Health foods have come a long way since I first went into a dedicated store in my teens. From the emergence of smoothie and salad bars alongside fast food at shopping malls to the explosion of alternative flours and milks, there has truly been a nutrition revolution. As someone who still remembers their first glass of watery, bitter soy milk and trying carob chocolate – these are good times.
I love finding new health products to add variety to my mostly vegan diet. Buckwheat and quinoa are a lovely alternative to oats and I’ve recently been making the Italian flatbread farinata, which uses chickpea flour, for weekend brunches. I’ve also been trying to boost my protein intake from 70 grams a day to 110g/day. It’s been challenging but achievable, partly thanks to lupin flakes.
What is Lupin?
I first spotted lupin at one of my favourite health food spots The Clean Food Store and soon after I received them in a health foods subscription box. Lupin (also called lupini beans) is a legume that’s been used as animal feed for decades, but it’s only recently been widely marketed for human consumption. My home state, Western Australia, produces 85% of the world’s supply! The nutritional profile of lupin what impresses me most – it’s very high protein, low fat, low carbohydrate, and relatively low in calories.
Specifically, one 40g (4 tablespoons) serve of lupin flakes contains:
It’s also gluten-free and has a low glycemic index (GI)
If that’s not attractive enough, lupin flakes are also quick cooking, fairly easy to find in Australia and only around AU$9 for a 400g bag (or about 90 cents a serve!). So how exactly do you use them? Read on.
I received my first bag of lupin flakes about the same time I had an ageing orange in my fruit bowl. I grabbed a jar, some oats and had this delicious, high protein breakfast the next morning!
Lupin Bircher muesli (serves one)
1/3 cup rolled oats
1 tbsp lupin flakes
1 orange, juice only
1 tbsp raisins
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup milk (soy, almond, dairy etc) + extra for the morning
METHOD: Combine all ingredients except toppings in a bowl or jar, cover and refrigerate overnight. In the morning, add extra milk for a thinner consistency if desired. Otherwise, add toppings and enjoy!
Sometimes the simplest things are the best. I’ve been sprinkling 1-2 tbsp of lupin flakes on my Greek soy yogurt and fresh fruit most afternoons. It’s so filling! There’s something about the nutty flavour of lupin with the sharp taste of natural yogurt that I’m hooked on too. This combination packs 10g of protein with the probiotic goodness of yogurt for just 130 calories – and still under 200 cals with berries or a slices of fresh peach. You could also add a tablespoon as a salad topper, although I’m yet to try this.
If you like Middle Eastern foods, you will love lupin! I tried substituting lupin flakes for quinoa in several dishes, but I find it works best as a replacement for cous cous. To quickly cook in the microwave, mix 4 tbsp of lupin flakes with 1/2 a cup of water on HIGH for three minutes. Cover for a few minutes and then fluff with a fork to enjoy as a side dish with a Moroccan tajine or stuffed capsciums. I want to try lupin in this way with a spicy Indial dal too!
4. Just Add
In the same way I like to add flaxmeal to my breakfast and general baking, the neutral flavour of lupins means you can simply add it to a dish for a protein boost. One tablespoon in a bowl of oatmeal almost doubles the protein content, and you could similarly add a few tablespoons and lower the flour when making muffins or bread. It does have a slightly bitter, nutty taste so I find just one tablespoon in a single bowl of oats is a good balance. For other cooking, start small and increase over time until you find the right balance. Or check out my lupin cake recipe below!
When I got home late last week and hadn’t reached my protein target for the day, I had to get creative. I experimented with a lupin chocolate mug cake with surprisingly good results! This is not a rich, sweet mud cake. Rather, it has a denser texture more like polenta but it’s wholesome, chocolately and still a satisfying high-protein snack or dessert!
My Lupin Chocolate Mug Cake (vegan)
2 tbsp lupin flakes
1 tbsp spelt flour
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tbsp cocoa
1/8 tsp baking powder
Pinch of salt
1/4 cup milk (soy, almond, dairy etc)
1 tsp coconut oil
Optional: 1 tsp maple syrup
METHOD: Combine all ingredients in a mug and microwave on HIGH for 2 minutes. Check and microwave for another minute if needed. Eat with a spoon straight away or top with berries, peanut butter or coconut yogurt.
I’m in the process of testing some high protein, vegan lupin cookies and plan to do a fruit crumble with lupin topping too. Like almond meal, you could also use lupin flakes to crumb meat, tofu or vegetables. When winter approaches, I’m going to try topping cauliflower cheese with lupin for a delicious crunch!
I did attempt a lupin porridge but I found there wasn’t enough starch to make it very creamy, even when cooked with grated apple, soy milk and vanilla. I also added cooked lupin flakes to a bean salad but they soaked up moisture from the beans and tomatoes, resulting in a soggy lunch. Both meals were edible, but I prefer the recipes above.
I visit my local farmers’ market most weeks and I love wandering between the tables of fresh produce. I buy staples like leafy greens, tomatoes and apples and then choose a few seasonal items to inspire my meals for the week. It might be a bunch of beetroot for salads or Tuscan cabbage to put in a stew. I can fill a box for around AU$20 and love the sense of community on a Saturday morning.
A few weeks ago the rhubarb at looked irresistible but it’s hardly a fruit you bring to the office. Instead, I created this basic compote to add to breakfasts or sprinkle with granola for an instant rhubarb crumble. It was such a hit with my boyfriend, he asked me to make it again the following week.
I like the simplicity of this recipe which can be easily prepared while cooking something else. Rather than refined sugar, this compote uses cinnamon and vanilla to mimic sweetness. It’s a great, low-calorie treat that’s good enough to enjoy anytime of the day! It’s also gluten-free and vegan.
600g rhubarb, chopped into 1.5cm (half-inch) pieces ½ cup water 1.5 tbsp pure maple syrup 1 tsp vanilla extract ½ tsp cinnamon 1 tbsp sultanas
1. Put all ingredients except sultanas in a medium sized pot. 2. Bring to a boil (about 5 minutes), then turn heat to medium-low. 3. Add the sultanas. 4. Cook for a further 10 minutes or until rhubarb is soft, stirring occasionally. 5. Serve immediately or let cool and refrigerate.
This keeps in the fridge for at least a few (3-4) days. Add an extra tablespoon of maple syrup if needed, for sweetness. Serve compote warm with oatmeal, homemade custard or on top of pancakes. Or enjoy it cold with yogurt, granola, or scones. I like to mix mine with vanilla protein powder for an instant smoothie bowl – then just sprinkle with nuts, seeds and fresh fruit. Delicious!
I’ve always had a reluctant relationship with muesli. Unlike its sweet, roasted cousin granola, muesli has mild flavours and goes soggy far too quickly for my liking. And as opposed to oatmeal, a serve of muesli is over just a few mouthfuls after it begins.
However when I returned from China last month, I was craving something fresh and light. After three weeks away, my cupboard was bare and it was too warm for porridge. I had some frozen bananas but didn’t feel like a smoothie. I stared at my pantry, summoned the scant ingredients on hand and created this recipe in 60 seconds.
The rolled oats provide a high-fibre, low GI and low-calorie base while the walnuts add a rich, caramel-like flavour with the benefit of omega-3 fatty acids. The cocoa nibs are like nature’s chocolate chips and a good source of iron and antioxidants. They won’t get soggy either! The sultanas add a little sweetness and bulk while the coconut flakes are just plain YUM.
1/3 cup (30g) rolled oats (*use gluten-free oats if needed) 1 tbsp (40g) walnut pieces 1 tbsp cocoa nibs 1 tbsp sultanas (raisins) 1 tbsp coconut flakes (optional but delicious) Fresh fruit to serve (blueberries, banana, or strawberries)
1. Combine all ingredients in a cereal bowl 2. Add fresh fruit and serve with your choice of milk (soy, almond, dairy) 3. Enjoy!
You can easily scale the recipe up by multiplying ingredients by 10 and storing in a large container to have during the week. I enjoyed my muesli with fresh blueberries and soy milk – there’s something about the combination of fruit, cocoa nibs and coconut that makes this taste luscious! Check out my post Perth’s Top Health Food Stores for where to buy ingredients in bulk.
Between activated almonds and goji berries, you’d be forgiven for thinking health foods are the domain of the rich. While it’s true you get what you pay for, you can also eat well and not spend a fortune on your grocery shopping. As a general rule, all fruit and vegetables are superfoods. One red capsicum (pepper) contains three times the recommended daily intake of Vitamin C (and interestingly, twice as much Vitamin C as an orange). A sweet potato boasts around 200% of your daily Vitamin A needs while you can get 5g of your daily fibre intake from a single apple. None of these foods will break your budget!
If you delve into the packaged food section, a good tip is to avoid marketing buzz words like ‘natural,’ ‘wholesome’ or ‘pure’, as the use of these words isn’t actually regulated. In Australia, a 2016 report found nearly half of 300 supermarket foods labelled “natural” were actually considered unhealthy, as they were high in saturated fat, salt and/or sugar. While the use of ‘organic’ on packaging is regulated, most brands of organic tomato sauce (ketchup), for example, still contain 20% sugar and high sodium levels.
Here’s my list of 10 affordable health foods that are easy to find and incorporate into your diet. Check out Perth’s Top Health Food Stores for my favourite places to buy in bulk for further savings!
1. rolled oats
If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you know I love my morning oatmeal! A 30 gram (1/3 cup or 1 oz.) serve of rolled oats contains 4 grams of protein, a type of fibre called beta-glucan which helps with cholesterol levels, and minerals like manganese which is vital for bone formation and phosphorus for basic cell function and bone support. Whether you use oats for porridge or mix them with nuts and dried fruit for a natural muesli, they’re one of the healthiest, convenient and cheapest breakfast foods you can find.
Cost: AU $3 per kilo / US$4 for 2 lbs. (10-15 cents per serve)
How to use: Make porridge for breakfast, roast oats in the oven for an hour with a handful of nuts and seeds for a healthy granola, make topping for a fruit crumble, add to vegetable patties instead of breadcrumbs, bake Anzac biscuits or oatmeal raisin cookies.
2. Flaxseed (linseed)
I’m still amazed how affordable flaxseeds are. Also known as linseed, these tiny seeds are plain tasting and ordinary looking but they pack a nutritional punch. One tablespoon of ground flaxseed (flaxmeal) is just 30 calories and contains 1.5g protein, 2g fibre (you need 25g-30g a day) and more than your daily needs of omega-3 fatty acids. Increasing your omega-3 intake is thought to have a significant benefit in preventing cardiovascular disease. I buy my flaxseed whole and grind them in my Vitamix, as it’s fresher and cheaper than buying pre-ground flaxmeal.
Cost: AU$4 per kilo / US$3 for 16 oz. (about 2c per 1tbsp serve!)
How to use: Add a tablespoon of ground flaxseed to oatmeal or smoothies, use as an egg replacement in cakes or muffins by mixing 1tbsp flaxmeal with 3 tbsp water for each egg, or add flaxseed and/or flaxmeal to bread or other baked goods for a nutrition boost.
3. Sunflower seeds
When I was a student, there was no way I could afford $15 for a bag of almonds. Peanuts and sunflowers seeds were my trail mix of choice mixed with raisins or dried apricots. A 28g (1 oz. or 1/4 cup) serve of hulled sunflower seeds contains around 8g protein, 4g fibre, 45% of your daily Vitamin E needs and 25% of your magnesium intake. Even just one tablespoon will give you 2-3g of protein and 1.3g of fibre for just 60 calories. Watch out for the salted varieties!
Cost: AU$4 for 500g/ US$2.50 for 16 oz. (20 – 30c per serve)
How to use: Scatter a tablespoon on top of your breakfast cereal or yogurt, roast a cup of seeds in the oven with a little oil and your favourite spices for a savoury snack or salad topping, add 1/4 cup to muffins or banana bread for annutrition crunch, or blend in a high quality blender to make your own seed butter.
Legumes in general are inexpensive and readily available in canned or dried forms. Also known as “pulses,” they’re packed with fibre, protein, B vitamins and minerals like iron and copper. Lentils are one of my favourite legumes for their versatility and quick cooking time of around 20 minutes. You’ll commonly find brown lentils in cans, while red lentils are usually sold dry and break down when cooked. Slightly more expensive are French lentils (also called puy lentils) which hold their shape when cooked, making them ideal for salads. A typical 50g (1/4 cup) serve of dry lentils contains around 170 calories, 11g protein and 5g fibre plus a whopping 20% of your daily iron intake.
Cost: AU$4 per kilo / US$4 for 2lb. (approx. 20c a serve)
How to use: Make Indian dal by simmering 1 cup of dry red lentils with 3-4 cups of water and curry powder, or cook lentils with chopped vegetables and stock for a hearty soup. If you don’t like Indian flavours or soup, make lentil burgers! Alternatively, cook French puy lentils and add to salads or serve hot with creamy polenta and wilted greens.
I hated raw carrots as a kid and still disliked them as a young adult. But as a university student, their affordability and durability made them taste a whole lot better! I started eating raw carrots with hummus as an alternative to crackers and at the time, I didn’t appreciate what a powerhouse they were. One carrot contains about 170% of your daily Vitamin A needs and 3g of fibre, plus it’s only around 30-40 calories. Again, I love the versatility of carrots and use them in everything from curries and soups, to salads and sweet dishes like muffins or carrot cake (they pair perfectly with walnuts and cinnamon).
Cost: AU$1-2 for 1kg bag / US$1.50 for 2lb (about 10-15c per carrot!)
How to use: eat raw carrot sticks with hummus or salsa, make a healthy carrot soup, or grate carrot and red cabbage for a “naked” coleslaw. This mix keeps for days and you can use it in Vietnamese rice paper rolls, throw it in a stir fry or enjoy with satay sauce and lime as a zesty side salad.
6. Canned tomatoes
While I try to buy fresh vegetables whenever possible, there are a few items I make an exception for. I love frozen peas, marinated artichokes, polski ogorki (Polish dill pickles) and… canned tomatoes. Tomatoes are high in lycopene, which has an antioxidant effect. Studies suggest eating foods with lycopene can help reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease. An average 400g (14 oz.) can of diced tomatoes has around 60% of your daily Vitamin C needs, 25% of your Vitamin A needs and 6g of fibre (and only around 80 calories). Just make sure there’s no added salt. Best of all, a can of tomatoes will keep in your cupboard for years!
Cost: AU/US$1 per 400g/14oz. can (25c – $1 per serve)
How to use: Simmer with sautéed onion and garlic for an easy homemade pasta sauce, do the same but add paprika, cumin and coriander for a Mexican enchilada sauce or taco filling (with protein), simmer two cans with assorted vegetables for a chunky minestrone soup, or go Middle Eastern with a Moroccan tajine (stew) or shakshuka (eggs in tomato sauce).
For those who don’t follow a vegan diet or don’t have allergies, eggs are an affordable powerhouse of protein and nutrients. One egg contains 6g protein along with Vitamins B2, B12 and Vitamin D plus about 25-30% of your recommended daily intake of selenium and folate. Vitamin D helps protect bones while selenium is an antioxidant and vital for a proper functioning immune system. Eggs are also widely available in supermarkets, at cafes and of course, served by airlines every time they want you to think it’s “breakfast time!”
Cost: AU$4 per dozen / US$2-3 a dozen (about 50-60c per 2-egg serve)
How to use: Beyond poaching, frying and scrambling, use eggs to make a vegetable-packed quiche, enjoy boiled eggs as a portable snack or mash them with a pinch of curry powder for a protein-rich sandwich filling.
8. Fresh herbs
There’s something about fresh herbs that’s both delicious and detoxifying. My favourites are parsley, mint, basil and (the often controversial) coriander. I add fresh herbs as often as I can my meals. They’re rich in antioxidants and have anti-inflammatory properties, and studies suggest they may help protect against cancer. As an example, a 1/4 cup of chopped parsley contains one-quarter of your daily Vitamin A needs, one-third of your Vitamin C needs and 5% of your daily iron intake. Fresh herbs elevate any dish you’re preparing and reduce the chance of unnecessarily adding salt or fat for flavour. My boyfriend and I struggle to keep our herb garden alive (even with automated watering) but we replant it a few times a year. It’s worth it!
Cost: A few dollars for a small herb plant from a nursery or gardening centre.
How to use: Make a parsley-packed tabbouleh, try a mint and pea soup, add generous amounts of coriander and lime juice to zucchini noodles for a raw pad thai, or blend two handfuls of fresh herbs with olive oil and lemon juice for a delicious homemade pesto. I love adding herbs to smoothies too – try pairing strawberries and mint, or parsley and kiwi fruit.
I’m a chocoholic, but deep down I think I’m just hooked on cocoa. I’ll drink it hot, add it to smoothies, munch on cocoa nibs and make any dessert chocolate flavour. Most cocoa sold in supermarkets is “Dutch-processed,” or treated with alkali for a milder flavour (if so, you’ll see it in the ingredient list). Natural cocoa will simply say “cocoa” or “unsweetened cocoa powder” under ingredients. The least processed (and usually only found in health food stores) is “raw cocoa,” which is like the cold-pressed juice equivalent of cocoa.
What should you buy? It’s up to you, your tastebuds and your wallet – but don’t be dissuaded by commercial brands. One tablespoon of Hershey’s cocoa contains 10% of your daily iron needs and 2g of fibre, but less processed varieties will have more antioxidants. Just be sure to avoid “drinking chocolate” – that’s code for cocoa mixed with sugar, milk powder or solids and possibly marshmallows.
Cost: AU$5 for 250g / US $3 for 8 oz. (15c per 1 tbsp serve)
How to use: Make a healthy hot chocolate, add a spoonful to a banana or berry smoothie, stir cocoa through 1 cup of coconut water and 2tbsp of chia seeds for a healthy chocolate pudding (you’ll have to wait a few hours though!).
10. Dark chocolate
You may be thinking chocolate isn’t a superfood or that good quality brands are too pricey. But dark chocolate, with a cocoa content of 85% or above, is a great source of iron and antioxidants. Most brands of 70% cocoa and above are also lactose and dairy-free, so suitable for vegans too. Unlike traditional chocolate bars, it’s hard to overindulge on dark chocolate because of its richness (although I need a lot of willpower to only eat two squares). If dark chocolate isn’t your thing, try starting with a 60% cocoa bar and working your way up. My favourite is Lindt’s 90% variety and I have a square every night with a cup of white tea. Two 10g squares of dark chocolates contains 120 calories and 7% of your daily iron intake.
Cost: AU/US$3-4 for a 100g block (or just 30 cents per square).
How to use: As if I have to tell you how to eat chocolate!
Everything on this page is vegetarian, and everything is vegan except for eggs. This list is entirely gluten-free too, except for rolled oats (although certified gluten-free brands exist).
All prices are based on my best knowledge and research of major Australian and American supermarkets. If there’s a bargain superfood in your country (or something I’ve missed!), please share in the comments below.
Check out Perth’s Top Health Food Stores for my favourite places to buy in bulk. They’re usually much cheaper than major supermarkets and some deliver interstate too!
Please remember I’m a journalist, not a nutritionist. I check my sources and I regularly shop on a budget – but don’t make drastic diet changes without seeing a professional. However, I guarantee lentils won’t kill you and you’ll grow to love 90% dark chocolate eventually!
Winter seems to bring sniffles and sore throats no matter how well you look after yourself. I try to avoid getting sick in the cooler months by paying close attention to diet and exercise, even when it’s dark and rainy outside. I still get a cold or two each year, but I tend to fight bugs quickly and get back to normal within two days.
When I do feel a cold setting in, I head straight to the kitchen and make tea with lemon and raw honey. I’ll also make a big batch of vegetable soup packed with fresh herbs and a hint of chilli. It’s both nourishing and comforting, and convenient if you’re at home unwell for a few days. To treat a sore throat, I gargle warm saltwater a few times a day and also have a spoonful of raw honey. Salt helps reduce bacteria growth and unprocessed honey also has antibacterial benefits. These are easy remedies to find if you’re suddenly struck down at work or travelling too.
My boyfriend recently got a winter bug and the doctor’s advice was simply to stay warm and rest. I turned to our humble apartment kitchen to try find a remedy. We had carrots, fresh ginger, garlic and a packet of dried shiitake mushrooms. I cooked this soup within 30 minutes and it was too good not to share! It’s delicious, nutrient-packed and has a serious ginger kick.
How does it help you in winter? Carrots are an excellent source of Vitamin A (330% of recommended daily intake in a medium carrot), which is vital for immune function. Ginger and garlic have antimicrobial benefits and add a strong, medicinal flavour to this soup. Dried shiitake mushrooms have been shown to boost immunity, and they also add umami which is known as the ‘fifth taste’ after salty, sweet, sour and bitter. You can find dried shiitake mushrooms for around $3-4 a packet in the Asian section of most grocery stores, either whole or sliced. Enjoy!
Time: 30 minutes (5 mins prep, 15 mins cooking + 10 mins soaking)
8 dried shiitake mushrooms
2 cups water (1 cup hot , 1 cup room temperature)
1/2 tbsp olive oil
3 cloves garlic, crushed or roughly chopped
1cm (half-inch) fresh ginger, sliced
5 carrots, thinly sliced
1 tbsp salt-reduced soy sauce (or tamari if gluten-free)
Place shiitake mushrooms in a bowl with 1 cup of hot (not boiling) water. Let soak for 10 minutes, then let them continue soaking while you start on the soup.
Heat oil in a medium sized saucepan.
Sauté garlic and ginger for 2 – 3 minutes, until fragrant.
Add sliced carrots and remaining 1 cup of water, plus half the shiitake mushroom water.
Bring to a boil then simmer on medium heat for 8 – 10 minutes, or until carrots are soft but not soggy.
Blend 3/4 of the soup using a hand held mixer or machine (I use my Vitamix). Be careful when blending hot liquids as they can explode when you remove the lid.
Return the blended mix to the saucepan and add soy sauce and remaining shiitake mushroom water (keeping mushrooms separate). Stir and reheat if necessary.
Slice the shiitake mushrooms. They should be soft but slightly chewy.
Divide soup into two bowls, and serve topped with the mushrooms and fresh herbs.
Leftovers will keep a day or two in the refrigerator. This recipe is easy to double too. It’s so delicious, I’m going to recreate it all winter! Next time, I’ll try topping it with roasted chickpeas for a protein boost.
If my life was a book, there would be a lengthy chapter called “Hayley vs Cellulite.” I was a chubby, happy baby often likened to the Michelin Tyre man or called ‘Papulka,’ which my family tells me is Polish for chubby cheeks. It’s cute when you’re a toddler, but at high school my excess baggage was horrible. I was self-conscious, lacked energy and couldn’t fit into anything fashionable.
My family ate healthily and my sisters and I rarely had sweets or junk food. I just didn’t like exercising. When I went overseas for a year in the mid-2000s, I ballooned on my backpacker diet of pasta and beer. It was a moment, aged 19, when I saw my ankles in the mirror that shocked me into action. I started walking, doing yoga and I joined a gym. In the battle of Hayley vs Cellulite, I was charging ahead.
It took about five years but I lost around 25 kilograms (55 pounds). It took another five years to drop a further 5kg (11lbs) but then my weight loss hit a solid, cement wall in 2015. I desperately wanted to break the plateau. I was working out at least six days a week (cardio, strength and flexibility), weighing my meals and limiting alcohol and dining out. What more could I do, apart from stay home and eat dust?
Introducing… the 5:2 Diet
I put the question to my long-trusted naturopath. He’s guided me on my health journey for a decade and I value his every word. When he answered “Have you heard of the 5:2 Diet?,” I had a nervous twitch. Yes, I’d heard of this diet. I’d assumed it was another crazy Dukan, Gwenyth Paltrow, fruitarian regime touted by tabloid magazines. I had dismissed it as completely unscientific and unsustainable.
Yet I trusted my naturopath, so I listened intently. He explained the concept of 5:2, in which you eat just 500 calories a day, two days a week (or 600 calories for men) and the remaining days you eat normally (ideally healthily). The engineers of this diet, the UK’s Michael Mosley and Mimi Spencer, say you drop 0.5kg a week. Importantly, my naturopath noted you lose body fat while retaining muscle. Intermittent fasting was done in various cultures and religions across the world and was actually very natural. I was surprised.
It was tempting, yet petrifying. You see, I’m someone who wakes up ravenous. I eat lunch while thinking about my dinner and I pack a snack if I’m going out for more than an hour. How on earth was I going to fast for a day, and still function like a normal human? Desperate to change my body, I decided to give it a go.
My First Fasting Day
I had a fair idea of what 500 calories would get me. I planned my food intake the night before in MyFitnessPal and opted for three small, light meals. I ensured there was a mix of vegetables, some protein, carbs and a little fat. Throw in a cup of tea or two, some willpower, and I could do it!
How was my first fast day? It was HORRIBLE. I lasted an hour after waking up before having plain oatmeal. I ate slowly but mourned the loss of my regular fresh fruit toppings. I hit the gym for an hour, walked home and anxiously waited until 1pm for my next meal. Having skipped my usual post-gym smoothie, it felt like forever. I drank lots of water and tried to distract myself with housework. My tummy grumbled. I couldn’t concentrate. But I persisted, and made it to my self-appointed lunch deadline. The bowl of zucchini noodles and tiny cubes of tofu was bland and completely unsatisfying. I wished the day would hurry up and end.
I drank more water, hitting two litres by early afternoon before doing errands for a few hours. This tactic was successful although I had a headache, and felt pretty hazy. I couldn’t stop thinking about food. I wanted fruit, nuts and a thick slice of sourdough. I began to realise how much I relied on snacks but also how much I enjoyed them. I got home around 5pm and had a cup of tea with a splash of milk. I savoured every sip.
At 7pm, it was finally dinner time. I made a basic soup of some chopped vegetables, a little stock and a tablespoon of lentils. Waiting for it to cook helped kill time and the liquid made me feel full, even though it was essentially seasoned water. Every spoonful was slow and precious. It was surprisingly satisfying, and I felt good knowing I’d almost made it through the day. Within 90 minutes, I was hungry again. I had a cup of tea, felt slightly comforted and went to bed around 10pm hungry but relieved. I’d survived my first fast!
The Next Day
I had a terrible night’s sleep. I’d gotten up multiple times to go to the bathroom (thanks, three litres of water) and I woke up before dawn with a roaring stomach. I grabbed some nuts while I put the kettle on. I treasured each, glorious bite of those walnuts. When I had some raisins as chaser, I was in heaven at such a rich and fatty combination. I didn’t go crazy, just a few of each, but it was like sensory overload. I ate normally throughout the rest of the day, throwing in a bonus raw ball and maybe a second handful of nuts. I was definitely hungrier than normal but aside from the extra few snacks, I didn’t go on a food rampage nor binge on chocolate cake.
What I remember most of all is how hollow my stomach felt, even the day after. I was surprised how good it felt to feel empty, even though I felt horrendously guilty for all those people who experience that feeling because of poverty or war. I’m told intermittent fasting is good for giving your digestive system a break, and it certainly felt like I had. I decided to stick with the 5:2 diet for a while, although only once a week as I didn’t want to fast at work or all weekend.
What I like about 5:2
This was my biggest motivation for trying 5:2, and it worked. Fasting roughly once a week, I lost about 3kg over two months. I still ate well on other days and kept exercised intensely, but 5:2 helped break my plateau. I remember one run in particular at my lowest weight – I felt lean, strong and light! Of course, travel and Christmas put a pause on fasting and the weight came back. But I really liked seeing the results.
It’s difficult to describe the feeling, but my stomach just felt good the day after fasting. It felt hollow but strong. If I’d had any stomach issues, such as a little bloating or gas, a fasting day fixed it. Often we’re encouraged to consume something to feel better, but I find being empty is a great cure.
Reconnecting with hunger signals
How often do you truly feel hunger? In the Western world, you can buy a meal in minutes or have a snack instantly. Often you eat because the clock says it’s lunchtime, or to prevent hunger later (like snacking before a long meeting). Sometimes, you just really want that cupcake. Fasting helped me realise the different stages of hunger, and importantly that it passes. No more grabbing fruit or crackers the second I feel hungry. Now I have some water or tea, wait, and I’m usually fine until lunch time.
Sense of accomplishment
Fasting absolutely tests my willpower. But there’s something about setting a goal and achieving it that feels great. Fasting doesn’t cost anything and doesn’t take much planning. You just have to have be strong, and I always feel proud at the end of a fast day.
This is obvious. Being hungry is not fun or comfortable. However, it is natural. I doubt our cavemen and cavewomen ancestors woke up and went straight to the dining table. Enjoy the return to primal instincts (see “reconnecting with hunger signals” above).
In my first 10 or so fasting days, I’d get a dull pain in my head for a few hours or feel light headed. Suspecting it was lack of sugar (as I was still having caffeine from tea), I started adding a few strawberries to my oatmeal which helped. Whether it was this change or simply time, I rarely get headaches now.
I used to turn into a braindead sloth by 3pm on a fast day, cranky and only able to do robotic tasks like laundry or vacuuming until I considered it late enough for dinner (usually 7pm). Again, this symptom has subsided. I now go to work and function just fine, although I’m reluctant to do an evening gym session on a fasting day. My workouts are definitely harder the day after fasting, especially weights. I simply adjust my gym classes – cycling seems to be the best day-after workout so far.
I’ll keep this brief. Any drastic change to your diet will impact your bowels and fasting is no different. Prepare for a lot of movement the day after you fast or none at all. There are plenty of forums covering this issue if you’d like more detail. I simply say eat healthy, fibrous foods and don’t go on a long hike in the wilderness the day after.
Now you know the good, the bad and the gross. If you want to give fasting a go, here’s my guide!
My Tips for 5:2 Diet
1. Pick Your Strategy
Are you a volume eater (large quantity of food, but low-calorie), or do a few, nutrient-rich bites work for you? Opting for volume means you’ll eat for longer but you could just have one 500-calorie smoothie too. Personally, I’m a volume eater. I’ll always choose a bowl of zucchini and mushrooms over 10 almonds. Yes, the calories are about the same if you cook without oil!
2. Decide Your Meal Frequency
Are you hungry when you wake up? Or does your tummy only rumble mid-morning? Think about your normal routine, and I’d suggest replicating that. Some 5:2 dieters save all their calories for an evening meal. For me, I started on three light meals (oatmeal, soup and zucchini noodles) but after a few weeks realised I could hold off breakfast until about 2pm. I could then just have dinner around 7pm, with a snack before bed. It comes down to whatever you can sustain.
3. Homemade or Ready-Made?
Like a normal day, you can prepare food yourself or buy your meals. Here are the pros and cons of each on a fasting day:
Homemade: You’ll need scales to weigh your ingredients and a calorie counting app (such as MyFitnessPal) to track your overall intake. Like all homemade meals, you can control the oil, dressings and salt and therefore stretch your 500 calories. This method is also reliable, as you’ll know exactly what’s in your food. But if you don’t like cooking, you’re adding another chore to an already challenging day.
Ready-made: This is good option if you don’t want to buy scales or if you’re travelling. One way is to find grocery items that add up to 500 calories using the nutrition panels (such as soup, sliced bread or labelled-salads). Alternatively, you could rely on restaurants that publish nutritional information. I read about one 5:2 dieter who enjoyed two small sushi rolls on a fasting day. I’d stay away from fast-food outlets though. At 563 calories, a Big Mac will claim your entire daily limit.
5:2 Meal Ideas
It might sound restrictive, but when you cut snacks, carbs and dressings, you can get a decent amount of food for 500 calories. Think of the 5:2 Diet as going shopping – how much can you get with your allowance? My fast day staples include rolled oats (116 cals), half a punnet of strawberries (40 cals), and zucchini (40 cals). I always allow a cup of soy milk too (100 cals) to splash into oatmeal and with my Earl Grey.
Here’s a recent example of a fast day. I did yoga in the morning, had two meals plus a snack before bed. Normally I’d choose fresh fruit over dried, but I’d run out.
When fasting, you learn magical things like an entire can of diced tomatoes is only 80 cals and packed with the antioxidant lycopene. And the average capsicum is around 30 cals and packs in 400% of your daily Vitamin C intake. You also learn that a turkish roll, at nearly 400 calories without anything inside, is off limits for a fast day. My favourite fast day foods are in a meal plan at the end of this post.
Final tips & words of encouragement
Pick a day where you’re busy, but not challenged. Book in a physio appointments, make those store returns and collect your dry cleaning.
You’re giving your digestive system a rest. It’ll thank you!
Hunger is like sleepiness. It comes and goes in waves, rather than getting progressively worse.
Fasting is way cheaper than a juice cleanse.
And finally… YOU CAN EAT… tomorrow!
My fast day meal plan:
QUESTION: Have you tried the 5:2 Diet? What was your experience?
I have a new love in my life. It’s putting a spring in my step every morning and I’m glowing for hours when I get to work. Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I felt so satisfied! It’s enough to start rumours. Who exactly is my newfound love affair?
STEEL CUT OATS.
I was already an oatmeal addict. An effortless and comforting breakfast, it’s full of whole grain goodness and fibre for only 120 calories a bowl. Irresistible! So when my naturopath suggested I try the steel cut variety, I was keen. Also known as Irish or Scottish oats, steel cut oats are oat kernels which have been coarsely cut by a metal blade. Because of this, they have a lower glycemic index (GI) than their rolled counterparts (which are steamed oat kernels rolled into flakes). Why is low GI good? The carbohydrate in the food breaks down slower, therefore having a slower response on your blood sugar levels and helping you feel full longer.
I ordered a kilo of steel cut oats from my favourite bulk food store 2 Brothers Foods and a few days later, my future love arrived. First surprise – steel cut oats look like RICE. Second surprise (or shock) – they take 25 minutes to cook. It was nearly a deal breaker! That was NEVER going to happen before work. But then I discovered some magic…
Steel cut oats actually improve with time, becoming thicker and creamier unlike rolled oats, which turn to glue. I’ve been making steel cut oats on a Sunday using this recipe from The Healthy Chef, dividing it into bowls and then enjoying heavenly, slow-cooked breakfasts throughout the week by simply reheating in the microwave. Steel cut oats have a nutty taste and chewy texture almost like brown rice, but in a thick, oat cream. They’re so satisfying and nutritious, I feel like I’m in a Swiss alpine retreat with every spoonful.
An overripe orange inspired me to use steel cut oats to make Bircher Muesli, by soaking 1/2 cup overnight with orange juice and soy milk. It was delicious, filling and refreshing thanks to the citrus. However, I don’t think my relationship with steel cut oats is going to be exclusive. For one, you can’t make granola with them or you’ll snap a tooth. Also, the hot, creamy texture isn’t suited to all fruits and for me, cooked oats lose their magic eaten cold.
So today, I’m sharing my weekday breakfast repertoire and a few favourite recipes. Why isn’t there any boxed cereal on this list? See my explainer at the end.
A 30 gram (1/3 cup) serve of rolled oats packs so much nutrition! Whole grain goodness, 4 grams of protein, a type of fibre called beta-glucan which helps with cholesterol levels, and minerals like manganese which is vital for bone formation and phosphorus for basic cell function and bone support. At $3 a kilo and 120 calories a bowl, oats are bang for your buck and bite!
I cook rolled oats almost daily in the microwave. It takes just three minutes and I add nothing more than a splash of soy milk, cinnamon and a sprinkle of nuts and raisins. Quick oats have a similar nutrition profile but watch for out for the individual sachets. They’re often packed with sugar, contain milk powder and have dubious flavourings. There’s a lot of controversy about whether oats are gluten-free but as I’m not a doctor or scientist, it’s best to consider this issue yourself if it’s a concern.
Best for: time poor, budget-friendly, low calorie, cooking at work. Downside? Leftovers turn glue-like.
Don’t be fooled! Buckwheat doesn’t contain any wheat. It’s a seed more closely related to rhubarb than the cereals it resembles, so it’s gluten-free and paleo. A 45 gram (1/4 cup) serve has 5 grams of protein and is a source of iron (about 6% daily needs for women 19-50 years, 12% for men 19+ years) along with manganese, magnesium and copper. It’s about $4 a kilo.
You can eat roasted buckwheat groats (“kasha”) like granola, or cook groats with milk and water to make porridge, where they become something like pearl couscous. I love making mine on the stovetop with vanilla, slices of ginger, cinnamon and cloves, topped with raisins. It’s a recipe inspired by The Healthy Chef (yep, again!) and takes about 20 minutes, but you can reheat and eat during the week. Bonus? Buckwheat is a great savoury ingredient too, and can be used for pilafs, salads or sprinkled on roasted vegetables or soups for crunch!
Best for: gluten-free, reheat-friendly, versatile, source of iron, freezer-friendly. Downside? Longer cooking time and bland on its own. It’s the only dish on this list I sweeten with a little raw honey.
Quinoa (pronounced keen-WAH) is amazing. A 45 gram serve (1/4 cup) is 160 calories, contains 6 grams of protein, 10% of daily iron needs for women and 20% for men along with manganese, phosphorus and folate which our bodies need to make DNA. Quinoa is gluten-free, with a delicious but unusual nutty texture. For breakfast, I cook white quinoa as it softens much more than the red or black variety with grated apple, cinnamon and vanilla.
I also cook large quantities in my rice cooker and then freeze it in single serves, so I can make a quick breakfast by adding hot water, milk and spices or mix it with roast vegetables and leafy greens for an easy lunch. Quinoa flakes are becoming popular as a quick-cooking option but I prefer the chewier texture of whole quinoa. One kilo costs about $16, making quinoa the most expensive option on this list.
Best for: gluten-free, high in iron, eating cold, versatility, freezer friendly. Downside? Price, cooking time.
Click below for recipes:
WHY I DON’T EAT PACKAGED CEREAL
With all these wholesome options, I rarely buy boxed cereal. A quick scan of nutrition panels and ingredient lists is frightening! Yes, packaged cereal is quick and convenient but you lose so much nutrition from the processing. Discarding the obvious sugar-laden products like Cocoa Pops and Fruit Loops, even those marketed as ‘healthier’ don’t cut it for me:
Kellogg’s Nutri-Grain: It’s 25% sugar! One cup (40 grams) has 10 grams.
Kellogg’s Sultana Bran: 3/4 cup (45 grams) contains 12 grams of sugar. Some of is naturally occurring from the sultanas, but there’s still added sugar.
Uncle Toby’s Cheerios: Lower sugar, but do you want to start your day with food colourings?
The only commercial cereal I’d consider is Sanitarium’s Weet-Bix, with only a few simple ingredients and one gram of sugar in a 30 gram serve (2 biscuits), or a good quality natural muesli.
If cereal is 100% your thing, have a go at making your own granola. I make a batch fortnightly based on a recipe from The Healthy Chef, using 3 cups of rolled oats, 2 cups of flaked almonds and 1 cup of seeds (sunflower or pumpkin). Combine with 2 tablespoons of maple syrup, a teaspoon each of vanilla and cinnamon and roast in thin layer at 120 degrees (fan-forced) for 60 minutes. Add a handful of dried fruit once cooled. It’s so easy, you’ll never get the boxed kind again! It’s a lot cheaper too.
And of course, my breakfasts aren’t complete without a big cup of Earl Grey!