Food plays a major part in our way of life and the evidence of this can be seen by the numbers of overweight adults and children that are all around us. What we don’t see, however, are the underlying health conditions caused by wrong food choices. Things like high blood pressure, muscle, bone and respiratory disorders and chronic illness including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke and some cancers. Being underweight also carries health risks.
To keep our body running at optimum warp speed, we need to feed it the right fuel. After all, we wouldn’t fill a diesel car up with unleaded petrol and then whinge about engine sluggishness, backfiring or sudden stopping. With food/fuel for our own bodies, however, a healthy diet is essential in making us ‘run’ better on a daily basis and it’s very much a preventative health measure for the future.
Confusion is our biggest problem. Every day we see conflicting information on some food or other – one day, something’s good for you and the next, we’re told it will lead you to an early grave. How to cut through and settle on a nutritious diet that will work for you and keep you in a clear mind about the differences in healthy and unhealthy food choices?
Help is at hand, with health insurers and the Australian Government stepping in to provide all the information you need for healthier diets. The National Health and Medical Research Council’s (NHMR) Australia Dietary Guidelines provides recommendations for healthy eating that are realistic, practical and – most importantly – based on the best available scientific evidence.
Diets: Strip them back
Clear the clutter in your mind – whether it’s the latest celebrity food fad or that advertised convenience snack – and you’ll learn to identify what’s really in that food source and where it rates on the nutrition scale. There’s an old saying that if your grandmother wouldn’t understand what the ingredients on the packet are, don’t touch it.
There are a plethora of artificial colours, flavourings and preservatives in everything these days – not to mention the silent assassins, sugar, salt (sodium), saturated fats and alcohol. Too much of these foods and drinks on a daily basis is a shaky foundation to a long-term, nutritious diet. Keep it simple and stick to the basic good food guidelines for the majority of your eating habits.
What to eat regularly
Enjoy a wide variety of nutritious foods from these 5 groups every day, says the NHMR.
- Plenty of vegetables, including different types and colours, and legumes/beans
- Grain (cereal) foods, mostly wholegrain and/or high cereal fibre varieties, such as breads, cereals, rice, pasta, noodles, polenta, couscous, oats, quinoa and barley
- Lean meats and poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds, and legumes/beans
- Milk, yoghurt, cheese and/or their alternatives, mostly reduced fat (reduced fat milks are not suitable for children under the age of two years)
And drink plenty of water. It’s essential for life. All biochemical reactions occur in water. It fills the spaces between the cells and helps form structures of large molecules such as protein and glycogen. Water is also required for digestion, absorption and transportation, as a solvent for nutrients, for elimination of waste products and to regulate body temperature. But, I hear you ask, water is part of soft drinks, cordials and fruit juices. Yes it is, but so are added caffeine, sugar and artificial colours and flavours which you don’t need if you can avoid them.
What to eat only occasionally
Limit intake of energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods containing saturated fat, added salt, added sugars and alcohol.
Foods high in saturated fats include – many biscuits, cakes, pastries, pies, processed meats, commercial burgers, pizza, fried foods, potato chips, crisps and other savoury snacks.
Replace these with – foods that contain predominantly polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats such as oils, spreads, nut butters/pastes and avocado. Once again, be mindful that low fat diets are not suitable for children under the age of 2 years.
Foods containing added salt – these are everywhere so always read labels to choose lower sodium options among similar foods. Another tip is to avoid adding salt to foods as you cook or at the table. There is so much “hidden” sodium in our daily diets, it’s highly unlikely you’ll end up salt deficient as a result.
Food and drinks high in added sugars include – lollies and chocolates, sugar-sweetened soft drinks and cordials, fruit drinks, vitamin waters, energy and sports drinks. Look out for so-called heathy foods such as yoghurt which often has a high sugar content to make it more palatable.
Replace these with – low or no sugar options (making your own cakes/biscuits/sweets at home means you can halve the sugar content without compromising taste – I know because I do it). Soft drinks, cordials and fruit juices heavily laced with teeth-corroding sugars can be replaced with water (yes, it can be done!) As for energy and sports drinks, don’t get me started.
If you choose to drink alcohol, limit your intake. For women who are pregnant, planning a pregnancy or breastfeeding, abstaining from alcohol is the recommended option.
One step at a time
It can be overwhelming trying to make too many changes at once so break it down into something that will work with your lifestyle. Setting yourself up for failure is not what you want to do. Maybe start by writing down what you honestly eat each day, then substitute some of that food and drink with different choices. One or two changes of dietary choices followed consistently are better than a dozen tried only once before reverting back to old habits. Being successful at healthier eating in a small way will encourage you to keep going and expand your nutrition horizons.
Let’s get physical
How much, or how little, exercise you and your family get has a great bearing on nutrient requirement. It’s highly likely that you need to move more – computer screens, office jobs, TVs, games, car travel all contribute to a sedentary existence we don’t necessarily like but seem to be caught up in. Maintaining muscle strength and a healthy weight is only dependent on two things – diet and exercise. If one is out of kilter with the other, problems will follow. So think about how much physical activity you really do on a daily basis and work out how you can improve on that. Once again, a little bit at a time to ensure success and you’re on the road to a more healthier you.