What is healthy eating? Does it mean something different to you than it does to the person next to you? Chances are it does. We all know that we should be eating healthier. But how do we do that? Does it mean we have to give up carbohydrates? We constantly hear messages like: bananas are fattening, olive oil is good, saturated fat is bad but coconut oil is good, chocolate is good and bad, eat more meat, eat less meat, eat legumes, don’t eat legumes … the list of healthy eating advice in the media and from friends is endless. And for many, totally confusing.
The good news is that if most of the popular diets are compared, as has been done,1 then you will find that the foundation advice is basically the same. Eat mainly foods that are naturally found in nature, with minimal processed foods. Eat lots of fresh wholesome foods; mostly fruit and vegetables with some lean meats, seafood, legumes, wholegrains, dairy. When we concentrate more on eating a variety of whole foods then we don’t need to worry so much about whether we are getting all the nutrients we need – they are already available in our food.
There are profound differences in each diet such as the fasting diet which entails one to two days of fasting each week; the juicing diet, which consists mainly of juices and soups; not eating legumes, reducing carbohydrates etc. Many diets advise the exclusion of major food groups such as carbohydrates, dairy and/or fat. And it is these exclusions that can help weight loss. The problem is that for most of us it isn’t sustainable. And it’s not always healthy. To be a successful way of eating that will contribute to our long term health the diet needs to be enjoyable and fit within our current lifestyles.
The big questions I would put to you are: Can you see yourself doing this for the rest of your life? Is this an eating plan that you would like your children to follow?
If you answer no to either of these then I would suggest this is not the diet that is going to help you maintain your health. Looking after our health is a long-term deal.
Most diets lead to weight loss in the short term but weight loss doesn’t necessarily mean a healthy body and it doesn’t even usually mean you feel better about yourself. Statistics show that weight loss is usually short term and between 90 and 95 percent of people put the weight back on and often more than they started with. Our self-confidence and positive body image is not associated with a number (weight) – it is from looking after ourselves and being kind to ourselves. Part of which is eating foods that are good for you and that you enjoy eating.
Recommended Food Groups
Fruit and Vegetables. The Ministry of Health, American Institute for Cancer Research and NZ Heart Foundation all recommend eating at least 5 servings a day of non-starchy vegetables and fruit. To achieve this try to have at least 2 pieces of fruit and then a third to a half of your main meal as vegetables. Add in extra vegetables into your pasta dishes, grate some courgette and carrot into spaghetti bolognaise, fry up some mushrooms and add to gravy. Don’t forget about lunch, a perfect time to add some fruit. If you’re having a sandwich include some grated carrot, beetroot, lettuce etc. Once you get into the habit of adding a few extra fruit and vegetables you will find that they add extra flavour and variety into your dishes. Even a small increase in fruit and vegetables has been shown to improve long term health and help to prevent diseases such as cancer and heart disease.
Breads and Cereals don’t always have a good reputation. This is definitely well deserved when it comes to the white refined flours, breads and cereals that are widely available. Aim to eat mainly whole-grains for the extra fibre and B vitamins. During these winter months nothing beats a hot bowl of porridge. Even if you add a sprinkle of sugar or honey this will still be a lot less sugar than the average breakfast cereal. Choose wholegrain bread for sandwiches and toast. Of course this doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t eat white bread, rice and flours just that they aren’t as nutritious or as satisfying.
Dairy products are often another hotly debated food group. The focus here is on the calcium content. Whether you choose cows milk, cheese and yoghurt or you prefer soy, rice or almond varieties it is important to check the calcium content. Most dairy alternatives are fortified but not all. Other sources of calcium include wholemeal breads, peanuts, broccoli, canned salmon, spinach, legumes and tofu but in much smaller quantities. Dairy products are also a good source of protein. Add some cheese to your sandwich, milk on your muesli or porridge, a yoghurt snack or cheese on your baked potato as well your servings of green vegetables and your calcium requirements will be covered.
Meat, Chicken Seafood, Eggs, Beans and Lentils. Whether you choose to eat meat, beans or a combination of both these are all great sources of protein, iron, zinc and minerals. Animal products contain a greater proportion of protein and iron in a form that the body absorbs more easily but you can still get all that you need from beans, lentils and nuts. Include some vitamin C rich foods such as tomatoes, oranges and broccoli in the same meal to increase the absorption of iron. When buying meat, choose the lean cuts and best quality mince. These are more expensive cuts but you are paying for meat rather than fat and a recommended serve is about the size and thickness of each person’s palm, approximately 100-150g per adult.
This is not ground breaking stuff – it will not be making an exciting headline but it is maintainable and is backed up by scientific research. It is a healthy way of eating and I believe you would be able to answer yes to both of the previous questions – I comfortably follow this with my kids and we’re in it for the long term.
Here are a couple of recipes for inspiration:
Chickpea Pita Pockets
serves 4 with leftovers
½ tin of lentils, drained and rinsed
½ onion finely diced
1 teaspoon garam masala (or coriander, cumin)
1 tin chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 tablespoon fresh ginger
2 tablespoons fresh coriander (optional)
1 cup breadcrumbs
Using a blender whiz together all the ingredients, except the breadcrumbs.
Mix in enough breadcrumbs to make a firm pattie. Should be a similar consistency to a mince pattie.
Fry in a hot pan with a little oil.
Serve in wholemeal pita pockets with lettuce, cheese, grated carrot, tomato, beetroot, relish and whatever else you enjoy and can stuff into the pocket.
Chicken and Chickpea Curry
This is a very mild curry which can be spiced up with the addition of chilies if preferred.
1-2 chicken legs per person
1 tablespoon oil
2 cloves garlic
2cm ginger, grated
½ teaspoon tumeric
1 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon each curry powder, cumin, coriander
1 bay leaf
½ teaspoon mustard seeds
2 cups water
4 medium potatoes, cut into large chunks, skin on
1 tin chickpeas
1 carrot, diced
1 capsicum, diced
4-5 mushrooms, sliced
½ tin coconut cream
Heat the oil and add the chicken legs to brown on each side.
Once the chicken has coloured add the onions, garlic, spices and mustard seeds. Fry on a medium heat until onions are soft.
Add the water and simmer for approximately 15 minutes.
Add the remaining ingredients and simmer for a further 10-12 minutes or until potatoes are cooked.
Serve with rice or on its own.
- Katz DL, Meller S. 2014. Can We Say What Diet is Best for Health. Annu Rev Public Health. 35:83-103
- World Cancer Research Fund / American Institute for Cancer Research. Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective. Washington DC: AICR, 2007