I am definitely not a nutrition expert. Especially when you look at my behaviours or what I eat and drink daily.
I remember several years back when I tried to track my food and drink intake using My Fitness Pal’s phone application. They have a feature where you can share your diary with friends and family or make it available so they can see it too. I did this and had my cousin Shannyn see my diary. Let’s just say that she was slightly shocked at my diet. She was also not afraid to tell me this.
After this, I did not want to share my food and drink diary with anyone else.
I don’t believe my actions are based too highly on a lack of knowledge. By now, I have read a lot and have a general sense of what is considered healthy or unhealthy habits.
However, in terms of what specific actions I should take, I’m unsure exactly what to do. There are a lot of competing diets and rules out there. I don’t just want something to help me lose weight until my BMI is back in a healthy range of between 20 and 25 kg/m2. I want sensible and not too complicated or restrictive guidelines for how to eat to maintain a sustainable and healthy lifestyle.
The Healthy Eating Pyramid
Nutrition Australia first introduced their Healthy Eating Pyramid back in 1980. When I was in school, I remember it being in all of the school textbooks and on posters around the place. Of course, the pyramid has evolved over the years. The one I remember the most looked like this one from 1982:
My father was a physical education teacher and took on the food pyramid’s advice. So we would eat cereal and toast for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, and often pasta or rice with dinner. However, some of the most recommended diets now, including the low carb, high fat (LCHF) diet, the slow carb diet, Atkins diet and the ketogenic diet, all recommend staying away from the things at the bottom of the pyramid (apart from vegetables), especially bread, cereals, rice and pasta.
The most recent pyramid in 2015 has shifted to accommodate the learning that has taken place worldwide since 1982. Unfortunately, over these 33 years, the average waistline has continued to expand, and the percentage of people that are overweight and obese has continued to climb:
Grains have shifted higher up the pyramid, and sugar has come out altogether. There are now some extra parts at the bottom about choosing water rather than any other drink, enjoying herbs and spices, and being active daily. The section at the bottom has also increased for vegetables and shrunk for fruit, indicating that we want to prioritise vegetables more in our nutrition than fruit. Finally, margarine is no longer mentioned at the top, but rather eating healthy fats. It doesn’t tell you what they are, but Nutrition Australia says that some fats are more nutritious than others. These unnamed fats are considered okay in small doses.
The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating
Similar to the food pyramid, but slightly different. The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating shows the recommended nutritious foods that the average Australian should eat. One of the most noticeable differences is putting the food in a circle rather than a pyramid. This makes it easier to think about how much of your plate should have the five recommended food groups:
It recommends a similar portion size of grains to vegetables, which is more in line with the older pyramid from 1982 than the latest one from 2015. It also shows specific oils that some people may consider unhealthy, including canola spray and margarine. It does recommend water as the main drink. Still, it is more realistic than the pyramid by showing that people sometimes eat and drink unhealthily, including alcohol, sugary, deep-fried, or fatty foods. Therefore, it recommends having these things occasionally and in small amounts. I’m not sure why chickpeas and red kidney beans have to be in two different food groups, but they are.
The Star System in Australian Supermarkets
The Health Star Rating System is an interesting intervention with the right intention. The aim is to help educate the Australian public about the healthiness of different foods in the supermarket so that consumers can make healthy choices for their shopping carts and homes. I’ve found myself looking at the star ratings for various products and being influenced by what is written when deciding what to buy.
With cereals, for example, there is a lot of variety. All-Bran Original tastes dull, but with a five-star health rating, it suddenly seems more appealing than the two-star Crunchy Nut Clusters or the 1.5-star Crispix cereal. More sugar and less fibre and protein generally mean fewer stars for the cereal, which makes sense and seems pretty straightforward.
A more contentious area is the oils and fats. From various things that I have read and heard, there is a big difference in how healthy or recommended certain oils are from others. For example, some experts and diets say that butter is healthy. In the Bulletproof Diet, people even add it to their morning coffee. Yet it obtains the worst star rating of 0.5/5 because it is high in saturated fat. Another oil that people have told me to cook before is coconut oil. It also receives a 0.5/5 health star rating. On the other hand, with all its chemicals, margarine gets a score of 4.5/5. I’ve even seen 5-star vegetable oils, even though some experts have told me to stay clear of these oils as much as possible.
Comparing the star rating between one type of food and another is also contentious. For example, Up-and-Go drinks receive 4.5 stars out of 5, even though they have 28.7 grams of carbs, 15.8 grams of added sugar, sunflower and canola oil. But, then, foods such as smoked salmon receive 2/5 stars, even though they only contain salmon and salt and have healthy omega-3 fats and zero sugar or carbs. However, because of the higher amount of saturated fat, salmon is penalised and considered a poorer health decision. This might lead to some people choosing the highly processed Up and Go instead of the smoked salmon.
Another problematic issue with the Health Star Rating System is that it is not compulsory. Because of this, star ratings are currently only posted on 31% of eligible foods in Australian supermarkets. Suppose people use this as a guide to what is healthy or unhealthy in determining their choices at the supermarket. In that case, they are left in the dark with 69% of the eligible products.
An even bigger issue is that big corporations are gaming the star system to trick the public into thinking that their products are healthier than they are. For example, if vegetable oils obtain a five-star rating, does this mean they are one of the most beneficial food options?
It shouldn’t mean this, but how is the consumer to know? The food pyramid says to avoid foods with added salt and sugar and only consume healthy fats in moderation. It’s debatable if vegetable oils and margarine are healthy fats. Still, the Health Star Rating System says nothing about this or how people should only eat them in moderation.
I’m guessing that if someone consumed all their food in deep-fried vegetable oil, they wouldn’t remain healthy for very long. So how does a use sparingly (or not at all) food obtain a five-star health rating? Is it helpful if the system doesn’t give better ratings to the foods that we’d be better to eat more often?
Other health books I have read advise steering clear of as many packaged foods as possible and trying to eat things without an ingredient list. So, vegetables, fruit, meat, unsalted nuts, and eggs. As soon as the product has items in the ingredients list where you aren’t sure what they are, maybe it’s not the healthiest choice.
Is it helpful to recommend that people count the calories they eat?
The average American is recommended to consume 2000 calories daily to maintain a healthy weight. On the back of all packaged foods in the USA, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires a specific nutrition label. Here is an example of the latest nutrition label:
As you can see, 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice. Furthermore, in some countries and states, fast food and chain restaurants must state how many calories their products have in them. It is done to help educate people about how many calories their food has. By doing this, people hopefully do not go too far above the 2,000 calories a day recommendation.
A large Double Whopper with Cheese Meal from Burger King is 1,530 calories. After eating this, a person has only 470 calories they can consume for the rest of the day without going on their daily recommended limit. A large Cheese Lovers pizza from Pizza Hut in Australia contains 9909kj, well over the recommended 8700kj per day that the Australian Government recommends for people to consume daily. I don’t know about you, but I’ve definitely eaten a large pizza on a few occasions. I might think twice about doing this if I know it will put me over my recommended daily calorie intake. So, forcing fast-food restaurants to post the calorie content of their food might help some people not overindulge in one sitting and unknowingly gain weight over time.
All Calories Are Not Equal
A big issue with calorie counting is assuming that the only thing that matters to our overall health is how many calories we consume daily. It’s just not true. Drinks like Diet Coke and Pepsi Max have zero calories, but that doesn’t mean they are healthy. They contain several artificial ingredients, including colour (Caramel E150d), sweeteners (Aspartame, Acesulfame K), flavourings, acids (Phosphoric and Citric Acid), a preservative (Potassium Sorbate) and Phenylalanine. If you only look at the zero calories, then people should be able to drink as much of this each day as they want without it being an issue. But I’m not sure if a healthy person would want to knowingly ingest lots of these ingredients daily.
When it comes to being healthy, there are more important things than just how many calories we consume. A Diabetes Victoria website describes a deep-fried battered fish, two potato cakes, and twenty chips from a takeaway shop (1053 calories). They compare it to a skim latte for a snack, hummus and salad sandwich and a medium apple for lunch, a handful of almonds for an afternoon snack, and baked fish with sweet potato wedges for dinner. These snacks and meals equal 1075 calories, only 22 more than the fish and chips. They would also pack 24g less fat, 21g less saturated fat, 319mg less sodium, and 16g more fibre. The second option is more nutritious, with fewer things that could contribute to inflammation. Even though there are more carbohydrates across the two snacks and two meals than the one meal of fish and chips, they are spread out over more time, leading to less of a blood sugar spike and subsequent crash.
A different way of thinking about food and calories is what the weight loss and healthy eating app Noom do. They still encourage recording all the foods, drinks and calories you consume daily. However, they also try to document how calorie-dense your food is. Your food or drink then receives a colour score based on its density.
Suppose you eat something low in density, such as vegetables or a salad without dressing; it receives a green score. With green foods, you can eat plenty of these and feel fuller for longer without worrying too much about going over your daily calorie goal.
Essentially, the more water a particular food has, the less calorie density it is likely to have. So, a grape is considered a green food, whereas a raisin, or dried grape, is a red food. Chicken breast and eggs are both medium or yellow foods with lots of nutrients. Still, a moderate number of calories compared to their weight. Many nuts, especially walnuts, are nutrient-rich but very high in calories. Therefore, they receive a red colour. There are no good or bad foods, but if you want to keep your calories low while also feeling satisfied and full, having more low-density or green foods in your meals and snacks is the way to go. Or at least that is what Noom says.
Intermittent fasting can help without cutting down on how many calories you consume daily
Some interesting recent studies have also begun to see the potential health and fat loss benefits of intermittent fasting. The book ‘Life in the Fasting Lane: How to Make Intermittent Fasting a Lifestyle—and Reap the Benefits of Weight Loss and Better Health’ by Dr Jason Fung, Eve Mayer, and Megan Ramos describes the potential health benefits. It also details how to practice it for those who want to learn more.
Intermittent fasting is another example of how there are other things to consider apart from how many calories we should consume every day. Eating and not eating at different times also affects our health and body composition. For example, healthy males, who frequented the gym, found that eight weeks of feeding (between 1pm and 9pm only) reduced fat mass but not overall muscle mass. The comparison group consumed the same calories but ate between 8am and 9pm (Moro et al., 2016).
A review article looking at intermittent fasting studies between 2000 and 2018 found similar results. Fat mass was significantly reduced in participants who underwent an intermittent fasting protocol (Ganesan, Habboush & Sultan, 2018). The review also found that some biochemical markers reduced significantly, whilst other changes were inconsistent. Therefore, intermittent fasting may be worth trying if you aim to reduce your overall fat mass without losing too much strength or weight.
Both low-fat and low-carbohydrate diets can produce positive short-term results
An interesting meta-analysis reviewed randomised controlled trials of diets in overweight and obese adults (BMJ, 2020). The reviewers found that both low-carbohydrate and low-fat diets produced similar benefits in weight loss and reduced blood pressure at six months. Compared to a usual diet, low-carbohydrate diets resulted in 4.63kg of weight loss at six months, and low-fat diets resulted in 4.37kg of weight loss. Atkins produced the most prominent weight loss of 5.5kg after six months of all the popular diets. Not surprisingly, dietary advice without substantial behavioural changes led to no weight loss after six months. Moderate macronutrient diets, such as DASH or Meditteranean, led to about 3kg weight loss and slightly improved blood pressure after six months. However, it was not as effective as either low-fat or low-carb diets.
Unfortunately, at 12 months, most weight loss benefits diminished across all diets, including low-carb, low-fat or moderate macronutrient diets (BMJ, 2020). Only the Meditteranean Diet maintained the cardiovascular benefits by 12 months, which puts it as the top eating plan if you want to improve your heart health in the long run.
If You Want to Lose Weight
At www.dietdoctor.com, they provide 18 tips that can help people lose weight. They also back up their recommendations with scientific evidence and rank them in importance. I don’t agree with all of their advice. Still, they tell you how strong the evidence they are using is. Below are my modified tips; based on their recommendations. You might find some of these tips helpful if you apply them to your life. However, please talk to a qualified Dietician before taking on any significant changes in your diet to see if they are right for you. If you have also suffered from any eating disorder-type behaviours, please seek assistance from a GP or psychologist who can support you on your health journey.
My top 7 weight loss tips
- Avoid eating foods or drinking beverages high in sugar, and minimise your intake of highly processed or deep-fried carbohydrates.
- Eat when hungry, and don’t feel that you need to eat if you are not feeling hungry.
- Eat real food or foods without an ingredient list.
- Eat as many vegetables or salads as you want to, assuming you go easy on the sauces and dressings.
- Measure your progress wisely.
- Be persistent by choosing a sustainable eating plan for yourself and stick to it as much as possible. If you have a meal where you do not, get back to the plan after that, not the next day or the following Monday.
- Avoid beer and other alcohol as much as possible.
**Exercise is positive for your heart, health, mood and sleep. It is not a super effective weight-loss strategy, but it is beneficial in many other ways.
So many different rules and recommendation
If you can’t tell by now, knowing what to consume as part of a healthy and nutritious diet is tricky. Some organisations or Governments will recommend certain things. But, at the same time, other experts will tell you to avoid all that and suggest something different altogether.
I could potentially test out all the different variables and see which one is the best fit for me. Fortunately, US News & World Report have released their Best Diets Overall 2022, which ranks 40 popular diets for me. They look at which eating plans are the healthiest, which ones are easiest to follow, which ones lead to the fastest weight loss, which ones are the best for long-term weight loss, and which eating plans are the best overall:
Best Diets for Healthy Eating in 2022
- Mediterranean Diet = 4.8/5
- DASH Diet = 4.7/5
- The Flexitarian Diet = 4.7/5
- MIND Diet = 4.6/5
- TLC Diet = 4.4/5
Easiest Diets to Follow in 2022
- Mediterranean Diet = 3.7/5
- The Flexitarian Diet = 3.4/5
- The Fertility Diet = 3.3/5
- MIND Diet = 3.3/5
- WW (weight watchers) Diet = 3.3/5
Best Fast Weight-Loss Diets in 2022
- Atkins Diet = 3.9/5
- HMR Program = 3.8/5
- OPTAVIA = 3.8/5
- Biggest Loser Diet = 3.7/5
- Keto Diet = 3.7/5
Best Long-term Weight-Loss Diets in 2022
- The Flexitarian Diet = 3.5/5
- Volumetrics Diet = 3.5/5
- WW (weight-watchers) Diet = 3.5/5
- Vegan Diet = 3.4/5
- Mayo Clinic Diet = 3.2/5
The Best Diets Overall in 2022
- Mediterranean Diet = 4.2/5
- DASH Diet = 4.0/5
- The Flexitarian Diet = 4.0/5
- MIND Diet = 3.8/5
- Mayo Clinic Diet = 3.7/5
- TLC Diet = 3.7/5
- Volumetrics Diet = 3.7/5
- WW (weight watchers) Diet = 3.7/5
- Vegetarian Diet = 3.6/5
- Ornish Diet = 3.5/5
I want a sustainable diet to help me lose weight initially and keep my body mass index in the healthy range for the rest of my life. The Flexitarian Diet, therefore, seems like the best option for me. However, with the best overall diet score of 4.2/5, the Meditteranean Diet also seems like a good choice.
If I wanted to lose weight as fast as possible, I might choose The Atkins Diet. However, The Flexitarian Diet achieves a better long-term weight loss score than the Atkins Diet. The Atkins Diet’s overall score is also 2.2/5, which is 34th out of 40. Much worse than the 4.0/5 score and 2nd overall for the Flexitarian Diet.
Interestingly, the things I have been hearing the most about regarding eating plans are not at the top of the list. For example, the Ketogenic Diet comes in 5th for best fast weight loss but is nowhere near the top-recommended diets (37th best eating plan out of 40). Neither is the Paleo Diet (30th best eating plan overall) or Intermittent Fasting (27th best eating plan). Jordan Peterson’s diet of only eating meat doesn’t even rank. Still, the AIP Diet, which also claims to target autoimmune diseases, is the 35th best-ranked eating plan overall.
Which nutritional recommendations do you think will work best for you and be possible for you to stick to long-term?
What guidelines work best for you to change your nutrition and eating habits? Are they any of the diets listed in the US News & World Report rankings? Or the 2015 food pyramid? Or the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating? Or the Health Star Rating System? Or Calorie Counting or using the data provided on Nutritional Labels? Or whatever the expert you see suggests is best for you? I’d love to hear how people try to approach their nutrition in a healthy, effective and sustainable way.