There are many different perspectives on how to eat well and be healthy throughout your life. Building a healthy diet doesn’t have to be complicated.
There’s the Mediterranean diet, the Keto diet, ‘clean eating’, vegetarian, plant based, the healthy eating pyramid… It can easily be an information overload. Where do you start? Fortunately, building a healthy diet doesn’t have to be complicated. It comes down to 2 key things:
While it can feel like nutrition research is constantly changing and backflipping on previous
recommendations, there is one thing that remains constant: WHOLE FOODS!
Whole foods are foods that haven’t changed much between the farmer and you. They are fresh or minimally processed foods with little or no ingredients added to them and/or little or no components taken away.
Much of the nutrition science and research revolves around individual nutrients and their effect on health. There’s lots of talk around carbs, proteins, omega 3 fatty acids, saturated fats, even individual vitamins and minerals. However, this is one of the big mistakes that’s made when interpreting nutrition research, as it often causes us to lose sight of the bigger picture. When we interpret science with the bigger picture in mind and think about the whole foods consumed as part of an overall dietary pattern, that’s when nutrition research becomes much more applicable to our daily lives.
Your body is a complex machine that needs an incredibly wide variety of food chemicals to keep it functioning well. In truth, only a small proportion of the chemicals in our food are well understood. By limiting food processing, many of the original food chemicals, or nutrients, are kept in the food when it enters your body. The more processing a food has undergone, the more nutrients will be removed, narrowing the variety of food chemicals you receive. Eating foods in their whole form, allows your body to access the all the nutrients that food contains, not just the ones that are well understood, but also the ones that aren’t.
It’s important to remember, however, that not all forms of food processing removes nutrition from our food. Some food processing allows a food to be safe for human consumption, such as the pasturisation of milk. Other forms of processing can add nutrients to your food that you wouldn’t have received from the original food product like the process of allowing certain bacteria to grow in milk and form yoghurt.
The trick is to think critically about the foods you’re eating and consider ‘How much has happened to this food between the farmer and me?’ And ‘Are there alternatives or foods I could add to increase the amount of whole food in this meal?’
• If you’re wanting to enjoy some crackers, cheese and wine in the afternoon as a treat, these are some ways you could increase your whole foods: Serve the cheese with fresh fruit, nuts and whole grain crackers.
• You may be looking for a quick and easy breakfast. Choose a whole grain cereal and add in some fruits, yoghurt and seeds.
• If you’re ordering lunch, consider adding a side salad that has a mix of vegetables and crunchy nuts.
• When cooking a BBQ, swap the sausages and rissoles for marinaded meats and grilled vegetables. A side salad is always a great addition.
These are all ways that you can minimise the processed food in your meals and snacks, which flows on to affect the variety and volume of nutrients in your diet and support long term health.
What you eat in one meal or in one day has very little impact on your health over the long term. It’s what you find yourself doing over and over and over again, that will make the biggest difference. So rather than worrying about picking a perfectly healthy meal or focusing on what you’ve eaten today, shift your perspective to what you find happens regularly. What are the habits that lead you to choose more processed foods? What patterns result in mindless eating or a sense of regret with food? Changing our consistent patterns comes down to 2 things: planning and awareness.
Without some form of plan or preparation, every meal or snack time would involve asking: ‘What am I going to eat?’ However, by that point, you are likely to be hungry and looking for the easiest food option. It’s very hard to choose a whole food in that situation. By thinking ahead, it’s much easier to have whole foods stocked and prepared, which then increases the amount of whole food you’re choosing to eat on a daily basis.
• If you are getting to the end of a workday ravenously hungry and snacking on crackers or biscuits before dinner why not plan to have a whole food snack like an apple and handful of nuts just before you leave work or have something ready for when you get home.
• If you are craving something sweet after dinner, chop up some fruit salad at the beginning of the week and serve it with yoghurt.
• If you are struggling to get ½ a plate of veg in with your dinner, plan your meals for a few days in advance and write down what veg you will have with it.
A little bit of forward thinking and preparation can go a long way to resulting in more whole food choices.
As mentioned, it’s not what you do on occasion that matters. However, the brain can use this information to justify a lot of processed food choices.
‘Have another biscuit, what difference does it make?’
‘One more glass of wine won’t hurt, it’s just this one special occasion.’
Sometimes, this can mean that you can choose processed food options much more frequently than you realise. It’s not that you don’t want to eat well, it’s just that your brain is finding ways to keep you in a comfort zone of what it knows.
Tracking can be a very valuable tool to check in with your food patterns or habits. If you’re trying to reduce your intake of processed food, you can try tracking your food intake for a few days and identify the mealtimes where processed foods are more likely to happen. Then you can problem- solve and find more whole food alternatives for those mealtimes. If you’re feeling unsure, an Accredited Practising Dietitian can help to provide alternatives that will increase your whole food intake and fit within your life.
Generally, when you are consistently eating lots of whole foods, the rest of the nutrition details often work themselves out. It’s only when you’re nailing the consistency of regularly choosing whole foods that it’s worth worrying about the individual nutrients.
If you find that you’re being consistent with lots of whole foods and you’re still not seeing health improvements, then it’s a good time to reach out to a health professional like an Accredited Practising Dietitian. They can help you to fine tune the details of the right nutrition balance for you. Plus, if you’re already being consistent with whole foods, you are most of the way there and any changes you make with the dietitian will have a greater impact.