Answers to Your Top Food and Nutrition Questions

Ten Top Questions from the Victorian Book Tour: Part 1

As promised during my recent book tour, I have compiled the Ten Top Questions. The book talks and launches raised many great questions concerning trends in food and health, lifestyle choices and mindful eating for health and wellbeing. In part 1 I am covering common food and nutrition questions, and next week (part 2) I will answer popular mindful eating questions.

Author talk display at Yarrawonga Library

Answers to Your Top Food and Nutrition Questions

#1 How nutritious is the Paleo Diet?

The Paleo Diet comes in various disguises—some include fruit and legumes and some include dairy. The positive features of Paleo diets are the promotion of fresh whole foods and the exclusion of highly processed foods containing high amounts of saturated fat, sugar and salt.

However, the exclusion of fruit (in some versions of the diet), legumes, whole grains and dairy raises nutritional concerns. We know that all sources of plant foods and fibre are important to health, including recent evidence from gut microbiota, so excluding fibre sources from whole grains and legumes in particular, is a concern to me. Legumes are also a feature of the diet of people who live well into their 100s, in regions of the world called Blue Zones. Dairy foods have been part of the human diet for thousands of years, although dairy is region specific. Fermented dairy foods are also believed to contribute to health via the gut microbiota. The exclusion of fruit and dairy could also lead to nutritional deficiency and an excess of protein from fish, meat and poultry can also lead to nutritional imbalances for some people.

The current Australian Guide to Healthy Eating, is the starting point for all of us. Unless you have food allergies or intolerances, I do not suggest eliminating whole food groups as recommended in the Paleo Diet. Nutrition questions concerning popular diets always need to assess the total nutritional quality of the eating pattern recommended.

#2 Is coconut oil good for your health?

Coconut oil is promoted is some versions of the Paleo Diet, but there is no evidence of coconut oil being part of traditional Islander cuisine, unlike coconut milk and flesh. Coconut oil is highly processed and the Heart Foundation does not recommend it as a staple due to the saturated fat content. It certainly adds flavour to a stir-fry, but I only suggest that you use it occasionally. Add the coconut flavour to your foods in the traditional way by using coconut milk e.g. yellow curry. Answers to nutrition questions, such as this one, relate to the overall quality of your eating pattern. See the discussion in question 5 below.

Samples of the great morning tea at Shepparton Library

#3 How much sugar can I eat?

There has been heavy media attention on added sugar due to celebrity diets promoting the exclusion of added sugar.

Sugar is part of the carbohydrate food group. The World Health Organisation’s latest recommendations for added sugar suggest we keep our added sugar to no more than 12 teaspoons a day, and additional health benefits, including dental health, by having 6 or less teaspoons a day. This amount of sugar is in addition to the naturally occurring sugars that we enjoy from fruits, vegetables, grains and dairy foods.

In Australia, processed foods are only required to display the total amount of sugar in a food. The food label does not separately list naturally occurring and added sources of sugar. You need to read the ingredients list to see if the product has added sugar.

#4 Is it healthier to have a low carbohydrate diet?

This question is a little ambiguous because what does low mean? The current Australian guideline for carbohydrate is 45–65% of daily energy intake. Carbohydrate is the main source of energy for the body and provides glucose, which the essential fuel source for our brain. The answer to the amount of carbohydrate you require in your diet depends upon a number of factors, including how active you are, your particular health needs and the type or source of carbohydrate. Carbohydrate foods come in different forms. Low to medium glycemic index foods are recommended, as they are whole foods and come with higher levels of fibre and nutrients compared to highly refined or processed foods.

I recommend that we all eat the suggested serves of fruit and vegetables and dairy or alternatives. I also recommend at least 2 serves of legumes (pulses) a week. The number of serves of whole grains may be modified to suit your activity level. If you are mostly sitting during the day, then you may only need 3 to 4 serves of grains. Conversely very active people can have more serves. I also recommend tuning into what you feel like eating. We are more active on certain days e.g. manual work in the garden, a 6 hour bush walk. On these days you may feel like additional serves of grains.

People who have diabetes have to take care to spread the amount of carbohydrate foods evenly throughout the day, to better control blood sugar levels. Low to medium glycemic index foods are recommended to assist with blood sugar control and the prevention of a number of lifestyle related conditions. As with many answers to food and nutrition questions, how much carbohydrate you need is directly related to your requirements.


#5 What is a better choice—butter or margarine?

One nutritional aim when selecting foods is to balance our intake of the different types of fats—saturated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated. Butter provides mostly saturated fats, where as margarines can provide either polyunsaturated or monounsatured fats. Excess saturated fat is implicated in the development of high blood cholesterol levels and can increase the risk of heart disease for some people. Margarine and butter are not the only source of dietary fats, so the simple answer to this question is, that your choice of butter or margarine depends on what else you are eating. Also consider having other spreads on your bread—avocado, nut spreads, soft cheeses and vegetable based dips such as hummus or relish.

Further information on these and other food and nutrition questions can be obtained from my book Eating for You. Please feel free to post your questions in the comments section below. I look forward to sharing the answers to mindful eating questions next week.


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