Healthy Foods: The Building Blocks of Life

Choosing which foods to eat to maintain a healthy lifestyle needn't be a question of guessing. All you need to do is follow the revised Australian Dietary Guidelines.

In February 2013, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) released its latest 10-year update of the Australian Dietary Guidelines - they're the golden rules for a healthy diet, which our 12WBT Nutrition Plans follow closely.

In this latest update, scientists are urging Aussies to make healthier choices and exercise more.

Here's our breakdown of the healthy food guidelines and how to use them.

Healthy Foods to Meet Your Needs

It's likely you've heard of the Australian Dietary Guidelines - they're often quoted by health experts, food companies, teachers and doctors. 12WBT dietitian Georgie Moore says, "The guidelines focus on whole foods and provide an outline of what and how much of each food group should be consumed on a daily basis to meet the nutritional needs of the average, healthy Australian adult."

The NHMRC is an Australian government body, and in these guidelines it identifies foods which:

  • promote health and well-being
  • reduce thte risk of diet-related conditions
  • reduce the risk of chronic disease

"The guidelines are designed to be used by health professionals when making recommendations, and the 12WBT Nutrition Plans are no exception," Georgie explains.

The 12WBT programs aim to improve the health and well-being of all members by helping them reach their goals - to lose weight, reshape their bodies, compete in an event or simply to make better dietary and lifestyle decisions.

This is achieved in part by providing nutritious, tasty, easy to prepare and budget-friendly recipes. The 12WBT Nutrition Plans, recipes, the Shopping List, the nutrition-related Factsheets and Knowledge Base answers are all founded on these principles.

A Wealth of Research

The guidelines are updated every 10 years after enormous amounts of research, Georgie explains. "In the development of these latest updated guidelines, more than 55,000 research papers have been read and considered," she says.

"Since the previous guidelines were written, the evidence has only strengthened in terms of good food choices and health outcomes.

"This is good news for 12WBT as it reinforces that what we're basing our Nutrition Plans on is still 100 per cent accurate in terms of ensuring the health and wellbeing of our members."

The not-so-good news is that, even with all this conclusive evidence on the keys to health, we're still not making enough healthy food choices. These days 42 per cent of Australian men and 30 per cent of Australian women are overweight, and 25 per cent of men and 23 per cent of women in Australia are obese.

Georgie points out that there are two significant changes to the guidelines. Firstly, there's now no room in our diets to eat "junk" food, because few of us are active enough to do so without putting on weight.

Secondly, only low-fat dairy products are now recommended, for a similar reason. The full-fat versions would lead us to put on weight because many of us don't get enough exercise.

"What's really scary is the fact that foods that are high in saturated fat, sugar and salt make up 35 per cent of Australian adults' total energy intake and 41 per cent of kids' energy intake each day," says Georgie.

So it seems that now, more than ever, it's time to take the NHMRC's advice into account.

What the Guidelines Tell Us

Guideline 1: Energy in = Energy out

The guidelines state: "To achieve and maintain a healthy weight, be physically active and choose amounts of nutritious foods and drinks to meet your energy needs."

For young people, this means eating enough to grow and develop normally. For adults, this means enough to keep physically active, and to maintain muscle strength and a healthy weight. No more, and no less.

How is healthy weight assessed?

a. BMI

The most common way to measure whether you're too heavy is by working out your body mass index (BMI). You can calculate this by taking your weight in kilograms and dividing it by your height in metres squared (kg/m2).

So, if you weigh 65kg and measure 1.7m tall, your BMI would be 65 divided by 2.89 (ie: 1.7 x 1.7), giving you a BMI of 22.49.

To see whether you fall into a healthy weight range, the BMI categories for adults are as follows:

  • less than 18.5 - underweight
  • 18.5 to 24.9 - healthy weight
  • 25.0 to 29.9 - overweight
  • 30.0 or more - obese

b. Waist Circumference

Now you'll need to grab a tape measure - your waist measurement in centimetres is also important. Weight around the waist can point to internal belly fat, which can lead to all sorts of health problems, including cardiovascular disease.

Women should keep their waist measurement below 80cm, because that's where the risky zone starts, and any more than 88cm is considered high risk. Men should keep below 94cm, and when their waistline measures 102cm or more, the risk becomes high.

Men also need to be aware that the waist measurement of their trousers may be much lower than their real one, because many guys don't realise how big a paunch hangs over their pants!

How much to exercise

Here's one part of the guidelines that has seen a big upgrade in the past decade.

Previously, it was thought that if energy intake was "controlled" (by eating the right amounts of healthy food), 30 minutes of moderate-intensity daily physical activity would be enough to prevent weight gain in adults, provided they didn't sit around for more than 4.5 hours per day.

However, in the current environment of the abundant availability, promotion and consumption of energy-dense food, plus an increasingly sedentary lifestyle, things have to change.

In a nutshell, we sit in front of the TV or computer eating high-calorie foods way too much.

It's now internationally recommended that 45 to 60 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a day is the minimum required to prevent the transition to being overweight or obese without eating less.

That's an hour each and every day, although if all you can manage is 30 minutes that's a great place to start.

For formerly obese people, at least 60 to 90 minutes of moderate-intensity activity or lesser amounts of vigorous activity may be required to prevent weight regain.

Guideline 2: Eat a Rainbow

The guidelines advise en-US: "Enjoy a wide variety of nutritious foods from all five food groups every day."

This means we need to introduce more fresh food into our diets, such as:

  • Plenty (five to six serves a day) of vegetables, including different-coloured veggies, plus legumes and beans
  • Plenty of fresh fruit of different colours - at least two serves a day
  • Six serves a day of grains and cereals - mostly wholegrain and high fibre - such as bread, cereals, rice, pasta, noodles, polenta, couscous, oats, quinoa and barley
  • Lean meats and poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds, legumes and beans - two and a half to three serves a day for enough protein

The 12WBT meal plans have non-vegetarian and vegetarian options. Each week the non-vegetarian meal plans contain the following:

  • At least four red-meat meals containing 100g-120g of meat per serve - examples include lamb, beef, veal and kangaroo
  • At least two fish or seafood meals, containing 100g-150g of raw fish or seafood, such as salmon, tuna, white fish, prawns, calamari and so on - canned fish and seafood (preferably in springwater) are also appropriate
  • A maximum of six egg yolks per person
  • Two and a half serves of milk, yoghurt, cheese and/or their alternatives, mostly reduced fat (reduced-fat milks are not suitable for children under two years old)

To find out how to put these ideas into practice in your daily life, look at our articles on healthy nutrition and healthy breakfasts, lunch, dinner and snack ideas.

The guidelines recommend: "Limit intake of foods containing saturated fat, added salt, added sugar and alcohol."

In essence, the guidelines allow you to identify your weak spots, which gives you control over your healthy food choices. Here's what they advise:

  • Limit intake of foods high in saturated fat, such as biscuits, cakes, pastries, pies, processed meats, commercial burgers, pizza, fried foods, potato chips, crisps and other savoury snacks

  • Limit intake of foods and drinks containing added salt (sodium)

  • Limit intake of foods and drinks containing added sugar such as confectionery, sugar-sweetened soft drinks and cordials, fruit drinks, vitamin waters, energy and sports drinks

  • Limit alcohol intake - and for women who are pregnant, planning a pregnancy or breastfeeding, not drinking alcohol is the safest option

Guideline 4: Mother's Milk

As all parents know, a child's health and well-being begins even before it's born. But once he or she has entered the world, Australian families should encourage, support and promote breastfeeding, the guidelines suggest.

Breastfeeding has short-term and long-term health benefits for both infants and their mothers. "Breastfeeding is an unequalled way of providing ideal food for the healthy growth and development of infants," says the World Health Organisation.

Breast milk provides all the vitamins, major minerals and trace elements essential for the first six months of life.

"Because the composition of breast milk constantly changes to meet the baby's needs, no infant formula can exactly mimic it," say the guidelines. "Breast milk is a convenient, hygienic and inexpensive food source with no environmental costs."

Guideline 5: Get out the Tupperware

The last (and least sexy) guideline is: "Care for your food; prepare and store it safely."

In a nutshell, to avoid food poisoning, do not leave food out or eat raw food.

"Correct handling of food during all stages of its preparation and storage is essential in reducing the risk of contamination and food-borne illness," the council's scientists recommend.

This is because bacteria multiply when food is between 5°C and 60°C (in other words, out of the fridge) for too long.

  • When thawing frozen food, leave it in the refrigerator or under cold water in an airtight plastic wrapper or bag, with the water changed every 30 minutes
  • Many foods should be cooked to at least 75°C. A thermometer should be used to check food is properly cooked to a minimum safe temperature (roasts and meats 62°C; mince, eggs, soups 71°C; whole poultry 82°C)
  • Not all meats need to be cooked thoroughly - steaks, whole fillet, chops and whole pieces of roast meat can be eaten rare
  • In contrast, rolled and/or stuffed meats, poultry, pork, sausages and mince should always be cooked all the way through, until the juices run clear when the meat is pierced
  • Foods such as stews and other meat and poultry dishes that will be eaten later should be cooled as quickly as possible
  • Foods that have just been cooked and are still very hot can be cooled at room temperature to 60°C before going into the fridge.

12WBT is on the Right Track

If this seems like too much information to take in, you can relax and let Georgie and the 12WBT dieticians make a plan for you as part of your 12WBT Program, and you'll know you're on the right track to health and wellbeing. That's because they've taken all these guidelines into account.

As Georgie says, "There's nothing better than having the nation's largest scientific research centre backing up what you do!"

Find out more in the updated Australian Dietary Guidelines.