Sunday, October 19, 2014

Common bloody sense about healthy eating

First published in the Sunday Star Times, 16 August 2014. 

In all the noise about nutrition that’s around, it’s easy to get bogged down in ‘my diet is better than your diet’ arguments. There’s a lot of passion and conviction out there about what and how we should eat, from the paleo people to the low-carbers to the raw vegans to the ‘clean’ eaters to the gluten-free. All have different lists of what not to eat, and many have an evangelical zeal to tell us why we are doomed if we don’t follow their way. It can be pretty confusing.
What it’s easy to lose sight of, though, is that in general, despite these varying messages, we actually already know, and agree on, what is healthy to eat. We know, for example, that whole, unprocessed foods are best. We know to eat lots of colourful vegetables. We know that too much junky food full of saturated fat, sugar and refined carbohydrate is bad for us, and so is any more than a little alcohol. No matter what else we believe, we have to agree that if more of us were to live by these things, we would be healthier.

But when it comes to healthy eating guidelines for whole populations, keeping it simple (and understandable) does not seem to be easy for health authorities the world over. Our own Ministry of Health is working on new guidelines for Kiwis at the moment; a process which looks likely to last until the end of the year. The Heart Foundation revised its old ‘food pyramid’ last year; its guidelines are now in the form of a Healthy Heart that’s nicely visual and easy to understand. It’s nice to see a movement towards food-based, rather than nutrient-based eating advice.

One country that’s really taken this to heart is Brazil. Its new healthy eating guidelines are a great example of rules anyone can understand, and they make instinctive sense to us when we read them because they also take into account the social and cultural aspects of eating. Here they are:
  1. Prepare meals from staple and fresh foods.
  2. Use oils, fats, sugar and salt in moderation.
  3. Limit consumption of ready-to-consume food and drink product.
  4. Eat regular meals, paying attention, and in appropriate environments.
  5. Eat in company whenever possible.
  6. Buy food at places that offer varieties of fresh foods. Avoid those that mainly sell products ready for consumption.
  7. Develop, practice, share and enjoy your skills in food preparation and cooking.
  8. Plan your time to give meals and eating proper time and space.
  9. When you eat out, choose restaurants that serve freshly made dishes and meals. Avoid fast food chains.
  10. Be critical of the commercial advertisement of food products.

Notice the emphasis on mindful eating, cooking and sharing food? Even if we’re not Brazilian, these are not bad eating rules to live by. I might add something specific about veges (ie eat lots). But otherwise I say hear, hear. 

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