Food variety and a healthy diet

Variety in our diet is super important! But did you know that many average Australians might only include about 10 different foods a day?

The latest 2018 government statistics released last year present a very sobering picture of the Australian diet. Only a dismal 5% of adults were meeting the recommended daily intake of 2 serves of fruit and 5 or more serves of vegetables. All Australian age groups including children as young as 2-3 years old were reported to be having too much sugar and too many unhealthy foods that are low in nutritional value. These so called 'discretionary foods' account for over a third of the daily diet across the different population groups. For children, sweet biscuits, cakes and muffins, potato chips, corn chips, pastries, ice cream, soft drinks and fried potato products are leading contributors to discretionary food intake. While in adults these foods were combined along with alcohol to make up the vast proportion of unhealthy food intake.

"Australians of all ages generally are considered to have a poor diet—that is they do not eat enough of the 5 food groups and eat too many discretionary foods high in salt, fat and sugar. Inadequate fruit and vegetable consumption in particular is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, chronic kidney disease and overweight and obesity. "

https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports-data/behaviours-risk-factors/food-nutrition/reports
Junk food makes up a large proportion of most Australian's daily diet!

While we are encouraged to eat five serves a day of vegetables, most Australians only average around 2-3 servings. The other thing that was not highlighted, but one I find essential to mention is the importance of different types of veggies. For instance, you could have tomatoes with your fried eggs for breakfast, tomato with your ham sandwich at lunch and then some tomato with lettuce at dinner. This might be considered three serves, but really it is just the one vegetable. Likewise, the grain servings make no distinction between types of grains, so having weetbix for breakfast, wheat bread sandwich for lunch and then wheat pasta for dinner, would be considered three serves of grains, but really it is just three serves of the one type of wheat grain. Clearly, this might be meeting serving requirements for the food groups, but obviously makes no contribution to getting a broad diversity of foods.

So how do you measure up?

Most of you who have seen me in clinic would have probably recorded your diet for an average week. While this gives me valuable information about the food choices you make and what your nutrient intake is, many people also find it is an eye-opening exercise. The fact is, many people think they are eating healthier than they actually are! So take a good look at what you are eating and see how it can be improved. I can help you with this during a consultation, but it is good to start the reflection for yourself.

So the purpose of this article is to mainly get you eating more variety! Food variety and a healthy diet go hand in hand. So start this initial journey by recording and counting all the different types of foods you have eaten over the past few days. When we are considering food variety and the task of recording all the different foods for the variety challenge, it is important to note that when we are adding up all the different foods ingredients we might eat, we are not including all the unwanted ingredients hidden in many processed foods as part of our score! We are just want to add up the 'real foods' that we consume. If you aren't sure of the difference between 'real foods' and 'processed foods', then take a look at my previous article on this topic. Though with all this in mind, you could certainly keep a separate record to see what chemical preservatives, flavours and colours you are unwittingly consuming in some of the foods you eat, it may surprise you!

What Did Our Hunter Gatherer Ancestors Eat?

In contrast to our limited food choices here in our modern industrialised country, I was intrigued to learn recently of how many different foods some hunter gatherer cultures traditionally got into their diet! While it is hard to know exactly what our ancestors ate, we do know from fossil records that humans were generally very adept at making use of as many different plants and animal foods as possible from their local environments. Check out this article for an interesting look at our ancestral food choices. Really when we have never before had so much knowledge of food and the capacity to grow and source foods from different regions with modern transportation it is very sad that our dietary choices are still so limited. Being so removed from nature and where our food really comes from is a major part of the modern problem, along with the convenience of fast foods, takeaway and the savvy marketing of convenience meals. It is time to get educated, make some changes and be more aware and responsible for improving our diet!

Take the 7 Day Variety Challenge

So why don't you take up my challenge and see if you can expand your food choices over the next month or so. There are many benefits for our body by including different types of foods. The most obvious first one to consider is that when we eat a broad variety we get exposed to more potential nutritional sources. Other hidden benefits of including a diversity of plant foods in particular is getting the many phytochemicals they contain. Plants contain lots of goodies, aside from vitamins and minerals, such as compounds that have antioxidant, anticancer and cardiovascular benefits.

Another often forgotten benefit of including a wide variety is our microbiome. The microbiome refers to our diverse gut bacterial colonies, who need many different foods for fuel. Different diets will favour different types of bacteria, and our bacterial ratios will change even after one different type of meal to our normal meals. To have a truly healthy microbiome we need plenty of different foods, especially the fibre rich plant foods that provide prebiotic fuel for our bugs, and this helps to keep our bacterial diversity robust. Learn more about fermented foods and the microbiome.

So as part of my 7 day Variety Challenge I have made a little cheat sheet with a list of loads of different types of foods in each food group category. See if you can get at least 50 different foods over the course of 7 days.

Download my Food Variety Challenge record sheet.

Keeping a record helps you be more aware and inspired to maintain the healthy habits into the future. I would love to see your lists and see what creative recipes you have come up with and the amazing variety you can include! Involve your kids and the rest of the family and help to raise awareness. Children's eating habits generally inform their life long eating habits, so it is so important to start educating them when they are young. Encourage your kids to keep a record of what they eating too, and young children can even keep a visual food diary where they draw the foods they eat or stick pictures in a scrapbook. Get them to try new things and make it a fun challenge. The more foods you include, the better it is!

Remember, one great way of getting more diversity with your vegetables and plant foods is to include wild foods like weeds! Check out my video on youtube for inspiration to get harvesting. Weeds can be included in green smoothies, added to salads and cooked in stirfries and soups. Check out my super food salad below with over 10 different salad greens and weeds as well as avocado, carrot, sweet potato, cabbage, toasted pepitas, almonds and goat's feta....that's 17 ingredients in one salad, not including the homemade dressing!

Remember, that local and seasonal foods are still highly recommended, which helps us eat local and cut back on food miles as well as ensuring we are getting the best and freshest foods in our diet!

So I hope you are inspired to take up my 7 Day Variety Challenge and start building your health and resilience today!

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