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Healthy Diet Fundamentals

Cooking and Eating Habits

Cooking and preparing your own meals and eating habits are a crucial part of a healthy diet. A good diet is not just about what you eat, but also about how you eat. Cooking and preparing your own food is the first step towards having agency over what you eat, and moving towards better long-term health.

Oils are an important part of cooking and while some oils provide important nutrients, all oils are very high in energy providing 740kj per 20ml tablespoon - about the same energy as 2 chocolate biscuits. So choose heart healthy oils to cook with, use a variety of oil to suit the dish you are preparing and only add a small amount to avoid adding extra energy to meals.

Changing your eating habits and approach to food into a lifestyle decision can have an enormous influence on your health. The Australian dietary guidelines were revised in 2013. For adults 19-50 years, eating the following number of serves of foods each will help ensure you receive the nutrients you need.

Foods No. of serves (per day)
Vegetables 5 - 6
Fruit 2
Bread/cereals 6
Meats & protein 2.5 - 3
Dairy 2.5

Fruits and vegetables

The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend adults consume 2 serves of fruit and 5 serves of vegetables every day. A diet including plenty of vegetables, legumes/beans and fruit has been shown to be protective against many chronic diseases, including heart disease, stroke and some cancers, also a diet high in these plant foods tends to have a lower energy density meaning such a diet helps with maintaining a healthy weight.

Fruit is best consumed whole, canned fruit packed in natural juice (1 cup) can be consumed as a serving to add variety, but juice and dried fruit should only be consumed occasionally. Consuming fruit as juice makes it too easy to over consume sugar and energy, a standard serve of fruit juice is 125ml, but not many of us stick to 125ml. Similarly eating fruit dried can lead to overconsumption, a standard serve of dried fruit is 30g, 1 ½ tablespoons of sultanas or 4 dried apricot halves for example.

Vegetables contain a range of vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytochemicals, eating a variety of different coloured vegetables helps to ensure you consume a wide variety of nutrients. A serve of vegetables is about 75g, consuming some vegetables as snacks, including salads and vegetables at lunch as well as at dinner and adding grated or finely chopped vegetables to other mixed dishes like bolognaise sauce and meat patties can ensure you eat your 5 serves per day.

Protein

Lean meat, chicken, fish & eggs provide protein, iron, zinc and other minerals and vitamins. The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend 2.5 and 3 serves for adult women and men under 50 respectably. While red meat provides many important nutrients, consuming too much increases you risk of colorectal cancer, it is recommended that no more than 455g (cooked weight) be consumed per week.

Oily fish like tuna and salmon is a good source of omega 3 fats; it is recommended that adults consume 2 serves per week. The serving sizes for meat, chicken and fish referred to in the Australian Dietary Guidelines are small compared to average meal size portions, two serves and be eaten together as 1 meat portion. Serve sizes are as follows:

  • Red meat: 65g cooked, 90-100g raw
  • Chicken: 80g cooked, 100g raw
  • Fish: 100g cooked, 115g raw
  • Eggs: 2
  • Plant based protein sources can be substituted for animal ones, one serve = 30g nuts or seeds, 1 cup cooked or canned legumes/beans or 170g Tofu.

Carbohydrates

High protein/low carbohydrate diets have received a lot of positive publicity, but The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend adults consume 6 serves of grain foods per day for overall good health. One serving equals 1 slice of bread, ½ cup of cooked rice, pasta or porridge or 30g of wholegrain breakfast cereal. It is best to choose wholegrain carbohydrates, consume a variety of different foods and consume the grain foods as a part of healthy meals and snacks.

Meals such as stir-fry which include a moderate serve of rice (3/4 cup of cooked rice), lean meat and plenty of vegetables, a salad sandwich including 2 slices of thinly sliced grainy bread, lean meat, chicken or fish and plenty of salad or a soup including barley, lean meat and vegetables and legumes/lentils are a great way of consuming whole grains as part of nutritious foods.

Simple & highly processed carbohydrates such as biscuits, cakes, soft drinks and snack items are not very nutritious, generally only providing energy and sugars and often a lot of fat and salt, these are the carbohydrates that should be avoided.

Digestion

We all have micro-organisms living in our gastrointestinal system, some perform helpful roles like producing vitamins and helping us digest fiber, others can produce harmful effects.

The type and quantity of micro-organisms living in your gut is influenced by many factors; including the way you were born, genetics, diet, age, environment, stress, antibiotic use and other lifestyle and environmental factors. Studies have found that people with certain diseases have similar patterns of micro-organisms in their gut indicating perhaps some diseases can be influenced by changing the type or quantity of micro-organisms living there. Hopefully researchers will be able to identify the most helpful micro-organisms to have in your gut and how to change your diet and lifestyle to encourage them to grow.

Metabolism

People trying to lose weight sometimes blame a slow metabolism, but what are they actually referring too?

Metabolism is a measure of how much energy your body needs each day to function. Metabolism is made up of Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) which is a measure of how much energy your body requires to just keep all of its essential functions happening, plus extra energy for activity and exercise, growth (if you are a child) and body repair/recovery.

As muscle produces energy, factors which affect muscle mass also affect metabolic rate. The bigger you are the more muscle you have, the more you exercise the more muscle you build, men tend to have more muscle than women and we lose muscle over time so gender and age will affect muscle mass and metabolic rate.

Some of the factors affecting your metabolism you can’t change like age and size but eating regularly and not skipping meals and participating in exercise that builds muscle and improves fitness you can help keep your metabolism as high as possible. Exercise is important at all ages, while the type and intensity of exercise you can do might change with age, it is important to keep moving to help minimise muscle loss over time.

Glycemic Index (G.I.)

Carbohydrates include starchy foods like bread, rice, pasta and potatoes, and sugars such as sucrose, lactose in milk and fructose in fruit. Carbohydrates are digested in the small intestines and end up as glucose in the blood. Glycemic index is a measure of how quickly the carbohydrate food is digested and results in a rise in blood glucose. In some instances, like when you are about to go for a long run you need a quick burst of glucose, but generally slowly digested carbohydrates are better for long term health, including weight control and the management of diabetes.

Many foods have had their glycemic index measured; information on the GI of foods is available in books, online and on many food labels. It is easy to improve your health by simply swapping from your current high GI food to the lower GI alternative.

Make the Switch

White bread    --->    Multigrain bread

Jasmine rice    --->    Basmati rice

White Potatoes    --->    Kumara (Sweet Potatoes)

White crackers    --->    Multigrain ones

Quick cook porridge    --->    Traditional Porridge

Exercise and Weight Control

Your eating habits need to be balanced against how active your lifestyle is. For very active adults, add an extra snack and increase portion sizes as required to support activity level and maintain a healthy weight. For inactive or overweight adults, increase exercise, reduce snacks to maximum of 1 per day, omit treats and reduce portion sizes to allow for gradual weight loss of ½ to 1 kg per day until a healthy weight is achieved. Some weight reduction diets might be inadequate in certain nutrients; a dietary supplement may be required. An Accredited Practicing Dietitian can help design a nutritionally adequate meal plan for adults interested in weight loss.