We’re just back from holidays. Nothing fancy, just a trip to post-flood ravaged Queensland: sun, sand, surf and every meal bar breakfast eaten out. But unfortunately, a stroll along the beach, a ramble on the boardwalk and a splash in the pool does not, energy-wise, equal the total energy consumed in cafes, restaurants, clubs and pubs for the two weeks of our stay. The result? Weight gain.
“Sweetheart, we need to go on a strict diet.”
“Why’s that, Pet?” asks my Significant Other.
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“We’ve strayed into the O-zone and we need to make amends.”
“Yes, the O-zone; we’re overweight, obese even.”
“Obese? That’s a bit harsh!”
But the good news is that we’re back in time to benefit from advice from the new Australian Dietary Guidelines. So with hope in my heart I pick up the 200 or so page tome and my resolve falters. Perhaps I should go straight to the food recommendations in guidelines 2 and 3.
Guideline 2 (p31) tells us to “enjoy a wide variety of nutritious foods”; plenty of vegetables, fruit, grains, lean meats and milk, yoghurt and cheese each day. I am quite happy with the quality of our diet so I suspect that we don’t stray too far from the recommendations in terms of content.
We eat a variety, and quantity, of vegetables and fruit every day, so we just need to reinterpret what “plenty” means and think about “adequate” as it might fit with our need for fewer kilojoules.
And according to the guidelines, nuts are good for us again, even while we’re trying to lose weight. So there’s our instant, and healthy snack food.
So we start the day with a breakfast of fresh mango, nectarine and yoghurt – that’s full-fat yoghurt, not reduced fat as recommended. I prefer a product that’s simple, unprocessed and unadulterated, not the manufactured gloop full of additives, thickeners and sweeteners that fill the fridges in the supermarket.
Yoghurt is a simple and ancient food that’s made from milk and culture now transformed into an artificial concoction of skim milk, milk solids, thickeners, sweeteners, artificial sweeteners, fibre and a myriad of fruit and flavours.
My choice of a product comprised solely of whole milk and cultures contains 4.5% fat as opposed to the processed reduced-fat version at around 2%. I will sacrifice the benefits of 2.5% less fat the pleasure and reassurance of eating a less complicated food.
Ah well, time for lunch. We acknowledge that more fish is good for us so today we’re having a seeded wholegrain bread roll, spinach leaves, a scrape of mayonnaise and a fresh marlin steak. Of course, according to NSW Food Authority we should moderate our consumption of billfish, shark or fresh tuna to protect us from the dangers of excess mercury. But at $45 or more per kilo, there is absolutely no chance of overindulgence with tuna, swordfish, or marlin.
What strikes me about these guidelines is that they acknowledge the factors that contribute to the obesogenic environment we live in, the impact that has on the community, and the myriad influences that impinge on our ability to eat a healthy and nutritious diet. The guidelines also highlight the difficulties low socioeconomic groups experience when trying to eat a healthy, nutritious diet.
But I am not poor. I have lived a privileged life in many ways. However, I often find the cost of fish prohibitive, and despite loving a variety of beautifully fresh home-cooked fish, I simply cannot afford to buy it as often as I would like.
For dinner this fine evening, I cook a rich vegetable casserole, redolent of cumin, chilli, coriander and a pinch of smoked paprika served with a brown jasmine rice I picked up at a farmers market in the Northern Rivers district of NSW.
My Significant Other takes a helping somewhat larger than the recommended serving and loads his fork with fragrant stew. He chomps away, swallows and looks at me anxiously.
“Darling,” he starts, “I love your cooking, you know that, but this tastes … dull, plain, thin … boring.”
“I’m implementing guideline 3,“ I tell him. “I added no salt to the cooking liquor and didn’t salt the finished dish. It’s for your own good, sweetheart.”
“Where’s the salt? I’m happy to diet, I’m moderately happy to eat dinner without meat. But no salt? No way.”
For me, salt is far more than a sodium additive: it adds and refines flavours and it enhances dishes of all sorts, even a chocolate sauce can benefit from a tiny pinch of salt. Perhaps this recommendation in guideline 3 is for implementing later.
“What’s up, Pet? You’re looking a little glum,” observes my Significant Other.
“I’m feeling dismayed and a tad disheartened,” I reply. “I’ve strayed into guideline 1 and the news is not good. I’m destined to be a fatty. In fact, my porkiness was predicted from babyhood. I’m trapped in the O-zone.”
Indeed, even the guidelines (p23) acknowledge that it is difficult to lose weight, and even more difficult to stay slim. It even goes so far as to say that achieving a body mass index (BMI) in the healthy range may not even be possible for those in the O-zone, the overweight or the obese!
Factors associated with the risk of the big Os (p20) include children who aren’t breastfed. They (read, me) have a greater chance of becoming obese as children, as adolescents and as adults. I do have to say, though, that I did inherit low blood pressure and good cholesterol levels so not all is gloomy.
“How much should we aim to lose?” asks my partner.
“Twenty kilos … each,” I reply, dismayed by the number and the upcoming effort.
“Let’s rethink that in line with the guidelines,” my Significant Other replies. “Section 1.4 says that a loss of five kilos will have a positive impact. Let’s start there and re-evaluate when we reach that goal.”
I’m totally startled he made it to page 22 of the guidelines but at the same time I’m thinking that a goal of five kilos is a perfect place to start.
Penny Wilson is a PhD researcher at Australian National University.
This article was first published at The Conversation.