beans (chili-con-carne)
This classic Mexican food combination is rich in iron from the beef but also compounds called phytates, which are found in beans. Phytates can bind with minerals such as iron in the gut and prevent their absorption.
If you eat plenty of iron in your diet (iron-rich foods include quinoa, oats, dark green leafy vegetables, poultry, lean red meat and shellfish), then you can counteract the effect of phytates, but if your stores are low then this could be an issue.
Partnering beef with a meaty – and therefore filling – vegetable such as mushrooms instead of beans might be a good option. Alternatively, add in plenty of vitamin C rich vegetables such as red peppers which can help with the absorption of iron from the pulses.
Tea and fruit cake or fruit bread
This combination is a popular mid-afternoon snack, but it’s not ideal – although perhaps not for the reasons you think!
While a small piece of fruit cake or fruit bread can make for a ‘healthier’ sweet treat than biscuits – and the dried fruit in it is a good source of iron – you might want to think twice about washing it down with a cup of tea.
This is because compounds in tea, called tannins, can impact on the absorption of iron in the body. This may not be an issue if your iron stores are high, but could be more so for those with low iron, as every little counts.
Be aware that all black teas and coffees contain tannins, so opting for something herbal might be a good option. Fresh mint tea or ginger and lemon can be a refreshing alternative in the afternoon.
White pasta with creamy sauces
Not only is this pairing high in quickly digested carbohydrates (although the breakdown is slowed down a little by the fat in the sauce), but the addition of a creamy sauce really ramps up the calories and fat.
A better paring of these foods would be to eat wholemeal pasta with a tomato-based sauce.
Wholemeal pasta contains much more fiber than white, which is good for satiety and blood sugar regulation.
A tomato-based sauce will be lower in calories and saturated fat as well as supplying a couple of your five-a-day with the tomatoes and other vegetables used to make it.
Fried fish and chips
This is a common pairing of foods, but the reality is it’s simply a dish loaded with calories, fat and saturated fat.
A better pairing would include boiled or roasted potatoes with the skin left on and drizzled with olive oil. Unlike chips, cooking potatoes this way offers a good source of fiber from the skin.
And instead of battered fish, a better option would be a grilled piece of oily fish such as salmon. This is rich in a ‘healthy’ fat called omega 3, which is beneficial for heart health (white fish – such as cod and haddock – doesn’t contain omega 3).
2. THE BEST FOOD PAIRINGS
Sweet potatoes and Greek yogurt
When it comes to weight loss, fat burning and fitness fuel, few foods are better than yogurt. And if you can, go Greek. This is because Greek yogurt provides up to double the protein of regular yogurt for the same amount of calories, making it more satiating.
Sweet potatoes are also a great type of carb to eat as they are slow to be digested, keeping you feeling fuller and energized longer.
They are also known to help stabilize blood-sugar levels. If making potato wedges, use this type of potato instead and swap the sour cream for Greek yogurt.
Oats and banana
A hormone called neuropeptide Y (NPY) is produced by cells in the brain and nervous system. This hormone stimulates appetite and is highest during the times when the body is in a fasting state. However, eating too little protein may encourage the release of NPY, according to research published in the Journal of Nutrition – and this could lead to hunger and increased food intake.
Soluble fiber, especially that rich in prebiotics found in foods like bananas, can help to feed bacteria in the gut and this may also help to reduce NPY levels.
Oats are also a rich source of fiber that helps to keep you feeling fuller for longer.
Yogurt topped with dried fruit and nuts
Dried fruit and nuts are a good source of fiber and yogurt is high in protein. Together, these have less impact on blood sugar levels than other breakfast options such as cereals or smoothies.
When blood sugar spikes, the body produces a hormone called insulin which, among other things, can lead to fat storage. This may be more of an issue if your overall daily diet is high in sugar and other quickly digested carbohydrates.
The fat content in yogurt – depending on which type you choose – will also help to promote satiety. Nuts are also a high fat and protein food so have a similar effect, as well as helping to slow down the release of sugar from the dried fruit.
Smoked salmon and scrambled egg
Ghrelin is commonly nicknamed the ‘hunger hormone’ and when your stomach is empty it signals to a part of the brain called the hypothalamus, telling you to eat. Studies have suggested that in people with obesity, ghrelin only decreases slightly after eating – meaning the hypothalamus doesn’t receive a strong signal to stop eating – and this may further encourage overeating.
This combination of foods is high in protein – you’re basically getting a double whammy of protein here – and healthy fats including omega 3. Eating protein with every meal such as this one can help to reduce ghrelin levels and promote satiety.
Nut butter and banana
This is a great combination of a healthy source of protein and slow-release carbohydrate, which will keep you fuller for longer.
Nut butters are rich in ‘healthy’ unsaturated fats, which can help improve insulin metabolism. They also contain fibre, increasing satiety to ward off mindless snacking.
Eggs on wholegrain bread
This is a great breakfast combination to help stave off hunger pangs during the morning and keep you feeling full. Opting for a bread which is high in fibre such as wholegrain or dark rye bread will take longer to digest and help to keep you feeling satiated for longer. And stick to just a little bread, e.g. one slice.
Eggs score very highly on the satiety index as they are high in protein – so are a great option to keep hunger pangs at bay. The best low-fat and therefore calorie options are boiled or scrambled.
Salad with quinoa
Salad is a classic diet dish but does little to stave off hunger on its own – you need to add some extra ingredients to stave off hunger pangs and diet misery!
Many salads come with heavy dressings such as Caesar or Thousand Island, which can do little for your waistline, especially if you are too liberal with them.
Instead, try adding cooked quinoa to your salad to bulk it out, while still keeping it healthy.
Quinoa is a good source of fiber, which helps to keep you feeling full; it’s also a reasonably good source of protein.
Watch your portion size, though – just a handful of cooked quinoa is enough to bulk out your salad.
Brown rice and beans (any variety)
Proteins are made up of amino acids, but some plant-based proteins are lacking one or more of the essential ones that need to be obtained from the food we eat.
Beans are particularly high in protein but lacking certain amino acids which are found in brown rice.
This combination is therefore great for vegans or vegetarians looking to increase their protein intake as the pairing provides a full spectrum of amino acids.
These are the building blocks of protein, which is not only a filling source of food, but vital for muscle repair, growth and maintaining your metabolic rate. (While there are few foods that actually raise your metabolism to the degree you will lose weight, it’s accepted that people with higher muscle mass generally have higher resting metabolic rates.)
Vegetable soup with beans, lentils or pulses
Soup is a good weight loss dish as it’s low in calories but has a high-water content. Foods high in water can trick the body into feeling full, but this will not last long.
Adding beans and pulses to soups increases their bulk by increasing fibre and also adding a source of protein – both of which will improve the feeling of satiety.
- Rob Hobson is a London-based nutritionist and Head of Nutrition at the wellbeing brand Healthspan