There is no doubt that a good diet is essential to health and fitness, though beliefs about what makes up a ‘good diet’ have changed during my lifetime. Advice about good nutrition today is more soundly based than it was before 1940: knowledge about food and its effects on health has increased greatly during recent decades.
The media bombard us with information about food and our diet. And most news from the media tends to be negative: we are blamed for eating the ‘wrong’ things; too much of this; not enough of that; we are too fat (usually, but sometimes too thin), and we shall suffer for our sins by becoming ill. Hardly a day goes by without a report that something in food is bad for health or claims that a certain food element will cure or prevent disease, or prolong life. Some of this information is unbalanced or later turns out to be wrong.
Compared with five hundred or even one hundred years ago, our diet today is excellent. Four generations ago, most people existed on bread and potatoes with an occasional sliver of meat, a few vegetables in summer if they had any land for a garden, any wild fruits that they had time or energy to find, but often not enough of anything to fill their bellies. In some parts of the world this is still the case.
Now in Australia we have as good or better food available than any other nation. We are self-sufficient in food production, we have no famines, social services ensure that those who can’t earn are provided with money to buy food, and there is such a wonderful variety in the food stores that we can all have top-quality nutrition. Yet the number of people who suffer diet-related illness suggests that many Australians don’t eat well.
The Commonwealth Department of Health considers that diet is so important to health that it has issued nutritional guidelines to combat conflicting and misleading information on food and nutrition and to help all Australians choose a nutritionally adequate diet. These guidelines are supported by all groups concerned with good health, including the Dietitians Association of Australia, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, the Australian Federation of Consumer Organisations and the National Council of Women.
The Australian Dietary Guidelines
1 Enjoy a wide variety of nutritious foods.
2 Eat plenty of breads and cereals (preferably wholegrain), vegetables (including legumes) and fruits.
3 Eat a diet low in fat and, in particular, low in saturated fat. Select lean meats and trim visible fat. Limit butter and margarine on bread and vegetables. Choose low-fat dairy products.
5 If you drink alcohol, limit your intake. Take no more than two drinks a day.
6 Eat only a moderate amount of sugars and foods containing added sugars.
7 Choose low-salt foods and use salt sparingly. Watch out for added salt in sausages, processed meats, canned and packet soups and margarine. Limit your intake of salty snack foods such as pretzels, chips and crackers. Use sauces and prepared condiments sparingly.
8 Encourage and support breastfeeding.
Two additional guidelines have recently been developed. These concern two nutrients – calcium and iron – which are at risk in many diets.
9 Eat foods containing calcium. This is particularly important for girls and women. Poor intakes of calcium have been linked to the development of osteoporosis. Calcium-rich foods include milk, cheese, yoghurt, tinned fish with bones, almonds and sesame seeds.
10 Eat foods containing iron. This is particularly important for girls, women, vegetarians and athletes as these groups are at most risk of iron deficiency. A lack of dietary iron can cause tiredness, lethargy and eventually anaemia. Iron-rich foods include red meat and chicken. The iron from vegetable sources, such as green leafy vegetables or fortified breakfast cereals is not as well absorbed as that from animal sources. Vitamin С helps the absorption of iron, so remember to include some fruit or fruit juice in your diet every day.
A diet that follows these guidelines can be as interesting and delicious as any other. Women do most of the buying and preparing of family food, so we will be doing something positive for our families’ health if we follow the guidelines. Note that no particular foods are banned; rather it is suggested that our nutrition will be improved if we eat more of some foods and less of others that have traditionally made up the Australian diet. And an occasional dollop of cream on your fruit salad or a tub of chips or a slice of cake won’t wreck your health just don’t have these every day.