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Healthy eating: What you need to know

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Food is a highly contentious topic. Some swear off carbs, while for others, it's all about the protein. We take it to the experts to find the dos and don'ts of a healthy diet.

Many people start off the year with the right intention: to be healthy. Unfortunately, where most fall off the wagon is at work — the perfect environment to tempt anyone back into old eating habits.

We're all guilty of the late morning coffee, the cheeky fast-food lunch and the 3 pm chocolate bar. What's wrong with that, right?

Quite a lot, apparently.  

Nutritionist and naturopath Belinda Leskiw said that while a cup of coffee a day is okay, any more and you're running the risk of future health problems, higher levels of stress, weight gain and burnout.

"Any more than a cup of coffee a day, in the morning, and you start to deregulate your hormones. Particularly, melatonin (the sleep hormone) can get out of whack," Ms Leskiw said. 

"That drives your cortisol levels up and can lead to burnout."

Caffeine is also a highly addictive stimulant like nicotine. Scientists continue to debate whether or not sugar is addictive, but they generally agree on one thing: too much of it is terrible for your health.

Consuming too much refined sugar, in particular, can lead to excess weight, which is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers. 

"There are natural sugars in things like fruits and vegetables," Ms Leskiw said. "Those levels of sugar are plenty for us, given the fact that they are combined with the whole food elements of fibre and minerals to break the sugar down. 

"We don't need to add additional sugars into our diet."

According to the Newcastle-based nutritionist, eating too much refined sugar can also impact our immunity, affect our metabolism and gut health and increase brain fog. 

"As a society, we really need to minimise the amount of refined sugar in our diet," the expert said. 

If you find yourself craving something sweet towards the end of the day, Ms Leskiw suggested snacking on nuts and seeds and drinking herbal teas instead of coffee. 

So what can I eat?

Understanding what to eat is actually quite basic. Rather than thinking about particular foods, like eggs, oats and blueberries, it's better to think about the food groups that make up a balanced diet. Balance is the key word here. 

Once you understand what different food groups you need in your daily diet, it's far easier to avoid those that aren't doing you any good — what bodybuilders call "empty calories". 

"What we need to do to fulfil our nutritional needs throughout the day is to eat less processed foods, inflammatory foods and refined sugars," Ms Leskiw said. 

"I call it crowding out. If we eat more of the good stuff, we start to eat less of the bad stuff."

The "good stuff" means whole foods. Basically, if the food has had a life, then it's a whole food; think lean meats, fresh vegetables and legumes.

According to Ms Leskiw, our daily diet should include: 

-    Protein: We need to eat more protein. I feel that as a society, we are eating the wrong forms of protein, more processed proteins. We need to be eating lean meats, eggs, fish, nuts and legumes. For every kilo of body weight, you need to be consuming one gram of protein daily. So, if you're 80 kilos, you need to be eating 80 grams of protein a day.

-    Complex carbohydrates: Vegetables and clean grains like quinoa and brown rice.

-    Water: A human body needs about 33 ml per kilo of body weight. So someone who is 80 kilos will need at least 2.6 litres a day to function at an optimal level. That's not taking into consideration caffeine or sugar intake that the body needs to additionally process.

-    Good fats: Important for the brain and cognition.

-    Low inflammatory foods: Avoid sugar, wheat and dairy.

Burning fat, not carbs

If you spend at least eight hours a day sitting at a desk, your chances of gaining weight are pretty high. Add in the coffees and croissants and you're well on your way to piling on the pounds.

If you've already tried losing weight with rigorous exercise but can't seem to tip the scales, it could be down to your diet. 

Brisbane-based naturopath Leanne Stockwell has been helping Australians achieve a balanced, healthier life for over 20 years. 

She uses kinesiology as a diagnostic tool when treating her patients and looks at hormones, lifestyle factors and nutrition. 

Some patients require a more drastic change of diet in order to lose weight and restore their energy levels. 

"I often try to get them into a ketogenic diet," Ms Stockwell said. "That's where we're cutting carbs and sugar and bringing in more plant-based foods. That starts to get the metabolism going. They will also need to be walking for at least half an hour in the morning, three to four times a week.

"If you don't get that metabolism going first thing in the morning, it basically flatlines."

The ketogenic diet, or "keto diet", is a low-carb diet that forces the body to burn existing fat rather than carbohydrates, firing up metabolism.

"It's about getting your body into a fat-burning mode, so you're not burning carbs or sugar," Ms Stockwell said. "We cut starches down or pretty much eliminate them from the diet and live off a few clean proteins but mostly plant-based whole foods."

For those looking for something a little less extreme, Ms Stockwell suggested trying a standing desk and getting up and moving regularly throughout the day. 

"There is a lot of research now that shows even small amounts of movement done regularly has a huge impact on our metabolism," Ms Stockwell said. 

5 habits for a healthier diet 

1. Cut back on portion sizes

The easiest way to lose weight is to just eat a bit less. Don't go back for seconds. Don't eat your partner's leftovers; instead, use them for the next day's lunch.

2. Eat more often

It sounds like a contradiction to the previous point, but eating light, frequent meals can curb your appetite, maintain your energy levels throughout the day and improve your mood.

3. Snack on nuts

Nuts are a great source of fibre and can help stabilise blood sugar levels, aid digestion and keep us feeling full when 3 pm-itis rolls around. 

4. Eat protein

For breakfast, have an egg on toast or Greek yoghurt with honey, berries and nuts. Snack on cottage cheese with carrot and celery sticks or munch on a handful of almonds. For your working lunch or dinner, eat lean beef, chicken, salmon or tuna. Salmon is packed full of omega-3 fatty acids, which help reduce inflammation. This type of fatty acid also plays a role in reducing obesity and metabolic disease.

5. Drink plenty of water

Drink plenty of water throughout the day to help boost your metabolism and flush out harmful toxins. This also keeps you hydrated so you don't mistake thirst for hunger and end up grabbing a packet of chips.

James Mitchell is a Sydney-based journalist and the editor of Wellness Daily. 

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