This is Part 1 in a two Part series. You can check out Part 2 HERE.
Calories-In-Calories-Out (CICO) or Energy-In-Energy-Out (EIEO) has for the last few decades been the method of choice for anyone wanting to lose weight, or maintain a healthy weight.
And studies do support its validity. The fact is, if you consistently take in a lot more energy than your body needs, you will indeed gain weight. Scientists actually refer to this as “Overnutrition”. And not only will chronic overnutrition cause you to gain weight, it will also place your body into a state of metabolic stress causing inflammation. Over time it can lead to blood sugar and insulin dysregulation, and the accumulation of toxic visceral adipose tissue around your organs, increasing your likelihood of developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes and even cancer.
So the amount of energy/calories you regularly consume versus the amount you regularly expend is definitely something I think we should all keep a healthy, non-obsessive eye on, especially if you find your weight creeping up (or down) over time.
But if you focus only on the calorie content of the foods you eat, you are short-changing your health!
Not all calories are created equally. So here are a few other things I recommend my clients consider when making their daily food choices:
Nutrient density - are you choosing nutrient dense foods? Can you make better choices?
We don’t eat calories, we eat foods which happen to contain calories. And for me, personally, I like to get the most nutritious (and delicious!) bang for my calorie buck!! And that brings us to the concept of nutrient density.
In a nutshell, nutrient-density refers to the ratio of healthy nutrients to calories.
Our bodies need a certain amount of macro- and micronutrients in order to be able to function at our best. And science is increasingly revealing the exciting health benefits of phytonutrients contained in plant foods.
So a deep fried orange-cheezy-dusted snack food might provide lots (and lots!) of calories, but a much lower ratio of nutrients (mostly refined carbs, saturated or even trans fats and salt) compared with, say, an avocado, a handful of nuts (or berries!), a vibrant colourful salad, a tub of plain yoghurt or a serve of oily fish like sardines.
So I have a little assignment for you: Spend a day or even a week consciously choosing the most nutrient dense foods and meals you can. Not only is it a healthy way to choose foods, it can be absolutely delicious! Need inspiration for nutrient-dense meals? Check out my RECIPES page!
Omega 3 fatty acids - are you getting enough?
The most recent Australian health survey has confirmed that Australians are not meeting the recommended intake levels for super-healthy omega 3 fatty acids. Only 20% of us are consuming the recommended amounts. And that is NOT good news.
Omega 3 fatty acids have an anti-inflammatory effect in the body. And research is revealing that so many chronic and serious diseases (including even depression!) have an inflammatory component. So ignoring omega 3’s is a lost opportunity to boost our health and wellbeing.
The Australian National Health and Medical Research Council has set a Suggested Dietary Target for omega 3’s of 430 mg/day for women and 610 mg/day for men, in order to prevent chronic disease.
I dug deep into the research on Omega 3 fatty acids whilst completing my Masters in Nutrition. The research was pretty clear that it is definitely better to get your omega 3’s from food rather than supplements. There are a number of reasons for this, including the fact that omega 3’s are quite unstable and can spoil easily, and also the fact that not all supplements contain the active ingredients listed on the labels.
So if you feel like tracking what you eat, definitely familiarise yourself with a list of foods that are rich in omega 3 fatty acids, and calculate how much you are getting!
And for bonus points, track the ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 fatty acids you are eating. Omega 6 fatty acids, found in plant seed oils, are abundant in our food supply, and studies estimate that we may be consuming 10 to 20 times more omega 6 fatty acids than Omega 3’s. Omega 3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory whilst Omega 6 fatty acids are metabolised into proinflammatory eicosanoids. The problem is that omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids both use the same metabolic pathways in our body - too much omega 6 will crowd out the healthy, anti-inflammatory omega 3’s. The exact ratio of omega 6’s to Omega 3’s is still up for debate. Definitely try to keep the ratio below 10:1, but don’t go too far and cut omega 6’s out of your diet! Some of the healthiest and most delicious nutrient dense foods (like nuts and seeds!) contain them!
Food processing steps (and packaging!) - how processed are the foods you are eating each day?
I make no secret of the fact that I believe the “there are no bad foods” mantra is absolute bunkum! There ARE foods that are very bad for us if we eat them regularly. Scientists and public health experts have a special term for them: Ultraprocessed Foods. I personally refuse to even call them food. They are profit-making products that have been subjected to decades of the most sophisticated food science manipulation in order to override our heathy satiety signals, keep us reaching for more and even lighting up the pleasure centres in our brains.
These foods are plastic-encased, expertly-marketed, nutrient-bereft, calorie dense, ultra-convenient, easy-to-grab-and-gobble profit making products. And they make me white-hot furious! It is all too easy to push yourself into a state of overnutrition when you choose these food-like products. And unless they are artificially fortified with nutrients like iron or folic acid, consuming them regularly is very unlikely to hep you meet your nutrient needs. All you will generally get is an abundance of refined carbs, sodium, sugar and/or saturated or inflammatory omega 6 fats, not to mention artificial colours, flavours, preservatives and emulsifiers (which studies are increasingly raising concerns about).
So when you are at the supermarket, consider how many processing steps have gone into the different items on the shelves. Many foods we buy and consume have undergone a degree of processing, and some processing is OK. For example, plain yoghurt is a form of “processed food”, but it isn’t ultraprocessed like the refrigerated dessert next to it.
And don’t forget to pause and congratulate yourself every time you choose real food over ultraprocessed crap - celebrate the fact that you have put your heath above the profits of a multinational corporation. I wrote about this HERE and I highly recommend you check it out!
Serves of veggies - and fruit! Are you getting 5+ serves of veggies and 2 serves of fruit each day?
Apologies if you have heard me bang on about this before, but it is important! The most recent Australian Heath Survey revealed that less than 4% of Australians are consuming the recommended amounts of vegetables. This is a huge missed opportunity for our health and longevity.
Studies consistently show that the more fruit and veggies we eat, the greater the benefit to our health. The health benefits of fruit and veg are well established in the peer reviewed literature. They are an amazing source of vitamins, minerals, fibre and phytonutrients that can calm inflammation and counteract free radical and DNA damage. Peer reviewed studies abound which show that increasing your fruit and veg intake can reduce your risk of obesity, many cancers, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, dyslipidemia, stroke, heart attack and even depression and dementia! They are also known to boost our endothelial function (the health of our blood vessels) and even our immune system. I wrote about this HERE - go check it out!
At a minimum, we should be aiming for five serves of veggies and two serves of fruit a day. Research has confirmed that the more veggies you eat the better, so if you feel like counting or tracking your food intake, track your daily serves of veggies and fruit - especially veggies, the more the better!!* Need help to increase your veg intake? Check out THIS POST, and check out my RECIPES page for meal inspo!
Phytonutrients - aka Plant Colours! Are you eating all the colours of the rainbow?
The pigments in fruit and veggies contain an array of phytonutrients. These are unique chemicals produced by plants including carotenoids, flavonoids, coumarins, indoles, isoflavones, lignans, organosulfures and plant sterols). Research has demonstrated that many phytonutrients are powerful antioxidants, but science us really just beginning to scratch the surface of their benefits, including immune support and tumour suppression.
And here's the big scoop: according to the research, taking extracted phytonutrient supplements just doesn't yield the benefits of a diet rich in a rainbow of fresh veges and fruit! So get on this dahlinks!
So if you feel like counting something food-related, DEFINITELY start tracking which plant-food colours you are eating! Aim to eat a rainbow of plant food colours every day! Purple plant foods can be the most challenging, and the research is showing that it is well worth the effort to include them in your diet - you can read more about this HERE.
And for a bit of fun, you can make a game of it - read more here!
Fibre - are you meeting your daily target?
To me, fibre is a superfood. Except it’s not a food. It’s in food. Whatever - let’s not get bogged down in semantics - fibre is awesome! And if you are like most Australians, you are not getting enough.
Fibre is found in plant foods: veggies, fruit, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole, unprocessed grains.
Studies show that fibre-rich diets can help to reduce high “bad” LDL cholesterol, keep us full and satisfied and help with healthy weight maintenance, slow blood sugar spikes after eating and help us maintain healthy blood sugar and insulin levels, and even help us detoxify! Your liver detoxes substances like cholesterol and excess hormones into your large intestine. But to eliminate these detoxed substances from our bodies we need dietary fibre to carry them out of our body. Fibre helps our body to clear excess cholesterol and hormones from our body. If we don’t consume enough fibre, these substances will be re-absorbed.
The National Health and Medical Research Council recommends that women consume 28g of fibre a day and men consume 38g a day. So if you feel like tracking something diet-related, why not spend a few days tracking how much fibre you are eating?
And for bonus points, track the different types of fibre you are eating! There are lots of different classifications of fibre, but for the purposes of tracking your healthy eating habits they fall into three broad categories:
Insoluble fibre: this type of fibre gives structure and rigidity to plant cell walls. Good sources include the outer husks of grains (wheat bran, rice bran, etc), fruit and veg skins, nuts, seeds, beans. This is the stuff that keeps us, ahem, regular, and makes us feel full and satisfied after our meals, minimising our chances of reaching for a snack!
Soluble fibre: this stuff is found inside the plant cells. Like Insoluble fibre, soluble fibre can also help us to stay regular, but its benefits go way beyond this. Soluble fibre can help us regulate our blood sugar, and if your cholesterol is a little on the high side then definitely make an effort to boost your fibre intake! Studies consistently show that adding fibre to our diets can lower our risk for high cholesterol and atherosclerosis!
Resistant starch: now this is my favourite kind of fibre! It’s a special type of starch that passes through out stomach and small intestine undigested. When it reaches our large intestine the resistant starch becomes food for our healthy inner bacteria. The healthy bacteria in our large intestine consume the resistant starch and then excrete butyric acid, a substance that can help to protect us against bowel cancer! Want more info? Check out THIS POST and THIS POST.
Salt - how much are you eating?
Humans evolved in an environment of salt-scarcity. Only 0.25-0.5g/day is necessary to maintain health. Abundance of dietary salt is a relatively recent phenomenon, and our bodies haven't evolved to be able to cope with high amounts of salt in our modern western diet. Excess salt consumption (ie, the amounts that most of us consume!) is associated with hypertension, arterial stiffness, heart attack or stroke. It can also damage our kidneys, reduce our bone density, and is even linked to increased risk of stomach cancer.
70-80% of the salt in our diet is "hidden" in processed foods - food products that are made from cheap ingredients that would be bland and unappetising without loads of salt. Salt is even in foods we don't expect to have high levels of salt like breads, breakfast cereals, tinned beans, cakes and biscuits.
The Australian National Health and Medical Research Council has set an Upper Limit for sodium of 2,300mg per day. Each gram of salt contains approximately 400mg sodium. So that's equivalent to around 6 grams - or one teaspoon - of salt per day. This is the amount above which adverse health impacts can be expected. And here's the truly frightening thing: The majority of Australians (and all westerners) are consuming way too much salt, in amounts that are known to cause harm. In the most recent Australian Health Survey, every single Australian over 3 years of age who was surveyed was consuming salt in amounts well in excess of the NHMRC recommendation. That means that almost every Australian is consuming levels of salt that places them at risk - of hypertension or it's sequelae: heart attack or stroke.
To minimise stroke and heart disease risk, our National Health & Medical Research Council (NHMRC) has set a Suggested Dietary Target of 1,600mg of sodium a day. That is less than a teaspoon of salt.
I urge all of my clients (and family and friends, and basically every person I come into contact with!) to track their salt intake. I wrote in detail about the health impacts of excess salt, where it is “hidden”, how to read labels at the supermarket and train your palate to enjoy foods that aren’t over-salted HERE! Do please check it out, and make an effort to track and reduce your salt intake. It could - literally - save your life!
Added sugars - how much are you consuming each day?
Australians are eating a frightening amount of sugar. More than half of us are consuming more than the amounts recommended by the World Health Organisation. And the scary thing is that most of us don't even realise how excessive (and potentially dangerous) our sugar intake is. That's largely because more than 80% of the sugar we are consuming is contained in processed foods and beverages.
But aggressively cutting out all foods that naturally contain sugars (like fruit) can be equally damaging. We need to understand the difference between INTRINSIC and ADDED sugars. INTRINSIC SUGARS are the sugars that are naturally found in whole, unprocessed foods. Like the lactose in milk and yoghurt or the fructose in fresh fruit. We need to stop demonising foods that naturally contain sugars. The sugars in these natural unprocessed whole foods come packaged with other healthy macro- and micronutrients and our bodies know how to process them.
ADDED SUGARS are the sugars we need to get wise to. And they are the main source of sugar in our diet. They are not naturally found in whole, unprocessed foods. The World Health Organisation recommends that we limit added sugars to about 10% (and ideally 5%) of our daily energy intake. That’s about 6–9 teaspoons of added sugars a day. But added sugars are everywhere! Remember, 80% of the sugar we consume is contained in processed foods and beverages. Sugar is even in foods we would not expect to contain sugar like sauces, soups, salad dressings and even breads. These added sugars bring no additional micronutrients into the foods they are added to, and are designed to make processed foods taste more palatable - and also to cause our palates to be habituated to high sugar levels so that foods that are unprocessed or naturally lower in sugar are less appealing to us.
I recommend tracking the amount of ADDED sugar consumed each day. You can do this by reading food labels (Remember, 80% of the sugar we consume is contained in processed foods and beverages) and also any sugar you add to food and beverages. Once you become aware just how much added sugar you are unknowingly consuming you can take steps to make some healthy changes. I wrote all about this HERE!
Booze - how much? And is it too much?
The human body has ZERO need for alcohol. And despite the headlines, the health benefits of alcohol are outrageously overstated. The fact is that alcohol is processed by our bodies as a toxin. I’m in the middle of writing a three part series on alcohol - you can check out Part 1 HERE, and subscribe to my mailing list to get parts 2 and 3 delivered to your inbox!
I HIGHLY recommend that everyone keeps track of how many days per week (or month) they consume alcohol, and how much they consume when they do drink - and remember that the drink you pour at home might be a LOT bigger than a “standard drink”!
Food variety - are you eating foods from all five food groups?
Studies consistently show that lack of food variety is associated with poor health outcomes. Back in my lawyering days, when I knew little about nutrition, worked 70 hours a week and grabbed whatever food was easy and convenient, my food variety was appalling - I was mostly eating refined white flour products (bread, crackers, wraps, cookies and cakes) and cows milk products (cappuchinos, latte’s and yoghurt). I was eating lots of different types of “foods” but at the end of the day, two food groups were dominant - refined wheat flour and dairy. That’s not enough variety to give anyone the micronutrients they need to create vibrant health.
Numerous studies confirm that it is far better for us to get the nutrients we need from food rather than supplements. In order to do this, it is important that we make an effort to eat from all five food groups (unless you have a medically diagnosed allergy or intolerance).
If you are at the start of your heathy eating journey, it can be an eye opening experience (as it was for me!) to track your food intake for a few days, and note which food groups are over-represented, under-represented and completely absent! In my case I realised I needed to drastically increase my intake of healthy plant foods like veggies and legumes, and lean healthy protein, and give the refined carbs a big ole swerve!
* No you sneaky minx, NOT potatoes in the form of french fries!
This is Part 1 in a two Part series. You can check out Part 2 HERE.