5 lessons learned from a life in nutrition

Written by Catherine Saxelby on Thursday, 08 December 2011.
Tagged: dieting, diets, fads, healthy cooking, healthy eating, healthy lifestyle, nutrition

5 lessons learned from a life in nutrition
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I started my career in nutrition way back in the 1970s. Over the last 40 years I’ve seen hundreds of fads come and go and then, like a tired old rock star, make a come back. When I began my career the current fads were:

  • The Atkins No-carb Diet. Dietitians were horrified. Now it’s back, this time better received though it’s still not a long term weight loss solution.
  • Grapefruit for breakfast was supposed to melt away stubborn fat and make you slim (it didn’t but it’s still a super-healthy fruit to eat).
  • Many women, popped little white tablets of saccharin into their coffee, as sugar was considered THE source of weight gain.
  • Apricot chicken made with a packet of French onion soup mix was the ‘in’ 70s dinner party recipe.

As with most things, nutrition fads go around, get re-cycled and re-emerge which can cause confusion if you don’t understand the basics.

Life lesson No 1:  Fads come and go but the basics stay the same.

Good health means you need to eat the basic foods like vegetables, fruit, fish/meat/chicken, eggs, some dairy, whole grains, nuts and a little fat or oil. If you’re vegetarian, you need to substitute legumes (peas, beans, lentils, tofu) to make a balanced diet.

Fresh food is important, but there is room for some canned, frozen or dried foods.

Low-fat diets are not balanced. Neither are low-carb nor high protein diets. Good health is a balance of protein, fat and carb. Don’t cut out a whole food group – it always makes for an unbalanced diet. No single food is perfect nor can it give you all the nutrients your body needs. 

Life lesson No 2: In order to eat right, you need to be able to cook.

Without simple cooking skills -  like grilling, stir-frying or even boiling an egg -  you’re at the mercy of fast food. That’s not a problem if you live somewhere where you can buy healthy gourmet take-away but it’s no good if you’re stuck with nuggets, fries and pizza.

Learn how to grill, stir fry, roast and make a casserole, so you can look after yourself. Try my healthy cooking tips and tricks.

If you’re strapped for cash then you can still cook up decent dinners on a budget using mince or making use of cheaper cuts with a slow-cooker. Nothing beats a warming slow-cooked beef hot pot on a cold day.

As you increase your skills and try more recipes you’ll eventually be able to whip up a meal from nothing using what’s in the bottom of the fridge or back of the cupboard.

Life lesson No 3: It’s not easy eating healthily when you live in a junk food world.

Lessons_Fries_en_masseIt’s hard work eating right. You have to plan, shop and cook. It’s not helped by our modern world. Everywhere you turn there are vending machines, fast food outlets, chocolate cafes, petrol stations selling bags of chips and sweets, and newsagent and pharmacy counters bursting with lollies. Food is everywhere and we are being seduced to eat – all the time.

What’s more, junk food is easy to overeat – it’s low in fibre, highly refined, high GI with too much salt or sugar. There’s no chewing required. It slips down the throat effortlessly. Think of a soft hamburger bun or a soft-serve ice cream or a couple of doughnuts.

Life lesson No 4: You can’t go wrong eating vegetables.

Vegetables are the one food group that we can and should eat more of. You know all the good reasons to pile up the veges on the plate or order a big salad or throw on lots of fresh herbs. Vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and fibre – vegetables have all those nutrition goodies and they’re even better if they’re locally grown and in season.

Plus few kilojoules, little or no fat, little or no carb and lots of fibre. Good for the weight. As the Sumo Salad line goes: “Eat big, stay slim” but beware of the dressings!

Life lesson No 5: Portion size is everything.

The size of what you eat really does matter. It changes a small treat into ‘throwing the whole diet out the door’.  I eat by the 10 per cent rule. It goes like this. If 90 per cent of your diet is healthy, then the final 10 per cent can be a treat without ruining the overall nutrition profile. So a glass of wine, a piece a chocolate, a bag of chips is OK if you’re getting your vegetables, fruit, legumes, fish, nuts, whole grains etc.

I often say: “One chocolate won’t ruin your diet but the whole box will!”

The take home message.

Get the basics right, learn to cook and eat a balanced diet – and treat yourself occasionally!

This post was part of a presentation speech to graduates of the Stir It Up 2011 course which trains volunteers to become advocates for healthy eating. After training in basic nutrition, practical food ideas, presentation skills and food hygiene, they act as peer educators to deliver healthy eating initiatives via schools, community health centres, supermarket tours and kitchen gardens.

Catherine Saxelby About the author

About the Author


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Catherine Saxelby has the answers! She is an accredited nutritionist, blogger and award-winning author. Her award-winning book My Nutritionary will help you cut through the jargon. Do you know your MCTs from your LCTs? How about sterols from stanols? What’s the difference between glucose and dextrose? Or probiotics and prebiotics? What additive is number 330? How safe is acesulfame K? If you find yourself confused by food labels, grab your copy of Catherine Saxelby’s comprehensive guide My Nutritionary NOW!