Healthy eating - does your diet stack up?

CHOICE’s expert dietitian puts our volunteers' diets to test. Find out how they measured up.
 
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  • Updated:24 Jun 2008
 

01 .Introduction

Woman with apple

In brief

  • Eating a wide variety of nutritious foods is the key to healthy eating.
  • Even diets that look good on the surface can have hidden problems.
  • The most common problems in our volunteers’ diets were too much salt and not enough calcium, fibre and water.

If you got a phone call from CHOICE asking, “Would you record everything that you eat — honestly — for a week, and then let us dissect and discuss what we find?”, would you say, “Sure, when do I start?”

Six brave volunteers — Chris, Tiina, Joseph, Lidia, Kari and Joe — did just that. We asked them to lay their diet, exercise and lifestyle habits in front of our experts, and make sure they included both the good and the bad aspects of their lifestyle. How did they go? How would you measure up?

Most of us have a fair idea of what we should do to eat and live in a healthy way. But when it comes to walking the walk, rather than just talking the talk, maybe there are some things in our diets that aren’t so rosy.

In addition to asking our volunteers to visit a dietitian twice and record and discuss their diets, we also asked them to have blood tests. We wanted to analyse their blood sugar levels, their blood cholesterol and the levels of some vitamins and minerals.

Please note: this information was current as of June 2008 but is still a useful guide today.


Our six CHOICE volunteers

  • Almost all our volunteers were eating too much salt (bad for blood pressure). Sometimes they added it to their meals, or it just came in the foods they chose. If you’re not thinking about and choosing low-salt foods, your salt intake is likely to be more than it ought to be.
  • With the exception of Chris, who consciously drank lots of water as part of his fitness routine, none of the other volunteers came close to drinking enough fluids. Don’t forget to drink — not coffee, not juice, not alcohol, just plain old water. Our bodies need fluids to avoid dehydrating and to function well.
  • We didn’t expect as many as three of our six volunteers to have low or close to low levels of vitamin D in their blood. Vitamin D deficiency is reportedly becoming more common, and low vitamin D levels can eventually lead to bone problems such as osteoporosis. Some vitamin D is found in food, but you also make it in your body when you’re in the sun. Our dietitian’s advice? Increase the amount of time spent outdoors in cooler parts of the day, but be sure to slip, slop, slap when you’re out there in summer, for extended periods, or in the middle of the day (especially in northern Australia).
  • Our six volunteers managed 17 serves of fish between them in the week — and we’re counting a few oysters in a wrap, some anchovies on a pizza and a couple of prawns in an appetizer. Chris, with seven serves, along with Joe and Lidia (four serves each) did all the heavy fish lifting, otherwise things would be looking very ordinary in the eat-more-fish stakes. Fish provides omega-3 fatty acids, which reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.
  • Only Chris and Kari were getting the calcium their bodies need. Make sure you get enough (to keep your bones healthy) — especially if you avoid milk.
  • Eating lots of salad doesn’t always mean you’re getting lots of fibre to keep your bowels healthy. Lettuce and the like may be healthy low-kilojoule foods, but you have to eat a lot to get the fibre you need. It's advisable to go for a variety of vegies, fruits and cereals.

How we analysed our volunteers’ diets

Chris, Tiina, Joseph, Lidia, Kari and Joe kept a detailed record of what they ate for seven days, then we analysed the results using government food composition tables.

  • The pie charts show how much energy (kilojoules or calories), as a percentage, each person gets from protein, fats, carbohydrates and alcohol in their diet. Although it depends heavily on your individual needs, a general guide to the ratios for a healthy diet for people who don’t need to lose any weight is 30% maximum from fats (no more than 10% from saturated fats and the rest unsaturated); about 15% or 20% from protein, 50–55% from carbohydrates and no more than 5% from alcohol.
  • *The bar graphs show the average amount of each nutrient each person ate that week, as a percentage:
    • Vitamins and minerals are measured against the recommended dietary intake — the average amount most people need each day.
      Energy is measured against the estimated energy requirement — the energy a healthy person needs to maintain their weight, based on factors such as their age, gender and activity level.
    • Fibre and water are measured against the adequate intake — a usual intake less than this is likely to be not enough.
      Sodium (salt) is measured against the upper level recommended — above this you may be at risk of health problems.
     
     

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    Lidia

    Volunteer - Lidia“I’ve realised I don’t drink nearly enough water and my fibre intake is way too low. I’ve now got some strategies to increase my fibre intake while still sticking to my wheat-free diet. “

    Lidia is a busy mother who ran her own fashion business until about 12 months ago. Since selling it she’s found time for herself and has been able to exercise more — about three times a week at the gym — and improve her diet. She’s been steadily losing weight, and now doesn’t have far to go to achieve her ideal.

    Lidia starts her day with a cup of coffee followed by cereal with raw oats and goat’s milk. Later she’ll have a coffee and small scone or sometimes fruit, and a typical lunch would be a wrap with cold ham or turkey and lettuce or salad. Dinner might be chicken or tuna and salad, pasta or perhaps meat with vegetables.

    The changes Lidia has made in the last six months mean she has a pretty good diet, but she’s short on some key nutrients such as iron, folate and magnesium. However, she suffers from irritable bowel syndrome, so our dietitian was able to recommend more changes that should help. She’s on a wheat-free diet to help control symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, but skipping wheat has meant her fibre intake is low — she’s getting less than half the fibre she needs. Lidia’s blood test showed that she was low on vitamin D and her cholesterol levels were high.

    Volunteer Lidia energy chart

    Our dietitian’s verdict

    Some changes that should help Lidia are:

    • Increase her fibre intake with fresh fruit rather than juice; try adding a soluble-fibre supplement such as Metamucil or Benefibre each day.
    • Eating a non-wheat, high-fibre, wholegrain breakfast cereal daily will boost fibre and nutrients like magnesium and folate.
      Have fish in a main meal two or three times a week, and legumes just as often, to help reduce her saturated fat intake.
      Get outside in the sun a bit more — during the cooler times of the day — to boost her body’s ability to make vitamin D.

    Joseph

    Volunteer - Joseph“Going through my diet was interesting. I now eat more often but less. I felt like I hadn’t digested my food before I went to bed. I’m now eating less at dinner and more often during the day”

    Joseph is, in theory, retired, but his schedule of volunteer work and other activities means he’s very busy — and he finds time to take a 1.5 hour walk each day. His health is generally good except for slightly high blood pressure and cholesterol.

    A typical day for Joseph would start with cereal with soy milk and fruit for breakfast; a sandwich with cheese and mortadella, plus fruit for lunch; and for dinner, quiche or chicken with salad and bread. His calcium intake is less than recommended. He has calcium-fortified soy milk, but only one serve with cereal plus a piece of cheese most days. Joseph’s blood test results indicated that his blood cholesterol was slightly high.

    Volunteer Joseph energy chart

    Our dietitian’s verdict

    Joseph needs to watch his salt intake because of his elevated blood pressure. On average, he’s getting around the upper limit for sodium each day.To help Joseph with his cholesterol levels, he could:

    • Choose reduced-fat cheese mostly, full-fat only occasionally.
      Eat very lean meats.
    • Eat legumes at least two or three times each week.
    • Include fish in his diet at least twice each week.
    • He should also reduce his carbohydrate intake at night and add between-meal snacks of nuts or fruit throughout the day to help with weight management.

    Tiina

    Volunteer - Tiina“Being part of this project is a golden opportunity to make some overdue changes and improve my health — by losing some weight. It’s given me the impetus I needed to get on with it.”

    Tiina’s diet isn’t that different from many others, whose work keeps them at their desk most days and whose weekends are busy, but not active. She has no breakfast most days, a coffee (or two) during the morning; a piece of fruit and a diet bar or shake for a quick lunch; and dinner of meat and some vegies. She eats about two pieces of fruit most days, some vegies with dinner, and almost no wholegrain bread or cereals all week. This means her intake of fibre and some vitamins and minerals falls short of what her body needs.

    On the other hand, Tiina’s diet includes too much saturated fat (mainly from pan-fried meat at dinner) and more than the ideal amount of salt — especially since she has high cholesterol and blood pressure. And she’s significantly overweight. Tiina’s blood test showed her cholesterol levels were high.

    Volunteer Tiina energy chart

    Our dietitian’s verdict

    Tiina could make several changes that will help with her weight and blood pressure:

    • Starting the day with a healthy breakfast will really help prevent hunger later in the day, as well as boosting her fibre and nutrient intake.
    • Take a healthy sandwich or salad to work for her lunch, along with fruit.
    • Changing from pan-frying meats to steaming or grilling, as well as cutting the salty sauces she uses and always including vegetables (other than just potatoes). This will make her evening meals much healthier, and cut down on the kilojoules she consumes.
    • Using low or reduced-fat dairy products will boost her calcium intake and cut back on kilojoules and saturated fats.
      Tiina has decided to continue visiting the dietitian regularly to work on her diet and health.

    Joe

    Volunteer - Joe“The dietitian gave me lots of tips on what I should eat and what I shouldn’t eat. I’ve also learnt the best ways to snack when I’m busy at work, without being unhealthy.”

    Joe is a hairdresser with his own busy salon. While he finds time for three fairly healthy meals a day, our dietitian was concerned he wasn’t eating much protein until lunchtime and wasn’t eating regularly enough through the day. There was usually a gap of six hours between breakfast and lunch and again between lunch and dinner, and he rarely topped up his energy levels with a between-meal snack. This means his blood glucose levels and energy would dip at various times through the day — when he needs to be on the go. Joe’s’s blood test showed he had low vitamin D levels.

    Volunteer Joe energy chart

    Our dietitian’s verdict  

    • Joe should include at least two snacks through the day — for example, unsalted almonds or walnuts, fruit, or avocado and crispbread. And he should focus on low-GI carbohydrates rather than easily digested carbs that give big spikes and troughs in blood sugar.
    • The dietary analysis showed his calcium intake was less than half his body needs — he only drank soy milk (calcium-fortified) three times that week, and had no dairy products. He avoids dairy to assist with a sinus condition, but he needs to focus on getting more calcium — having calcium-fortified soy milk as a snack each day will help.
    • Joe only drinks about half the amount of water he should and eats too much salt — more than the upper daily sodium limit and one and a half times the maximum suggested dietary target. Cutting down on salt and drinking more water should be priorities.
    • To avoid vitamin D deficiency, Joe should try to spend more time outside in cooler times of the day. As his weight is just at the upper end of normal, the dietitian also recommended he should gradually lose 4–5 kg.

    Chris

    Volunteer - Chris“I like feeling fit and healthy — finding out I have high cholesterol with my family history of diabetes and heart disease adds to my motivation.”

    Chris is a very active builder and part-time personal trainer — he spends at least 1–1.5 hours eight times a week at the gym. His BMI looks high on paper: 26 (healthy range is 20–25), but BMI doesn’t work well with people who have high proportions of muscle mass, like Chris. The dietitian thought his weight was fine now, but he’d need to look at reducing it if he gave up the heavy exercise in the future.

    Chris used to smoke and has mild asthma, as well as a family history of diabetes and heart disease — conditions he’s keen to avoid. Chris has a well-balanced diet with good ratios of nutrients, and a focus on low-GI carbs. Chris’s blood test showed his cholesterol level was slightly high.

    Volunteer Chris energy chart

    Our dietitian’s verdict

    There were two main areas where Chris could improve his diet:

    • His blood tests showed no sign of the diabetes that affects his father and one of his brothers. But he does have a slightly high cholesterol level, which he’s particularly concerned about, given his family history. The dietitian recommended he includes fish two or three times a week and replaces some of the animal protein he eats with legumes or beans.
    • Saturated fat is nearly 40% of Chris’s fat intake, which is too high. It mainly comes from commercial cake, which he has with his coffee once or twice a day. While he manages to burn off the surplus kilojoules at the gym, the cakes would push up his saturated fat intake. Swapping to lower-saturated-fat homemade cake or having a honey or jam sandwich on wholegrain or rye would cut the fat and still make a satisfying sweet snack.

    Kari

    Volunteer - Kari“I’m concerned I’m not getting the nutrients I need — I’m a part-time meat eater and for the rest of the time a terrible vegetarian.”

    Kari works as an events manager, which spells stress and often long hours. On top of this she’s a musician with her own band, so it’s not surprising she doesn’t spend much time planning her mainly vegetarian diet. She starts the day well with cereal, yoghurt and fruit, but lots of restaurant lunches for work this week were often followed by a dinner of crispbreads with cheese and fruit. When she did cook at home, she had healthy vegie and tofu stir-fry with rice, or vegetable soup. She usually eats meat only once a month or so, which could contribute to a low vitamin B12 level.

    Kari’s diet is short on thiamin, magnesium, iron and folate; she only gets about three-quarters of the fibre she needs and she’s about 15% short on energy, which helps to explain why her BMI is in the underweight range. She’s also not drinking enough water. Kari’s blood test showed that her blood sugar level was high, but she’s not aware of a family history of blood sugar problems.

    Volunteer Kari energy chart

    Our dietitian’s verdict

    Kari could make a few changes:

    • To help her blood sugar levels, have snacks with a low GI and some protein throughout the day — rye crispbread with ricotta, cottage or cream cheese, or tuna; nuts; a glass of milk or some yoghurt and fruit.
    • Linseed, sunflower seeds and almond mix added to her foods would increase both protein and folate.
    • Eating meat or fish at least once a week will help boost her vitamin B12 and iron intake.
    • Reduce salt — she has just over the maximum recommended 2300 mg a day.
    • Reduce her alcohol intake from up to six standard drinks when socialising to just one a day, plus an extra drink on social occasions.

    The American journalist and author Michael Pollan famously sums up healthy eating in his most recent book In defense of food, by saying, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” He also suggests it should be “real food — the sort of food our great-grandmothers would recognise.”

    It’s a beautifully simple way of saying what we’ve all heard before, but often don’t do. Below is a more detailed checklist. The recommended servings are designed for people aged between 19 and 60, who are not pregnant or breastfeeding:

    • Eat a wide variety of nutritious foods For example, eat as many different-coloured fruit and vegies as you can; include different cereals, nuts, legumes and seeds.
    • Eat plenty of vegetables, legumes and fruit At least two serves of fruit and five of vegies (including legumes) each day. A serve of fruit is about one medium-sized or two small pieces; for vegies, it’s about half a cup, cooked.
    • Eat plenty of cereals, preferably wholegrain At least four serves a day for women and six for men. A serve is two slices of bread or a cup of cooked rice or pasta, for example.
    • Include lean meat, fish, poultry and/or alternatives such as legumes and nuts Eat a moderate serve of lean red meat three or four times a week. If you don’t, you need to make sure you eat other foods high in iron. Two to three meals of fish a week are recommended to obtain omega-3 fatty acids. Vegetarians should choose from a variety of legumes (beans and lentils), green vegetables, nuts and seeds to get their iron and other important nutrients.
    • Include dairy foods and/or alternatives — mainly reduced or low-fat ones Two to three serves a day are recommended for women and two to four serves for men. A serve is a cup of milk, 40 g of cheese or 200 g (a tub) of yoghurt. Dairy alternatives include calcium-fortified soy drinks, calcium-fortified tofu, a cup of almonds, five sardines or half a cup of canned pink salmon (with bones).
    • Drink plenty of water Choosing water most of the time as a drink means you avoid unnecessary kilojoules.
      Don’t eat too much saturated or trans fat Together, they shouldn’t make up more than 10% of the kilojoules you eat. Saturated fat is the main type in milk, cream, butter, cheese, fatty meats, palm and coconut oil, while trans fat is in hydrogenated vegetable oil and many processed foods (including fast foods, biscuits, pastries and cakes).
    • Don’t eat too much salt Choose low- and reduced-salt versions of foods such as bread, breakfast cereals, crackers, baked beans and other canned foods, soups, spreads and sauces; limit how much takeaway food you eat.
    • Don’t eat too much sugary food Sugar contains kilojoules, but no vital nutrients. Don’t eat too much confectionery, soft drinks, cakes, biscuits and pastries. While it’s OK to add a teaspoon of sugar or honey to a nutritious food like wholegrain breakfast cereal to make it tastier, don’t go overboard.
    • Go easy on alcohol It’s still under review as we go to press, but the latest draft recommendations are that adults limit their alcohol intake to no more than two standard drinks a day.
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