Most of us know that a healthy and nutritious diet helps to reduce the risk of serious conditions such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer.
But trying to find out what a nutritious diet actually is can be a challenge. It’s hard to know where, in among the claims of the high-protein diet, the low carb diet, the paleolithic diet, the keto diet etc. to find reliable information.
The Australian Dietary Guidelines are a good place to start.
The Australian Dietary Guidelines
The Australian Dietary Guidelines provide up-to-date information from the best scientific evidence.
The Guidelines are designed for the general Australian population. It’s important to be aware that they’re not for people who need special dietary advice, such as those with a medical condition or the very elderly.
The Australian Dietary Guidelines are structured around the following five recommendations:
- To achieve and maintain a healthy weight, be physically active and choose amounts of nutritious food and drinks to meet your energy needs.
- Enjoy a wide variety of nutritious foods from the five food groups every day (see below).
- Limit your intake of foods containing saturated fat, added salt, added sugars and alcohol.
- Encourage, support and promote breastfeeding.
- Care for your food; prepare and store it safely.
Taking a closer look at Guideline 2, it recommends eating a variety of food from these five groups:
- Grains—Wholegrain foods (such as wholemeal/wholegrain bread, pasta and noodles; oats; quinoa; and brown rice) are recommended as they are healthier than refined grain foods (such as white bread, many breakfast cereals and pastries).
Wholegrain foods can reduce the risk of developing diseases including coronary heart disease, colon cancer and type 2 diabetes. Also, the fibre in wholegrains helps keep your digestive system healthy and working properly.
- Vegetables and legumes/beans—Vegetables are high in fibre, low in energy (kilojoules) and are a good source of vitamins and minerals. This makes them ideal to support managing your weight. There are many different types of vegetables, including dark green vegetables (such as broccoli, Asian greens, lettuce and spinach), root vegetables (such as potato, carrots, sweet potato and beetroot), legumes/beans (chickpeas, lentils) and other vegetables such as celery and capsicum.
Eat a wide range of colourful vegetables at most meal times. Starchy vegetables such as sweet potato, taro or sweet corn should form a smaller part of your daily intake because they are higher in energy than other vegetables.
- Lean meats/fish, eggs, tofu, nuts—This group is important as it provides protein and other nutrients such as iodine, iron, zinc and vitamins (especially B12) and essential fatty acids. Choose lean meats such as beef, pork and skinless chicken breast plus fish and eggs. You can also have plant-based alternatives.
- Milk, yoghurt, cheese—These provide calcium, which is vital for strong teeth and bones as well as for the health of nerves and muscle tissue. If you’re consuming dairy, low- or reduced-fat milk, yogurt and cheese are recommended as full-fat products can be high in kilojoules and saturated fat.
- Fruit—Eating a variety of different-coloured fruit allows you to benefit from a range of vitamins and minerals. Fruit is also beneficial because it’s low in kilojoules and high in fibre and water, which helps with digestion. The fibre in fruit is also thought to reduce the risk of some cancers, including colorectal cancer.
Try not to drink fruit juice, which can be high in kilojoules and low in dietary fibre. Juice can even damage your teeth. Eating fruits whole is a healthier and more filling choice.
Here is the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating: a visual representation of the Australian dietary guidelines. It shows the five core food groups previously discussed and how much of your diet each of these food groups should make up.
It’s not surprising that discretionary food (also known as ‘junk food’) is not included in the Australian Dietary Guidelines’ recommendations. Junk food does not contribute to a nutritious diet. It contains high levels of fat, salt and sugar and lacks important nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and fibre.
Some examples of junk food are:
- ice cream, cakes, donuts, lollies and chocolate
- takeaway ‘fast foods’ such as hot chips, fried chicken, pizza and burgers
- sugary drinks (such as cordial, energy drinks and soft drinks)
- alcoholic drinks.
A healthy, nutritious diet can include a small amount of junk food. But many people eat too much of it. As well as causing weight gain, other short-term effects of eating too much junk food are:
- tiredness/lack of energy
- problems sleeping
- difficulty concentrating
- feeling down
- increased stress levels
- tooth decay.
Long-term effects of eating junk food include:
- type 2 diabetes
- heart problems (such as cardiovascular disease)
- certain cancers
- high blood pressure
- eating disorders
- high cholesterol
It’s important to drink plenty of water for good health. Drinks such as soft drinks (for example Coke and Sprite), fruit juice, cordial, sports drinks and energy drinks are not recommended. These sugary drinks are high in kilojoules (energy) and can lead to weight gain and obesity. Many of these drinks can also harm your teeth and lead to tooth decay.
Alcohol is also high in kilojoules and can lead to weight gain. If you choose to have alcohol, the NHMRC guidelines recommend that healthy adults limit their consumption to 10 standard drinks a week and no more than 4 standard drinks on any one day.
Is it expensive to follow the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating?
You might think that eating healthily is expensive—it isn’t. With some planning, simple recipes and smart shopping, it’s actually cheaper than buying takeaway food or eating out.
Here are some examples:
- a kilogram of potatoes costs about $4.50, but the same amount of processed oven chips would be around $7.00
- premade pumpkin soup costs approximately $7.00, whereas a kilogram of pumpkin costs around $4.00
- a takeaway burger could cost $15. For this amount of money, you could buy 500 grams of lean minced beef (making at least four meat patties), bread rolls and salad mix.
Nutritious meals don’t need to be expensive. Here are some tips to help you save money and adopt healthy eating habits.
- Plan your meals ahead of time. Read your supermarket’s weekly catalogue so that you can see what fresh food is on special.
- Make a shopping list and stick to it.
- Spend most of your food budget on the important five food groups.
- Drink water instead of juice and soft drinks.
- Buy fruits and vegetables that are in season.
- Try frozen vegetables—they’re cheaper than fresh vegetables and handy to have in your freezer.
- Try tinned tuna or frozen fish—they’re cheaper than fresh fish.
- Cook in bulk and freeze leftovers for work lunches or nights when you don’t have time to cook.
- Buy smaller amounts of lean meat and bulk out meals with vegetables. For example, if you’re making spaghetti bolognese, add extra diced vegetables and lentils to make the meal go further.
What about ‘miracle’ diets?
Diets that claim to provide an easy, fast track to weight loss and good health are constantly popping up. As appealing as these diets may sound, they can potentially be harmful.
While some do help with initial weight loss, the restrictiveness of their rules can make them difficult to stick to in the long term—and the weight goes back on.
Some fad diets don’t allow certain foods that are actually nutritious. This can lead to malnourishment (when you’re not getting the nutrients your body needs to be healthy).
If you want to lose weight and get healthier, the safest and most effective approach is to develop healthy eating habits and build up your physical activity.
The food we eat plays an important role in our health and wellbeing.
Following the recommendations in the Australian Dietary guidelines and the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating will help you develop healthy eating habits that can reduce your risk of chronic health problems.
So can joining a healthy lifestyle program.
How can the Life! program help me develop healthy eating habits?
Life! is a free healthy lifestyle program that will give you all the information and support you need to eat healthily.
Our experienced health professionals will help you make small changes to your lifestyle so that you can adapt your diet to reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke. You’ll learn how to reduce cholesterol in your diet and improve your heart health with your diet. The program will also work with you to reduce your fat, salt and sugar intake; increase your fibre intake; and ultimately improve your general health and wellbeing.
You can choose from a group course or our Telephone Health Coaching service.
The Life! program is funded by the Victorian government and managed by Diabetes Victoria.
You can take a quick online health test and check your eligibility for the program here.