In 2014, the Australian Bureau of Statistics released the results of a survey that showed Aussies were still not eating in accordance with dietary guidelines (as if we didn’t know already), and that we are getting around a third of our daily energy intake from what is essentially “junk” food – refined or sugary bread and cereal products that are low in nutrition and high in kilojoules. It comes as no surprise, really – as a population, our eating habits are problematic.
It’s been a long time coming, but Nutrition Australia finally released a new pyramid graphic in May, with a distinct change in style (with kinder, softer colours) and advice that was designed to give better conceptual information rather than clutter. You might have even noticed the addition of one simple, yet powerful word – “enjoy”. The general response from nutritionists and dietitians, after 15 years of a tired, unengaging infographic, was one of quiet congratulations. So what prompted the change, and what’s new on the menu?
Let’s look at the “old” guidelines
So what’s new?
The most obvious change is the treatment of grains and cereal products – they have moved away from the fruits and vegetables and now sit in a demoted position one layer up. The problem, mainly, was one of translation: seeing images of wholegrain breads and in practise converting them to donuts, sugary buns, refined pasta, white rice and bland, white bread. The whole point of eating wholegrains is that not only are they a terrific source of vitamins (primarily B group) and minerals, but they are also an important source of dietary fibre – something Australians are sorely lacking in, thereby contributing to heart disease, constipation and bowel cancers.
We can also get fibre from fruit, vegetables and resistant starches, so if you are a coeliac or don’t like wholegrains, you have other options. But congratulations to the good old vegetable, under-loved and under-used (according to nutritionist Susie Burrell, only 7% of Australians are eating enough). Let’s hope it gets more colour on the average Aussie plate, and not in the form of fake fruit flavours!
The other big change, though a little more subtly located at our pyramid’s apex, is the complete abolition of “discretionary” foods. You know – the sugary treats we know are a “sometimes” food, but are more commonly consumed as an “I deserve it” food? We’re thinking fast food, lollies, sweet biscuits, cakes – your average children’s birthday party. We suppose they figured you’ll have them occasionally anyway, but there is no nutritional basis to recommend it. Ultimately, a sensible move: as if we need another excuse to reach for the cherry and custard Danish on Friday morning tea! This entire segment is now dedicated to “good” fats. This may require a little more digging on the consumer’s part, but with the representation of an olive branch and a bottle of oil, we know where they’re going with that. Think traditional Mediterranean fare and HDL fats. Your nuts and avocados could technically fit in here, too.
A little extra advice
Herbs, spices, and plenty of fresh drinking water are a new focus, though the previous guidelines included a picture of a tap, which could have been interpreted as advice to wash your veggies, or even get your plumbing checked. “Choose water” is simple and unequivocal, and those who take a daily hit from a bubbly can or bottle should heed this advice – it’s amazing what you can do without. Tea and non-milky coffee is predominantly water as well, so we think a few cups a day in line with the available science counts as additional water. The addition of herbs and spices is a clever one, as well – we can all get bored by the idea of another plate of meat and three veg, but Australia’s cooking revolution put an end to grandma’s boiled-to-death sprouts. We now have cupboards full of cumin seeds, rosemary, nutmeg and paprika. We even use them! Dinner parties are no longer for your parent’s generation.
What’s much the same?
Nuts and dairy have wonderful nutritional benefits, but they’re energy-dense and can easily be overdone. Regular, small portions have long been recommended, though a whole bowl of macadamias or pecans, or a block of triple cream French brie is often the way we consume this layer of the pyramid. Snack-sized portions as part of your daily diet is a far more balanced approach.
The other consistent recommendation, which makes it all worthwhile, is to move more! Most of us spend too long sitting and not enough time getting our heart rates up a little. Given that cardiovascular disease (mainly through heart attacks and strokes) is Australia’s biggest killer, it would be pointless having a wonderfully balanced diet only to succumb to the consequences of a sedentary life.
Why Do We Have Guidelines at All?
Most countries offer official advice, either directly or through various peak bodies, on how to get a nutritionally-balanced diet that is sensitive to the regions culture, history, economy and the availability of specific produce. It would be virtually impossible, for these reasons, to designate one way of eating for everybody in the world. Australia is privileged enough to have access to a huge variety of fresh produce as well as ready-made items, but our palates are heavily geared towards Western-style eating – it’s why you won’t find, for example, the emphasis on herring and mackerel that you’ll see in a Scandanavian diet, but you’ll be advised that red meat from time to time is perfectly fine, unlike the guidelines you’ll see in predominantly Buddhist cultures. So the Australian guidelines offer information based on the best available nutrition science, which is produced by biochemists, dietitians, qualified nutritionists, food analysts, health epidemiologists, and historical data such as disease-related vitamin and mineral deficiencies. The focus is always on variation, moderation and choosing mostly plant-based foods.
Is the diet for everyone?
No diet is for everyone. Your body and your state of health are unique to you, and that’s why they’re called guidelines rather than directives. If you have allergies or intolerances, vitamin or mineral deficiencies, specific conditions or diseases, are pregnant or breastfeeding, going through menopause, are very young or very old, then following the pyramid exactly might not be right for you. A diabetic or a person with coeliac disease will know this all too well.
If you are of generally good health and don’t fit into these categories, then this way of eating is likely to be very beneficial. For anybody else, tailored advice from your GP, specialist or a qualified dietitian or nutritionist is invaluable. Googling “ideal” diets and eating recommendations is likely to leave you confused, misinformed, and left with the impression that the people who shout the loudest have the best advice. It couldn’t be further from the truth – use some common sense, and when in doubt, ask a professional.
If you do plan on seeking out advice specific for your state of health, or want some of your more difficult questions answered (Why are legumes in two categories, should you really pass the salt, or why is BBQ chicken skin so delicious?), you may be able to obtain rebates on consultations with the right health insurance extras. Compare providers today to find that suits your needs, like dietitian and nutritional cover. Good advice from qualified experts is your best path to no-nonsense health, so follow your new guide as best you can, and when in doubt, quote Michael Pollen – eat food, not too much, mostly plants. Bon appetit!