Perhaps this is because we have adopted an all or nothing attitude when it comes to ‘diet’. Or we become overwhelmed with counting kilojoules.
Sure there are things we should limit intake of. Eating daily a stack of hotcakes, 2-minute noodles, half a packet of Oreos and a can of Coke isn’t going to do us any favours, especially as this leaves little space for real, whole foods like vegetables and fruit.
But feeling guilty for that occasional hot dog or Sunday afternoon soft serve won’t help you along the path to wellness.
For some, whether for personal reasons or treating a medical condition, a stricter approach to diet is needed. That is up to each individual to decide.
For most of us, adopting a kinder and less judgmental attitude toward others and ourselves while gradually improving the quality of what we eat and drink is a far less stressful approach for improving health.
So, if going all out, cold-turkey, 100% with the latest diet fad ain’t for you, the good news is a new study has shown that small gradual dietary changes can be enough to contribute to longer, healthier lives.
Published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers analysed the diets of 73, 700 people. For 12 years, participants completed food frequency questionnaires every 4 years, and with this data researchers calculated the healthfulness of the diet measured alongside health outcomes.1
What did they find?
The more healthy whole foods one ate, the longer and healthier they lived.
To most of us, this correlation may seem obvious. But what this research found was even small dietary changes seemed to impact health outcomes.
Improving diet by only 20% led to an 8-17% reduced risk of premature death. And vice versa, having 20% more unhealthy food or drink led to an increased risk of death.
A healthy diet, according to this group of researchers, is based on either a Mediterranean style or Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) Diet score. Key factors of these diets are the focus on consuming mostly real, whole food.
“Our results highlight the long-term health benefits of improving diet quality with an emphasis on overall dietary patterns rather than on individual foods or nutrients,” said Frank Hu, senior study author. “A healthy eating pattern can be adopted according to individuals’ food and cultural preferences and health conditions. There is no one-size-fits-all diet.”
Go easy on yourself
So, small improvements to what one eats and drinks can contribute to a positive impact on health over time.
What does it mean to eat healthier?
The focus should be on increasing intake of better quality, real and whole foods while reducing intake of processed and packaged food.
The majority of us will partake in some processed and packaged food; this is fine, we just have to be discerning when purchasing it. As seen in That Sugar Film, many seemingly healthy foods, such as breakfast cereals, flavoured yoghurt and fruit drinks, are packed with added sugar.
Too much added sugar is not great and can contribute to weight gain, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver,2-6 and other less obvious health issues such as mood disorder, skin conditions, altered immune response and an imbalanced intestinal microbiome.
While it can be hard switching eating habits from the convenient world of drive-throughs and processed, packaged food (especially when facing the food industry’s very clever advertising and influence over public health policy), taking responsibility for one’s health by making good choices whenever possible for what we stick into our gobs is empowering. And every little change makes a difference.
Start improving diet and health by making one small change to your eating or drinking habits a week, and maintain this as you add other small changes in subsequent weeks.
Consider this – we will have 21 to 35 meals per week (depending on whether you enjoy mid-morning and afternoon snacks). Each week, if we change up just one of these meals from a packaged, processed or junk food to a real food alternative, and continue to change one additional meal in each subsequent week, in less than a year we would be eating primarily real, whole foods across most meals.
Here we’ve more tips for improving the quality of your diet.
Importantly, be kind to yourself. The occasional treat is okay. And every choice – big or small – for a healthier, real, whole food option will make a difference.
By Angela Johnson (BHSc Nut. Med.)
- Sotos-Prieto, M, Bhupathiraju, SN, Mattei, J, Fung, TT, Yanping, L, An, P, Willett, WC, Rimm, EB, Hu, FB, Li, Y, & Pan, A 2017, ‘Association of Changes in Diet Quality with Total and Cause-Specific Mortality’, New England Journal of Medicine, vol. 377, no. 2, pp. 143-153.
- Basu S, Yoffe P, Hills N, Lustig R 2013, ‘The relationship of sugar to population-level diabetes prevalence: an econometric analysis of repeated cross-sectional data’, PLoS ONE, 8, no. 2.
- Imamura F, O’Connor L, Ye Z, Mursu J, Hayashino Y, Bhupathiraju S et al. 2015, ‘Consumption of sugar sweetened beverages, artificially sweetened beverages, and fruit juice and incidence of type 2 diabetes: systematic review, metaanalysis, and estimation of population attributable fraction’, viewed 12 June 2017, <http://www.bmj.com/content/351/bmj.h3576>.
- Te Morenga L, Mallard S, Mann J 2013, ‘Dietary sugars and body weight: systematic review and meta-analyses of randomised controlled trials and cohort studies’, viewed 12 June 2017, <http://www.bmj.com/content/346/bmj.e7492>.
- Yang Q, Zhang Z, Gregg E, Flanders W, Merritt R, Hu F 2014, ‘Added sugar intake and cardiovascular diseases mortality among US adults’, JAMA Internal Medicine, 174, n. 4, pp. 516-524.
- Yasutake, K, Kohjima, M, Kotoh, K, Nakashima, M, Nakamuta, M, & Enjoji, M 2014, ‘Dietary habits and behaviors associated with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease’, World Journal Of Gastroenterology, vol. 20, no. 7, pp. 1756-1767.