There are so many fads and diets out there that mixed messages can leave us feeling a little bit confused on how to make healthy food decisions. Are you meant to only eat plant-based foods? Are animal fats bad for you? Should I eat mainly fish? What should I eat? While every person’s body is made up differently and so responds to food differently, there are general guidelines that Nutrition Australia has felt every Australian needs to know. This is where the food pyramid has come in handy. It is a visual guide to understanding what foods our diets should mainly consist of and how much proportionately we should be eating of other foods in our diet. It has evolved over the last 30 years, but has recently been updated in 2015, based on the 2013 Australian Dietary Guidelines.
The Food Pyramid is another visual way of food education that complements the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating. While the Guide to Healthy Eating is a pie diagram and includes foods you should limit or restrict from your diet, the Pyramid is a quick way to visually remember the basics. Nutritional education is so important as the latest health survey data revealed that one third of the average Australian daily energy intake is from junk foods. Startling data also revealed that less than 7 percent of Australians eat the required amount of vegetables and less than 50 percent eat the required amount of fruit. This means that most of us struggle to know what foods our bodies need to be healthy. You may want to print out a copy of the food pyramid and stick it on your pantry door to get the word out there!
The Foundation Layers
The foods included in these bottom layers need to be the bulk of what we eat. If we don’t eat these foods, we won’t have the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other things like carbohydrates and fibre that enable our gut to move well. You may notice that the carb-rich foods are no longer included with the fruit and vegetables layer to indicate that the bulk of our food needs to be from fruits, vegetables and legumes. 70 percent of what we eat every day needs to be made up of these three plant-based food groups:
- vegetables and legumes (5 serves each day)
- fruits (2 serves each day)
- grains (whole grains such as brown rice, oats and quinoa; and wholemeal varieties over highly processed/refined white varieties of pasta, bread etc)
The Middle Layer
As you can see, the middle layer is made up of milk, yoghurt, cheese and alternatives; and lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds and legumes. Whilst the bulk of what we eat should not come from this layer, we do need the nutrition from these food groups included in our diet. Dairy and it’s alternatives provide us with calcium and protein primarily to strengthen our bones and our muscles. Meats, poultry, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, and legumes primarily provide us with protein for muscle building and strength. We gain important vitamins and minerals including iodine, iron, zinc, B12 and healthy fats that are important for our bodies to function well.
The Top Layer
This top layer used to include foods we should restrict or NOT eat. The top layer now positively puts forth what foods we should eat in small amounts. These are primarily healthy fats that are required to support health and brain function. Healthy fats refer to unrefined polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats from plant sources, such as avocado, fish, extra virgin olive oil, nuts and seeds.
From a quick glance at the food pyramid there are a some main messages you should come away with.
- Enjoy a variety of foods from the five food groups.
- Choose mostly plant-based foods.
- Limit added saturated fats, sugar and salt. The inclusion of sugar in the new food pyramid reflects how much sugar there is included in every day foods we need to be aware of. The average Australian consumes too much salt and sugar daily, which has been linked to chronic diseases such as type 2 Diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. Packaged foods can really skyrocket your daily intake of saturated fats, sugar and salt. Getting to know your food labels can have a great impact on your health. Choose food labels that have less than 120mg of sodium per 100g to reduce salt in your diet and avoid adding salt to your cooking. Instead use herbs and spices to add flavour to your meals.
- Choose water as your main drink. Our bodies need to be well hydrated all the time. Water is the best drink to stay hydrated and it supports many other essential functions in the body. Often our we feel hunger because our bodies actually need water. Choose water as your main drink, and avoid sugary options such as soft drinks, sports drinks and energy drinks.
Nutrition Australia promote the cooking of foods in your own home from fresh produce. This is an easy way to control what goes into your meals and also to have a good relationship with food. If you struggle with cooking or making healthy food decisions you can visit a nutritionist or dietician to help you understand what’s best for you and your family. Having a good relationship with food is a skill you will pass on for generations to come.
“Enjoy a variety of foods and be active every day”