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Thursday, 11 December 2014

Eating like the Japanese

I've just returned from holidaying in Japan, and my goodness what a beautiful country it is. The scenery is spectacular, the people are so friendly and polite, everything runs efficiently, and the food is great. I highly recommend a trip there if you ever have the chance.

So, fresh from my travels, and before I get stuck into the Christmas festivities, I've decided to write a little bit about the dietary habits of the Japanese.

Japanese people have a long life expectancy of 80 and 87 years for males and females respectively. Their healthy life expectancy is around 75 years of age. Imagine being that age before your health starts to decline! And the most incredible statistic is that their prevalence of obesity is 4.5%. In comparison, Australia is currently sitting at around 25%. So how are the Japanese so healthy and lean?

Well it's certainly in part due to their healthy diet.

The traditional Japanese diet consists mainly of rice, fruit, vegetables, pickles, tofu, miso soup, seaweed, fish, and green tea. They eat very little meat and desserts. Families regularly eat home cooked meals and don't eat out. Meals are made up of small portions of various foods such as: a small bowl of miso soup, rice, fish, and vegetables. They're then finished with a cup of green tea and some cut up fresh fruit.

Unfortunately, this diet is high in sodium due to the large quantities of soy sauce, oyster sauce, miso, and other such condiments. But using lower salt varieties will help reduce the sodium load.

So what can we take away from this?

Eat smaller portions
The Japanese serve food artfully arranged on separate plates and in smaller portions. This helps them to eat mindfully, and not overeat. If you're served more, you'll tend to eat more.

Eat rice
Rice is served as a side to most meals. If you choose brown rice, it's full of nutrients and fibre, and low in sodium and fat. Filling up on rice leaves less room for less nutritious foods (such as dessert).

Increase your fish intake
The Japanese love their fish. Fish, especially oily fish such as salmon or tuna, is high in omega-3. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for a healthy heart and brain. Replacing some meat meals for fish can increase your intake of healthy unsaturated fats and decrease your intake of unhealthy saturated fats. 

Increase your vegetable intake
Vegetables are high in vitamins, minerals, and fibre. They're also low kilojoule.

Have fruit as a dessert
Japanese people tend not to eat rich desserts and cake. These are saved for special occasions and are of smaller portions. If dessert is served, it will usually be sliced seasonal fruit. Fruit is full of vitamins and minerals, and it satisfies the sweet tooth.

This certainly isn't a magic bullet or cure all diet. There are definitely other factors such as genetics, lifestyle, and culture that contribute to the longevity of the Japanese. But I feel that the Japanese diet is a little underrated. To be fair, there hasn't been a lot of research conducted into this dietary pattern (unlike the Mediterranean diet). However, it has a lot of positive components. I'm hoping that there will be more interest and research into the area in future.


Friday, 19 September 2014

Simple satay stir-fry

Writing my previous blog posts on ways to eat healthy on a budget, and simple food swaps to improve your diet, got me thinking about recipes that incorporate a few of these principles. For this tofu satay stir-fry, I've swapped out vegetable oil for olive oil, and white rice for brown rice. Also, this dish is:
  • Vegetarian - so you can save some money by not buying meat
  • Easy to freeze - so you have leftovers handy for busy/lazy nights or lunches

Stir-fry's are an easy way to incorporate more veggies into your diet. Just chop them up and throw them in a wok with sauce and a protein; then serve over rice. Brown rice is a fantastic alternative to white rice, as it is higher in fibre (keeping you full for longer) and nutrients. It also has a great nutty flavour, which I really enjoy. Tofu is a great meat alternative for vegetarians. It's high in protein, and is a source of calcium if a calcium-based coagulant is used to set the tofu during manufacturing.

Weeknight dinner sorted.

Tofu satay stir-fry
Serves 6

  • 500g firm tofu
  • 1/4 mini drumhead cabbage
  • 1 broccoli
  • 1 red capsicum
  • 1 carrot
  • 1 1/2 cups green beans
  • 375g bottle satay marinade
  • 50g natural peanut butter (more or less depending on taste)
  • Olive oil
  • 3 cups brown rice

  • Cut the tofu into cubes. Place in a bowl and cover with half the satay marinade, making sure all the tofu is well covered. Wrap the bowl with plastic wrap and place in the fridge
  • Start cooking the brown rice according to packet instructions
  • Cut the carrot into matchsticks. Then cut the green beans and capsicum into 3cm pieces. Chop the broccoli into small florets, and slice up the cabbage
  • Heat some olive oil in a large non-stick wok over high heat. Add the tofu and vegetables, then cook, stirring, for approximately 5-10 minutes. Add the rest of the marinade along with the peanut butter and cook for a further 5 minutes
  • Serve the satay stir-fry over brown rice, and enjoy!

  • This recipe also works well with chicken
  • Leftovers can be frozen

Nutrition information

Per serve
Per 100g
Energy (kJ)
Protein (g)
Fat (g)
Saturated fat (g)
Carbohydrate (g)
Sugar (g)
Fibre (g)
Sodium (mg)


Sunday, 14 September 2014

Ten simple food swaps for a better diet

Making your diet healthier doesn't require a complete overhaul of your fridge and pantry. The best way to do it is through small changes that are sustainable over the long term. My favourite way of helping people improve their diet is through simple food swaps. So here is a list of my ten favourite food swaps.

Avocado instead of butter and margarine

Olive oil instead of vegetable oil

Sweet potato instead of potato

Spinach instead of lettuce

Unrefined grains and flours instead of refined grains and flours

Water instead of soft drink and fruit juice

Air-popped popcorn instead of potato chips

Veggie sticks with dip instead of crackers with dip

Reduced-fat or skim dairy instead of full-fat dairy

Tomato-based pasta sauces instead of creamy pasta sauces


Thursday, 4 September 2014

Ten tips for eating healthy on a budget

It's a common misconception that eating healthy is expensive. Healthy eating doesn't necessarily involve fancy ingredients and costly supplements; it should be accessible to all. Now as a previous "poor uni student" and now as a dietitian, I've picked up a few tricks to eating well on a budget. Even if you aren't strapped for cash, these tips can still come in handy so you'll have more money to put away for a holiday/car/new shoes.

Here are my ten tips for healthy eating on a budget.

Plan your meals for the week
Planning is the key to success. At the beginning of each week, work out what meals you'll need to prepare, and when you or other members of your household will be eating out. Write it out on a planner or diary. By doing this, you won't be left reaching for a takeaway menu 'cause you've got no more food in the house and can't be bothered shopping and cooking. Takeaway foods are convenient and great to eat every once in a while. But they can get expensive, and are often high in fat and sodium. Making most of your meals at home is healthier and a money saver.

Go with a shopping list
Knowing what meals you'll be making will help you make a shopping list. By walking into the supermarket with a plan, you won't wander aimlessly down aisles making impulse buys and thus spending more money than necessary. Conversely, you'll also avoid forgetting key ingredients (ever gone to make spag bol and realised you've forgotten to buy the pasta?).

Don't shop for food while hungry
I, like 99% of the population, don't make great decisions when I'm hungry. When you're hungry and in a supermarket, everything looks delicious and those two for one chocolate blocks suddenly sound like a fantastic idea. If you shop on a full stomach, you're less likely to make impulse purchases of (most likely) unhealthy foods. You'll remain rational and stick to your shopping list and budget.

Make meals in bulk so you have some leftovers on hand
Leftovers are great for nights when you're too busy or too tired to cook dinner. They're healthier and cheaper than ordering takeout. You can set aside a day on the weekend to cook up a few meals to freeze. Or, you can make extra quantities for freezing when making meals during the week. Do make sure you label and date the meals.

Pack a lunch
Buying lunch every day when you're at work is expensive. And the choices are often high in kilojoules/fat/sodium. Bring a sandwich, salad, soup, or last night's leftovers.

Go vegetarian a few nights a week
Meat, although a great nutritious food, is quite pricey. Red meat can cost anywhere from $12-40/kg, chicken sits around the $10-15/kg mark, and fish can range between $15-45/kg. Go vegetarian and use legumes or lentils ($2-5/kg) as the base of your meals for a couple of days per week, and save a small fortune. They're still a great source of protein, vitamins and minerals, as well as fibre.

Swap your soft drink for water
Water is hydrating, free of kilojoules, and well, free (practically). Soft drink is full of sugar, has no nutritional value, and can make a big dint in your grocery bills. If you're a regular soft drink drinker, make the switch slowly buy cutting down to one or two glasses a day and go from there.

Don't snub house brands
Supermarkets' house brand products are usually comparable to brand-name products in terms of nutrition and quality, just without the premium price-tag. Try out a few of the house brand products, and make the switch if you're happy with the taste and quality. Even swapping a few items can make a big difference to your weekly grocery bill.

Shop at a farmer's market
Markets are great places to bag a bargain on fresh produce. As a bonus, you'll also be supporting local farmers. Explore your local market next Sunday morning; you'll soon be hooked.

Buy seasonal produce
Get to know what fruit and veg are in season when. Buying seasonal produce will not only save you money, it'll add variety to your diet.

Thrifty healthy eating mainly comes down to good planning. Make sure you shop with a plan and plan your meals in advance. I hope I've provided you with some helpful advice. You don't have to follow all the tips above to save money. Start with a couple, and enjoy the extra cash.


Saturday, 30 August 2014

Clean eating - Passing trend or here to stay?

Clean eating is a 'lifestyle', not diet, that has recently amassed a large following. Social media has exploded with a plethora of scrumptious looking meals all hashtagged appropriately. As a dietitian I am naturally curious about all diet trends, so I decided to investigate.

First off, what is clean eating? It focuses on eliminating additives, preservatives, and other chemicals from the diet, and instead including primarily whole foods.

So far, this sounds great. Now let's take a closer look at the basic principles of clean eating.

Limit processed foods
These are the foods that come in a packet with ingredient lists a mile long. By limiting these foods you avoid the additives and chemicals that aren't so great for your health. Additionally, you'll no longer be consuming junk foods such as potato chips, candy, and soft drink, which contain no nutritional value whatsoever. Win win!

Swap refined foods for unrefined foods
This means swapping out refined white flours, white bread, white pasta, and white rice for wholegrain varieties such as wholegrain bread and pasta, or brown rice. A wholegrain includes the outer bran layer, germ, and endosperm, while their refined counterparts only contain the starchy endosperm. Wholegrains contain higher amounts of fibre, protein, vitamins, and minerals. This simple swap is a great way to improve the quality of your diet.

Limit saturated fats, sugar, and salt
Saturated fats are the fats that are solid at room temperature, such as butter and the fat on cuts of meat. Saturated fats, as well as sugar and salt are harmful to our health when eaten in excess. They're often found in foods such as fast food burgers and fries, cakes, and biscuits. In other words, the foods that we should only be eating very occasionally and as a treat.

Consume healthy unsaturated fats
Unsaturated fats are the fats that are liquid at room temperature, such as olive oil. They're also found in nuts, seeds, avocados, and oily fish, to name a few. Consuming unsaturated fats can lower your risk of heart disease. 

Increase intake of fruits and vegetables
Fruits and vegetables contain loads of various vitamins and minerals, as well as fibre. Also, they're low in kilojoules while still filling. By filling up on fruit and veg, we not only provide our body with great nutrients, we also leave much less space for unhealthy foods such as fries and biscuits.

Choose seasonal foods and organic when possible
Choosing seasonal produce is great in terms of sustainability. Not to mention, it tastes better, and is cheaper. Yes please! Organic food is good for the environment, and is lower in pesticide and chemical residues. However, studies have so far shown that organic and conventional foods don't differ in terms of nutritional value.

Drink plenty of water
Water is essential to life. Our body requires it to perform all its vital functions. Water is a top beverage choice when thirsty, and it contains ZERO kilojoules. 

Limit alcohol intake
We all know that drinking too much alcohol isn't good for our health, especially our liver. But too much alcohol can also add kilojoules into the diet, causing weight gain. Drinking the occasional glass of wine after dinner is fine. Just avoid drinking lots of sugary cocktails - save those for special occasions.

Eat five to six times a day
This means eating three meals and two to three snacks a day. This is said to maintain energy levels and prevent poor food choices due to hunger. 3:30itis anyone? Personally, I feel that you should eat however often you need, be it three meals or six a day. Whatever works and is most comfortable for you.

For a diet to be effective, it must first be realistic and sustainable over the long-term. And I feel that clean eating certainly does promote long-term sustainable habits. When I first heard about clean eating, my fad diet sense started tingling. However, after reading further, I realised that this actually is a sensible approach to healthy eating, just with a fancy name. Unlike a fad diet, major food groups aren't being cut out or demonised, and you don't need to buy a particular supplement that will set you back $50 per month.

There can be cons to this way of eating though. Some people may take it too far and cut out gluten and dairy as well. As I have mentioned in previous posts, gluten and dairy are not unhealthy or "dirty". Gluten only needs to be avoided by those with coeliac disease. And dairy is full of beneficial nutrients such as protein and calcium. There is also a danger that these principles are followed with military precision, which can border on disordered eating. It's ok to treat yourself every so often to that scrumptious chocolate mud cake, or delicious cocktail. 

Overall, clean eating gets my tick of approval. It promotes realistic habits that are sustainable over the long-term. It's important however, not to take it too far and follow the principles too strictly or start excluding major food groups. The clean eating principles are guidelines, which you can tailor to suit your lifestyle. Food should be enjoyed.


Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Pasta perfection

I'm a little crazy about sweet potato. Whenever I'm tossing up new recipe ideas, I often think to myself, 'I wonder if sweet potato will work well in this?' Tom warns me that I'll soon be known as crazy sweet potato lady. But it's just so yummy... 

And seriously, did you know that sweet potatoes have a lower glycaemic index (GI) than white-skin potatoes? They're also a great source of beta-carotene. Move over carrots!

My sweet potato obsession is what led to the creation of the following pasta recipe. To me, it's the star of the dish. The other star of this dish is the pasta. Not so long ago, I noticed Vetta high-fibre pasta in the supermarket and decided to give it a go. It tastes the same as regular pasta, but has the benefits of way more fibre. Great product guys!

If you're on the hunt for a new pasta dish, try this one. It's healthy and delicious. The vegetables are a valuable source of vitamins and minerals, not to mention fibre. Tuna is a good source of omega-3. And olive oil contains beneficial unsaturated fats.

Chilli, tuna and sweet potato pasta
Serves 6

  • 1 large sweet potato
  • 200g punnet cherry tomatoes
  • 1 red capsicum
  • 2 cups green peas
  • 2 big handfuls baby spinach
  • 2 x 185g tins tuna in springwater, drained
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1-2 tsp chilli powder
  • 2 Tb olive oil
  • 2 Tb lemon juice
  • 350g dried spaghetti (I use Vetta high fibre spaghetti)

  • Bring a pot of water to the boil. Peel and cut the sweet potato into 2cm cubes. Add to the boiling water and cook for approximately 15-20 minutes or until soft
  • Meanwhile, slice the capsicum into matchsticks and halve the cherry tomatoes. Then, finely dice the garlic
  • Once the sweet potato is cooked, drain and set aside. Start cooking the pasta according to packet instructions
  • Meanwhile, in a wok or large pot over high heat, add the olive oil along with the garlic and chilli powder. Cook for 1-2 minutes. Add the capsicum and cook until slightly softened. Then add the tomatoes and cook for 3-5 minutes until softened. Add the peas, sweet potato, drained tuna, and lemon juice. Turn the heat down to low and cook for another 5 minutes. Stir in the baby spinach and cook for another minute
  • Once the pasta is cooked, drain, and mix it thoroughly through the tuna and vegetables
  • Serve and enjoy!

This dish freezes well, so keep extras in the freezer for nights when you're just too busy or tired to cook.

Nutrition information

Per serve
Per 100g
Energy (kJ)
Protein (g)
Fat (g)
Saturated fat (g)
Carbohydrate (g)
Sugar (g)
Fibre (g)
Sodium (mg)

Is anyone else a little obsessed with sweet potato?


Friday, 8 August 2014

Demystifying food labels

We all know that we should check food labels to compare products and make sure we're buying healthy foods. But what are we actually looking for on the label? There's so much information on there that it can be a bit overwhelming. However, deciphering food labels can be easy. So read on, and let me reveal the secrets of the trade. You'll be reading labels like a pro in no time!

Nutrition information panels
The first step is to understand the nutrition information panel. By law in Australia, this must provide information for energy (in kilojoules, calories is optional), protein, total fat, saturated fat, total carbohydrates, sugar, sodium, and any nutrients for which the product makes a claim. For example, if the product advertises itself as a "good source of iron", iron must be listed in the nutrition information panel.

The nutrition information panel has columns for "per serve" and "per 100g / 100mL". When comparing similar products, use the "per 100g / 100mL" column. Manufacturers are allowed to choose their own serving size, which may differ between products.

Quantities to look for
Now it's all well and good to know how to compare products. But what numbers should you be looking for? Here is a guide to what you should be aiming for:

Quantity per 100g / 100mL
Breakfast cereals and breads
Fat: < 5g
Sugar: < 15g
Fibre: > 6g
Sodium: < 400mg
Dairy products and alternatives
Fat: < 2g
Calcium: > 100mg
Hard cheeses
Fat: < 20g
Sodium: < 800mg
Calcium: > 700mg
Soft cheeses
Fat: < 5g
Sodium: < 400mg
Calcium: > 80mg
Meat and poultry
Fat: < 10g (< 3g if processed)
Sodium: < 120mg
Fish and seafood
Saturated fat: < 5g
Sodium: < 350mg
Meat alternatives
Fat: < 5g
Sodium: < 450mg
Fats and oils
Sodium: < 400mg

The ingredient list
The ingredient list has ingredients listed in descending order of weight. If fat, sugar, or salt is in the top three ingredients, the product probably isn't the healthiest. Be aware that they can be listed under other names - manufacturers are sneaky like that. Some terms to look out for are:

Fat : Oil, coconut oil, palm oil, shortening, dripping, ghee, lard, tallow, suet, copha, cream, coconut cream, butter, margarine, milk solids

Sugar : Syrup, agave syrup, golden syrup, maple syrup, corn syrup, honey, molasses, treacle, malt extract, glucose, fructose, sucrose, maltose, dextrose

Salt : MSG, baking soda, baking powder, sodium, sodium bicarbonate, sodium sorbate, sodium nitrate, stock, soy sauce

Additionally, if the ingredient list is a mile long and filled with names that you can't pronounce, the product is likely very processed and not healthy.

Health claims
Health claims are those eye-catching phrases covering the product's packaging. Food manufacturers are in for a profit (hey, it's their job), and they'll say whatever they can to get your attention and make you spend big on their products. The best way to assess if a product is healthy is to read the nutrition information panel, and disregard those dazzling claims. Some examples of tricks are:

"Lite": This doesn't necessarily mean light in fat or kilojoules. It often just means light in colour or flavour.

"Fat-free" or "Cholesterol-free": These claims are sometimes found on products that you wouldn't expect to have a high fat content anyway, such as jelly snakes or jelly. Manufacturers just want to suck you in and make you think that these products are healthy, even if they aren't.

"Healthy" or "Natural": Occasionally a food manufacturer will have the words healthy or natural in their brand name, so you'll think their products are healthy.

Percentage daily intake
Some food products include information about the contribution a serve makes to your daily nutrient intake (eg. one serve contributes to 10% of your daily iron needs). This is known as percentage daily intake. Be wary, as these are based on an average adult. Your needs may vary greatly from this.

Hopefully these tips will help you make an informed choice next time you're doing the weekly grocery shop. Food manufacturers need to make a profit, so they'll do all that they can to capture your attention and make you buy their "Naturally Nutritious Superfood" filled products - now available in gluten-free! But if you know what to look for, and keep a level head, you can successfully navigate the minefield that is the modern supermarket.