Matt O'Neill - MSc(Nut&Diet), BSpSc, Dietitian
You want to build a better diet for you and your clients. But will the latest nutrition trends help or just add to the confusion? Dietitian Matt O'Neill separates the positives from the pitfalls.
The obesity crisis is putting the pinch on fast foods and the food industry is scrambling to meet the demands of busy consumers who are demanding quick, healthy options. There is a boom in convenience foods at supermarkets, take-aways and service stations. But convenience and other trends could come at a price.
1. Low-carb becomes slow-carb
Market researchers have predicted a peak in the low-carbohydrate craze and a downward trend in sales of low-carb foods. The new trend is “slow-carbs”, based on the concept of GI (glycaemic index). Hungry, frustrated low-carb'ers are turning to less processed, wholegrain cereals for food that is filling but not fattening.
Atkin's and the low-carb diet gurus have spawned a whole new range of lower-carbohydrate and lean, high protein foods. If you know what you're doing, you've now got more options to create the diet you want. Carb-reduced pasta, pre-packaged “98% fat-free” deli meats and high-protein shakes offer simple ways to cut calories and still eat well. Low-GI foods such as porridge, oat bran cereals, yoghurt and others can help you feel full before you eat too much.
The attraction of low-carb diets won't dwindle over-night, so there's still lots of confusion to combat. For example, it's hard to exercise without enough carbohydrate to keep your glycogen stores fuelled. But you also can't overeat or over-drink low-GI products just because they have a low-GI logo endorsement on the package. Helping clients better manage their hunger and appetite is the key here.
2. Fast food becomes low-fat
Morgan Spurlock's Academy Award nominated “Supersize Me” documentary about the fast food industry was a wake-up call for the multinational burger business. Now major players like McDonalds have introduced lower-fat burgers and salads in response to media pressure and demand for healthier choices.
Making the change from a regular burger to a lower-fat version will reduce the saturated fat that raises blood cholesterol. Ready-to-eat salads offer a genuine calorie saving and can represent one of the best on-the-go lunch-time options around.
Some new “Less than 10% fat” menu items aren't necessarily lower in calories. Flat-bread wraps in particular contain significantly more carbohydrate than burgers with light, fluffy buns and this can cancel out the calorie savings made when cutting the fat. Check the nutrition information to see if you have got a good deal for your waist line as well as your heart.
3. Bars become a meal
Breakfast and snack bars are the big growth area in convenience foods. They offer fast nutrition for time-poor consumers, even on the way to and from the gym.
There are a wide range of low-fat, fruit-based snack bars which are much better choices than the three C's - cookies, cakes and chocolate.
Although many bars are low in fat, they often contain large amounts of sugar. Some are one third to half sugar, and this means you won't save too many calories. And a warning to fitness enthusiasts -- swapping processed energy and protein bars for fresh fruit means you'll miss out on a bundle of health promoting antioxidants.
4. Meals become drinks
If you haven't got time to eat, why not drink your nutrition. Juice and smoothie bars are capitalising on our busy lives, providing liquid meals in a flash. Cafés and coffee bars have an added hook by providing a caffeine fix alternative for ex- and would-be smokers.
Vegetable juices offer a relatively low-calorie nutrient boost, packed with vitamins and antioxidants. Adding a banana and strawberries to a skimmed milk smoothie can top up your daily fruit serves.
Fruit juice and dairy drinks can pack a lot of calories that slide down too easily. They enjoy a healthy image but are not so healthy for our waist lines. Serve sizes, some as large as 800 millilitres can provide more calories than the meal you would have eaten. Go easy on these.
5. Kids' food becomes healthy
With up to 25 percent of children carrying excessive body fat, food companies are offering calorie conscious kids' foods at supermarkets and school canteens.
There's an increasing range of healthier foods, marketed in interesting and fun ways for our kids. Fat-reduced, tasty savoury snacks, fruit packs and calcium-rich low-fat dairy desserts are good options. Even for adults, these are worth checking out.
Some food companies continue to promote the idea that simply cutting fat makes food healthy for kids. Promoting a sweet treat as “99% Fat Free” ignores the high sugar content.
6. Food becomes medicine
Health conscious or perhaps disease-phobic consumers are looking for dietary alternatives to medicines to enhance wellbeing. The line between food and drugs has blurred with innovative food products known as pharmafoods, neutrafoods and just plain `phood' (food and medicine).
So called functional foods can offer real benefits, especially for people with specific needs. Products with enhanced levels of omega-3 fats, soluable fibre and a range of phytochemicals (beneficial plant chemicals) offer simple ways to boost the intake of the good nutrients that are often lacking in our diet.
Without getting the basics of good nutrition right first, navigating through a supermarket that looks more like a drug store could be very confusing. Individual foods won't offer a quick fix for a poor lifestyle. You can also expect to pay a premium for these food products as food companies try to recoup the costs of developing and marketing new `phoods'.
Our fast-paced lifestyle is reshaping the way we eat at an alarming rate. To make healthy informed choices, we'll need to slow down enough to read nutrition information and ask if it's not available. Helping your clients understand and read food labels will help equip them to eat well into the future.
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(C) Matt O'Neill, 2006