Healthy eating guidelines give excellent guidance on the best type of dietary pattern to follow for optimal health and disease prevention. But what if you need to avoid certain foods or food groups because of health concerns or personal preferences? In today’s blog, Dr Glenda Bishop gives sound advice on how, with some flexibility, you can make healthy guidelines work in your favour.
Many people think that healthy eating guidelines aren’t practical for people who need to avoid certain foods in order to stay healthy, including people with food allergies or intolerances. In fact, some people also think that these guidelines don’t work for people who choose to avoid certain foods due to philosophical, religious, or other personal beliefs, such as vegans or vegetarians. But this is incorrect, and here I’m going to show you why.
What are healthy eating guidelines?
The Australian Dietary Guidelines were designed to encourage specific dietary behaviours that promote health and wellbeing, and also decrease the risk of nutrition-related lifestyle diseases. They were formulated after assessing the evidence from over 55,000 peer-reviewed scientific articles, and then using the data to determine the nutritional needs of the average person. After this, dietary modelling was used to determine the different types of foods that need to be eaten each day to provide an adequate nutrient supply.
Nutrition guidelines don’t provide specific meal plans. Instead, they provide guidance on how you can best obtain essential nutrients from everyday meals. The key message is that you need to eat a range of foods from each of the five core food groups in order to obtain a complete and balanced nutritional supply from food.
The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating makes this message even easier to understand by demonstrating the relative amounts of each food group that you need to eat each day. For instance, the vegetable section is larger than the meat section, indicating that you need to eat over twice the amount of vegetables than you do meat.
What does each food group provide?
Each of the five food groups provides you with certain key nutrients. These are:
- Vegetables and legumes/beans: dietary fibre, beta-carotene (for vitamin A), vitamin C, folate, carbohydrates, and minerals (e.g. magnesium, iron and potassium).
- Fruit: vitamin C, dietary fibre, carbohydrates, potassium, folate and beta-carotene.
- Milk, yoghurt, cheese and/or alternatives: calcium, protein, riboflavin, vitamin B12, fats, carbohydrates, and minerals (e.g. magnesium, zinc and potassium).
- Lean meats, fish, eggs, nuts and meat alternatives: protein, fats, iron, zinc, vitamin B12, omega-3 fatty acids, niacin, and vitamin E.
- Grain (cereal) foods: carbohydrates, dietary fibre, protein, iron, thiamin, folate, iodine and some other vitamins and minerals.
Because each food group provides particular nutrients, removing an entire food group removes a substantial amount of nutrients which that group provides. Even if you eat additional foods from the remaining food groups, it may not be sufficient to replace the core nutrients you’ve removed.
The good news is that there’s considerable flexibility built into the guidelines, so if there are certain foods that you can’t or won’t eat, you can choose alternative foods with a similar nutrient profile to replace them.
What if you have to avoid specific foods?
If you have a food allergy or intolerance, it’s essential to avoid your specific trigger foods. But removing entire food groups isn’t necessary since suitable alternatives are available to maintain a balanced nutrient profile. Here’s some examples:
- Nuts. Nuts belong to the lean meats, fish, eggs and meat alternatives group, so you just need to choose other foods from this group to compensate for not eating nuts. But the remaining four food groups can be eaten without any problems.
- Dairy. Only the milk, yoghurt, cheese and/or alternatives group is affected, but this group includes non-dairy alternatives to compensate for issues with dairy products. You just need to make sure that your non-dairy alternatives are calcium-fortified.
- Coeliac disease. Only the grain (cereal) foods group is affected, but there are many grains in this group that are naturally gluten-free, including rice, quinoa, polenta and special gluten-free flours. You may need to get a little more dietary fibre from the vegetable and fruit food groups since gluten-free grains are often lower in dietary fibre, but the remaining four food groups are naturally gluten-free.
- Sensitivity to FODMAPs. This food issue is more complex and will depend on which FODMAPs you are sensitive to. However, while some foods from each food group will need to be restricted, there are still plenty of alternatives available in each food group that are safe.
If you have a food allergy/intolerance, you will need to check that your food triggers are absent from mixed foods or manufactured foods, but this doesn’t negate the balance that can be obtained from the five food groups. Although if you have multiple food allergies/intolerances, you may require specialised dietary advice.
What if you choose to avoid specific foods?
Even if you choose to avoid certain foods for philosophical or religious beliefs, or personal preference, there should still be suitable alternatives available within each food group to allow you to maintain balanced nutrition. Here’s some examples:
- Vegetarian (ovo-lacto). While a vegetarian won’t eat animal flesh, they can still eat eggs, nuts, seeds and legumes/beans to obtain equivalent nutrients.
- Vegan. Vegans can make the same substitutions as vegetarians when avoiding animal flesh, except that they will also choose to avoid eggs. Vegans also avoid dairy products, but there are many suitable non-dairy alternatives available. A problem may occur though since some minerals (e.g. iron and zinc) are easier to obtain from meat, but with very careful dietary planning they can be obtained from plant-based foods. Vitamin B12 however is another story, since it’s not naturally present in plant-based foods. Some soymilks are fortified with vitamin B12, but further supplementation may be required.
- Paleo. This lifestyle choice imposes heavy restrictions including complete removal of all grain (cereal) foods, dairy and legumes. Calcium-fortified almond milk can be used as a non-dairy alternative, but the other foods cannot be so easily replaced. This means that it’s simply not possible to meet healthy eating guidelines with this lifestyle choice.
The take home message
The healthy eating guidelines are designed to be flexible and adjustable to suit individual needs, while still ensuring an adequate supply of nutrients from regular food intake. The guidelines are applicable to all healthy individuals of all ages, including people with common health conditions. If you need to avoid trigger foods due to allergies or intolerances, minor adjustments can be made to keep your nutrition well balanced. However, choosing a lifestyle that restricts your dietary intake to be inconsistent with healthy eating guidelines will result in an imbalanced nutrient profile.
Dr Glenda Bishop is a university-qualified Nutritionist who helps people to eat better so that they can live a healthier life. She has a special interest in food intolerances and how they impact a person’s physical and mental wellbeing. You can connect with her on Twitter or Instagram