Why the Australasian Health Star Rating needs major changes to make it work



Most consumers are unaware that the Health Star Rating system is compensatory, and that one negative nutritional attribute, such as high sugar, can be cancelled out by a positive attribute like fibre.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-ND

Jessica C Lai, Victoria University of Wellington; Alana Harrison, Victoria University of Wellington; Hongzhi Gao, Victoria University of Wellington, and Samuel Becher, Victoria University of Wellington

Unhealthy diets cause multiple physical and mental health problems. To help consumers make healthier choices, Australia and New Zealand introduced the voluntary Health Star Rating (HSR) system in 2014.

The system is supposedly designed to provide consumers with an overall signal about a food’s healthiness. Presumably, this should nudge consumers to make more informed and healthier decisions.

Five years on, the Australian and New Zealand governments are conducting a system review. Our research shows that, while the initiative is noble, the devil is in the details. There is a need, and hopefully an opportunity, to improve the system and reconsider some of its key aspects.




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Loopholes and consumer misconception

Under the HSR system, products are labelled from 0.5 stars (the least healthy score) to 5 stars (the healthiest products). The rating is determined by evaluating the overall nutritional value of the product. It compares the content of “good” ingredients (i.e. fibre, protein, fruit, vegetables, nuts and legumes) with the “bad” ones (i.e. saturated fat, energy, total sugar and sodium).

But we believe most consumers are unaware that the HSR system is compensatory. This means one negative nutritional attribute can be cancelled out, or balanced, by a positive attribute. A manufacturer can receive a high HSR score for a product rich in sugar by adding a healthy ingredient such as fibre.


CC BY-ND

It is also likely that most consumers are unaware that the HSR rating is calculated on an “as prepared” basis. This means a product can enjoy a high rating based on the nutritional value of preparatory ingredients.

Milo found itself embroiled in controversy for displaying 4.5 stars on its chocolate powder, though the powder itself clearly does not merit this rating. The 4.5-star rating was based on consuming merely three teaspoons of powder combined with skim milk. But who actually consumes Milo this way?

Furthermore, HSR scores are intended to allow comparison only among similar products. A four-star rating for a cereal cannot be compared to a four-star rating given to milk. While the two products display the same number of stars, their healthiness may differ significantly.




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What holds the system back

There is scepticism about the HSR’s authenticity, reliability and effectiveness. This stems in part from the system being self-regulated.

In addition, the system is non-mandatory, leaving manufacturers free to decide when and how to use it. For instance, only around 20% of packaged goods available in New Zealand and Australian supermarkets have an HSR. To add to the distortion, a disproportionate number of these show high ratings. This indicates that manufacturers only use the HSR for their healthier products.

A voluntary system does little to counter the inbuilt incentive that manufacturers have to use unhealthy components such as sugar, salt and saturated fats. These produce pleasure and create “craveable” foods and food addiction. Manufacturers likely do not use a HSR for these products. However, consumers do not interpret missing information as “the worst-case scenario”, but assume average quality.

Finally, the system does not effectively assist the vulnerable consumers who need it the most. While HSR does help some middle- to high-income consumers, it does a poor job with respect to consumers of low socio-economic status. This suggests that the label requires consumers to be educated about its meaning.

Time to move forward

Some improvements could carry the HSR forward a great distance.

If the system were made mandatory, it would likely raise consumers’ awareness. There should also be more education initiatives about the HSR. This, in turn, would incentivise manufacturers to produce healthier foods and beverages.

At the same time, we should strive to minimise the costs involved and consider backing the system with government funding. This would allow all businesses to participate in the program, including less profitable or smaller businesses. It would also prevent costs from being passed onto consumers.

As a minimum, if the system is not made mandatory, a general “non-participation” label should be introduced. If a producer opts not to label its product, it should be required to use a conspicuous cautionary statement. Such a statement should declare, for instance, that “the manufacturer has chosen not to verify the health rating of this product” or “the healthiness of this product cannot be verified”.

Studies show the HSR rating would have a bigger impact if placed in the upper left corner of the packaging and used colours. It could use a traffic light system, with 0.5-2.5 stars on a red background, 3 to 4 stars on amber and 4.5-5 star products on green. The colour-coded system has proved to be more effective with marginalised groups of consumers.

All easier said than done.

Healthy diets are important for physical and psychological well-being and for strengthening our communities and economies. However, any regulation of the food industry is likely to be resisted by its strong and well-organised lobbying power. To fight this battle, the consumers’ voice is crucial to ensure we can all make good and healthy foods choices.The Conversation

Jessica C Lai, Senior Lecturer in Commercial Law, Victoria University of Wellington; Alana Harrison, LLB(Hons) & BCOM Undergraduate Student, Victoria University of Wellington; Hongzhi Gao, Associate professor, Victoria University of Wellington, and Samuel Becher, Associate Professor of Business Law, Victoria University of Wellington

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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How to get the nutrients you need without eating as much red meat



The average Australian eats 81 grams of red meat a day, while the planetary diet recommends just 14g.
Napocska/Shutterstock

Evangeline Mantzioris, University of South Australia

If you’re a red meat-eater, there’s a good chance you’re eating more of it than you should. At last count, Australians ate an average of 81 grams of red meat per day.

The planetary health diet was developed by researchers to meet the nutritional needs of people around the world, while reducing food production’s environmental impact. It recommends reducing our red meat intake to around 14g a day. That’s around 100g of red meat a week.




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Australia’s dietary guidelines are more conservative and recommend limiting red meat intake to a maximum of 455g a week, or 65g a day, to reduce the additional cancer risk that comes from eating large quantities of red meat.

So, what should you eat instead? And how can you ensure you’re getting enough protein, iron, zinc and vitamin B12?

Protein

Animal sources of protein provide essential amino acids, which the body uses to make muscle, tissue, hormones, neurotransmitters and the different cells and antibodies in our immune system.

The planetary health diet offers a good blueprint for gaining enough protein from a variety of other animal sources. It recommends eating, on average:

  • 25g of chicken per day
  • 28g of fish per day day
  • 1.5 eggs per week
  • 200g of milk per day day
  • 50g of cheese per day.

In addition to the 14g of red meat in the planetary health diet, these foods would provide a total of 45g of protein per day, which is around 80% of our daily protein needs from animal sources.

The remaining protein required (11g) is easily met with plant foods, including nuts, legumes, beans and wholegrains.

Nuts are a good alternative to meat.
Eakrat/Shutterstock

Iron

Iron is essential for many of the body’s functions, including transporting oxygen to the blood.

Iron deficiency can lead to anaemia, a condition in which you feel tired and lethargic.




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Pre-menopausal women need around 18 milligrams a day, while men only need 8mg. Pre-menopausal women need more iron because of the blood they lose during menstruation.

So, how can you get enough iron?

Beef, of course, is a rich source of iron, containing 3.3mg for every 100g.

The same amount of chicken breast contains 0.4mg, while the chicken thigh (the darker meat) contains slightly higher levels, at 0.9mg.

Pork is similarly low in iron at 0.7mg.

But kangaroo will provide you with 4.1mg of iron for every 100g. Yes, kangaroo is a red meat but it produces lower methane emissions and has one-third the levels of saturated fat than beef, making it a healthier and more environmentally friendly alternative.

Plant protein sources are also high in iron: cooked kidney beans have 1.7mg and brown lentils have 2.37mg per 100g.

Kidney beans and lentils are good sources of iron.
Hermes Rivera

If you wanted to cut your red meat intake from the 81g average to the recommended 14g per day while still getting the same amount of iron, you would need to consume the equivalent of either 50g of kangaroo, 100g of brown lentils or 150g of red kidney beans per day.

Zinc

Zinc is an essential mineral that helps the body function optimally. It affects everything from our ability to fight bugs, to our sense of smell and taste.

Zinc requirements are higher for men (14mg a day) than women (8mg a day) due to zinc’s role in the production and development of sperm.

Of all meat sources, beef provides the most zinc, at 8.2mg per 100g.

Chicken breast provides just 0.68mg, while the chicken thigh has 2mg.

In kangaroo meat, the levels of zinc are lower than beef, at 3.05mg.

The richest source of zinc is oysters (48.3mg).

Beans such lentils, red kidney beans and chickpeas all provide about 1.0mg per 100g.

To meet the shortfall of zinc from reducing your red meat intake, you could eat 12 oysters a day, which is unlikely. Or you could eat a combination of foods such as 150g of red kidney beans, one serve (30g) of zinc-supplemented cereals like Weet-bix, three slices of wholegrain bread, and a handful of mixed nuts (30g).

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is important for healthy blood and nerve function. It’s the nutrient of most concern for people cutting out meat products as it’s only found in animal sources.

Requirements of vitamin B12 are the same for both women and men at 2.4 micrograms (mcg) a day.

Beef and kangaroo provide 2.5mcg per 100g serve, while chicken and turkey provide about 0.6mcg.

Dairy products also contain vitamin B12. One glass of milk would give you half your daily requirement requirement (1.24mcg) and one slice of cheese (20g) would provide one-fifth (0.4mcg).

A glass of milk would provide half the vitamin B12 you need in a day.
AntGor/Shutterstock

Vitamin B12 can be found in trace amounts in spinach and fermented foods, but these levels aren’t high enough to meet your nutritional needs. Mushrooms, however, have consistently higher levels, with shiitake mushrooms containing 5mcg per 100g.

To meet the shortfall of vitamin B12 from reducing red meat intake, you would need to eat 75g kangaroo per day or have a glass of milk (200ml) plus a slice of cheese (20g). Alternatively, a handful of dried shiitake mushrooms in your salad or stir-fry would fulfil your requirements.

Don’t forget about fibre

A recent study found fibre intakes of around 25 to 29g a day were linked to lower rates of many chronic diseases such as coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke and bowel cancer.

Yet most Australian adults currently have low dietary fibre levels of around 20g a day.

By making some of the changes above and increasing your intake of meat alternatives such as legumes, you’ll also be boosting your levels of dietary fibre. Substituting 100g of lentils will give you an extra 5g of fibre per day.

With some forward planning, it’s easy to swap red meat for other animal products and non-meat alternatives that are healthier and more environmentally sustainable.The Conversation

Evangeline Mantzioris, Program Director of Nutrition and Food Sciences, University of South Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Health check: can eating certain foods make you smarter?



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Green vegetables, nuts and berries are among the foods that could improve our brain function.
From shutterstock.com

Margaret Morris, UNSW and Michael Kendig, UNSW

Trying to keep up with what constitutes a “healthy” diet can be exhausting. With unending options at the supermarket, and diet advice coming from all directions, filling your shopping trolley with the right things can seem an overwhelming task.

For a long time we’ve known diet is key to maintaining physical health.

But emerging evidence indicates diet quality also plays a critical role in our cognitive function.

We’re learning some of the best things to eat in this regard include vegetables, nuts and berries, foods containing “good fats” and, possibly, fermented foods.

As well as potentially improving our brain function, eating these sorts of foods could improve our mental well-being – and could even help the planet, too.




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Diet and brain function

In the face of rising obesity rates, over the past couple of decades, researchers have questioned whether increased weight, or poor diet, could influence cognition. They have since looked at what sorts of diets might impair or improve the function of our brains.

Long term follow-up studies show obesity is associated with mild impairments in several domains of cognitive function, including short-term memory, attention and decision-making.

Research has also shown short-term memory is poorer in people who report eating more saturated fat and sugar.

Conversely, the Mediterranean diet has been associated with better brain health and maintenance of cognitive abilities into older age. A Mediterranean diet is based on vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts, with healthy fats such as olive oil. Intake of red meat, saturated fats and sugar is limited.

A healthy diet has many elements, so let’s look at what particular foods might explain these benefits.

Vegetables, nuts and berries

Evidence indicates eating more vegetables slows the gradual decline in cognitive abilities that occurs naturally as we age.

While all veggies are likely to contribute, those in the cruciferous (Brassicaceae) family may confer particular benefits through their high fibre, folate, potassium and vitamin content. Vegetables in this family include broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, and fad favourites kale and rocket.

Interestingly, while there’s good evidence for the protective role of vegetables, there’s less evidence when it comes to fruit.

Research has shown a healthy diet can improve cognitive functions such as learning and memory.
From shutterstock.com

Berries, though, contain high levels of antioxidants. These compounds protect the body by scavenging harmful free radicals and reducing inflammation. Together these functions are likely to protect our cognitive ability.

Studies in rats, and in older people with mild cognitive impairment, indicate supplementing diets with berries improves performance in various memory tasks.

Nuts, meanwhile, are excellent sources of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, minerals and vitamins. Studies in animals have shown the addition of nuts improves learning and memory. Emerging evidence in humans suggests consuming nuts within a Mediterranean-style diet improves measures of cognition, such as the capacity for verbal reasoning.

Healthy fats

Healthy diets such as the Mediterranean diet are also characterised by foods such as oily fish, avocados, olive oil and small amounts of animal-derived fats (such as from red meat).

One of our experiments in rats showed diets high in saturated fat from lard or high in sugar led to memory impairments, whereas an oil-based diet high in polyunsaturated fats didn’t.




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Importantly, rats fed these different diets did not differ in their total energy intake – only the type of fat and sugar varied.

While we can’t comment directly on the effects in humans, these findings suggest eating excess sugar, or animal-based fats, may negatively impact cognition.

Fermented foods

For thousands of years humans have prolonged the life of foods through fermentation, which increases the proportion of Lactobacillus and other healthy gut bacteria.

Kombucha and kefir are trendy right now, but other popular fermented foods include kimchi, miso, yoghurt and sauerkraut. Intake of these foods is thought to maintain the diversity of the gut microbiome.




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Interest in the potential cognitive effects of fermented foods stems from emerging evidence for the importance of the gut microbiota in cognition and health.

It’s well known that a poor diet can reduce the diversity of the gut microbiome. Our work in rats has shown the cognitive impairments produced by exposure to an unhealthy “cafeteria” diet – a Western-style diet high in saturated fat and sugar – are linked to changes in the gut microbiome.

Beyond cognition

It’s not possible to attribute “miracle” properties to one food group alone. We suggest a balanced, varied diet is the best approach to sustain not only brain health, but heart health too.

And there may be other reasons to seek out these foods. A newly published study showed eating fruit and vegetables improved mental well-being. Subjects tended to feel happier, less worried, and reported higher levels of overall life satisfaction.

The link between diet quality and better mental health is now well-established.

The recently published EAT-Lancet report adds a further compelling reason to eat healthily: the environment. This commission argued for a “planetary health” diet – akin to the Mediterranean diet – consisting of whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts and dairy, healthy fats, with low animal protein and few processed foods.

It is thought that shifting to such a diet, together with reducing food waste and adopting more sustainable food production systems, will minimise environmental damage and safeguard individual health.

The central message is the health of individuals and of the planet are inextricably linked, and this requires a rethink of global food systems.




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Overhauling food systems – and individual food habits – will not be simple while foods high in fat and sugar are so readily available and relatively cheap.

Nonetheless, recognising that eating well might benefit the planet, as well as the body and brain, might motivate people to change their dietary habits.The Conversation

Margaret Morris, Professor of Pharmacology, Head of Pharmacology, UNSW and Michael Kendig, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Eat your vegetables – studies show plant-based diets are good for immunity



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We’ve been told there are many benefits of eating our veggies. Could they improve our immune system too?
From shutterstock.com

Yasmine Probst, University of Wollongong and Joel Craddock, University of Wollongong

The number of people in Australia who follow vegetarian or plant-based diets is growing rapidly. People might choose to be vegetarian for ethical, cultural or health-related reasons.

While not all vegetarians are necessarily following a healthy diet, research shows vegetarianism can have many benefits for health. One we’re learning more about is its potential to strengthen our immune systems.

We’re still working out what aspects of a vegetarian diet may be responsible for this – whether it’s the lack of meat or the emphasis on plant-based foods.

But we think the higher volume of foods including fruits, vegetables and legumes seen in vegetarian diets is likely to have a lot to do with any associated health benefits.




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What do vegetarians eat?

Vegetarian diets are comprised of combinations of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, legumes and, for some, dairy and eggs.

There are many types of vegetarian eating patterns, from vegan (no animal products) through to lacto-ovo (some animal products such as eggs and dairy). But each avoids eating meat.

There are also a few semi-vegetarian approaches which include eating small amounts of some meats. People who primarily follow a vegetarian diet but include fish are referred to as pescetarian, while those who occasionally eat other forms of meat are considered flexitarian.

Importantly, not all vegetarians follow a healthy and balanced diet. Many won’t eat the recommended daily servings of fruit and vegetables, and will consume too much junk food.

But studies show that balanced vegetarian eating patterns could be good for our immune system and the related response of the body.

Defending from attack

Our bodies are faced with daily challenges such as getting rid of toxic chemicals and defending against nasty viruses. The immune system is “switched on” in response to these attacks.

Having a healthy immune system is important, as it prevents us from becoming sick. A healthy immune system can be supported by a number of lifestyle factors including adequate sleep, healthy body weight and regular physical activity. It can also be substantially affected by the foods we eat and drink.

Some research has found following a vegetarian diet could improve our immune systems.
From shutterstock.com

People following vegetarian diets tend to have lowered levels of white blood cells, our natural defender cells. This is the case for vegetarian diets including vegan, lacto-vegetarian and lacto-ovo vegetarian.

Having very low levels of these cells is not ideal as it can affect the body’s ability to fight infection. However, having just the right number of white cells within a healthy range may reduce your chances of getting sick.

An added shield of protection

As well as helping the immune system, vegetarian diets may also help our body with a related process called inflammation. Vegetarian diets have been shown to prevent inflammation due to the antioxidant components within the foods.

Inflammation occurs when the body releases cells to attack unwanted pathogens or respond to injury. It may result in redness to an area of the body or the release of certain chemicals inside our bodies. Inflammation is a protective measure that the body uses to stay as healthy as it can.




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People who follow vegetarian diets have lower levels of some of these chemicals (called C-reactive protein and fibrinogen) compared to people following a non-vegetarian diet.

This means people maintaining a vegetarian diet long-term are at a lower risk of getting type 2 diabetes, heart disease or even some cancers. Each of these chronic diseases is associated with increased inflammation in the body. This is shown in blood tests by increased levels of C-reactive protein, as this is a signal of systemic inflammation.

The reason why vegetarians have lowered levels of inflammation remains to be fully understood.

We suspect the high amount of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds are helping. These foods are full of important nutrients including fibres, vitamins, minerals and compounds called phytochemicals.

All of these nutrients have been shown to improve levels of inflammation in the long term and may influence the body’s immune response as an added bonus.

Should I switch to a vegetarian diet?

Going vegetarian may not be for everyone.

And it’s unwise to start a new eating pattern without understanding the potential impacts it can have on your health.

Vegetarian diets that are inappropriately balanced can lead to an increased risk of iron, zinc and vitamin B12 deficiencies. This can be detrimental to overall health, particularly if followed for extended periods of time.

The risks may be greater for certain groups of people who have added nutrient needs due to life stage, gender or for another health-related reason.

So vegetarian eating should always be undertaken carefully and under professional guidance, preferably that of a dietitian, to minimise these risks.




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But importantly, only 5.1% of the Australian population eat the recommended amount of fruit and vegetables – five serves of vegetables and two serves of fruit each day.

So whether you’re vegetarian or not, focusing on incorporating more plant-based foods into your diet is worthwhile. We’re constantly learning more ways this is good for your health.The Conversation

Yasmine Probst, Senior lecturer, School of Medicine, University of Wollongong and Joel Craddock, PhD Candidate, University of Wollongong

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Health check: will eating nuts make you gain weight?



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Nuts contain “good” fats.
From shutterstock.com

Elizabeth Neale, University of Wollongong; Sze-Yen Tan, Deakin University, and Yasmine Probst, University of Wollongong

The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend we eat 30g of nuts – a small handful – each day. But many of us know nuts are high in calories and fat.

So should we be eating nuts or will they make us gain weight?

In short, the answer is yes, we should eat them, and no, they won’t make us gain weight if eaten in moderate amounts. The fats in nuts are mostly the “good” fats. And aside from that, our bodies don’t actually absorb all the fat found in nuts. But we do absorb the nutrients they provide.




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Dietary fat: friend or foe?

Nuts do contain fat, and the amount of fat varies between nut types. For example, a 30g serving of raw cashews or pistachios contains around 15g of fat, whereas the same amount of raw macadamias contains around 22g of fat.

There are different kinds of fats in our diet and some are better for us than others. Nuts contain mainly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. These types of fats are known as “good fats”. They can help lower cholesterol when we eat them in place of saturated fats.

The type of fats present varies between nuts. For example, walnuts are rich in polyunsaturated fats, whereas other types of nuts such as hazelnuts and macadamias have more monounsaturated fat.

What the evidence says

Even if the type of fat in nuts is good for us, they are still high in fat and calories. But this doesn’t mean we should be avoiding them to manage our weight.

Studies that looked at people’s eating habits and body weight over a long period have found people who regularly eat nuts tend to gain less weight over time than people who don’t.

Nuts are a healthier option for a snack than many processed alternatives.
From shutterstock.com

We see a similar pattern in clinical studies that asked people to include nuts in their diets and then looked at the effects on body weight.

A review of more than 30 studies examined the effects of eating nuts on body weight. It did not find people who ate nuts had increased their body weight, body mass index (BMI), or waist circumference, compared to a control group of people who did not eat nuts.

In fact, one study found that when people ate a pattern of food aimed at weight loss, the group of people who ate nuts lost more body fat than those who didn’t eat nuts.




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Let’s nut this out

There are several possible explanations for why eating nuts doesn’t seem to lead to weight gain.

  1. We don’t absorb all of the fat in nuts: The fat in nuts is stored in the nut’s cell walls, which don’t easily break down during digestion. As a result, when we eat nuts, we don’t absorb all of the fat. Some of the fat instead is passed out in our faeces. The amount of calories we absorb from eating nuts might be between 5% and 30% less that what we had previously thought.

  2. Nuts increase the amount of calories we burn: Not only do we not absorb all the calories in nuts, but eating nuts may also increase the amount of energy and fat we burn. It’s thought this may partially be explained by the protein and unsaturated fats in nuts, although we don’t yet know exactly how this occurs. Increases in the number of calories burnt can help us maintain or lose weight.

  3. Nuts help us feel full for longer: As well as fat, nuts are rich in protein and fibre. So, nuts help to keep us feeling full after we eat them, meaning we’re likely to eat less at later meals. Recent studies have also suggested providing people with nuts helps improve the overall quality of the types of foods they eat. This may be because nuts replace “junk foods” as snacks.

  4. People who eat nuts have healthier lifestyles in general: We can’t rule out the idea that eating nuts is just a sign of a healthier lifestyle. However, randomised controlled trials, which can control for lifestyle factors like eating habits, still find no negative effect on body weight when people eat nuts. This means the favourable effects of nuts are not just the result of nut eaters having healthier lifestyles – the nuts themselves play a role.




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Overall, the evidence suggests nuts are a healthy snack that can provide us with many of the nutrients our bodies need. We can confidently include the recommended 30g of nuts a day in a healthy diet, without worrying about the effect they will have on our waistlines.The Conversation

Elizabeth Neale, Career Development Fellow (Lecturer), University of Wollongong; Sze-Yen Tan, Senior Lecturer in Nutrition Science, Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN), School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, Deakin University, and Yasmine Probst, Senior lecturer, School of Medicine, University of Wollongong

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Want to improve your mood? It’s time to ditch the junk food



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Eating a healthy diet fuels our brain cells, fights inflammation and helps produce the chemicals that make us happy.
Antor Paul

Megan Lee, Southern Cross University

Worldwide, more than 300 million people live with depression. Without effective treatment, the condition can make it difficult to work and maintain relationships with family and friends.

Depression can cause sleep problems, difficulty concentrating, and a lack of interest in activities that are usually pleasurable. At its most extreme, it can lead to suicide.




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Depression has long been treated with medication and talking therapies – and they’re not going anywhere just yet. But we’re beginning to understand that increasing how much exercise we get and switching to a healthy diet can also play an important role in treating – and even preventing – depression.

So what should you eat more of, and avoid, for the sake of your mood?

Ditch junk food

Research suggests that while healthy diets can reduce the risk or severity of depression, unhealthy diets may increase the risk.

Of course, we all indulge from time to time but unhealthy diets are those that contain lots of foods that are high in energy (kilojoules) and low on nutrition. This means too much of the foods we should limit:

  • processed and takeaway foods
  • processed meats
  • fried food
  • butter
  • salt
  • potatoes
  • refined grains, such as those in white bread, pasta, cakes and pastries
  • sugary drinks and snacks.

The average Australian consumes 19 serves of junk food a week, and far fewer serves of fibre-rich fresh food and wholegrains than recommended. This leaves us overfed, undernourished and mentally worse off.

Here’s what to eat instead

Mix it up.
Anna Pelzer

Having a healthy diet means consuming a wide variety of nutritious foods every day, including:

  • fruit (two serves per day)
  • vegetables (five serves)
  • wholegrains
  • nuts
  • legumes
  • oily fish
  • dairy products
  • small quantities of meat
  • small quantities of olive oil
  • water.



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This way of eating is common in Mediterranean countries, where people have been identified as having lower rates of cognitive decline, depression and dementia.

In Japan, a diet low in processed foods and high in fresh fruit, vegetables, green tea and soy products is recognised for its protective role in mental health.

How does healthy food help?

A healthy diet is naturally high in five food types that boost our mental health in different ways:

Complex carbohydrates found in fruits, vegetables and wholegrains help fuel our brain cells. Complex carbohydrates release glucose slowly into our system, unlike simple carbohydrates (found in sugary snacks and drinks), which create energy highs and lows throughout the day. These peaks and troughs decrease feelings of happiness and negatively affect our psychological well-being.

Antioxidants in brightly coloured fruit and vegetables scavenge free radicals, eliminate oxidative stress and decrease inflammation in the brain. This in turn increases the feelgood chemicals in the brain that elevate our mood.




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Omega 3 found in oily fish and B vitamins found in some vegetables increase the production of the brain’s happiness chemicals and have been known to protect against both dementia and depression.

Salmon is an excellent source of omega 3.
Caroline Attwood

Pro and prebiotics found in yoghurt, cheese and fermented products boost the millions of bacteria living in our gut. These bacteria produce chemical messengers from the gut to the brain that influence our emotions and reactions to stressful situations.

Research suggests pro- and prebiotics could work on the same neurological pathways that antidepressants do, thereby decreasing depressed and anxious states and elevating happy emotions.

What happens when you switch to a healthy diet?

An Australian research team recently undertook the first randomised control trial studying 56 individuals with depression.

Over a 12-week period, 31 participants were given nutritional consulting sessions and asked to change from their unhealthy diets to a healthy diet. The other 25 attended social support sessions and continued their usual eating patterns.

The participants continued their existing antidepressant and talking therapies during the trial.

At the end of the trial, the depressive symptoms of the group that maintained a healthier diet significantly improved. Some 32% of participants had scores so low they no longer met the criteria for depression, compared with 8% of the control group.




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The trial was replicated by another research team, which found similar results, and supported by a recent review of all studies on dietary patterns and depression. The review found that across 41 studies, people who stuck to a healthy diet had a 24-35% lower risk of depressive symptoms than those who ate more unhealthy foods.

These findings suggest improving your diet could be a cost-effective complementary treatment for depression and could reduce your risk of developing a mental illness.The Conversation

Megan Lee, Academic Tutor and Lecturer, Southern Cross University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Health Check: when should you throw away leftovers?



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If it’s been out longer than four hours, it’s best to throw it away.
By Merrimon Crawford

Enzo Palombo, Swinburne University of Technology

Refrigeration is the most important invention in the history of food. But while commercial and home refrigerators have only been used for the past 100 years or so, people have long used cool natural environments to store foods for extended periods.

Temperature is important for controlling microbial growth. Just as we find food wholesome, bacteria and fungi also enjoy the nutritional benefits of foods. They will consume the food and multiply, eventually “spoiling” the food (think mouldy bread or slimy lettuce).




Read more:
How to keep school lunches safe in the heat


If the microbe can cause disease – such as Salmonella, Campylobacter, E. coli or Listeria – you’re at risk of food poisoning. Most disease-causing microbes can grow to dangerous levels even before the food is noticeably spoiled without changing the smell, taste or appearance of the food.

How to stop bugs growing in our food

All forms of life require a few basic things to grow: a source of energy, (sugar for us, sunlight for plants), oxygen (for higher forms of life), water and simple chemical building blocks that provide nitrogen, phosphorous and sulphur – and the correct temperature. Water is key, and denying it severely restricts microbial growth.

That’s why salt has long been used as a preservative for perishable foods like meats; salt binds the water and makes it unavailable to microbes. Acid can also be used (via pickling or fermentation), as most microbes don’t like acidic conditions.

Don’t delay – put it in the fridge as soon as you can.
Gary Perkin/Shutterstock

Of course, cooking kills the microbes of concern, but they can contaminate and grow in the food afterwards.

If the food can’t be salted or pickled, or you have leftovers of cooked food, you’ll need to store the food at a temperature microbes don’t like. Refrigeration is the most effective and economical option.

Typically, the greater the moisture level, the more perishable the food. That’s why we can store dry foods (such as nuts) in the cupboard but high-moisture foods (such as fresh meat, vegetables) will quickly spoil if unrefrigerated.




Read more:
Food safety: are the sniff test, the five-second rule and rare burgers safe?


How to store food safely

The “danger zone” is the temperature range between 5°C and 60°C, where most common food poisoning bacteria like to grow. To avoid the danger zone, keep hot foods above 60°C and store foods below 5°C.

The two-hour/four-hour guidelines can also help avoid food poisoning from leftovers. If perishable food has been in the danger zone for:

  • less than two hours, use it immediately or store it appropriately
  • two to four hours, use it immediately
  • longer than four hours, discard it.

So, if the food has been sitting on the table after a long lunch on a warm day, it’s probably best to discard or consume it soon afterwards.

If the food is OK, store it in small portions, as these will reach the right temperature sooner than larger volumes, before refrigerating or freezing.




Read more:
Monday’s medical myth: leave leftovers to cool before refrigerating


Using some common sense, and understanding how microbes grow, can help avoid a nasty case of diarrhoea – or worse. All food business must comply with food safety standards but how we prepare, store and consume food in our homes is equally important in preventing food-borne illness.The Conversation

Enzo Palombo, Professor of Microbiology, Swinburne University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Three charts on: how and what Australians eat (hint: it’s not good)



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Far too much of Australians’ diet comes from foods that have virtually no nutrients.
from shutterstock.com

Rebecca Golley, Flinders University

More than one-third of Australians’ energy intake comes from junk foods. Known as discretionary foods, these include biscuits, chips, ice-cream and alcohol. For those aged 51-70, alcoholic drinks account for more than one-fifth of discretionary food intake.

These are some of the findings from the Nutrition across the life stages report released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare today.

The report also shows physical activity levels are low in most age groups. Only 15% of 9-to-13-year-old girls achieve the 60-minute target. The prevalence of overweight and obesity remains high, reaching 81% for males aged 51–70.

The food intake patterns outlined in this report, together with low physical activity levels, highlight why as a country we are struggling to turn the tide on obesity rates.




Read more:
Fat nation: the rise and fall of obesity on the political agenda


Not much change in our diets

The report shows little has changed in Australians’ overall food intake patterns between 1995 and 2011-12. There have been slight decreases in discretionary food intake, with some trends for increased intakes of grain foods and meat and alternatives.

https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/q7vtu/4/

The message to eat more vegetables is not hitting the mark. There has been no change in vegetable intake in children and adolescents and a decrease in vegetable intake in adults since past surveys. The new data show all Australians fall well short of the recommended five serves daily. We are are closer to meeting the recommended one to two serves of fruit each day.

Australians are consuming around four serves of grains, including breads and cereals, compared to the recommended three to seven serves.

https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/dJD6n/4/

One serve of vegetables is equivalent to ½ cup of cooked vegetables. For fruit, this is a medium apple; grains is around ½ cup of pasta. A glass of milk and 65-120g of cooked meat are the equivalent serves for dairy and its alternatives, and meat and its alternatives respectively.




Read more:
Food as medicine: why do we need to eat so many vegetables and what does a serve actually look like?


The data show a trend of lower serves of the five food groups in outer metro, regional and remote areas of Australia. Access to quality, fresh foods such as vegetables at affordable prices is a key barrier in many remote communities and can be a challenge in outer suburban and country areas of Australia.

There was also a 7-10 percentage point difference in meeting physical activity targets between major cities and regional or remote areas of Australia. Overweight and obesity levels were 53% in major cities, 57% in inner regional areas and 61% in outer regional/remote areas.

The CSIRO Healthy Diet Score compares food intake to Australian Dietary Guidelines. You can use these to see how your diet stacks up and how to improve.

Discretionary food servings

Discretionary foods are defined in guidelines as foods and drinks that are

not needed to meet nutrient requirements and do not fit into the Five Food Groups … but when consumed sometimes or in small amounts, these foods and drinks contribute to the overall enjoyment of eating.

https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/ZyNXL/4/

A serve of discretionary food is 600kJ, equivalent to six hot chips, two plain biscuits, or a small glass of wine. The guidelines advise no more than three serves of these daily – 0.5 serves for under 8-year-olds.

Since 1995, the contribution of added sugars and saturated fat to Australians’ energy intake has generally decreased. This may be a reflection of the small decrease in discretionary food intake seen for most age groups.

But across all life stages, discretionary food intakes remain well in excess of the 0-3 serves recommended. Children at 2-3 years are eating more than three servers per day, peaking at seven daily serves in 14-to-18-year-olds. The patterns remains high throughout adulthood, still more four serves per day in the 70+ group.




Read more:
Junk food packaging hijacks the same brain processes as drug and alcohol addiction


The excess intake of discretionary foods is the most concerning trend in this report. This is due to the doubleheader of their poor nutrient profile and being eaten in place of important, nutrient-rich groups such as vegetables, whole grains and dairy foods.

Our simulation modelling compared strategies to reduce discretionary food intake in the Australian population. We found cutting discretionary choice intake by half or replacing half of discretionary choices with the five food groups would have significant benefits for reducing intake of energy and so-called “risk” nutrients (sodium and added sugar), while maintaining or improving overall diet quality.

Main contributors to discretionary foods

Alcohol is often the forgotten discretionary choice. The NHMRC 2009 guidelines state:

For healthy men and women, drinking no more than two standard drinks on any day (and no more than four standard drinks on a single occasion) reduces the lifetime risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury.

https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/cqgYQ/2/

For adults aged 51–70, alcoholic drinks account for more than one-fifth (22%) of discretionary food intake. Alcohol intake in adults aged 51-70+ has increased since 1995. This age group includes people at the peak of their careers, retirees and older people. Stress, increased leisure time, mental health challenges and factors such as loneliness and isolation would all play a part in this complex picture.




Read more:
Four ways alcohol is bad for your health


Young children have small appetites and every bite matters. The guidelines suggest 2-to-3-year-olds should have very limited exposure to discretionary foods. In, studies the greatest levels of excess weight are seen in preschool years.

Biscuits, cakes and muffins are the key source of added sugars for young children. These are also the top source of energy and saturated fat and a key source of salt in young children. This is the time when lasting food habits and preferences are formed.


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Sign up to Thrive, a weekly dose of evidence to help you live well.The Conversation


Rebecca Golley, Associate Professor (Research) Nutrition and Dietetics, Flinders University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

ABC Four Corners: five articles to get you informed on sugar and Big Sugar’s role in food policy


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The sugar industry has employed various tactics to influence health policy in its favour.
from shutterstock.com

Sasha Petrova, The Conversation

Tonight’s ABC Four Corners program investigates the influence of the sugar industry on global policy efforts to curtail the rise of obesity. This includes the industry’s involvement in thwarting implementation of a sugar tax, and in watering down Australia’s now largely ineffective health star rating system.

Called Tipping the Scales, the program will highlight some of the tactics the industry employs. The ABC reports companies such as Coca-Cola, Pepsico, Unilever, Nestle and Kelloggs “have a seat at the table setting the policies that shape consumption of their own sugar-laced products”.

A public health advocate is quoted as saying:

The reality is that industry is, by and large, making most of the policy. Public health is brought in so that we can have the least worse solution.

The Conversation’s experts in health policy and economics have weighed into this debate over the years. Here’s our pick of five analysis pieces that will get you informed before tonight’s program.

1. How industry influences research

The sugar industry hasn’t only had its finger in the policy pie, it has also pulled some strings behind the scenes of scientific research into sugar’s health effects.

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in November 2016 revealed that, in the 1960s, the sugar industry paid scientists at Harvard University to minimise the link between sugar and heart disease. The paper’s authors suggested the sugar industry may largely have shaped many of today’s dietary recommendations. And some experts have since questioned whether such misinformation may have led to today’s obesity crisis.

The sugar industry has influenced research in the past.
from shutterstock.com

In an essay on health, the University of Sydney’s Professor Lisa Bero – an internationally renowned expert in the integrity of scientific research and its use in policy-making – has outlined how food companies can sneak bias into scientific research:

She writes:

Pharmaceutical, tobacco or chemical industry funding of research biases human studies towards outcomes favourable to the sponsor…

A 2007 paper that compared over 500 studies found those funded by pharmaceutical companies were half as likely to report negative effects of corticosteroid drugs (used to treat allergies and asthma) as those not funded by pharmaceutical companies.




Read more:
Essays on health: how food companies can sneak bias into scientific research


2. Sugar’s role in health star ratings

The ABC’s Four Corners team interviews the Obesity Policy Coalition’s executive manager, Jane Martin, who is frustrated that industry lobbying has scuttled efforts to make the health star system mandatory.

The health star rating system was introduced in June 2014. It’s a front-of-pack labelling system that rates the nutritional profile of packaged food and assigns it a rating from ½ a star to 5 stars. The more stars, the healthier the choice.

As Deakin University’s public health and nutrition professor, Mark Lawrence, and Curtin University’s public health research fellow, Christina Pollard, explained:

The system is supposed to help consumers discriminate between similar foods within the same food category that contain different amounts of undesirable ingredients. It should, for instance, help compare two loaves of bread in terms of their salt content …

Writing a year after the rating system’s implementation, the authors note the flaws in the policy. The main flaw is its voluntary nature, which can lead to manufacturers putting labels on only those foods that will get a high rating:

While manufacturers might be happy to display stars on foods that attract between two and five stars, they are less likely to put one or half a star on their products.




Read more:
A year on, Australia’s health star food-rating system is showing cracks


3. How a sugar tax would benefit health

Since Mexico introduced a sugar tax in 2014, nearly 30 countries have gone on to do the same. Last month the UK introduced a levy that manufacturers must pay for their high-sugar products.

More than 20 countries have taxed sugary drinks.
from shutterstock.com

Companies will have to pay 18 pence per litre on drinks with more than 5g of sugar per 100g. Drinks with more than 8g per 100ml will face a tax rate equivalent to 24p per litre.

But the ABC reports efforts to introduce such a policy in Australia have failed, due to the lobbying efforts of the Beverages Council.

The evidence for sugar’s negative effects on our health is well known. A study published in the journal PLOS ONE in April 2016 showed a tax on sugary drinks in Australia would prevent 4,000 heart attacks and 1,100 strokes.

The researchers examined the potential impact of a 20% rise in the prices of sugar-sweetened carbonated soft drinks and flavoured mineral waters on health, healthcare expenditure and revenue.

Writing for The Conversation, the study’s authors note:

As expected, the tax would result in people decreasing their consumption of sugary drinks. The influence of a price increase would be greatest on those who drink a lot of sugary drinks, so the greatest impact would be on younger age groups. This is an important result that is difficult to achieve through other obesity-prevention measures.




Read more:
Australian sugary drinks tax could prevent thousands of heart attacks and strokes and save 1,600 lives


4. How a sugar tax would save us money

The UK’s Treasury is estimating the sugar tax will raise £240 million per year. Modelling done in Australia by the Grattan Institute shows that a tax of 40 cents per 100 grams of sugar could raise about A$400-$500 million per year.

The Institute’s Stephen Duckett and Trent Wiltshire write that the sugar industry’s concerns over the tax are overblown. They say:

A sugar-sweetened beverages tax will reduce domestic demand for Australian sugar by around 50,000 tonnes, which is only about 1% of all the sugar produced in Australia. And, while there may be some transition costs, this sugar could instead be sold overseas (as 80% of Australia’s sugar production already is).




Read more:
A sugary drinks tax could recoup some of the costs of obesity while preventing it


5. How bad is sugar, really?

And finally, if you’re wondering how much sugar you can eat to stay healthy, here’s an article written by Flinders University nutrition lecturers Kacie Dickinson and Louise Matwiejczyk that explains exactly that.

In brief:

If you’re an average-sized adult eating and drinking enough to maintain a healthy body weight (roughly 8,700 kilojoules per day), 10% of your total energy intake from free sugar roughly translates to no more than 54 grams, or around 12 teaspoons, per day.

A 600ml bottle of Coke contains more than 14 teaspoons of sugar.


The Conversation


Read more:
Health Check: how much sugar is it OK to eat?


Sasha Petrova, Deputy Editor: Health + Medicine, The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Health Check: is margarine actually better for me than butter?



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The type of fatty acid is what’s most important when choosing a spread.
from http://www.shutterstock.com.au

Evangeline Mantzioris, University of South Australia

Only 20 years ago butter was the public villain – contributing to raised cholesterol levels and public concern over an increased risk of heart disease. Now this public perception seems to have been reversed, and reality cooking shows seem to use butter in every recipe. But what has caused this shift in perceptions and is it based on scientific evidence?

In the domestic market more people buy margarine than butter, with 27% of respondents in an ABS survey eating margarine the day before, and 15% consuming butter.


Read more: Eat food, not nutrients: why healthy diets need a broad approach


Do we still need to be concerned about butter’s links to heart disease, and is there any evidence to suggest butter is better for our health compared to margarine? To answer this we first need to look more closely at the make-up of butter and margarine.

Where do our favourite yellow spreads come from?

Butter is made from the processing of cream. The cream is churned until the liquid (buttermilk) separates from the fat solids. These fat solids are then rinsed, a little salt added, and shaped to form the butter we all love.

Margarine was first developed in France by Napoleon as a substitute for butter to feed the armed forces and lower classes. Margarine is made from vegetable oils, beta-carotene (added for colour), emulsifiers (to help the oil and water mix), salt and flavours (which can include milk solids). Vitamins A and D are also added to the same level present in butter.

We have Napoleon to thank for the advent of margarine.
from shutterstock.com

Any diet app will tell you margarine has about 10-15% fewer kilojoules than butter. But whether this is significant will largely depend on the amount you consume each day.

A national nutrition survey indicates the average person over 19 years consumes 20 grams a day of spreads (either butter or margarine), which equates to a difference of 100kj. This difference is largely insignificant in a usual daily intake of 8700kj/day.

It’s all in the fatty acids

The significant nutritional difference actually lies in the fatty acid profiles of the two products. The health differences between butter and margarine are based on the presence of different types of fats.

There are three types of fats in our food: saturated fat, monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. The difference between these lies in their chemical structure. The structure of saturated fats has no double bonds in between the carbon atoms, monounsaturated fats have one double bond between the carbon atoms, and polyunsaturated fats have two or more double bonds between the carbon atoms.

These subtle differences in structure lead to differences in the way our body metabolises these fats, and hence how they affect our health, in particular our heart health.


Read more: Viewpoints – is saturated fat really the killer it’s made out to be?


Margarine can be made from a number of different oils. If coconut oil is used the margarine will be mainly saturated fat, if sunflower oil is used it will mainly be a polyunsaturated fat, and if olive oil or canola oil is used it will mainly be a monounsaturated fat.

Butter, derived from dairy milk, is mainly saturated fat, and the main saturated fats are palmitic acid (about 31%) and myristic acid (about 12%). Studies have shown these raise blood cholesterol levels.

While there is debate in the scientific world about the relative contributions of saturated fats (and the different types of saturated fatty acids) to heart disease, the consensus is that replacing saturated fats with monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats will lower the risk of heart disease.

The Australian Dietary Guidelines and World Health Organisation recommend the lowering of saturated fats to below 10% of daily energy intake. Depending on the overall quality of your diet and intake of saturated fats, you may need to swap your butter for margarine.

Check the labels

Extra-virgin oil protects against heart disease.
from shutterstock.com

There is strong evidence extra-virgin olive oil (a monounsaturated fat) provides strong benefits for heart disease protection – but there isn’t enough extra-virgin olive oil in margarine products to confer this benefit. Using olive-oil-based margarines is going to contribute very little to your daily intake of extra-virgin olive oil.

And this is why it’s confusing for the consumer – despite a margarine being labelled as being made from olive oil, it may contain only small amounts of olive oil and not be as high in monounsaturated fats as expected. It’s best to read the nutrition information panel to determine which margarine is highest in monounsaturated fats.

Another point of difference between butter and margarine is that margarine may contain plant sterols, which help reduce cholesterol levels.

At the end of the day, if you consume butter only occasionally and your diet closely adheres to the Australian guidelines for healthy eating, there is no harm in continuing to do so.

Another option to consider would be the butter blends. These provide the taste of butter while reducing saturated fat intake to half, and they are easier to spread. Of course, if you consume lots of butter, swapping for a low saturated fat margarine is your healthier option – perhaps reserve the butter for special occasions.

If you’re concerned about saturated fat levels in your diet, you should read the nutrition information panel to determine which margarine is lowest in saturated fat, regardless of which oil is used in the product.

The ConversationAs always, people need to base their decision on their family and medical history and obtain advice from their dietitian or GP.

Evangeline Mantzioris, Lecturer in Nutrition, University of South Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.