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Expert check-up: a dietitian’s tips for making great nutrition easier

13 May 2019

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We all know that looking after ourselves is important, especially in the winter months, but it can be hard to step outside the daily demands of a busy life to look after yourself. To get some expert ideas for forming healthy eating habits, making great nutrition easier and how healthy eating can help you sleep better, we caught up with dietitian Alice Gormack.

Alice, when someone walks into your office and you think ‘wow they are really taking good care of themselves’ what sorts of things are they doing?

I wish this happened more often! I am always impressed when I see someone who eats lots of fruit, vegetables and high-fibre foods. These are really simple, healthy habits. So many people go for processed options from a packet which just don’t compare from a nutritional perspective. 

I also love it when people clearly enjoy what they eat and have regular meals, healthy snacks, and eat a broad range of foods. Exercise is key too – my happiest patients tend to be those who are out living active lives with lots of different hobbies, sports and social interaction. 

In recent years it has been also been great to see Kiwis embracing more vegetarian proteins, experimenting with fermented foods and looking for healthy alternatives to alcoholic drinks. 

Planning nutritious meals is often the first thing to fall off the agenda when people are busy. Is there a good first step to getting started on a good routine of healthy eating?

There is a common misconception that cooking a balanced meal involves hours of work. Preparing a healthy meal takes no more time and effort than an unhealthy meal – you just need to keep the right supplies on hand. 

Some great, quick and easy meal options include: eggs on toast with tomato and spinach on the side; a wholegrain wrap with salad and tuna; tomato-sauce based pasta with chicken and vegetables; or a couscous or quinoa salad. Home-cooked food is usually much healthier than takeaways and there are many healthy meals that can be put together in 15-20 minutes (quicker than Uber Eats)! A good source of easy and healthy recipes is www.healthyfood.co.nz 

Do you have advice for anyone opting for a pre-made meal or a takeaway?

If you do go down the takeaway or pre-made meal road, there are still lots of great choices. Changing from deep-fried fast foods to something like a vegetable and meat stir-fry, a poke bowl or sushi makes a huge difference and is just as fast and tasty. Be discerning and never upsize!

How important is keeping a sweet tooth in check? 

Unfortunately, our bodies are not designed to run well off junk food. We certainly get lots of calories from sugary foods but little in the way of good nutrition such as fibre, vitamins and minerals. There is no denying that sugary treat foods are tasty (and addictive) – it seems that the more treat foods we eat, the more we want to eat. 

Any advice for curbing a sugar-hungry appetite and are there treats that get your seal of approval?

It can be helpful to take a ‘treat break’ for a week or so to break a bad habit before reintroducing a healthier substitute. 

There are plenty of options that can satisfy a sweet tooth and give your body some goodness too. The healthiest choices are fruit (fresh, frozen, cooked or canned) and yoghurt. I like making biscotti with nuts, dried fruit and dark chocolate drops – it keeps for weeks and a small slice is perfect when I feel like something sweet. Some people love sugar-free hot chocolate mixes or using a teaspoon of icing sugar on one to two cups of plain popcorn. 

When it comes to cake, ice cream, cookies and the kind of sugary treats we all know are unhealthy, the big factors to be mindful of are portion size and how often you eat these foods as these are what impact your health most. Life is for living though and so the occasional small-sized portion of these foods is okay.

How important is breakfast? Any ideas to help those people who just can’t stomach it?

Breakfast is the most commonly skipped meal, yet studies show that breakfast is often one of our most nutritious meals with good levels of calcium, protein and fibre. So, it’s no surprise that breakfast eaters tend to have healthier eating habits overall. Eating a nutritious breakfast is associated with weight loss and maintaining a steady weight, and the fibre in wholegrain breakfast cereal also helps to feed beneficial gut bacteria. 

For those who struggle to eat breakfast, a glass of milk, a pottle of yoghurt, a piece of fruit (or all three) are very easy and nutritious choices. 

What should we look for in a breakfast cereal?

Look for one that’s high in fibre but low in sugar and fat. Rolled oats (cooked, soaked or raw), wheat biscuits, wholegrain cornflakes or bran cereals are good options. Flavoured cereals with added fruit appear healthy but manufacturers often add sugar to make it taste fruitier. Some cereals can be as high as 50% sugar so check the label and aim for less than 15 grams of sugar per 100 grams of cereal. Add fresh or dried fruit at home and serve with low or moderate-fat milk and/or yoghurt. 

How can healthy eating help us get a better night’s sleep? 

That’s a great question. It is well known that a lack of sleep is linked with higher body weight and poorer overall health so getting enough time under the duvet is really important. 

To help improve sleep quality, finish eating around 2-3 hours before heading to bed and be mindful about your food choices. Dish up sensibly-sized portions for dinner: too much food can increase the chance of reflux and digestive issues. A small amount of lean protein, some wholegrain carbohydrate and a good range of different vegetables is perfect. 

When it comes to dessert, chocolate, so many people’s favourite, is unfortunate from a sleep perspective because it’s high in fat, sugar and contains caffeine. The good news is that the foods that are thought to be best for getting a good night’s sleep are all healthy choices. These include almonds, walnuts, oily fish, milk, kiwifruit, bananas, camomile tea and oats. One tablespoon of almonds or walnuts, a piece of fruit and a cup of camomile tea would be a great choice for dessert. Try making a big fruit salad to keep in the fridge for an easy snack or dessert option.  

This is the first in a three-part series of tips from healthcare experts on self-care and staying mentally and physically well. Stay tuned for interviews with GP Nikki Retford and counsellor Erin Nolan.

Alice Gormack

About Alice

Alice Gormack is an Auckland-based private practice dietitian (available via Skype for clients outside Auckland). She has a particular interest in the relationship between nutrition and fertility: her Masters of Health Science focused on the nutritional intake of women undergoing IVF treatment. She has also worked in the areas of clinical dietetics, diabetes, gastroenterology and public health. 

Image credit: photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

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