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Healthy habits that could be harming you

We’re always hearing health advice and ‘rules’ for eating healthily. Some seem commonsense – but could they actually be doing more harm than good? Rose Carr investigates.

It’s said the walls of the supermarket are the safest place to shop if you are trying to be healthy, as often the least processed foods are there. Vegetables and fruit, bread, meat, dairy and other chilled foods are often around the sides of the supermarket. Often, but not always: one problem with this ‘rule’ is the supermarket designers don’t take any notice of it.

Our advice

If you diligently follow this rule, you could be missing out. We think frozen vegetables and frozen fruits are essential for busy lives as they are just as nutritious – sometimes more nutritious – than their fresh counterparts. And we have never seen legumes stacked at the outer edges of the supermarket. Where would we be without our chickpeas (canned or dried), cannellini beans or even baked beans? Not to mention that pantry staple: canned tomatoes.

The theory here is that our grandparents didn’t eat a lot of processed foods, and they didn’t have problems with weight or related diseases.

Our advice

While that’s possibly true, depending on your grandparents, there are lots of healthy foods your grandmother may not recognise from her childhood, and leaving these out would likely make your diet pretty dull.

Healthy foods Grandma wouldn’t recognise

  • avocados
  • baby carrots
  • blueberries
  • broccolini
  • butter beans
  • cannellini beans
  • chickpeas
  • couscous
  • curry paste
  • dairy products: low-fat ice cream, low-fat yoghurt, reduced-fat cheddar, reduced-fat ricotta, trim milk
  • falafel
  • flavoured tomatoes such as Indian-style/Mexican-style
  • flavoured tuna
  • gluten-free products
  • gold kiwifruit
  • herbal teas
  • hummus
  • instant yeast
  • light coconut milk
  • liquid stock
  • mango
  • mung beans
  • orzo or risoni
  • papaya
  • pesto
  • pita bread
  • potatoes: Perlas, Jersey Bennes; Red Jackets
  • rice crackers
  • rice paper
  • smoked salmon
  • snow peas
  • soy milk, rice milk
  • sun-dried tomatoes
  • sushi
  • wasabi

Organic foods are produced without using manufactured chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Many people believe organic food is safer and more nutritious.

Our advice

Foods labelled ‘organic’ are telling you about how they are produced, not about their nutrition. The jury is still out on whether organic food is any better for you than non-organic.

A 2009 review of the research found no evidence of differences in nutrient quality between organic and conventionally grown foods. The authors followed up with a 2010 review of research investigating nutrition-related health of eating organics versus conventional foods. They found no evidence of any health benefits, or harm, in consuming organic foods.

So buying locally-grown organic foods is a good choice for the environment, but if your budget says no, there is no reason to believe that you and yours will be any less healthy.

People increasing the raw food in their diets also increase their consumption of vegetables and fruit, which is good for health in so many ways. But there is no benefit in missing out on some of the foods which need to be cooked to be edible, such as legumes, potatoes and rice.

Our advice

While cooking can reduce the nutrient content of some foods such as vegetables overcooked in a large amount of water, for other foods the nutrient value is enhanced. For example, we get substantially more of the antioxidant lycopene from cooked or processed tomatoes than from raw tomatoes.

A strict raw food diet is not recommended on a long-term basis for good health. A German study found that people consuming a diet with 95 per cent or more raw food was associated with a high loss of body weight. Many of the study participants were underweight, and many of the women were not having periods because of this.

It’s true that fat is a concentrated source of energy: one gram of fat provides 38 kilojoules, but one gram of carbohydrate or one gram of protein has only 17 kilojoules.

Our advice

The ‘fat is bad’ mantra ought to be ancient history by now. Fats are essential in our diet. They absorb the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, and long-chain omega-3 fats are associated with many health benefits. It is the type of fat and the amount of fat that is important. Too much saturated fat, the fat mostly from animal products, is the main cause of high cholesterol, a precursor to heart disease. ‘Low fat’ or ‘fat free’ does not mean no kilojoules and may not even mean low kilojoules. If it’s fewer kilojoules you want, be sure to read the nutrition information, not just the hype. Limit saturated fat to less than 23g a day, and don’t overdo the good fats found in plant sources and fish.

We love simple rules to follow when we are trying to lose weight and if this is your shorthand reminder for ‘no pies, pastries, cakes and sweets’ after 5pm, then it won’t do you any harm. But please – don’t take it too literally.

Our advice

Carbohydrates provide the preferred fuel for our brains, they’re the main source of energy when we exercise, and we need to replenish our muscle stores after exercise. Rather than having a ‘no carb’ rule for a specific part of the day, we would be better to even out our intake throughout the day so our bodies don’t fatigue and our brains can concentrate. If you’re trying to lose weight, ensuring that your evening meal has some protein, loads of low-energy vegetables, and a smaller amount of carbohydrate food (such as potato, rice or pasta), is a much better idea.

In theory eating more frequently helps us burn more energy, as eating stimulates the metabolism. Some want to avoid hunger, as they make poorer choices about food when hungry.

Our advice

This could do you more harm than good if you’re trying to lose weight, as some research has found people tend to consume more energy (kilojoules) when eating more frequently. The research also supports regular rather than irregular meals for weight control – regardless whether three meals or six suit you best.

We don’t think occasionally experiencing mild hunger is so bad: in this age of over-consumption it’s good when we can recognise cues from our bodies. Just have a plan for healthy snacks if you need them.

Overconsumption of coffee has given it a bad rap, largely because caffeine is a stimulant and large doses can give us an increased heart rate and insomnia. That doesn’t mean we need to cut out coffee completely.

Our advice

Coffee also contains useful minerals, phyto-chemicals and antioxidants. In one large study, postmenopausal women who drank more coffee, especially decaffeinated, had a lower risk of type 2 diabetes. Drinking coffee, in moderation, has also been associated with reduced risk of gallbladder disease and liver cancer.

A trim flat white or trim latté in the morning is also a good way to boost your dairy consumption – good for those bones – and kick-start the day at the same time. Caffeine effects are cumulative and can last for up to eight hours, so for a good night’s sleep avoid coffee and other foods with caffeine after 2pm.

Vegetarian options can be healthier and lower in kilojoules. But it pays to be wary.

Our advice

A vegetable pie or tart often has no less fat than a meat pie, and that quiche could be laden with saturated fat if it has a thick pastry with cream and cheese in the filling. Nachos and burritos can be heavy on the sour cream and cheese; deep-fried falafels or samosas will be high in fat; and it may actually be cream making that dressing or vegetable curry sauce so creamy.

If it’s the lighter options you want, avoid pies and pastries and anything deep-fried or laden with cheese. Instead of creamy sauces choose tomato-based sauces, and ask for the sauce or dressing on the side if you’re not sure what’s in it. And look for options using legumes or tofu as the protein rather than just cheese.

Making sure we get enough water is really important to avoid dehydration and constipation, but there’s really no scientific basis for the ‘eight glasses a day’ mantra. The amount of water we need is quite individual and varies considerably with the temperature, our activity levels, and even age.

Our advice

When it’s hotter and when we’re exercising, we naturally lose more fluid from our bodies and it’s important to replace it. When it’s cold and we’re sedentary, extra fluid will just come out the other end! Fluid recommendations are not just about drinking unadulterated water. We get water in differing amounts in foods and drinks, including coffee. The research does not support the idea that drinking coffee leads to fluid loss.

Checking your urine is the simplest way to make sure you are getting the right amount of fluid. Pale urine is ideal, anything darker means you need more fluid, and clear urine may indicate too much fluid.

Protein bars and shakes have a ‘health halo’ because they are popular with people who expend large amounts of energy (kilojoules) working out every day. People often think they need more protein to build muscle.

Our advice

Following this rule could see you gaining weight instead of losing it. After resistance training, carbohydrate and protein can help build muscle, but a pottle of low-fat yoghurt or a glass of trim milk would fit the bill for fewer kilojoules. Protein bars can have as much as 1000kJ (double the number of kilojoules in low-fat yoghurt or trim milk), so if you’re not using all that energy, it will still get stored as fat.

Date modified: April 3 2017
First published: Nov 2010

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