Your Ultimate Australian Guide to Healthy Eating

Published April 8, 2021
table filled with large variety of food

The most recent Australian healthy eating guidelines were released in 2013. They are a set of evidence-based recommendations designed to help you make healthy eating and drinking choices that, along with physical activity, promote good health, help you maintain a healthy weight, and reduce your risk of diet-related conditions and chronic diseases. Following some simple tips can help you eat a balanced diet full of healthy food that will stave off diseases and obesity.

Why Should You Make Healthy Food Choices?

The saying you are what you eat has been around for years, but nutrition research is increasingly proving the truth of the adage, says Lisa Renn, Accredited Practising Dietitian and Spokesperson for Dietitians Australia.

A good diet is critical for managing chronic lifestyle-related conditions like cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes, Lisa explains. Over recent years, discoveries about the link between food, gut health, and overall health have helped experts figure out how eating impacts these conditions.

"If you eat super-well, you're going to have a super-healthy and diverse gut colony. If you have a healthy gut colony, it spits out good healthy chemicals that reduce your risk of developing heart disease and diabetes in the first place."

Aside from long-term benefits like these, healthy eating also helps in the short term. "People often comment that when they're eating well, they have more energy," Lisa says. "Even when people are just using their bowels regularly, they feel better."

Importantly, there is also an association between eating and mental health, Lisa adds. "There is a link with not eating enough and not eating enough good food and depression levels, for example. If people have mental or physical health issues, then a healthy diet is likely to be the cornerstone of managing them well."

So, if you'd like to have more energy, reduce your risk of a range of health conditions, and alleviate any mental or physical health issues you might have, developing healthy eating habits is the way to go.

How Do You Make Healthy Food Choices?

It's clear eating well is vital if you're going to enjoy good health, but how do you know you're making healthy food choices?

Lisa says people were more likely to know the answer to this question 20 or 30 years ago. "But with so much more information coming online, it's a lot more confusing and trickier than it used to be."

Fortunately, there is an easy way to make healthier eating choices. Lisa explains the most important principle is to eat whole foods. "Simple is best," she says. As a rule of thumb, your plate should be half filled with vegetables, along with some lean protein (animal or plant-based) and a small amount of whole-grain, high-fibre carbohydrate. Fruit and dairy make up the other parts of a healthy diet.

Although eating whole foods is best for health, Australia is experiencing a disturbing trend in the opposite direction. Research shows that, on average, Australian adults get nearly 36 per cent of their daily kilojoules from discretionary foods, Lisa says. Yet people simply don't need discretionary foods and drinks. Worse, those 'sometimes foods', like biscuits, cake, pizza, soft drink, crisps, beer and fruit drinks, can negatively affect your health and wellbeing because they have too many kilojoules, are low in fibre, or contain too much saturated fat, alcohol, added sugar, or salt.

Discretionary foods are best eaten only occasionally and in small portions.

Part of the problem is the amount of ultra-processed food coming into our food supply, Lisa explains. "These are being put into a risk category of their own alongside sugar, salt and saturated fat."

To check whether a food is highly processed, look at the ingredients list on the packaging. "If it has a whole lot of stuff you don't recognise and you couldn't make in your own kitchen, then it's highly processed," Lisa says. "And it's definitely a 'sometimes' food. This includes things like protein bars and other foods posing as healthy snacks."

It's important to note that some groups of people have different dietary needs, such as pregnant women and those who are breastfeeding and older Australians. There are specific guidelines for babies called the Infant Feeding Guidelines, and children have slightly different needs as well. And if you have any concerns about your diet, eating for a specific health condition, or simply want to know more about healthy eating, an Australian accredited dietitian can help.

This might seem overwhelming and difficult to remember. Thankfully, the National Health and Medical Research Council maintains a set of simple guidelines to make healthy eating easier.

overweight man sitting with an unhealthy meal

What You Need to Know About the Australian Dietary Guidelines

The Australian Dietary Guidelines were developed by the National Health and Medical Research Council, with support from leading nutrition experts and the Australian Government, Lisa explains. This group reviewed a huge amount of scientific evidence (over 55,000 pieces of nutritional research!) before releasing the current version (the fourth edition) in 2013.

The first edition of the guidelines was released in 1982. A second and third edition were issued in 1992 and 2003, respectively. And a fifth version is slated for release in 2024.

While the new guidelines are being "finessed in accordance with nutrition research updates," Lisa says their essence is unlikely to change.

The guidelines are currently under review, but this isn't because they don't work, Lisa stresses. "The rising rates of obesity in Australia are not because the guidelines are out of date or not valid. It's because, as [the] statistics show, we're actually choosing foods the guidelines show we should eat least."

Previous revisions of the guidelines have focused on things like:

  • Recommending types of food, rather than telling Aussies what their nutrient intake should be (because it's much easier to pick the right types of food than it is to scour food labels to ensure you're eating enough of each nutrient)
  • Guidelines for babies from 6 months to adults over 70 (before that, the guidelines were for children from 2 years)
  • Stronger evidence for the associations between specific types of foods and lowered risk of certain types of diseases (for example, there's now more evidence supporting the benefits of eating fruit in decreasing your risk of heart disease, eating non-starchy vegetables in decreasing your risk of some cancers, and eating wholegrain cereals in decreasing your risk of heart disease and putting on too much weight)

The guidelines are a fantastic resource because they'll give you the current advice about the amount and types of foods you and your family should eat if you want the best chance of being healthy, and you want to decrease the chance you might develop a diet-related condition or a chronic disease. Thankfully, the guidelines are simple and not at all prescriptive.

Be Active and Eat to Meet Energy Needs

Be physically active. Choose the nutritious foods and drinks you need to meet your energy needs. For example, kids who are actively growing need nutritious foods to help them grow and develop normally. Adults need nutritious foods to fuel activity and maintain a healthy weight. And older people need nutritious food that will help them maintain healthy muscles and a healthy weight. No one should eat more than the energy they're using - so you need to match your energy intake with your physical activity level. And everyone needs to keep active.

Eat a Variety of Foods

Every day, eat a variety of foods from the five healthy food groups. Drink lots of water.

That means eating:

  • Lots of different types of vegetables that are a variety of colours
  • Fruit (fruit juice doesn't count)
  • Wholegrain and/or high-fibre grain foods (including cereal)
  • Protein in the form of low-fat meat, eggs and/or plant-based, protein-rich foods like nuts, seeds, tofu, and legumes
  • Reduced-fat dairy foods (milk, yoghurt, cheese, or their alternatives) - or full-fat dairy for children under two

Minimise Fats, Salt, Sugar, and Alcohol

Avoid saturated fat, added salt, added sugar and alcohol.

  • You can switch saturated fats with unsaturated fats (polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats). For example, swap butter, margarine, coconut, and palm oil for healthy oils like olive oil.
  • You can swap processed meats, like sausages and commercial burgers, with low-fat alternatives like lean meat (including minced meat) and homemade burgers.
  • Instead of buying deep-fried foods like hot chips, try baking frozen chips in your oven. It's healthier, tastes just as good, and is cheaper.
  • You can make your own healthy pizza at home.
  • This also means you'll be healthier if you don't add salt when you're cooking, and it's a great idea to take the salt shakers off your table.
  • Check food labels when you're shopping. It's astonishing how much salt is added to packaged foods - even those that don't taste salty.
  • The same goes for sugar. Don't add sugar to your foods and avoid buying groceries with lots of added sugar: think soft drink, cordial, lollies, fruit drinks, cake, and biscuits.
  • If you want to drink alcohol, don't drink more than is healthy.
Mother and daughter preparing meal

Encourage, Support, and Promote Breastfeeding

Now, not all women are able to breastfeed. So, it's great to support those women with healthy alternatives to breastmilk. Some women also choose not to breastfeed for a whole range of reasons. And that's their choice. For those women who would like to breastfeed though, it's important that they know they can breastfeed almost anywhere and that they're encouraged and supported to do so.

If you or someone you know would like to breastfeed, the Australian Breastfeeding Association has lots of breastfeeding resources. And if you're keen to keep breastfeeding when you return to work, there are some really great resources to help you do so.

Look After Food Properly

Look after your food. Store food safely. Prepare food safely. Nutritious food is only healthy if it's not riddled with harmful bugs or other contaminants. So, an important part of healthy eating means caring for your food.

  • Some foods need to be refrigerated, and you might like to keep some foods frozen, so you can serve them at a later date. However, you can't keep foods in the fridge or freezer indefinitely.
  • On the flip side, some foods need to be cooked to be safe to eat. And some leftovers need to be heated to a certain temperature to ensure they're safe.
  • It's always important to wash your hands with soap and water and dry them thoroughly before touching food - whether you're preparing it or eating it.
  • Healthdirect has published a short, but useful guide to safely handling food that covers most of these points and which you might find useful.
  • Food Standards Australia New Zealand also offers lots of resources about buying and storing food safely and other ways you can keep your food safe to eat.

If you have a baby, there are a few specific things you'll need to keep in mind to ensure you're feeding Bub safely. If you're direct-latch breastfeeding, you're all set. If you're expressing breastmilk, you'll need to ensure you're storing it safely (and transporting it safely if you're on the go). If you're feeding your baby formula, here's how to safely prepare and store baby formula. And if you're bottle-feeding Bub with either breastmilk or formula, here are some great ways to sterilise baby bottles.

Healthy Eating Choices for Children

While Australian adults are eating too many discretionary foods, the problem is even bigger for Australian children, who are getting almost 41% of their daily kilojoules from these 'sometimes foods'.

A healthy diet for children needs to start with parents or caregivers, Lisa emphasises. "The parent is usually the cook and the provider of meals. The child can only eat what they're given." A healthy plate looks the same for a child as for an adult, with half vegetables, plus some lean protein and high-fibre carbohydrate, supplemented with dairy and fruit.

The main differences between a healthy adult diet and a healthy kid's diet are that children generally need fewer serves overall (because they're smaller) and children under two will be healthier if they're eating and drinking full-fat alternatives instead of their low-fat counterparts.

Lisa shares these tips for helping your child and family eat well and maintain a healthy weight:

  • When you shop, look for vegetables, fruit, lean protein, and high-fibre grains and cereals.
  • Buy fruit and vegetables in season - these will be the cheapest and tastiest. Fresh and canned varieties are fine.
  • Search the internet for healthy meal and lunchbox ideas.
  • Plan meals ahead, so you're better prepared for busy weeks.
  • Cook most of your meals at home and eat as a family.
  • Provide opportunities for movement as a family.
  • Be a good role model.

Follow the Guidelines for Good Health

The Australian Dietary Guidelines offer evidence-based recommendations for eating to promote good health and reduce your risk of developing chronic diet-related diseases. They are currently being reviewed, although are unlikely to change substantially. In the meanwhile, Accredited Practising Dietitians stay up to date with nutrition research and are a great resource for anyone needing support, dietary advice, or help maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

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Your Ultimate Australian Guide to Healthy Eating