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What is Healthy Eating Anyway?

November 1,2018

​There is certainly no shortage of information on what you need to eat to be healthy. Facebook, Instagram and Google are littered with advice. While magazines, TV and radio are all selling the latest and greatest way to eat yourself healthier.

The problem is that the information changes from week to week and from person to person. While one person is saying potatoes are toxic, another is saying we should all be vegan. ​

​Then there’s gluten free, sugar free, Failsafe, low FODMAP, vegetarian, pescetarian, keto, low carb, high fat, high protein…. Its no wonder everyone is so confused.

So what are we supposed to do if we want to eat healthier?

Well you can start by looking around the world at the Blue Zones. These are the five regions of the world that have been identified by experts as areas where people live the longest and healthiest lives. It is common for people in these areas to live to 100 with the number of centenarians almost 5-times higher than in Australia. The blue zones include:

  1. Ikaria, Greece
  2. Okinawa, Japan
  3. Sardinia, Italy
  4. Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica
  5. A seventh day Adventist community in Loma Linda, California.

The issue now though, is that no two of these groups of people actually eat the same diet, and some are even polar opposites. Are you now even more confused? Well, what this actually tells us is that there is no one diet that is right for everyone, and healthy eating looks different for different people based on their genetics, their lifestyle and their health needs.

In the last twenty years I have worked across three countries and two continents as first a Registered Nurse and more recently an Accredited Practising Dietitian. In this time, I don’t think I have seen two people receive the exact same medical treatment or identical dietary advice, even if they present with the same issue to start with. So let’s step back and look at what these people’s diets have in common.

Variety

We have five food groups, each of which provides different types of nutrients, for example fruits and vegetables are packed with vitamins and minerals, grains provide us with energy through the day and fibre for healthy bowel function, while meat and legumes have protein which is important for preserving muscle and strength as well as hormone and enzyme reactions. Even within food groups variety is a good thing, for example oranges and citrus fruits are good sources of vitamin C, carrots and pumpkins contain beta carotene while tomatoes have lycopene and leafy greens have vitamin K.

My rule of thumb to ensure variety, is to aim for at least three different food groups in a main meal and at least two food groups in a snack.

Eating a variety of foods from all of these food groups each day will provide your body with the vast array of nutrients it needs to function well. As soon as we start restricting foods or food groups we limit the access to certain nutrients and narrow the playing field. If for one reason or another you are unable to eat a certain food, I advise considering the types of vitamins, minerals and nutrition it brings and aim to replace it with something that is nutritionally similar. For example, milk is an important source of calcium and protein, if you are unable to drink cows milk it’s a good idea to look for a milk alternative that contains similar amounts of calcium (120mg/100ml) and protein (3g/100ml)

Fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains

You really want these foods to make up the majority of your diet. One of the key common elements of the dietary patterns in the Blue Zones is eating a plant based diet. In 2014 this review looked the relationship between diet and chronic disease risks. The researchers looked at a total 304 meta-analyses and systematic reviews published over the last 63 years. The stand out finding of this review was that, plant-based foods are protective against diet related chronic diseases, including diabetes and heart disease when compared to animal-based food. Within the group of plant based foods whole grains were slightly more protective that fruits and vegetables.

For animal-based foods, dairy products overall were considered neutral on health risk and fish was considered protective. Red and processed meats were linked to a higher disease risk. This research supports the health benefits the type of diets eaten in Blue Zone.

Eating behaviours

Ellyn Satter is a very smart dietitian who once said “when the joy goes out of eating, nutrition suffers”. We are whole beings and food is about more than just fueling. We eat for pleasure and for comfort. Food brings people together and is involved in social connectedness. The way we eat, behave and think about food can nourish the body and the soul or it can just as easily cause emotional distress. A diet that is overly restrictive may be stressful to try and stick too, it may cause issues when going out for meals with friends or family and worst of all, it may lead to feelings of guilt and depression if a food is eaten that is not considered to be “allowed”.

Final thoughts

  • What is right for you may be very different to what is right for your neighbour or friend, and that’s ok. The world would be a very boring place if we were all the same. Focus on the style of eating that makes you feel good physically and emotionally.
  • Variety is a good thing, and will give your body access to a wide range of nutrients that it needs to be well and feel healthy.
  • Enjoy a wide variety of wholegrains, legumes, vegetables and fruits. Only 7% of Australians actually eat the recommended amounts of vegetables each day. On top of this, the typical Australian diet is excessive in highly processed discretionary foods, so here is where to make food swaps to improve the quality of your diet.
  • Avoid rigid food rules and the all or nothing approach. Life isn’t about being perfect. If you’re eating a variety of foods from all the food groups, especially plenty fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains, the occasional meal out or dessert is an important part of maintaining a certain amount of sanity around food. It also wont undo the goodness you get from your morning exercise, nor the amount of plant foods you eat the rest of the week.
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