Good nutrition

Last updated 25 May 2017 — Last reviewed 17 February 2014

It is helpful to know what foods are healthy and what you can do to ensure you eat the healthiest diet you can. Having a variety of foods, eating regular meals, including wholegrains, fibre, fruit and vegetables, and limiting the amount of fat, sugar and salt you eat are all recommended for good nutrition.

The Australian Dietary Guidelines have been developed by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) to advise people on the amounts and kinds of foods that we need to eat for health and wellbeing.

The Australian Dietary Guidelines are guidelines for healthy eating for the whole population with the exception of those who need special dietary advice for a medical condition, or the frail elderly. People with specific dietary requirements should seek individual advice from a dietitian or other qualified health professional.

The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating visually represents the proportion of the five food groups recommended each day[1].

The five food groups are:

  • grain (cereal) foods
  • vegetables and legumes/beans
  • fruit
  • lean meats and poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds and legumes/beans
  • milk, yoghurt, cheese and/or alternatives

Variety

Eating a variety of foods helps you to obtain the various nutrients required by your body. The Australian Dietary Guidelines provides a guide to the number of serves of foods from the five food groups you require each day. This information helps you to construct the ideal meal plan in terms of the amount of food you require from each food group to ensure you meet your nutritional requirements. If you are reducing your food intake to control your weight, it is important not to totally eliminate one or more of the five food groups. This could put you at risk of having inadequate amounts of some nutrients. Instead it is best to reduce the portion sizes and choose the healthier options within each food group. For example, select multigrain bread rather than white bread and use skim milk instead of full-cream milk.

TIP: To promote variety, create meals with at least three food groups:

  • For breakfast, add in some fruit with wholegrain cereal and reduced fat milk and/or yoghurt
  • Serve a fresh green salad with a pasta meal such as spaghetti bolognaise
  • Include a handful of cashew nuts in a vegetarian stir-fry served with rice or noodles

Eating regular meals

Skipping meals is one of the biggest mistakes women make. Regular meals, and snacks when needed, maintain your energy and provide the nutrients you need each day so you will feel more like being active, your mood will be better and you will be less likely to overeat.

Breakfast is an important start to the day. Some great breakfast options are:

  • a high-fibre, wholegrain cereal with milk or yoghurt together with some fruit
  • wholegrain toast or English-style muffin with a boiled or poached egg with spinach, mushrooms, avocado or tomato.

Healthy snacks can be part of your eating plan but take care not to eat too much over the day. Some people prefer to eat smaller meals and include a snack in between meals to control their hunger. Snacks may be a good way for you to include an extra serve or two of fruit and vegetables or get some extra calcium from a yoghurt or fruit smoothie.

Wholegrains & fibre

Wholegrain foods contain all three parts of the grain; the germ that supplies many nutrients, the starch or carbohydrate for energy, and the bran that supplies the fibre. Examples of foods that provide wholegrains are rolled oats, wholegrain bread, wheat flakes, wheat biscuits and brown rice.

Wholegrains are an important source of dietary fibre but also have been shown to have specific health benefits. The Dietary Guidelines recommend women consume 4-6 serves of grain (cereal) foods each day depending on your age. High fibre, wholegrain options are encouraged as they provide the most health benefits. A serve is equivalent to 1 slice of bread, ½ cup of cooked pasta, noodles, rice or quinoa, ½ cup of cooked porridge or ¼ cup of muesli.

TIP: Eat a wholegrain cereal or bread as part of your breakfast everyday.

There are many benefits to eating high fibre foods including promoting regular bowel habits, helping you feel fuller, reducing blood glucose and cholesterol levels and reducing the risk of several diseases, including colorectal cancer and cardiovascular disease.

There are two categories of fibre - soluble fibre which dissolves in water and and insoluble fibre which does not.  We require both types of fibre and, by making sure you eat a good variety of foods, it is easy to consume both.

Examples of foods which are good sources of fibre are:

  • wholegrain cereals, including oats, barley, wheat bran, psyllium
  • wholemeal and wholegrain breads
  • brown rice
  • legumes, including lentils, chickpeas, dried and canned beans
  • fruit and vegetables (skin on where possible)
  • nuts and seeds

The recommended daily intake of fibre for women is at least 25g per day. Eating the recommended number of serves of fruit and vegetables each day and selecting high fibre breads and cereals will help you to achieve the recommended amount of fibre as well as a combination of both soluble and insoluble fibre. 

TIP: If you are not eating enough fibre, make sure you increase your fibre intake gradually and ensure you are also drinking plenty of water
 
TIP: Look on the label of packaged foods to see the amount of dietary fibre in the food– aim to choose products with at least 7.5g per 100g

Fruit & vegetables

Fruit and vegetables are a wonderful source of many important nutrients. By eating the recommended number of serves each day and including lots of variety, you will get many important nutrients to keep you healthy and help protect you from cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers. As well as being an important source of fibre, eating a variety of fruit and vegetables provides vitamin C, folate, potassium, beta-carotene (vitamin A), and other vitamins and minerals and antioxidants.

Recommendations for adults:

  • Eat at least 5 serves of vegetables every day (75g per serve)
    • Example of 1 serve = ½ cup cooked vegetables or 1 cup of green leafy vegetables or ½ medium potato
       
  • Eat at least 2 serves of fruit every day (150g per serve)
    • Example of 1 serve = 1 piece of medium-sized fruit (eg apple, banana, orange) or 2 pieces of small fruit (eg apricots, plums) or 1 cup of diced, cooked or canned fruit

TIPS:

  • Use fresh seasonal fruit and vegetables when possible
  • Frozen and canned vegetables and fruit (canned in natural juice) are also healthy options
  • Include at least 1 serve of fruit or vegetables in your breakfast and at least 2 serves of fruit or vegetables in every lunch and dinner
  • Try snacking on raw vegetables and fruit

Low glycaemic index

Glycaemic index (GI) is a measure of how a carbohydrate food affects your blood glucose level. Low GI foods produce gradual rises in blood glucose levels as they are more slowly digested and absorbed than higher GI foods. Low GI diets help in the management of diabetes. They also reduce insulin levels and insulin resistance and therefore can be helpful in the management of impaired glucose tolerance (IGT) and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). Low GI foods tend to be more filling and therefore can help people to reduce their energy intake for weight management.

Look for low GI foods which are also high in fibre or wholegrains. Some examples include:

  • legumes (dried or canned beans, lentils, chickpeas)
  • wholegrain breads and savoury biscuits
  • psyllium, quinoa, barley, bulghur (cracked wheat)
  • muesli, rolled oats (porridge), a high bran cereal such as All Bran
  • sweetcorn
  • most fruit including apples, pears, bananas, grapes, mango, nectarines, peaches, oranges and berries

Other low GI foods include Basmati rice, pasta (wheat), fresh rice noodles, low GI white bread, milk and yoghurt.

It is important to consider the amount of carbohydrate you eat as well as the GI of the carbohydrate. Low GI foods which provide a large amount of carbohydrate may have a greater effect on blood glucose and insulin levels than small amounts of a high GI food.

TIP: Include one low GI carbohydrate food in each meal to lower the overall glycaemic index of the meal.

Limit foods containing saturated fat

There are three main types of dietary fats – saturated fat, monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat. All fats contain the same amount of energy (calories) and are considered 'energy-dense' so consuming too much may lead to excess energy intake and weight gain. Saturated fats tend to increase the LDL ('bad') cholesterol in the blood and you should try to limit the amount of saturated fat you consume.

Foods that are high in saturated fat include:

  • butter
  • cream
  • full-cream milk and yoghurt
  • cheese
  • meat
  • palm oil, which is a vegetable oil often used in the manufacturing of biscuits, pastries, chips and other snack foods
  • coconut oil, milk and cream

Replacing saturated fat with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats lowers LDL cholesterol and reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease. Limit your intake of saturated fat by using margarine instead of butter, limiting full-cream dairy products and using lean cuts of meat trimmed of visible fat. Also be cautious of processed foods made with palm oil (often labelled as 'vegetable oil') which are high in saturated fat; there is often a more healthy option available that contains a poly or monounsaturated fat.

Monounsaturated fat

Foods which are high in monounsaturated fat include:

  • olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, macadamia nut oil and margarines containing these oils
  • avocado
  • cashew nuts, macadamia nuts, almonds, peanuts

Polyunsaturated fat

Omega-3 and omega-6 fats are both polyunsaturated fats. They are found in a wide variety of foods. Some examples of good sources of these fats are listed here.

Omega-3 fats:

  • fish – e.g.  salmon, gemfish, canned tuna, canned sardines, canned tuna, scallops, mussels
  • canola oil and margarine
  • linseed

Omega-6 fats:

  • plant-based oils such as corn and soybean
  • nuts such as brazil nuts
  • seeds such as sunflower or chia seeds

Ideally you should aim to increase your intake of omega-3 fats for their health benefits.

You may have also heard about trans fats. Trans fats act in a similar way to saturated fat and therefore should also be minimised in the diet. However, in Australia most people have a fairly low trans fat intake and should focus more on reducing their saturated fat intake.

TIPS:

  • Eat fish 2-3 times each week for lunch or dinner
    For example – canned tuna in a sandwich or on wholegrain biscuits with salad; fresh salmon or flathead with vegetables or salad
  • Use margarine instead of butter to reduce your saturated fat intake
  • A small handful of nuts (about 30g is a healthy snack to include in your meal plan
  • Look at the labels on food packaging carefully – compare the saturated fat content using 'quantity per 100g' and choose products with lower amounts of saturated fat
  • The saturated fat content of many processed and takeaway foods is very high – eat these foods only occasionally or find options that contain less saturated fat

Eat less salt

All salt contains sodium, which is not good for your health. Cutting down on sodium reduces blood pressure and helps reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Recommendation

Limit sodium intake to less than 2,300 mg/day (about 6g of salt). If you have high blood pressure or heart disease, a lower intake of around 4g of salt per day is recommended.

The average Australian eats about 9g of salt everyday. Most of this comes from processed foods rather than salt we add to our food when cooking or at the table.

Reducing your sodium intake

To reduce your sodium intake choose 'no added salt' or 'low salt' (less than 120mg of sodium per 100g) products when possible. Otherwise, compare the products available and choose the lower sodium option, ideally aiming for a product that is also low in saturated fat and high in fibre or wholegrains.

TIPS:

  • Use other flavourings (e.g. herbs, spices, pepper) instead of adding salt to food when cooking
  • Limit foods high in salt such as processed meats (e.g. ham, bacon, devon, corned beef) and cheese

Limit added sugars

Sugar is an ingredient in many packaged foods and drinks. Some foods contain naturally occurring sugars, for example, fruit and products made with fruit, whilst many others contain added sugar.

Sugar does not directly cause chronic disease but contributes to excess energy intake and is therefore linked to overweight and obesity. It is also a contributing factor to tooth decay and erosion (the surface of the tooth is worn away). Nutritious foods that contain a small amount of sugar are unlikely to be a concern. Many healthy breakfast cereals have some added sugar. Of much greater concern are foods and drinks that contain large amounts of sugar and provide little or no essential nutrients. This includes soft drinks, cordial and lollies.

Sugar-sweetened soft drinks contain 10-12g sugar per 100ml. So, a 375ml can of soft drink contains around 40g (equivalent to 10 teaspoons) of sugar. It has been estimated that consuming one can of soft drink every day, in addition to usual food intake, leads to a weight gain of 6.75kg in one year.

Reducing your sugar intake

A small amount of sugar as part of a healthy diet isn't a problem. However, you may be consuming more sugar than you realise. Take some time to consider the food and drink you regularly have and ensure you are not having excessive amounts.

By identifying the main sources of sugar in your diet you can focus on finding alternatives to these foods and drinks. Here are some ideas to help reduce your sugar intake:

  • Reduce the amount of sugar you add to tea and coffee aiming to cut down gradually to zero
  • Avoid sweetened drinks; water is ideal but artificially-sweetened ('diet') drinks may be an alternative to have occasionally  – artificially-sweetened soft drinks are still acidic and can erode tooth enamel
  • Eat fruit instead of foods with lots of added sugar, including biscuits, cakes, chocolate and lollies

Limit alcohol

Alcohol consumption has many potential health risks and is also high in kilojoules.

If you drink alcohol, it is recommended that you have no more than two standard drinks on any day and aim for at least two alcohol-free days a week.

A standard drink contains 10g alcohol. All alcoholic drinks in Australia state on the label the approximate number of standard drinks contained in the bottle, can or cask.

One standard drink = 100ml of wine or 30ml of spirits or 285ml of full-strength beer

Drink water

As stated in the Australian Dietary Guidelines, "adequate fluid consumption is an integral component of a healthy diet". It is preferable to meet most fluid needs by drinking plain water.

TIPS:

  • Aim to have 6-8 glasses (1.5-2 litres) of water each day
  • Try to avoid sweetened soft drinks, cordials and sports drinks that provide a lot of kilojoules and have no nutritional value
  • Some of your fluid requirements may be provided by other drinks such as reduced-fat milk, tea, coffee, fruit juice and artificially-sweetened soft drinks – however, water is the ideal drink

References

  1. http://www.eatforhealth.gov.au/guidelines/australian-guide-healthy-eating

This web page is designed to be informative and educational. It is not intended to provide specific medical advice or replace advice from your health practitioner. The information above is based on current medical knowledge, evidence and practice as at February 2014.

Subscribe To our newsletters