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One diet to rule them all

How is a person to make sense of the conflicting nutrition messages they read and hear about each day? Despite a wide range of contradicting nutrition and diet messages, there are common themes that overlap across all of the popular diets - themes that give you the keys to long-term health in a simple-to-understand message.

Carbohydrates cause weight gain. Fat causes weight gain. We should eat like our caveman ancestors. Gluten and sugar are toxic. Saturated fat is bad for you…no wait…now it's good for you.

Weekend cheaters weigh less

For those following a strict diet to lose weight, a new study proposes that there may just be merit in the idea of ‘weekend cheating’ in loosening the bounds of food self-control.

Making concerted dietary changes and having them stick long term to help with weight loss is tough. Just how many people fall off their best-intentioned diet plans is testament to this. We only have enough willpower to force dietary changes upon ourselves and one day that firm resolve will fail. Enter the idea that having a ‘cheat’ day or weekend may lessen the feelings of self-deprivation when following a strict diet.

Researchers from the United States examined the idea that because our lives follow a weekly rhythm where weekdays are normally very different to weekends, there may be merit in having our eating habits follow a similar pattern as well.

Being active improves cancer survival odds

Evidence continues to grow that physical activity after a cancer diagnosis is linked to a better survival outlook.

Being physically active is now recognised as a potent ‘cancer-preventing’ habit. Some estimates link regular physical activity to as much as a 20 to 40% lower risk of colon and post-menopausal breast cancer and a potential benefit in lowering prostate cancer risk too.

Being active also comes with the added bonus of improving fitness, keeping bones healthy, keeping body weight in check and reducing stress.

Saturated fat not linked to heart disease? Not so fast, the real message behind the headlines

Many of you would have come across today's 'hot topic' in the media citing a just published meta-analysis showing little link between saturated fat and heart disease.

I really feel for the public in being faced with such conflicting nutrition messages. I could blame no one for throwing their hands up in despair, proclaiming that all nutrition health messages are rubbish as they reach for the salami stick and deep fried Mars Bar.

But hold on for just one moment before you take that first bite. Saturated fat was never, repeat never, proclaimed as the big villain for heart disease. It was one of a whole range of diet and lifestyle habits including smoking, obesity, inactivity, and a poor diet overall, that together add to a person’s risk.

Dietary advice to reduce heart disease risk was never just about cutting back on saturated fat, it was cutting back on saturated fat as WELL AS eating less processed foods, salt, and sugar, and eating more fruit and vegetables. As a population, Australians have made little shift in making these type of inherently healthy eating changes permanent.

You can eat a diet high in saturated fat that is healthy, or you could eat less saturated fat and replace it with processed carbohydrates and sugar. These types of changes can’t always be seen in many of the studies that went into this latest research.

Dietary patterns consistently linked to lower rates of heart disease as well as longer-term health and longevity are almost universally low in saturated fat, yet also high in plant based foods, and fibre, and low in salt and sugar.

The nutrition profession as a whole (which includes me) is guilty of focussing too much on single nutrients as being health saviours or villains. But we don’t eat nutrients, we eat foods.

The positive news out of this latest conflicting research is that it sees more and more nutrition researchers are waking up to the risk of only focussing on nutrients, and instead look at whole diets.

Our latest Dietary Guidelines in fact have been framed much more in terms of foods, and less focus is given to nutrients.

Get the foods right, and the nutrients take care of themselves.

Obesity can reshape our sense of taste

As surprising as it may sound, for some people the problem of weight gain may lie right on the tip of their tongue.

There are many things that can influence a person’s desire for food. When given a choice between foods, the desire to choose one food over another is closely linked to taste and other sensory signals such as smell and the feel of the food in the mouth.

A very simple hypothesis posed by obesity researchers is that as people gain weight, their taste perception changes. This theory is supported by studies in both animals and humans and suggest that obese people may not detect sweet tastes as well as their lean counterparts. This partly could be because of genetic factors, but also from changes in taste sensitivity as people gain weight.

How much does it cost to eat healthier?

The abundance and cheap cost of unhealthy food has meant that there is a perception that a healthy diet is one that costs more. A systematic review of direct cost comparisons between healthy and unhealthy diets has indeed found that a healthy diet does cost more, but the difference is smaller than you might think.

A healthy diet, loaded with plenty of fruits, vegetables, minimally processed foods and lean sources of protein is the cornerstone of reducing the risk of many chronic diseases. People from an economically disadvantaged background may find it harder to eat healthier if there is a real or perceived higher cost to eating healthier. It is no surprise that the highest density of fast-food outlets cluster in socially disadvantaged areas and on the surface, this type of food may appear to offer ‘value for money’ all other nutritional concerns aside.

How do the different diets for diabetes compare?

Diabetes is a major public health problem. Each day, 280 Australians will be diagnosed with diabetes with the total number of people in this country with either diabetes or a condition of pre-diabetes standing now at a staggering 3.2 million. Type 2 diabetes is by far the most common form of diabetes and is leading the world-wide explosion in this disease.

There is much we know about how type 2 diabetes can be prevented by lifestyle changes that focus on modest weight loss, eating more foods high in fibre, eating less foods high in saturated fat and getting more active.

What is less clear is what type of dietary pattern is optimal for controlling blood sugar levels in someone already with type 2 diabetes. There have been many clinical trials looking at different dietary approaches to managing type 2 diabetes which include:

Are raw food health claims overcooked?

Eating only raw foods has emerged as a popular dietary trend. Proclaiming an emotive health message, it is enough to make you think twice before next adding heat to your food. But fear not – on the scales of health, there is little to tip the balance in either direction.

Raw food advocates claim cooking food destroys the natural enzymes and nutrients that would otherwise give us optimal health and control body weight.

A raw food diet is almost entirely plant-based and includes fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains, vegetable oils and juices in their natural uncooked state.

On the pro side, there is great merit in this type of diet. If you are currently eating a lot of processed food, then switching to raw food will be a clear nutritional win.

Fermented foods: what’s on offer for our health?

Fermented foods have been in our diet for thousands of years.  Beer and wine are classic examples of fermented foods where yeast converts sugars to alcohol. Other types of fermented foods use bacteria, such as Lactobacillus, to make foods like yoghurt, sauerkraut, kimchi and many others. And when you start talking about bacteria, you move into the realm of probiotics which come with a long list of health claims.

Is there a solution to the obesity epidemic?

Few people would need to be told how much of a serious problem the obesity problem is in Australia. The most recent Australian data paints a grim picture of our health, with 63% of adults deemed to be carrying too much weight.

Despite the best intentions of public health programs and a never-ending supply of best-selling fad diets to choose from, the Nation’s collective waistline continues to expand. So is the problem too far out of control? Is willpower and personal responsibility not enough in the face of pervasive food marketing, and declining levels of physical activity?

At its heart, overeating and underactivity are indisputably the cause of weight gain, yet the reasons for these occurring in the first place are a complex combination of genetics, environmental factors and psychological reasons.

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