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Eat a little better each meal for a healthier, longer life

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Changing dietary habits can be hard, regardless of what motivates one to do so.

Perhaps this is because we have adopted an all-or-nothing attitude when it comes to ‘diet’, which can be difficult to maintain.

Or we rely on willpower alone. This is near impossible.

Or we become overwhelmed with counting every kilojoule, despite there being much more to eating well than energy in and energy out.

(As we saw in That Sugar Film, Damon swapped his diet but didn’t change his energy intake. It was only the quality of food that shifted. Eating heavily processed, high sugar foods resulted in serious health concerns.)

What if there was a different approach to improving the quality of diet and therefore, overall health?

Research has shown that there is no need for extremes. Small dietary improvements over time can be enough to contribute to longer, healthier lives.

Eat healthily, live longer

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.

They found the more healthy, whole foods one ate, the longer and healthier they lived.

An obvious correlation, right? But this research also showed even small dietary changes could 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.

“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.”

A healthy diet

According to this group of researchers, a healthy diet is based on either a Mediterranean style or Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet score.

Why? The foundation of these diets is consuming mostly real, whole foods, while reducing intake of ultra-processed, packaged, and junk foods. Makes sense.

Do know that a little processed or packaged food is totally fine – just 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.

A positive approach to food

When attempting to improve quality of diet and health, we respect that for some a stricter approach to diet is needed. Whether for personal reasons or treating a medical condition, that is up to each individual to decide.

But, if going cold-turkey or all out with the latest diet fad isn’t for you, we suggest improving your diet gradually and focus on what foods to include rather than remove.

This attitude of abundance is a more effective, less stressful, and sustainable approach to eating, rather than one that is restrictive, relies on willpower, or only counts kilojoules.

And when you inevitably have a less healthy ‘sometimes food’, such as a doughnut or soft serve, leave the guilt behind.

Instead, adopt a kinder and less judgmental attitude toward yourself (and others) as you work toward improving and maintaining good dietary habits.

Make changes, and go easy

Start improving your 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.

Try this: Each meal is an opportunity for change and to choose food that nourishes you. Each week, we can consume up to 35 meals. If we change just one of these meals from packaged, processed, or junk food to a real, whole 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.

See here for more tips for improving the quality of your diet.

Switching eating habits may not be easy. Faced with the convenience of drive-throughs and processed, packaged food, along with the food industry’s clever advertising and influence over public health policy, we are up against it.

Yet, it is empowering to take responsibility for one’s health and make healthful food choices – however small – whenever possible.

Over time you can gradually and sustainably improve the quality of what you eat and drink. Continually making small improvements to your diet that suit you and your lifestyle will bump out the less healthy stuff, work toward meeting nutritional needs, and have a positive impact on your health,

In doing this, we repeat: be kind to yourself. The occasional ‘sometimes food’ 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)

 

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