Before I launch into a semi-rant/semi-informative blog post about healthy eating, let me get a couple of things straight. Firstly, I am not a dietitian and am in no way about to provide the definitive works on nutrition and diet. Secondly, as I am writing this I just bit the ears off a delicious Cadbury chocolate bunny and may well continue devouring it as I write the following paragraphs so I’m not about to shame you for doing the same every now and then.
It is no secret that Australians on average weigh too much, exercise too little and suffer the consequences when it comes to lifestyle-related chronic diseases. At the moment there is a huge movement bordering on obsession with ‘clean’ eating, religiously following quasi-experts who champion fad diets and tracking all our food intake and activity. And yet as a nation we still keep getting more type 2 diabetes, more heart disease, more fatty livers and more lifestyle-related cancers. There is so much conflicting information out there about whether we should eat high protein, low carb, low fat, gluten-free, low-GI, low-GL, Mediterranean, DASH, paleo or sugar-free etc etc that it all becomes too much to think about and so most of us continue on without changing anything we eat at all, or worse decide to calm down from the diet madness with a nice slab of chocolate cake.
Of course, what you eat is going to be based on your health goals, whether that be weight loss or gain, training for an event or avoiding foods that don’t agree with you. But when it comes to eating well for life, and to preventing lifestyle-related diseases that will creep up on us if we aren’t careful, what should we actually be eating?
For every research study that is published showing that low carb is better than low fat, or that sugar is the root of all evil, another is published showing that in a nutshell, all diets have the same outcome: if you can’t stick to it long term then don’t bother. Numerous large studies have recently examined long term outcomes of various diets and all groups pretty much lose the same amount of weight and have similar health effects down the track. Maybe instead of focusing on specific nutrients or specific diets, we need to take a step back and just eat REAL FOOD? Ground-breaking, I know.
So with that in mind, and without even entering the ‘which is worse: fat or sugar’ debate, here are my official ‘Dr Kate’s Guidelines for Healthy & Happy Eating’…
Fill 90% of your trolley with raw/unprocessed/real whole foods
I’m not talking about eating raw cacao beans with a hint of quinoa, I mean make the majority of the food you buy each week be as close to the natural form as possible. 90% of the ingredients you need to create delicious and healthy meals can be found in the wondrous fruit & veg, deli/butcher and fridge sections of the supermarket. It might sound extreme but if you stock your kitchen with healthy ingredients, then the meals you create will in turn be nutritious and delicious. Of the 10% that comes from the grocery aisles, aim to buy foods with as few ingredients as possible… and if you don’t know what any of the ingredients are, then maybe you shouldn’t be eating whatever that chemically-sounding thing is. On that note, the more you can learn about reading nutrition panels on foods, the better choices you will be able to make.
Everything in moderation, with a few exceptions
When it comes to food-related mottos, ‘everything in moderation’ is my number 1, closely followed by ‘treat yourself’. However, in the interests of eating for health and eating well for life, things like lollies, ice cream and biscuits need to be eaten in the way they were initially designed - as treats. Not as something to be bought regularly with the weekly groceries or chucked in school lunch boxes. When kids are eating packets of chips, chocolate bars and pies on the reg, it’s little wonder that what we consider as ‘treat’ foods have gone from a chocolate bar to a donut stuffed with 3 chocolate bars coated in more chocolate and covered in sprinkles.
Your body is constantly renewing the cells that make up all of its tissues and organs, and the only fuel it has is whatever you consume. Think about it… if you want to build a lean, healthy and happy body, you need to fill up on top quality fuel because you actually are made up of what you eat. So it goes without saying that consuming any amount of cigarette smoke (I’m looking at you Mr ‘I only smoke when I’m drinking’ and Ms ‘but if I stop smoking I’ll eat more’), excessive alcohol or just rubbish food will hinder any health goals you set for yourself.
Divide and conquer
Aim to divide your plate into 50% salad/veggies/fruit, 30% lean protein and 20% wholegrain carbohydrates… or whichever similar ratio works for your eating goals, with the emphasis on making the majority of your meal fresh produce. You can adapt any of your favourite recipes to fit, like adding more veggies to homemade pizzas or pasta, or supplementing a juicy steak with a generous serving of salad. You can gradually increase the amount of veggies you include in meals by finely grating carrot/zucchini/broccoli/any veg really into pasta sauces or hamburger patties to add ‘hidden’ veggies to meals you already like eating. Minimal effort for a maximal nutrient boost! By also buying groceries in a similar ratio, it is easier to eat a varied and enjoyable array of healthy meals.
Fuel your lifestyle
No matter how healthy your diet is, if you spend all your time sitting down and don’t do any exercise, chances are that over time you will still gain weight and develop lifestyle-related chronic health issues. Being physically active in and of itself is a protective factor against heart disease, osteoporosis, depression, some cancers and all-cause early death. Most Australian adults are sedentary at work and in their leisure time, so we have to put in more effort to be active than our grandparents, who likely walked around and exerted more energy in their everyday lives without even trying. Following current guidelines, we all need to aim for daily activity of 60 mins, and that’s vigorous exercise that increases your heart rate enough to make you breathless and break a sweat. Find an activity you love and it won’t even feel like a chore - trampolining, kayaking, hiking, yoga, boxing, jogging or good old aerobics classes - all workouts are better than none.
If the healthy ingredients aren’t in your kitchen, chances are you won’t be eating them. There is a wealth of meal prep inspiration out there for the taking (just open Pinterest for starters), and especially getting lunches organised for the week ahead of time makes it much less tempting to buy a less healthy option. Also on that note - when doing the groceries, write a shopping list and don’t go near a supermarket on an empty stomach (otherwise you will definitely leave with a chocolate mudcake, Tim Tams and none of the veggies you actually needed… not talking from experience or anything I swear…) Double wins for your wallet and your waistline! What we do every day is much more important than what we do every now and then, so getting the staples sorted in advance sets you up for a solid food foundation.
Focus on the end-game
If you have made it this far down the page you must have some interest in your health, so if you want to do something positive and health-promoting, what exactly is your goal? If you can tangibly measure whatever health outcome it is you want to achieve, then sticking to eating healthily and exercising regularly becomes a whole lot easier.
If we start viewing the food we eat as fuel for our body, rather than a reward or a currency to bargain with, we can shift the focus from short term dieting to long term eating for health and happiness. There is no point restricting yourself to only eating organic steamed kale all week if you are then compelled to binge on 5 blocks of chocolate on the weekend. By creating a balanced, delicious and nutritious way of eating that is sustainable, eating becomes an experience to be savoured and not a source of stress. The less we obsess over fads and instead embrace eating real foods, the more we will be able to establish sustainably nourishing eating patterns. On that note, time to put down the Easter chocolate and cook up some fresh and tasty lunches for the (extra short) week ahead!