The amount and type of food you eat has a major impact on your health. If you eat a mixed, well-balanced diet, you can reduce your risk of a range of diseases, help to maintain a healthy weight and boost your mental health too. It's important to eat a healthy diet throughout your life, no matter what age you are - there's never a bad time to make some changes and improve your eating habits.
There’s lots of evidence to show that eating a healthy diet can help reduce your risk of weight problems and illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke, osteoporosis and some types of cancer.
The food you eat has many different types of nutrients, which are all needed by your body. Key nutrients in your diet include:
Fibre is also an important part of a healthy diet. It isn’t classed as a nutrient because it doesn’t enter the body’s cells. Even so, it’s essential to keep your digestive system healthy. Insoluble fibre (from whole grains, fruits and vegetables) helps with good bowel function. Soluble fibre (from oats, beans and lentils) can help maintain healthy levels of blood cholesterol.
To get all of the nutrients and fibre your body needs, you need to eat a wide variety of foods. The five main food groups are:
Eating the right balance of foods from these groups helps to ensure that your body gets all it needs to stay healthy.
Look at the image below; it shows a generalised proportionate view on how much food to eat from each of the different groups to ensure you have a balanced and healthy diet. This means everything you eat during the day, including snacks. You don't have to give up the less healthy foods you like, just reduce the amount you eat in proportion to the amount of healthy foods in your diet.
The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating is used by permission of the Australian Government
Grains/cereals (starchy foods) contain energy in the form of carbohydrates. They are large and complex structures so it takes your body time to digest them. These kinds of foods, especially the wholegrain varieties, release energy slowly throughout the day helping you feel fuller for longer. They should be your main source of energy.
Starchy foods include bread, pasta, cereals, rice, noodles and potatoes. Choose wholegrain or wholemeal varieties where possible as they are particularly high in fibre and B vitamins.
Vegetables are good sources of many nutrients, particularly vitamins, minerals and fibre. It is important to choose a variety of colours – green, orange, yellow and red - and different types, including legumes. Legumes are things like dried peas, beans, lentils and chickpeas.
Aim to eat at least five serves of vegetables each day – frozen and canned vegetables count too. For canned vegetables, check the ingredients list and try to choose varieties without added salt. Also, it is best to limit intake of fried vegetables such as potato and vegetable chips/crisps, which can be high in kilojoules and added salt.
Fruits are also good sources of vitamins, minerals and dietary fibre. Try to limit fruit juice to just one small glass each day because, although it can be vitamin-rich, it can be high in natural sugars and can lack dietary fibre. The acids and natural sugars found in even the unsweetened kinds of juice can also damage your teeth. If you are going to have juice, drink it with meals because the action of chewing triggers more saliva which helps to protect your teeth.
Aim to eat at least two portions of fruit each day. Dried and canned fruits are reasonable choices but beware of dried fruits sticking to the teeth, which can increase your risk of tooth decay. Also remember that portion sizes are different due to the dehydrated state of the food.
Milk and dairy products such as cheese and yoghurt are important sources of protein, calcium and vitamins.
Choose lower-fat options such as skimmed or low-fat milk and low-fat, low-sugar yoghurts.
Some dairy foods, such as butter and cream, have a high fat content and don’t provide bone-building calcium so eat these in much smaller amounts.
If you don’t want to or can’t eat dairy produce, opt for calcium-enriched soy produce. Check the labels and avoid products that are packed with sugar and fats. Almonds and canned salmon are also good sources of calcium and protein.
Meat, fish and alternatives, such as beans, pulses, eggs and nuts are all important non-dairy sources of protein.
Try to eat two portions of fish a week (one portion is about 115g raw). At least one of these portions should be oily fish, such as mackerel, salmon or pilchards. Oily fish is particularly rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which can help prevent heart disease. The National Heart Foundation recommends an intake of 500mg of marine-source omega-3 daily. This the equivalent to eating two to three 150g portions of oily fish per week.
No more than 65g of cooked lean meat is recommended in one day. Some types of meat are high in fat, so cut off any extra fat and skin on poultry. Grill, bake or poach meat and fish rather than fry it. The Cancer Council recommends you avoid processed meats, such as sausages, frankfurts, salami, bacon and ham, as they are high in saturated fat, salt and nitrates and can increase your risk of a range of health conditions.
Believe it or not, fat is actually an essential part of your diet. But you don’t need very much overall, particularly as all fats are high in kilojoules. The most important thing to understand about fat is that there are different types to choose from and some are healthier than others. Try to replace foods that are high in saturated and trans (bad) fats with foods that are rich in unsaturated (good) fats.
Avocado and olive oil are examples of foods containing unsaturated/’healthy’ fats. For more information about fats in foods, click here.
Certain foods are simply not necessary for a healthy diet and are too high in saturated fat and/or added sugars, not to mention added salt. Sugary foods such as sweets and biscuits provide you with energy but not many other nutrients. As they’re high in kilojoules, they can contribute to weight problems. Also, eating sugary foods can cause tooth decay and gum disease, so try to limit the amount you eat.
As mentioned above, saturated fats are the ‘unhealthy’ variety of fat. Examples of foods containing saturated fats include butter, biscuits, cakes and pastries, sausages, pizzas and fried foods. Many of these are also high in added sugars or added salt. Replacing processed products containing saturated fats with more natural foods containing unsaturated fats is a good way to limit your intake of ‘unhealthy’ fats and added sugars and salt.
It’s a much-enjoyed part of Australian life but drinking too much alcohol can harm your health in the short term (in the case of accidents) and in the long term (excess alcohol has been linked with cancers, including breast and bowel cancer and cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, oesophagus and liver and with liver cirrhosis).
Alcohol is also high in kilojoules (energy) and it and/or the mixers that accompany it can be high in sugars, acids or both. If you’re watching your weight, alcohol could be a source of somewhat ‘hidden kilojoules’ and one of your toughest challenges as it can weaken your willpower to choose healthy foods.
The National Health and Medical Research Council recommends that adults stick to no more than two standard drinks a day, avoid binge drinking and have one or two alcohol-free days per week.
A standard drink =
If you’re ready to make positive changes to your diet, take things slowly. Drastic changes are too difficult to keep up in the long run and can leave you feeling defeated and down. Small, day-to-day changes will have a much bigger and longer-lasting effect.
If you're having trouble making changes, or you’re worried that you’re not getting all the nutrients you need, talk to your GP. They may be able to give you some practical advice or refer you to an accredited practising dietitian who can give you detailed and personal advice.
Dietitians Association of Australia
Australian Government: Eat for Health
Australian Government: Department of Health and Ageing (DOHA). Nutrition and healthy eating [online]. Canberra, ACT: Commonwealth of Australia. [updated 2008 Jul 27; cited 2013 Aug 28]. Available from: http://www.health.gov.au/
Australian Government: National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), DOHA. Australian guide to healthy eating [online]. Canberra, ACT: Commonwealth of Australia. No date [cited 2013 July 31]. Available from: www.eatforhealth.gov.au
Australian Government: NHMRC, DOHA. Australian dietary guidelines: summary [online]. 2013 [cited 2013 Jul 31]. Available from: www.eatforhealth.gov.au
Australian Government: NHMRC. Australian guidelines to reduce health risks from drinking alcohol [online]. Canberra, ACT: Commonwealth of Australia. 2009 [cited 2013 Aug 28]. Available from: www.nhmrc.gov.au
Cancer Council NSW. Diet and exercise [online]. Surry Hills, NSW: Cancer Council [cited 2013 Aug 28]. Available from: www.cancercouncil.com.au
Dietitians’ Association of Australia (DAA). Unsaturated fats [online]. Deakin, ACT: DAA. [cited 2013 Aug 28]. Available from: www.daa.asn.au
National Heart Foundation of Australia. Q&A omega-3: general [online]. Australia: National Heart Foundation of Australia. 2008 [cited 2013 Aug 26]. Available from: www.heartfoundation.org.au
Simon C Everitt H Kendrick T. Oxford Handbook of General Practice. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2010: 176–77.
Webster-Gandy J. Understanding food and nutrition. Poole: Family Doctor Publications in association with the British Medical Association. 2003: 52–55.
Last updated: 30 August 2013
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