HFG experts help solve some of the most common dilemmas we face when it comes to making the best everyday food choices.
How you make a ‘healthy choice’ depends on your definition of the word healthy, and also your specific dietary needs. The healthiest option for someone with lactose intolerance will be different to someone without; and the best foods for an athlete in heavy training will be vastly different to someone who exercises a few times a week. There are various pros and cons to many foods, which can be endlessly debated, making it tricky to work out what really is best for you. So we’ve asked our experts here at Healthy Food Guide for the bottom line in each debate to help you make healthier choices every day.
Full-fat yoghurt or reduced-fat yoghurt?
“To reduce the amount of saturated fat in your diet and save some kilojoules while you’re at it, reduced-fat yoghurt is the way to go,” says HFG dietitian Zoe Wilson. “Yoghurt contains lactose, a type of natural sugar, but the thing to watch out for is that there isn’t too much extra sugar added to replace the fat that’s been taken out of reduced-fat yoghurts. If lots of sugar has been added then it’s possible that the amount of kilojoules may be almost the same as a full-fat yoghurt. There are reduced-fat yoghurts out there that are lower in added sugar, so always check the label. Look for one that has less than 400kJ per 100g and less than 20g total sugar per 100g.”
Gluten-free pasta or regular pasta?
“While every second celebrity seems to be promoting the benefits of going gluten-free, unless you have a reason to eat gluten-free, such as coeliac disease or a wheat intolerance, regular pasta is better,” says HFG nutritionist Claire Turnbull. “It’s lower-GI – and a lot cheaper!”
“You can even try wholemeal pasta,” adds Zoe. “You’ll get more fibre – there is about 1–3g, 3.0g, and 9.4g fibre per cup of cooked gluten-free, regular and wholemeal pasta respectively.”
Sea salt or table salt?
“Although sea salt and table salt may have a slightly different flavour and texture, both contain the same amount of sodium – the nutrient that increases our blood pressure and our risk of stroke. In Australia we eat an average of 9g of salt each day. This is up to 9 times the amount that our body actually needs, and 1 1/2 times the recommended daily limit,” says Zoe. “To get a useful amount of the minerals that are claimed to be in sea salt, you would need to eat far in excess of the recommended daily limit for sodium, so it’s not worth it. Instead of salt, try flavouring your meals with lemon, chilli, herbs, pepper and spices.”
Olive oil or canola oil?
“Both of these are heart-healthy oils, but both are also high in kilojoules (as they are fats), so use in small amounts,” says HFG nutritionist Rose Carr. “Olive oil is high in monounsaturated fats which are heart-friendly, and so is canola oil. So it’s more about usage – where you don’t want as much flavour, or are using a higher heat for cooking, use canola oil. For most dishes, you can use a spray oil to help control the amount that you use.”
Canned vegies or frozen vegies?
“When vegies are frozen it’s done quickly, so most of the nutrients remain,” says Claire. “There’s not usually anything added to frozen vegies either. Canned vegies also retain nutrients but are often canned in brine, adding salt, so they are higher in sodium. Given the choice, I’d go for frozen.”
Nuts or chips?
“Nuts are better,” says Rose. “In small amounts (about 30g). They contain healthy fats, and different nuts provide different nutrients. For example, almonds are a source of vitamin E; brazil nuts are an excellent source of selenium; and walnuts provide ALA omega-3s. Chips, on the other hand, are very high in energy, saturated fat and sodium without any beneficial nutrients.”
Tap water or bottled water?
“Both are fine,” says Rose. “In Australia, we have a safe water supply so there’s nothing wrong with tap water and in fact, a lot of bottled water is filtered tap water, packaged conveniently.” Neither bottled or tap water have any kilojoules and water should always be our drink of choice.
Honey or sugar?
“Both honey and sugar contain the same basic molecules – fructose and glucose – just in different amounts,” says Zoe. “Honey is higher in fructose, which is why it is slightly sweeter. Both sugar and honey are high in energy, with 70kJ and 91kJ per teaspoon of sugar and honey respectively.” “As honey is sweeter than sugar, you can get away with using less,” Claire adds. “The other bonus is that honey has a lower GI than sugar and also contains antioxidants, so for me, honey wins this round. If you have IBS though, the higher amount of fructose in honey can be a problem, so you need to use what’s right for you.”
Chocolate or lollies?
“Neither is a great option,” says Zoe. “Dark chocolate contains some antioxidants and lower levels of fat and sugar, so that would be my choice. The problem with other chocolates and lollies is that they are nutritionally empty – you get a lot of energy, sugar and/or fat without gaining much else nutrient-wise. Contrary to some headlines in the media recently, chocolate is not a health food, so you should still try to keep to a 25g serve (preferably of dark chocolate) a few times a week. For a sweet hit, instead try something like fruit or yoghurt that has the added benefit of nutrients such as protein, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants to keep your body healthy.”
Low-carb or light beer?
“While low-carb beer may sound like a healthier option, that’s not actually the case,” says Zoe. “There’s really not much difference in terms of kilojoule content between a low-carb beer (about 120kJ per 100ml) and full-strength beer (around 155kJ per 100ml) due to the similar alcohol content. Light beer, on the other hand, contains significantly less alcohol and therefore fewer kilojoules, with only about 70kJ per 100ml. If you’re watching your weight, light beer is definitely the way to go.”
Rice or potatoes?
“Both, on their own and in the right portion size, are good choices,” says Claire. “Choose brown or basmati rice because they have a lower GI than other varieties of rice, and don’t cook more than you need. If you cook more you’re likely to eat more without even realising! With potatoes, leave the skins on to increase the fibre and remember a hand-sized portion (or 1/4 of your plate) of either is all you need.”
Skim latte or soy latte?
“For most people, the skim latte (or other type of milk-based coffee) is better, because it is lower in kilojoules,” says Rose. But if you can’t tolerate dairy, soy is a good choice as long as it’s fortified with calcium. “Soy milk has very little saturated fat. While it’s hard to find reduced-fat soy milk in cafés, you could keep it at home to reduce the amount of energy in each cup you make.”
Mayo or vinaigrette?
“Both of these have their place,” says Claire. “Mayonnaise isn’t as unhealthy as people think, but it is high in energy and fat. While low-fat mayo has less fat and energy, some people don’t like the taste. Regardless of which one you choose, we just have to be clever about how we use it – as a spread instead of butter on sandwiches, for example. Vinaigrette is also high in energy, so the same rules apply – use it sparingly.”
Potato salad or pasta salad?
“Both of these are good carbohydrates,” says Rose. “I recommend both for variety. Make sure whatever you choose has lots of vegies in it, and swap mayo or creamy dressing for a light dressing if you can. Most importantly, keep your portion to 1/4 of your plate at the barbecue!”
Butter or table spread?
“This is definitely a hot topic right now but table spread (or margarine) is still the recommended choice, especially if you are at risk of heart disease,” says Zoe.
“The main difference between butter and table spread is the type of fat in each. Butter is around 50% saturated fat, which is the type of fat that raises our cholesterol levels. This is why the Heart Foundation recommends we use table spread instead. Table spread has a maximum of 20% saturated fat, so by making the swap you can drastically reduce your saturated fat intake over time and help look after your heart.
“Many people are concerned about table spread being ‘artificial’ and containing trans-fat. Butter does contain less ingredients (cream, salt and water) than table spread. Table spread is made from vegetable oils with added vitamins A and D (legally required), an emulsifier such as lecithin from soybeans, water, milk (not in all varieties), salt for taste, a preservative and natural colour. The only thing that is not from a natural source is the preservative, which has been approved for use by FSANZ.
Table spreads actually contain higher levels of healthy omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids than butter and in Australia, actually have one of the lowest levels of trans-fats internationally (most contain less than 1g per 100g). However, it always pays to check the label for trans-fats as some cheaper brands may contain a slightly higher amount. It really comes down to taste, personal preference and your risk of heart disease. Whichever you choose, use it sparingly and choose a reduced-salt version. Try using small amounts of other spreads such as avocado, hommous or peanut butter which also contain healthy fats and have different, delicious flavours.”
Chocolate or carob?
“Choose whichever you prefer – in small amounts,” says Rose. “Both of these are high in energy and fat. Despite carob being marketed as healthier, many carob products are just as high in energy, fat and saturated fat as their chocolate equivalents, so there’s little basis for the claims.”
Green tea or black tea?
All non-herbal tea comes from the same plant, the difference is in the processing. Green tea is unfermented, whereas black tea is fully fermented during processing. “Both green tea and black tea have healthy compounds. Green tea has a slightly higher antioxidant content, but the antioxidant content of both green and black tea varies depending on how you make it,” says Rose. “Black tea has more caffeine, so to reduce your caffeine intake you could sometimes choose green tea or a herbal tea.”