Are you eating this and giving up that? Some of your ‘good’ food choices may be sabotaging your health. HFG senior nutritionist Rose Carr reveals the most common traps.
1. You fixate on claims of ‘no added sugar’
The incessant media chatter about the dangers of sugar has made many of us wonder whether we should simply stop eating it, just like we quit smoking. But the fact is that sugar, in its various forms, is a natural part of many healthy foods — think milk, fruit and vegetables, such as beetroot and carrot. Basically, the crusade to eliminate all traces of sugar from our diets can rob our bodies of some key nutrients, which is hardly a fair deal.
‘Free sugars’, however, are another story. These are the sweeteners that manufacturers add to many of our foods, including biscuits, breakfast cereals and soft drinks. And the World Health Organization (WHO) draft guidelines on sugars suggest we need to dramatically reduce the free sugars in our diets.
These days, you’ll often see products with labels boasting claims such as ‘100 per cent natural sugar’, ‘sugar free’ or ‘no added cane sugar’. But ‘no added sugar’ doesn’t mean no sugar — the food may well be free of added cane sugar, but it could still be high in honey, fruit syrup or fruit juice, all of which are also free sugars, according to the WHO definition. Plus, the agave syrup, rice-malt syrup and dried fruit in many ‘sugar-free’ recipes also contribute free sugars.
Deciding to reduce your consumption of all things sweet is a health-smart move, but be wary of the sugar claims on packaged products. When shopping, always compare the sugar content of similar foods. To do so, simply check the per 100g column of the nutrition information panel. And if the label sports claims about sugar, make a point of reading the ingredients list to see exactly what’s in that food or drink.
2. You avoid all grains for no good reason
About one in 70 Australians has coeliac disease, a condition that forces sufferers to avoid gluten, a protein that’s present in a number of grains.
Many people blame gluten intolerance for their bloating or digestive problems, but nutrition experts now suspect that some of these symptoms are due to a sensitivity to FODMAPs. These carbohydrates can be hard to digest and are often a component of many of the foods that contain gluten.
Happily, most of us are lucky in that we have no need to avoid grains, so let’s remember the good things they give us. Whole grains provide B-group vitamins, fibre and carbohydrates for energy, along with other key nutrients. Breads and cereals, for instance, contain thiamine, an essential B vitamin that helps the body turn food into energy, a process that supports metabolism. Consuming a wide range of grains also expands the diversity of the fibre in your diet, and that’s good for your gut health.
Grains have the power to protect our health in other important ways. Observational studies on large groups of people suggest that eating more whole grains can result in lower rates of cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. (Discover some tasty ways to roll more grains into your diet on p66.)
Unless you’ve been diagnosed with coeliac disease, give grains a place in your diet. This will ensure you get the nutrients your body needs for good health and the fibre your bowels need for regularity. Eat a wide variety of unprocessed grains, such as rolled oats, soy and linseed bread, brown rice, quinoa and grainy crackers.
3. You always choose low-fat foods
Cutting down on fat seems like a smart way to slash kilojoules — after all, fat provides 37kJ (9cal) per gram. In contrast, protein and carbohydrate deliver a mere 17kJ (4cal) per gram. So should you always go for the low-fat option? The simple answer is no.
Everyone’s diet should include the right sort of fat-rich foods to support heart and brain health. Although nuts, avocado and olive oil are high in kilojoules, we need their fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. In addition, the ‘good’ fats in these foods help move these nutrients around the body.
Smart portion control is critical to keeping your fat consumption in proportion. The problem is that foods labelled ‘low fat’ can be a fattening trap: Studies show that people tend to eat more of them. This means being selective about which low-fat foods you eat.
A healthy diet limits saturated fats, such as those in butter, milk and the fat on meat, so choose reduced-fat dairy products and lean cuts of meat and poultry. Favour healthy fats — foods such as salmon and avocado safeguard your health and keep you feeling full.
Beware of processed foods with labels that claim they’re low in fat yet fail to mention they’re high in sugar, and therefore kilojoules. To avoid being misled by fancy food packaging, check the nutrition information panel.
4. You snack on raw and organic treats
That unprocessed, organic raw snack must be really good for us, right? Let’s consider the ingredients. Most of us know that following a plant-based diet of vegies, fruits, nuts and seeds is the best way to eat. Therefore, many of us assume that if a snack is made of natural ingredients, the kilojoules will look after themselves. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case.
‘Health food’ treats are often very high in fat and kilojoules, making them one of the biggest traps. Consider a ‘cheesecake’ with a filling made from ground nuts instead of cream cheese. The nuts’ nutritious fats send the kilojoules soaring, as do the coconut, coconut oil and dried fruit, other common ingredients in this kind of raw treat. As a result, a single slice of this healthy-sounding cake can have as much as 18g of saturated fat and up to 3000kJ (about 700cal) — more than you’d want from a meal!
Raw food has its place, but it won’t enhance our health or help with weight control if we focus only on the treats.
Be discerning. If you enjoy raw treats, choose those that come in sensible portions, such as a bite-size bliss ball or a small fruit and nut slice.
5. You like to embrace the latest diet craze
Some of us are immediately drawn to miraculous new eating plans that promise health and happiness (or something similar) if we simply follow their rules.
These fads are often endorsed by attractive celebrities with little to no nutrition training, yet they invariably involve making major dietary changes. These generally include avoiding certain ‘toxic’ foods or even entire food groups. In most cases, they also require us to follow a highly restrictive diet during the initial phase, after which we can ease up, as long as we stick to the basic principles of our new eating regimen.
In a few weeks, we feel good. We’ve slashed our kilojoule intake and dropped a few kilos — easy! The hard part is maintaining this new plan. All the constraints can make us feel bored and socially isolated, so we can find ourselves right back where we started, or possibly worse off! According to research, severely restricting a food can lead to cravings and overeating when you eventually loosen the reins.
Different eating plans can work for different people, but restrictive diets are dangerous — they can mess with our mental and physical health. To maintain your wellbeing, eat a wide range of healthy foods, including the occasional treat!
6. You graze on low-kilojoule, nutrient-poor foods
So you forgo chocolate, chips and biscuits in favour of rice crackers or corn thins to stave off hunger. Well, your snack foods are basically healthy, but they don’t offer much in the way of nourishment.
Hollow snacks can’t satisfy hunger, so make them substantial enough to quiet stomach rumbles until your next meal. Light bites, such as rice cakes, are healthier and more satisfying in combination with nutrient-rich foods. Top them with cottage cheese, reduced-fat cheddar, hoummos, peanut butter (with no added salt or sugar) or tomato and avocado.
Choose nibbles that have a moderate number of kilojoules and you’ll be less likely to overeat, too. Snack on a kiwifruit for vitamin C and fibre, on Brazil nuts for selenium and healthy fats, on yoghurt for calcium and protein, or on vegetable sticks with hoummos for fibre and a range of other nutrients.
Treat snacks as an opportunity to score extra nutrients, such as fibre, protein and calcium. A healthy between-meal bite should provide about 400 to 800kJ (around 100 to 200cal).
7. You eat an incomplete vegetarian diet
Thanks to countless studies, we now know that a well-balanced vegetarian diet is better for us than the typical modern diet, which is high in processed grains and saturated fats, and low in plant foods.
However, becoming a vegetarian involves more than simply swearing off meat, because this leaves your diet low in protein, iron, zinc and vitamin B12. And if you give up fish as well, your body’s levels of omega-3 fats will also fall, putting both your heart and brain health at a serious disadvantage.
To enjoy a healthy vegetarian eating plan, you need to replace the animal foods you’re eliminating with plant foods that provide the same nutrients. This means seeking out foods that may be somewhat unfamiliar, such as tofu and legumes (which include beans, lentils and chickpeas), as well as eating more vegetables.
Plan to incorporate key foods before you switch to a vegetarian diet. A balanced meat-free diet can provide all the nutrients you need.
8. You blend and juice all of your food
Some people have attracted widespread media attention for quickly transforming their bodies on liquid diets of juice.
When Australian businessman Joe Cross shed a huge 37 kilos on a 60-day diet of raw fruit and vegetable juices, he changed his entire life. And Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead, the documentary he filmed during the process, made him an international celebrity.
For Cross, this radical method was a kick-start to a positive new relationship with healthy foods, not a long-term solution. But for those of us who aren’t fat, sick and almost dead, an exclusively liquid diet that eliminates the need for chewing is a form of sensory deprivation. This sort of extreme eating behaviour also detracts from the enjoyable social act of sharing food with family members and friends.
Of course, chewing food is about more than just keeping our teeth and jaw muscles busy. The flavour and texture of food make eating more pleasurable, and digestion begins in the mouth: Chewing triggers the release of saliva, signalling the brain and stomach to prepare for the imminent arrival of food.
Blending and juicing can be good ways to increase your fruit and vegetable intakes, but remember: Moderation is the healthiest approach. Crunch into a whole apple or pear and your body will benefit from all of the fruit’s vitamins and minerals, including the extra fibre and nutrients in the peel.
9. You deny yourself sweet treats
You’ve decided that the way to control your weight is to give up chocolate for good? Then you’ve no doubt discovered that deprivation can cause intense cravings. Yes, you can probably live quite happily without some foods, but allowing yourself to enjoy the occasional treat is a far more sustainable strategy than banning one or two of your favourites.
A true appreciation of food involves one simple skill: teaching yourself to eat mindfully. When you eat absent-mindedly, while focusing on something else, the treat’s gone before you know it, potentially leaving you wanting (and probably eating) more.
This conscious practice takes a little patience, but it’s hugely rewarding. Whether you’re having a treat, a snack or a meal, when you savour each bite to the exclusion of all distractions, food becomes much more pleasurable and satisfying.
Eat treat foods more slowly and give each mouthful your full attention. Craving chocolate? Have a small piece of a quality block, and take the time to appreciate its aroma, texture and flavour.
10. You make radical dietary changes based on one opinion
When science-based food news hits the headlines, we can feel anything from very inspired to very confused, mainly because we’re reading only sweeping summaries of detailed facts.
For example, recent stories have shouted “butter is back!” and claimed that “saturated fat isn’t bad for your heart”. (Butter is full of saturated fat.) But if you just ate lots of butter whenever you felt like it, you wouldn’t be doing your health any favours. In fact, reams of research show that replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fat is good for your health — a message that’s the opposite of these recent reports.
We have to remember that the science of how food affects the body is complex. This means we have to consider every exciting new study in context, alongside the overall evidence. Sadly, the day-to-day work of researchers isn’t compelling enough to make for dramatic lead news stories, but it does help us understand this constantly evolving field.
Radically changing your diet because of a single newspaper or magazine article is a risky strategy. To see the big picture, read beyond the sensational headlines.