We’re always hearing health advice and ‘rules’ for eating healthily. Some seem common sense – but could they actually be doing more harm than good? Senior nutritionist Rose Carr investigates.
Rule to break: Stick to the walls of the supermarket
It’s said that the perimeter of the supermarket is the safest place to shop if you are trying to be healthy. That’s because it’s generally where you’ll find the least processed foods, like fruit and vegetables, bread, meat, dairy, and other chilled foods (including frozen vegetables and fruit).
If you diligently follow this rule, you could be missing out. Convenient and healthy foods can be located in the middle of the supermarket. For example, chickpeas, lentils and cannellini beans are usually found in the middle aisles. The same goes for canned tomatoes, baked beans and tins of tuna. Then there’s the entire aisle devoted to cereal, oats and muesli. Shopping the perimeter also means you’ll miss the health food aisle which contains healthy staples like quinoa, nuts and dried fruit.
Rule to break: Don’t eat anything your Grandma wouldn’t recognise
The theory behind this rule is that our grandparents didn’t eat a lot of processed foods, and they didn’t have as many problems with weight or obesity-related diseases. Their diets were a lot simpler – which is good, right?
While that may be true, there are lots of healthy foods your grandmother may not recognise from her childhood that add variety to our diets, are easier to prepare or simply taste fantastic!
Foods your grandparents may not have enjoyed in their youth
low-fat dairy products like milk, yoghurt and ice-cream; and reduced-fat cheeses like cheddar and ricotta
flavoured tinned tomatoes
light coconut milk
orzo or risoni
soy products (like soy milk)
Rule to break: Choose only organic foods
Organic foods are produced without using manufactured chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Many people believe organic food is safer and more nutritious.
Foods labelled ‘organic’ are telling you about how they are produced, not about their nutrition. The jury is still out on whether organic food is any better for you nutritionally than non-organic.
A 2009 review of the research found no evidence of differences in nutrient quality between organic and conventionally-grown foods. A year later, the authors reviewed the research regarding the nutrition-related health of eating organic versus conventional foods. They found no evidence of any health benefits, or harm, in consuming organic foods. Buying locally-grown organic foods is a good choice for the environment, but if your budget says no, there is no reason to believe that you’ll be any less healthy.
Rule to break: Eat only raw food
People increasing the amount of raw food in their diets also increase their consumption of vegetables and fruit, which, frankly, we think is a good thing. But there is no benefit in missing out on the foods which need to be cooked to be edible, such as legumes, potatoes and rice.
While cooking can reduce the nutrient content of some foods, such as vegetables overcooked in a large amount of water, for other foods the nutrient value is enhanced. For example, you get substantially more of the antioxidant lycopene from cooked or processed tomatoes than from raw tomatoes.
A strict raw food diet is not recommended because you could miss out on a whole host of nutrients, including protein, calcium and omega-3. This kind of diet is also not sustainable in the long term, as it is far too restrictive. Your best bet is to eat a balanced diet containing plenty of salad, vegetables and fresh fruit, along with wholegrains, lean meats and low-fat dairy foods.
Rule to break: Eat six small meals a day
You may have heard the theory that eating more frequently helps stimulate the metabolism and burn more energy. Other people may eat more often to avoid getting hungry, and making impulsive poor food choices. While many diet books and ‘nutrition gurus’ advocate the benefits of eating many small meals – instead of three large meals throughout the day – it pays to think twice before jumping on the bandwagon.
This could do you more harm than good if you’re trying to lose weight: research has found people tend to consume more kilojoules when eating more frequently. The research also supports regular rather than irregular meals for weight control – regardless of whether three meals or six suits you best.
We don’t think occasionally experiencing mild hunger is so bad: in this age of overconsumption, it’s good when we can recognise our body’s hunger cues. Just have a stash of healthy snacks if you need them.
Rule to break: No carbs after 5pm
Most people love following simple food rules when it comes to losing weight. If this is your shorthand reminder for ‘no pies, pastries, cakes and sweets’ after 5pm, then it won’t do you any harm. But don’t take the ‘no carbs after 5’ rule too literally!
Our advice: Carbohydrates are the preferred fuel source for our brains, the main source of energy when we exercise, and the best way to replenish our muscle stores after exercise. Rather than having a ‘no carb’ rule for a specific part of the day, it’s better to even out the intake throughout the day so our brains and bodies don’t fatigue. If you’re trying to lose weight, it’s a much better idea to divide your plate: fill a quarter of the plate with protein, a quarter with carbs (such as a potato, rice or pasta) and fill the rest of the plate with vegetables.
Rule to break: Always buy low-fat versions
It’s true that fat is a concentrated source of energy: 1g fat provides 38kJ, but 1g carbohydrate or 1g protein has only 17kJ.
The ‘fat is bad’ mantra ought to be ancient history by now. Fats are essential in our diet. they absorb the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, and long-chain omega-3 fats are associated with many health benefits. It is the type of fat and the amount of fat that is important. Too much saturated fat – the fat mostly from animal products – is the main cause of high cholesterol, which can lead to heart disease. ‘Low fat’ or ‘fat free’ does not mean ‘no kilojoules’ and may not even mean ‘low kilojoules’. If it’s fewer kilojoules you’re after, be sure to read the nutrition panels, not just the hype on the front. Limit saturated fat to less than 24g per day, and don’t overdo the good fats found in plant sources and fish.
Rule to break: Eat a huge breakfast to make you eat less later
You may have heard the theory that eating a large breakfast will help you consume fewer calories throughout the day. While it’s true you need to eat something in the morning to ‘break the fast’ and provide energy and nutrients to kickstart your day, this is not a license to eat whatever you want in the belief you will magically eat less later!
A recent German study found that people who ate a large, high-calorie breakfast consumed the same amount of calories across the rest of the day as people who ate small or low-calorie breakfasts. The big breakfast added around 1680kJ to overall daily energy intake. Our advice? Enjoy a healthy breakfast that will keep you satisfied until morning tea time or lunch!
Rule to break: Cut out the coffee
Coffee has been given a bad rep lately, mainly due to the view that large doses of caffeine can negatively affect your health. But that doesn’t mean you need to cut out coffee completely.
Coffee contains useful minerals, phyto-chemicals and plenty of antioxidants. Drinking coffee, in moderation, has been associated with a reduced risk of gallbladder disease and liver cancer. In addition, a recent study of postmenopausal women who drank at least four cups of coffee a day showed a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, although more research is needed.
A skim flat white or skim latte in the morning is also a good way to boost your dairy consumption and kick-start the day at the same time. Caffeine effects are cumulative, and can last for up to eight hours, so for a good night’s sleep, avoid coffee and other sources of caffeine after 2pm.
Rule to break: Drink a minimum of eight glasses of water a day
Making sure you get enough water is important to avoid dehydration and constipation, but there’s no scientific basis for the ‘eight glasses a day’ mantra. The amount of water needed is quite individual and varies considerably with the temperature outside, activity levels and even age.
When it’s hotter and when we’re exercising, we naturally lose more fluid and it’s important to replace it. When it’s cold and we’re sedentary, extra fluid will just be flushed from the body naturally.
Fluid recommendations are not just about drinking unadulterated water. You also get water from fruit, vegetables, even coffee! There’s good news for those who’ve heard that caffeine depletes fluid levels – research doesn’t support the theory that drinking coffee leads to fluid loss.
If you aren’t sure if you are getting enough fluid, check your urine. Pale urine is ideal – anything darker means you need more fluid, and clear urine may indicate too much fluid.
Rule to break: Vegetarian options are healthier
Vegetarian options can be healthier and lower in kilojoules. But that’s not always the case, so be wary when ordering what you assume is a ‘healthier’ vegetarian option.
A vegetable pie or tart often has no less fat than a meat pie, and that quiche could be laden with saturated fat if it has a thick pastry with cream and cheese in the filling. Nachos and burritos can be heavy on the sour cream and cheese; deep-fried falafel or samosas will be high in fat; and it may actually be cream making that dressing or vegetable curry sauce so creamy.
If it’s the lighter options you want, avoid piesand pastries and anything deep-fried or laden with cheese. Instead of creamy sauces, choose tomato-based sauces, and ask for the sauce or dressing on the side if you’re not sure what’s in it. Look for options using legumes or tofu as the protein rather than just cheese.
Rule to break: When in doubt, pop a vitamin pill
Hands up if you’re someone who pops a vitamin pill (or six) whenever you’re feeling run down? Or do you take a multitude of vitamins every day, ‘just in case’ you’re deficient in any nutrients?
While supplements are a good way to boost specific deficiencies, it pays to remember that too much of a good thing can be dangerous if consumed in excess. There are two basic types of vitamins: water-soluble ones like vitamin C and the B group vitamins; and fat-soluble, such as vitamins A, D, E and K. Once our bodies have sufficient vitamins and minerals, they excrete the excess.
Fat-soluble vitamins have a higher tendency to become toxic, as they build up in our body’s fat stores and take longer to be excreted than water-soluble vitamins. Supplements are beneficial for many specific needs such as pregnancy, iron deficiency and restricted diets, such as vegan. However, the relationship between nutrients and other compounds in food is not yet fully understood, so consuming a healthy balanced diet is still the best way for your body to get the nutrients it needs!