Updated: Jul 17, 2020
Author - Laura Vout, Nutritionist
Your diet is the culmination of your dietary choices over a long period of time. One burger
doesn’t make you unhealthy and one salad doesn’t make you healthy. But continually making
positive choices and getting to know your body can have a big impact on your overall wellbeing.
The world of health and nutrition is really confusing, especially if you look on the internet. There
is an overwhelming amount of information available on what a healthy diet should look like. A lot
of it is contradictory, extreme or expensive. How many times have you attempted to make some
positive changes to your diet, only to give up because it’s just too confusing?
When I started studying nutrition I thought I was going to find out all the big industry secrets,
which foods ‘burn’ fat, which fast foods rot your insides or just how awful coffee really is. Spoiler
alert - these claims are always media trash with zero credibility. Here’s the real big secret, a
healthy diet doesn’t need to be confusing, complex or costly. Eat whole foods, mostly plants and
not too much... Here are my top tips that will give you the solid foundations of a healthy diet.
LOOK AT YOUR CURRENT DIET - AN EASY WAY TO ASSESS YOUR
CURRENT FOOD HABITS
Many of our eating habits are subconscious and have been cultivated over a lifetime. We make
over 200 food-related decisions each day, how many of these are you conscious of?
My first tip is to start becoming more aware of what your current diet actually looks like.
Collecting a little bit of information will enable you to make specific improvements that will
actually make a difference.
The easiest way to do this is with a habit tracker, using old fashioned pen and paper. Draw a grid
with the days of the week across the top and down the left-hand side list water, fruit and veg,
convenience snacks, caffeine and finally, alcohol. Here’s a PDF habit tracker you can download.
(PDF download available).
Over the week, make a tally of your consumption each day, for each of the headings. Voila!
You’ve made your first dietary assessment. Choose where you’d like to make changes and
monitor your progress! For example, increasing fruit and veg intake - focus on one extra portion
each day and see how it adds up over the weeks!
So what should you look to improve?
HYDRATION - GET A REUSABLE BOTTLE & KEEP IT WITH YOU
You don’t need me to tell you hydration is important. Good hydration supports an endless list of
bodily functions including fluid balance and immunity. Being dehydrated negatively affects
physical performance and cognitive function, before you even feel thirsty! Yikes!
Get a fun reusable bottle and challenge yourself to keep it with you at all times. This alone will
increase your fluid intake.
What counts as hydration? Tea, coffee, squash - it all counts! If its fluid, it’s hydrating.
FRUIT & VEG - 5 + A DAY, WHY IS IT IMPORTANT?
Some things never change and getting your quota of fruit and veg is still a top health priority. Aim
for 5 different fruits and vegetables each day. Bonus points for more than 5!
WHY is it so important? Fruit and veg are quality sources of many vitamins, minerals and fibre.
Our bodies require various amounts of these micro-nutrients to function efficiently and carry out
many essential processes like bone growth, brain function and hormone production. The more
variety you can get into your diet each day, the bigger the variety of micro-nutrients.
The easiest way to introduce more fruit and veg into your diet is to throw more into what you’re
already making. Grate some carrot into spaghetti bolognese, add some salad to your ham
sandwich or throw some berries onto of your breakfast cereal.
Top tip for kids - fussy eaters at your table? Make fruit and veg into a game. See how many fruit
pieces you can eat with chopsticks or make vegetable faces on pizza bases!
What is a portion? A handful or larger.
PROTEIN - ESSENTIAL FOR HEALTH, NOT JUST FOR BODYBUILDERS
Protein is highly underrated for health. It’s essential for muscle retention and muscle building,
which is great for bodybuilders, but it’s also great for minimising fall risk in the elderly. Protein is
incredibly important for anything that requires cell building, like immune function, healthy hair and
skin and overall body composition. Protein is highly satiating, meaning it fills you up most
effectively. If you’re always hungry, increase your protein. Can’t control your snacking? Increase
Up your protein intake by building your meals around the source of protein, rather than the
carbohydrate. Instead of ‘we’re having pasta tonight’ try switching to ‘ We’re having chicken
tonight ’, and then decide what will go with your chicken.
Another great way to increase your protein intake is by introducing some protein at breakfast
time. Try some high protein yoghurt, eggs or some turkey sausage!
What about vegetarians and vegans? There are loads of great plant-based protein sources,
including meat alternatives like tofu, tempeh and edamame. Plant-based diets do need a
wider variety of protein sources to get the full health benefits.
FAST FOOD, JUNK FOOD & HIGHLY PROCESSED FOODS
They can be a part of a healthy diet. That’s right, junky foods are not the devil’s work that should
be avoided at all costs. Eating only ‘clean’ or ‘healthy’ food that you have prepared yourself is not
the only way to have a healthy diet, nor is it realistic.
However, highly processed foods are less nutritious and often much higher in calories than their
whole food counterparts. If your diet consists of more processed foods than whole foods, start
making some changes in the right direction. There’s no ‘perfect’ diet, so if three takeaways a
week becomes two, your body will start to thank you!
Looking at your diet overall, a reasonable health-focused goal is to eat whole, unprocessed
foods 80% of the time and less nutritious foods you enjoy 20% of the time. If you have 21
meals (3 a day) that’s 17 nutritious meals and 4 less nutritious meals per week.
A HEALTHY MINDSET - STOP USING ‘GOOD’ AND ‘BAD’ TO DESCRIBE
Having a healthy mindset around food is as important as what you are eating. Using phrases like
‘I’ve been bad with my diet’, ‘I’ve had a bad food day’ and even ‘this is a naughty treat’ create the
idea that there are good and bad foods. They also lead you down the ‘forbidden fruit’ path. The
language we use really matters.
Choosing less nutritious foods occasionally is part of a healthy diet. ENJOYING food also matters
for health. It’s not healthy to restrict all of the foods that you enjoy or feel bad for enjoying them! If
you love a Friday night pizza or a chocolate biscuit with your morning coffee, let yourself enjoy it.
Cultivating a healthy food relationship can revolutionise your diet. There are no ‘good’ foods or
‘bad’ foods. All food is a source of energy, with differing nutritional values.
Try to stop using ‘good’ and ‘bad’ to describe foods and start using ‘more nutritious’ and ‘less
nutritious’. This includes using them in your brain, even if you are just talking to yourself.
Monitor these thought processes for a while and see how your feelings about food change.
SLEEP - IT’S LINKED TO YOUR DIET
Getting enough, good quality sleep matters for maintaining a healthy diet. When you’re tired you
make less favourable food choices. Also, the two hormones that regulate your appetite, ghrelin
and leptin, are affected if you’re sleep-deprived. Making you more hungry and making your
hunger more difficult to satisfy.
You can improve your sleep by having a good sleep routine. Go to bed at the same time each
night and make your pre-bedtime routine the same each night, including some winding down
activities. For example, turning off screens, reading a book or doing five minutes of stretching.
How much sleep do we need? Everyone is different and has differing needs depending on
age, physical activity and genetics. If you’re not waking up feeling refreshed, you need more
sleep or better quality sleep.
CAFFEINE - IT LASTS LONGER THAN SIX HOURS
Caffeine consumption is important because it can determine the quality of sleep. Coffee is great,
but make sure you’re using it to your advantage, rather than your detriment.
Caffeine has a half-life of 6 hours, which means if you have a coffee at midday, half of that
caffeine is still in your bloodstream at 6pm, and a quarter of it at 9pm. Think about when your
ideal bedtime is and manage your caffeine intake to ensure you have the best chance of getting
a good nights sleep!
Should I avoid caffeine altogether? There’s no reason to avoid caffeine altogether, it’s
perfectly safe in regular tea/coffee amounts. However, one caffeine-free day per week can be
beneficial if you feel you’re a little too reliant.
Health is multifaceted, but having a healthy balanced diet is a necessity for optimal health. It
doesn’t need to be complicated and you don’t need to sift through heaps of scientific research or
information on the internet. In fact, I’d probably ignore headlines and any extreme interventions
altogether when it comes to diet advice. Stay hydrated, eat your veggies and get some extra
protein isn’t glamorous advice, but it is life-changing advice if you can implement it habitually.
Author - Laura Vout, Nutritionist and Coach Laura Vout Nutrition