We hear a lot about healthy eating, but it can be hard to know what it means and how to make it work for you. This article cuts through the confusion.
It uses Australia’s dietary guidelines which provide up-to-date advice about types and amounts of foods needed for good health and well being. The guidelines are grouped into five major food groups:
Foods are grouped into food groups based on the nutrients they offer. Eating a variety of foods from each group can help us achieve a balanced diet, which is important for our health and wellbeing.
To meet our nutrient needs, we should aim to eat foods from all five food groups on a regular basis. The groups are: fruits, vegetables, grains, protein foods and dairy or fortified soy alternatives. Each of these groups provides our bodies with a different set of essential vitamins and minerals to keep us healthy. For example, orange vegetables provide us with vitamin A and beans and lentils are high in fibre, while milk is a good source of calcium.
Some foods are not included in any of the main food groups because they are not needed for a balanced diet. These are called ‘sometimes foods’ and should be limited to avoid excess calories and fat. Examples of sometimes foods include butter, cooking oils, salad dressings, sugary soft drinks and chocolate.
As part of a balanced diet, meat provides protein and a number of essential nutrients. Red meat is a good source of iron and zinc, while poultry is rich in B vitamins. However, fatty cuts of meat are high in saturated fats. Choose lean meats and limit fried foods, such as sausages and deli slices. If you eat organ meats such as liver and kidney, make sure that they are low in fat and come from sources that have not been injected with fats or broths. Also limit processed meats like bacon, salami, hot dogs and beef jerky.
The dietary wisdom of traditional cultures is converging with modern high quality nutrition science to tell us that eating a little meat is likely very healthy, while eating a lot may increase our risk of cancer and obesity.
Vegetables are high in dietary fiber, minerals (especially calcium and iron) and vitamins (especially vitamin A). They also provide slow-digesting carbohydrates. Whether steamed, boiled, roasted or raw, vegetables are an essential part of most cuisines around the world. They can be eaten alone or mixed into salads, soups or stir-fries. Vegetables are usually grouped into categories based on their edible parts; leafy vegetables, root vegetables and other vegetables. However, some vegetables can fit into several groups; for example, beets have edible roots and leaves and are categorized as both a root vegetable and a leafy vegetable.
A variety of vegetables are needed to ensure a well-balanced diet. In general, it is recommended to consume two servings of leafy vegetables, one serving of cruciferous vegetables and two servings of other vegetables per day.
The other vegetables group includes veggies that don’t fall into any of the other groups. This group is rich in a wide range of nutrients including potassium, folate and vitamin C. Popular other vegetables include asparagus, brussel sprouts, cauliflower, eggplant, zucchini and yellow squash. Choose from fresh, frozen, canned or dried vegetables, but avoid those with added salt.
Fruits provide essential vitamins and minerals to the diet. They are naturally low in fat and sodium and are free of cholesterol. They also provide a source of fiber and phytochemicals. Diets rich in fruits may reduce the risk of some chronic diseases, such as heart disease, high blood pressure and certain cancers. Fruits are good sources of potassium, folate and vitamin C.
Choose from a variety of fresh, frozen, canned or dried fruit. One cup of fruit a day is a reasonable goal to aim for. Choose whole fruit as opposed to 100% fruit juices, which tend to have more sugar than the whole fruit itself.
Keep a variety of fruits handy for snacks. Fruit is a nutritious addition to cereal, porridge, toast and salads. It can also be used to make delicious desserts or stewed or poached fruit. Fruit is a great addition to milk-based products, such as low fat yogurt with berries or peanut butter on apple slices. Try adding fruit to pancakes, pikelets and scones. Keep cut up fruit handy in the refrigerator or on the kitchen counter to have available for easy snacks. Vary your fruit choices, as each has different nutrient content.
Bread is high in carbohydrates, which provide the body with fuel. It can also be a source of fiber, protein and vitamins and minerals. Bread is generally low in fat, but the type of bread eaten can influence its nutrient profile. For example, whole grains are more healthful than refined flours.
People have been making and eating bread in one form or another for at least 12,000 years. The first breads were probably made in Neolithic times, with coarsely crushed grains mixed with water and then baked on heated stones. Ancient Egyptians are credited with developing the first bread ovens and discovering that allowing wheat doughs to ferment resulted in a lighter, airier loaf.
Today, people still rely on bread to make many of their favorite meals and snacks. In addition to basic bread, recipes often call for add-ins such as fruits, nuts, oils and sweeteners. These ingredients aren’t essential, but they can enhance the flavor and texture of the final product. Adding oil or butter to a bread recipe makes it softer and moister, while fruits and nuts add sweetness and heft.
Dairy foods are a key part of healthy eating and include all foods made with milk from mammals, such as cheese, milk, yogurt, cream, butter and ice cream. Consumed by a huge global population, dairy is versatile and can be used in many different ways to create delicious meals and snacks.
Dairies are nutrient-dense foods and are important for overall health. They provide protein, calcium, potassium and vitamin D, and support a healthy nervous system.
However, some people choose to limit their intake of dairy foods because of lactose intolerance or concerns about the environment and animal rights. There are also those who choose to avoid dairy for medical reasons or because of food allergies.
For a balanced diet, three daily servings of low-fat or fat-free dairy foods are recommended. A “serving” is defined as 1 cup (8 oz) of milk or another non-fat dairy product, such as yogurt or a pot (6 oz) of soy milk, 2 ounces of natural or processed cheese or a scoop (1 1/2 oz) of ice cream.
Fat is an important nutrient that provides energy, helps protect the skeleton and nerves, and makes it possible for other nutrients to do their jobs. There are many types of dietary fat. Unhealthy fats (saturated and trans) increase disease risk, while unsaturated fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) support health. Saturated fats are found mainly in animal products, including meats, high-fat dairy foods like butter and cream, and processed foods like cookies, cakes and pastries. Unhealthy fats are also found in oils, such as lard, suet, ghee and palm oil.
Healthy fats provide a feeling of fullness, slow down digestion and add flavor to food. They also aid hormone function and the absorption of specific nutrients. Good sources of unsaturated fats include oily fish (such as sardines, mackerel and salmon), avocados, olives and canola and peanut oils.
This section outlines today’s best scientific advice on selecting a variety of foods to help maintain or work toward a healthy weight and manage chronic diseases. This advice applies to the general population and is based on a healthful eating pattern that includes all of the five food groups. It is recommended that these guidelines are followed by everyone, regardless of age and gender.