Eat & Move with Derval O’Rourke: Is there a perfect diet for long-term health?

As the New Year approaches I know many of you are starting to consider health changes and this week I’m looking at if there is a perfect diet for long term health. Recipe wise it’s my stuffed peppers and fancy breakfast toast.

I often get asked what is the best diet or perfect way to eat. People want to know if it is low fat, gluten free or ketogenic. They want to know if they should eat like our Paleo ancestors, fast intermittently or transition to veganism? In reality it is not a specific diet, but a combination of personal, lifestyle and environmental factors that lead to better overall health and longevity.

The World Health Organisation defines health as a state of complete physical, mental and emotional wellbeing and not simply the absence of disease or infirmity. This highlights that while diet has a huge role to play in being healthy and well it is not the only factor we need to focus on.

When talking about the optimal diet for human health, a great place to refer to is the Blue Zones of the world. These are regions of the world, for example the Ikaria of Greece and the Okinawa of Japan, that have the highest concentration of centenarians and the lowest rates of disease in the world. While the lifestyles and eating habits of these populations differ greatly there are common traits running throughout that we need to prioritise.

Over the next few weeks, there will be a huge amount of coverage of ‘healthy’ new year diets/products. Whilst it’s tempting to look for the magic one that will be the answer to all your health goals maybe consider what we know from the Blue Zones of the world.

The core principles we observe from these populations are:

  • Over-eating is not a common feature. They eat in an energy balance and maintain their bodyweight over the long run.
  • The foods are locally home-grown and prepared. They tend to eat less processed foods than the more Westernised diet. Personally I think this is really key.
  • They are regular consumers of whole grains and legumes. There are a plethora of health benefits associated with this from decreased risk of heart attack, stroke, type 2 diabetes, colon cancer and overall mortality.
  • They typically eat some meat and often dairy and eggs. It is also worth noting that none of the Blue Zones are vegan and only one is vegetarian.

Other factors that could contribute to their health and longevity outside of nutrition include:

  • Lots of physical activity
  • A close-knit community and family
  • Sun exposure
  • Lower stress levels
  • Low smoking rates
  • A sense of purpose perhaps spirituality
  • Lower levels of pollution

The Blue Zone eating patterns aren’t restrictive or extreme in nature. While ‘corrective’ diets can yield fantastic results for certain subgroups of the population, it would be a huge leap of faith to suggest that they are the optimal dietary strategies for everyone.

Ultimately, the optimal diet for you will take into account your goals, preferences, health conditions and a host of other factors. It is unlikely to look like the detox diets or crazy workout regimes you will be sold from every angle in January.

Your optimal diet will essentially focus on:

  • Allowing you to eat in an energy balance and maintain a healthy body weight over the long term. It is interesting to note that in most non-Westernised populations, body weight and blood pressure do not increase with age and abdominal obesity is largely absent.
  • Reducing/limiting refined starches – Focus on the quality of the carbohydrates you are eating. Aim for slower digesting, unprocessed and higher fibre options like sweet potatoes, brown rice, wholegrain bread, oats and quinoa where possible.
  • Reducing/limiting added sugar – These are the sugars added to foods and beverages when they are processed or prepared and can come under many different names including honey, dextrose, corn syrup, agave and sucrose. It does not include the naturally occurring (also called intrinsic) sugars found in milk and fruits.
  • Reducing/limiting processed foods - While things like microwavable rice, frozen vegetables and tinned beans are lifesavers when things get busy, the truth is that most of us rely too much on heavily processed foods on a daily basis. These tend to be higher in salt, sugar and fat and don’t fill us up for long. They are also easy to over eat. Simple swaps like making your own soups and sauces instead of buying the tinned versions or having oats instead of a sugary breakfast cereal can make a big difference.
  • Reducing/limiting certain processed fats – Aim to avoid trans fats found in margarine, fried food, pastries and highly processed snack foods as they have no benefits to health. Aim to swap saturated fats (found in cakes, biscuits, sausages, cheese, red meat, butter, cheese) for unsaturated fats (such as olive oil, nuts, avocado, seeds, poultry and fish) where possible.
  • Increasing whole grains and legumes –This is a key feature of the Blue Zone diets. Simple ways to do this could be adding chickpeas to a curry or lentils to a casserole and choosing brown rice, pasta and bread over white versions.
  • Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables – Aim for 5 servings per day and choose a variety of different colours. These are packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fibre all of which are important for optimal health and wellbeing.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed at this time of year but try to remember to keep things simple and focus on making sensible, long term sustainable changes. I recently launched a member based website, my aim was to bring together the various areas of health to one place online. I’ll chat a little more about it in next week’s column but in the meantime if you feel like checking it out I’d be delighted.

Just a final note to say Happy New Year to all my readers, it’s a real privilege to have the opportunity to write this column and connect with so many people. In particular I want to say a big end of year thank you to my editor Vickie Maye and to Aishling O’Hea who without their support this column would not get written each week. Here’s to a healthy, happy 2019.


I really enjoy the tips that Healthy Ireland put out on their twitter account.

They are simple and very useable.

Go check them out, a great follow for 2019.

Fancy Toast

This is one of my favourite no fuss breakfasts. It goes beautifully with a cup of coffee and makes a great pre-training snack too!

Prep Time: 2 minutes

Cook Time: 1 minute

Serves: 1

Nutritional information (per serving):

Calories – 546

Protein – 19g

Fat – 20

Carbohydrate – 73g

2 slices of good quality bread. I like sourdough

2 tbsp. nut butter, my preference is cashew

1 tbsp. mixed seeds

a drizzle of honey

Pop your toast in the toaster.

When it’s done spread the nut butter on to the bread. Scatter the mixed seeds over it and drizzle with honey.

Stuffed Peppers

These peppers are full of goodness and make a complete meal when served with a nice side salad. They are simple to make and once in the oven, they pretty much take care of themselves. If you want an alternative to the beef I would suggest using cooked lentils, rice or quinoa.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 50 minutes

Serves: 1

Nutritional information:

Protein – 53g

Fat – 28g

Carbohydrates – 50g

Calories – 645

2 tsp olive oil

2 shallots, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, crushed

200g lean minced beef

2 tbsp soy sauce

2 tbsp tomato puree

200g tinned chopped tomatoes

1 pepper, halved length ways and deseeded

2 tbsp grated parmesan or 2 slices mozzarella

A handful of mixed salad leaves, to serve

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas 4.

Heat the olive oil in a large pan over a medium heat. Add the shallots and cook for about 10 minutes, until softened. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Stir in the mince, soy sauce, tomato purée and chopped tomatoes and cook for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile, place the pepper halves on an ovenproof dish and bake for about 12 minutes, being careful not to burn them. Carefully remove the peppers from the oven and spoon the cooked mince into them.

Sprinkle over the Parmesan and return the peppers to the oven for 20 minutes.

Arrange the salad leaves on a serving plate alongside the stuffed peppers and serve with rice, quinoa or couscous.

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