By choosing the right amount of nutritious food and drink to meet our energy needs we can improve our health and reduce our risk of chronic disease such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, some cancers and obesity.
So, what are we doing wrong? Most of us are simply consuming too much of the wrong type of food and drink.
These are the guidelines for healthy eating:
- Eat a wide variety of nutritious foods from five food groups every day.
- Limit alcohol and food high in saturated fat, salt and sugar.
- Drink plenty of water
What are the five food groups?
- Vegetables and legumes/beans
Many of the different colours in fruit and veg denote powerful antioxidants, which may protect against certain diseases, including heart disease, liver disease and some cancers. Legumes are beans or peas (which are just as good frozen as fresh). Choose a wide variety of vegetables and legumes in different colours, like dark green curly kale, yellow capsicum, orange carrots and red cabbage.
Fresh fruit is a great source of vitamins and it contains dietary fibre, which can help improve cholesterol and stabilise blood sugar levels. Fibre can also help prevent some diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and bowel cancer. Diets that are low in fibre – and too high in saturated fat and animal protein – can upset the microbial balance in the gut and reduce the diversity of ‘good’ bacteria. Eating fruit is better for you than fruit juice, which contains all the sugar but very little of the fibre. You also don’t get all the nutrients that are found in the skin and flesh in drinking the juice alone.
- Grain foods
These include foods made from oats, rice, wheat, barley, rye, quinoa, and spelt just to name a few. This includes things like bread, couscous and breakfast cereals like muesli, sushi, crackers and crispbreads. Wholegrain varieties are best because they contain the highest concentration of fibre, minerals and vitamins, some of which are lost in processed grains.
- Lean meats and poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts, seeds and legumes/beans
These foods supply protein, which is essential for the cells and tissues in our bodies to grow and repair. Protein is essential for the maintenance of good health. Avoid eating processed meat or too much red meat as this has been linked to an increased risk of contracting certain cancers.
- Milk, yogurt, cheese and/or alternatives
Dairy foods are another source of protein and an important source of vitamins and minerals like calcium. Vegans can substitute soy or nut products but they need to contain added calcium. Check the ingredients list to make sure calcium is listed and see how much by looking at the nutrition information panel.
How much of each food group should you eat every day?
Probably more than you think. Eating more of the right food every day, and less of the ‘discretionary’ food can go a long way to improving your nutritional health.
- 5 serves of vegetables or legumes/beans
- 2 serves of fruit
- 3-6 serves of grain foods
- 2-3 serves of lean meat or poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts, seeds and legumes/beans
- 2.5-4 serves yogurt, cheese and/or alternatives
You can check what’s meant by a standard serving size here. Men, women, children and babies have different nutritional needs. Use the above
serves as a guide only and consult a health care professional to personalise them to meet your needs.
Foods that don’t fit into any of the five food categories are called ‘discretionary’. These are foods that are high in energy, added fat and saturated fat, sugar and salt. And let’s not forget alcohol. You should only have them as an occasional treat, not every day.
In some cases, as with processed meats such as bacon and ham, they are linked to an increased risk of cancer.
Discretionary foods include:
- Biscuits, cakes, puddings
- Meat pies
- Potato chips
- Beer, wine, spirits
- Energy drinks and soft drinks
- Chocolate bars
Try only having these foods and drinks occasionally and in small amounts. As a good tip – eat foods and drinks from the five food groups 80% of the time and include the odd discretionary item if you need to as the other 20%. The full list is on the eatforhealth website.
Limit alcohol consumption
There’s no ‘safe’ level of alcohol consumption. Researchers now know that even small amounts can harm your health. The more alcohol you drink, the greater your risk of ill health.
You can reduce your risk by complying with recommended alcohol guidelines:
- No more than ten standard drinks in a week
- No more than four standard drinks on a single occasion
- No alcohol during pregnancy or while breastfeeding
- No alcohol for children and young people under 18
- Aim for two alcohol free days each week
- Drink plenty of water at the same time to avoid dehydration
Snacking on the right food is important in keeping your blood glucose levels stable and your your energy up. Check out our healthy snacking guide for inspiration and yumminess.
Oil and fats
There are major differences in the health benefits of the oil and fat we use in cooking and food preparation. The three main types of fat are:
- Unsaturated fat – largely liquid, for example olive oil, canola oil, sunflower, rice bran and
- Saturated – often solid at room temperature, like butter and coconut oil (or cream and milk) or
- Trans fats – processed fats found naturally in small amounts in butter, some vegetable oils and margarines. Common processed foods that contain high amounts of trans fats are chocolate spreads, meat pies, pastry, sausage rolls and croissants.
Unsaturated fats (olive oil is the best example) can lower your risk of heart disease and help keep cholesterol within safe levels. Saturated fats (like butter) have the opposite effect. They can increase your risk of heart disease and raise levels of ‘bad’ cholesterol (LDL). Trans fats are unsaturated, but they act like saturated fats and contribute towards increasing your risk of high cholesterol and heart disease.
For optimum health benefits, use less saturated fat and more unsaturated fat, and try to avoid trans fats altogether.
The Heart Foundation has tips and hints on how to get the right balance of good fats in your diet.
A word on supplements
Most of us can get all the nutrition we need from food, rather than taking supplements.
For example, you can get the following antioxidants, vitamins and minerals from these food sources:
- Vitamin A – liver, sweet potatoes, carrots, milk and egg yolks
- Vitamin C – broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower
- Vitamin E – almonds, avocado, leafy greens
- Carotenoids – apricots, asparagus, broccoli
- Zinc – Beef, oysters, pumpkin seeds
- Selenium – Brazil nuts, fish, shellfish and mushrooms
Vegetarians might need to take an iron supplement or vitamin B12, and people with osteoporosis might need extra calcium and vitamin D, but if your diet is healthy and balanced, and you have no vitamin deficiencies, you don’t need to add any supplements.
Health star rating
Australia’s health star rating for packaged food products provides a tool to compare like for like products at a glance helping you make smarter choices when it comes to packaged food. Health star ratings are shown on over 10,000 packaged foods. Fresh foods like fruit and vegetables don’t bear health stars because they are all 5-star rated!
It’s a Government initiative that, at the moment, is voluntary. All ingredients have to be listed on packaged food in Australia, but the idea of the star rating system is to save you time when you’re weighing up the nutritional value of food. Put simply, more stars mean healthier food.
How to use star ratings
Use star ratings to compare similar products. If you’re trying to decide which packet of muesli to buy, star ratings give you a quick guide to how healthy each brand might be.
The ratings are based on the total energy (calories or kilojoules) of the product as well as the ingredients.
High amounts of saturated fat, salt and sugar are linked to an increased risk of developing chronic diseases, so these lower the star rating. Fibre, protein, fruit, veg, nut and legumes are all good for your health, so these ingredients are likely to increase the star rating.
Star ratings don’t appear on:
- Fresh fruit and vegetables
- Condiments (vinegar, herbs and spices)
- Tea, coffee
- Single ingredient foods (e.g. flour)
- Infant formula
- Sports foods
- Medicinal food
Star ratings don’t mean that certain products will give you a balanced nutritional diet. Always follow the Australian guidelines on healthy eating.
All information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only. The information provided should not be relied upon as medical advice and does not supersede or replace a consultation with a suitably qualified healthcare professional.
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