Perhaps the question most often asked and the one that is least adequately answered is "How do I plan a healthy balanced diet?" To deal with this question properly we need to understand a few things.
Each of us eats differently. That is, we like different foods, we eat at different times, we need varying amounts to keep us satisfied, and our bodies metabolise, or use, the foods we eat at differing rates. Some of these factors are out of our control. Our nutritional needs vary according to our workload, levels of stress, gender, and state of health. Our tastes have been influenced throughout our lives by our contact with individual foods, our preconceptions and biases about them, and our understanding of what constitutes 'good' and 'bad' foods.
The truth is there is no such thing as a good or bad food. All can have a place in a healthy diet, and while some people may suffer from sensitivities to certain foods, most of us can quite safely 'mix and match' many foods within a day.
What is important though – and nutritionists have become more and more united on this point recently – is that we should try to plan our eating to take advantage of the many natural foods available to us. And to do this we are now advised to take the bulk of our food from the unrefined carbohydrate group: cereals and grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables.
While well over half (55-60% of kilojoules) should come from this group, other foods are not taboo. Lean meats, fish and seafood, poultry, eggs, legumes, nuts and dairy foods should account for another 12%.
Australians presently consume about 34% of their kilojoules from fat, yet the newest guidelines suggest a healthier amount should be between 20% and 30%.
Highly refined foods, including sugar, should be eaten sparingly.
'Now that is all very well,' you say, 'but I've never been great at maths, and all this talk of percentages just loses me. Where am I going to find a percentage counter for fat, for instance?'
The answer is no further away than your own eyes. The good thing about an average diet is that there is some room for give and take and no-one needs to be mathematically accurate when serving up food.
Think of it this way. Take your average dinner plate. It is about the right size for a serving for an adult; a smaller plate better suits a child. So whoever you are serving, start first with the appropriate sized plate, and make sure that the plate is mostly taken up by vegetables ( greens, red or orange, and perhaps potato) and grains (pasta, rice, or bread).
Add the protein-rich food as a 'garnish' or spoon it decoratively over the top of the rice or noodles. Some nutritionists talk of 'pushing the meat to the side of the plate' rather than having it take central billing as it has in the past.
When cooking meals, plan them so that most of the food is from that first section of foods. You can choose to base a meal on pasta or rice, bread, vegetables or potatoes. It can be a main-dish salad with heaps of vegetables and fruit, or it can be lasagne, bursting with tomatoes, mushrooms and spinach. You will often want to add meat, fish, poultry, nuts or dairy foods of course, but think in terms of making them an accent to the dish rather than the primary ingredient.
In the same way you can easily adjust the amount of fats and oils you use by altering your cookery habits. Have you always automatically begun a meal by pouring 2-3 tablespoons of oil into the pan, or melting a chunk of butter. Next time you find yourself doing that, hold it! Does the dish you are making really need that much fat? What would happen if you halved it, quartered the amount, or left it out entirely?
Do you begin a biscuit or cake recipe by creaming a mound of butter? What would be the reaction if you made muffins instead, used oil instead of a saturated fat, and a lot less of it as well? Chances are the only response from the family would be sheer delight.
Sometimes the path to a less-fat diet is as simple as altering the shopping list. Cross out dripping, lard, and most of the butter, and add a non-stick pan and some canola or olive oil spray.
Sugar can be easily adjusted too by swinging back to using fresh fruit for breakfast, desserts and snacks, reducing its use in hot drinks and enjoying unsweetened fruit juice instead of carbonated drinks and cordials.
As a guide, here is the minimum amount that we need to eat each day. Remember that children still need roughly the same amount of servings, and from the same food groups, but their serving size is smaller. Pregnant and lactating women, as well as people performing heavily active work need additional food, sedentary and older people may need less - but the rule is still the same: each will need the same proportion of food types, just larger or smaller servings depending on the circumstances.
6 serves - bread, cereals, rice, pasta, grains
4 serves - vegetables
2 serves - fruit
l serve - legumes (if vegetarian), nuts (if vegetarian), lean meat, eggs
1 tablespoon fats and oils (can be oil, mayonnaise, salad dressing, butter, margarine, cream or sour cream)
A small amount of desserts, sweets, snacks and alcohol may be taken if the person is not overweight.
One serving equals:
1 slice bread, 1/2 roll,
3/4 cup cereal,
1/2 cup cooked rice, pasta or grains.
1 medium potato, carrot or parsnip,
1/2 cup peas, corn, beans, pumpkin,
l cup spinach, broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, zucchini, tomato, mushrooms
1 medium piece fruit, or 1/2 cup juice (150mL citrus)
1 cup cooked beans (approx 1/2 cup dry uncooked), 1/4-1/2 cup nuts (2 tablespoons nut butter)
125g g meat, excluding bone and fat, any sort (1 egg may replace 25g meat)
300mL milk or yoghurt, 1/3 cup cottage cheese, 40g cheese