Sometimes messages about healthy eating can be confusing. It’s possible to do things, thinking we’re being healthy, that actually sabotage our health. HFG senior nutritionist Rose Carr reveals the mistakes even healthy people make.
1. ‘No added sugar’
The World Health Organization’s draft guideline on sugars suggests we need to dramatically reduce the ‘free sugars’ in our diets. And it’s certainly not uncommon to see products with labels such as ‘100% natural sugar’, ‘sugar-free’, or ‘no added cane sugar’.
But beware: ‘no added sugar’ doesn’t meant there’s no sugar; the product or recipe could still be high in sugar from other sources. Honey, fruit syrups and fruit juices, for example, are all still providing sugar and these are also considered ‘free sugars’ by the WHO definition. And ingredients such as agave syrup, rice malt syrup and dried fruit used in ‘sugar-free’ recipes also contribute to the total sugar content.
When shopping, compare the sugar content of similar products. And when there are claims about sugar, reading the ingredients will tell us what’s really in that food or drink.
2. Avoiding all grains
Some people are allergic to wheat and people with coeliac disease need to avoid all gluten, a protein found in a number of grains. Others believe they are gluten intolerant, although an intolerance to too many FODMAPs (ie. short-chain carbohydrates) now seems a more feasible cause of gut issues for these people (see our feature The facts on going gluten free for more information). The majority of us are fortunate in that we don’t need to avoid any grains at all.
So let’s remember the good things about grains: whole grains provide all-important fibre, B vitamins and other nutrients as well as carbohydrate for energy. Breads and cereals contribute nearly one-third of the essential B vitamin thiamin to our diets. Eliminating grains from our diets also limits the diversity of the types of fibre we get — and that’s not good for gut health.
Observational studies on large groups of people suggest an association between eating more whole grains with reduced rates of cancer and cardiovascular diseases.
Including a wide variety of whole foods, including whole grains, helps ensure we get the nutrients we need and also helps to keep us regular.
3. Always choosing low fat
If you do the maths, cutting down on fat seems a good shorthand to cut down on kilojoules — after all, fat provides 37kJ per gram compared to just 17kJ for one gram of protein or carbohydrate. But is always choosing the low-fat option the best way to be healthy?
We do need fats in our diets. Vitamins A, D, E and K are fat-soluble, which means they are delivered to us in fat from foods. So even though avocados, nuts and olive oil can quickly add kilojoules, they also provide essential fats as well as fat-soluble vitamins.
Beware of falling into the trap of eating more just because it’s labelled ‘low fat’. Studies have shown people tend to eat more of these foods.
We need to be selective about which low-fat foods we’re eating. Animal fats contain a high proportion of saturated fats so it’s advisable to choose reduced or low-fat variants of milk and dairy products and to go for lean meats and poultry.
Beware of processed foods that claim to be low in fat and omit to mention that they are high in sugar instead.
4. Raw treats
As it’s uncooked, unprocessed and mostly organic, raw food must surely be healthy?
While there’s a lot to be said for a diet based on vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, it’s easy to think that because it’s made of healthy ingredients, the kilojoules will look after themselves. One of the biggest traps is the high kilojoule content in treat foods such as ‘cheesecake’ made, for example, using lots of ground nuts. While it’s the healthy fats in nuts that ramp up the energy, coconut, coconut oil and dried fruit is often used in these recipes, too.
This means healthy-sounding cheesecakes can contain as much as 18g saturated fat and 3000kJ in a serve — more than you would want to eat in a meal.
Raw food has its place but it won’t enhance our health or help with weight control if we are only interested in the treats.
Be selective, watch portion sizes and enjoy the good things about raw food, such as imaginative and flavoursome salads.
5. Following the latest diet
Some of us are drawn to ‘the latest thing’ which promises health and happiness (or something similar) if we just follow the ‘new rules’.
Invariably, this new fad will tell us to avoid certain foods (or even a whole group of foods) as they are toxic. There is often an initial period where we must follow a very restrictive diet, after which we can ease off and maintain our ‘new’ eating regime — as long as we stick to the new rules around food and eating. And for a while we feel good. We’ve cut our kilojoule intake, dropped a few kilos and we’re on track!
What makes this difficult is keeping the new habit going long-term. We get bored with all the restrictions so we find ourselves back where we started. Or possibly worse: research suggests that severely restricting a food actually leads to cravings and over-consumption when we stop the restrictions.
Different eating patterns can work for different people but restrictive diets are dangerous: they can mess with our physical and mental health.
6. Snacking on low-kJ, low-nutrient foods
You don’t get caught in the unhealthy snack trap. Instead, you snack on rice crackers and corn cakes to stave off hunger between meals.
There’s nothing wrong with rice crackers or corn cakes per se, but they’re not adding much in the way of nourishment. They’re better as carriers for more nutritious foods such as cottage cheese or reduced- fat cheddar, hummus, no-added-sugar-or-salt peanut butter or tomato and avocado, which makes them more nutritious and more satisfying.
Snacks don’t need to be completely devoid of anything, including kilojoules. For example: a kiwi fruit will add vitamin C and fibre; Brazil nuts add selenium and healthy fat; a pottle of low-fat yoghurt adds calcium and some protein; vege sticks with hummus add fibre and a variety of nutrients.
Use snacks between meals as an opportunity to add nutrients to our day.
7. Vegetarian eating gone wrong
While not the only healthy way of eating, the good news is that a well-balanced vegetarian diet is way healthier than a typical Western diet that’s high in saturated fats and low in plant foods.
Becoming a vegetarian is not as simple as just removing meat from an omnivore’s diet, as this can mean a diet low in protein, zinc, calcium, iron, and vitamin B12. If fish is also removed, omega-3 levels will drop, too.
This may mean learning to eat foods we didn’t include before, such as tofu and legumes, and upping our intake of vegetables.
Changing to a vegetarian diet requires planning to make sure we get all the nutrients we need.
8. Blending and juicing everything
I was shocked when I recently overheard a (very healthy looking) woman say, “I try to drink all of my food.”
There have been a number of public examples of people on a liquid diet. In his film Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead, Australian Joe Cross changed his life, and his attitude to nutritious foods, by living on raw fruit and vegetable juices for 60 days. For him it was a kick-start to a new and positive relationship with healthy foods, not a long-term solution.
For those of us who are not ‘fat, sick and nearly dead’, a total liquid food diet — without chewing or crunching — is a form of sensory deprivation. Extreme food behaviours also detract from the enjoyment and sociability of eating and sharing food with family or friends.
Of course, chewing food is not just about giving our teeth and jaw muscles something to do. Flavour and texture are part of our enjoyment of food and chewing begins the digestion process, releasing saliva to mix with our food and signalling the brain then the stomach to prepare for the imminent arrival of food.
Blending and juicing can be nutritious, but remember: moderation in all things is healthy practice.
9. Denying yourself all treats
So you decided the way to control your weight is never have any treats again…
You’ve probably already discovered that deprivation can lead to cravings. There will be some foods you can live without but for most of us being able to savour the occasional treat is a more sustainable strategy than total deprivation.
Instead, why not train yourself to eat mindfully? When you eat absentmindedly — while doing something else — the treat is gone before you know it, potentially leaving you wanting for more. Eating mindfully may take some practice but it’s worth persevering. By focusing on enjoying what we’re eating, whether or not it’s a treat, food will become more pleasurable and satisfying overall.
Eat treat foods more slowly and savour each mouthful.
10. I saw that study and changed my diet
It’s easy to be influenced by the latest studies making the headlines, and it can be confusing, especially when what’s reported in the media is often only a very broad summary of the facts. An example of this can be found in recent reports of an analysis on fat in the diet, which was reflected in headlines such as ‘Butter is back!’ and ‘Saturated fat isn’t bad for your heart’. However, if you changed your diet based on those headlines and simply added butter back into your diet, you wouldn’t be doing your health a favour. Science is often nuanced, and the details are sometimes not widely reported. Science also works on a body of evidence, with each study adding to what has gone before. In the above example, the body of evidence shows that replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fat is a healthy move. Each new study has to be put into the context of the overall science. It’s worth reading beyond the sensational headlines.
Making a radical change to your diet based on one news story is not recommended.