Better science means a rebuild for healthy foods pyramid
WHEN asked what to eat for good health, most dietitians and other health professionals turn to the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating (AGHE), the federal Government’s food selection model, to outline the amounts and types of foods needed daily to meet nutritional requirements.
Released in 1998, the AGHE represented an update to the old five food groups which had been Australia’s food selection guide since the 1940s. While presenting itself as a simple graphic, development of the AGHE was based on extensive dietary modelling needed to ensure the right amount and types of foods from the various core food groups were represented.
Following the recommendations made by the AGHE to eat breads and cereals, vegetables, fruits, dairy, meat and alternatives daily while limiting pies, cakes, biscuits and soft drinks, meant the average person should meet at least 70 per cent of their daily requirements for key nutrients.
While serving its purpose for a brief period of time, nutrition research has moved on significantly over the past 10 years, and the AGHE is now in need of a serious overhaul. It’s welcome news, therefore, that in the recent federal budget, funding was allocated for a review and update of the AGHE to bring it in line with recent scientific evidence regarding the types and amounts of foods needed for optimal health and wellbeing.
There are many limitations of the AGHE that will require addressing during the review process. Firstly, quality choices within each of the food groups need to be distinguished. The food pictures currently used in the AGHE give the impression that white rice and cornflakes are nutritionally equivalent to wholegrain bread and rolled oats, and clearly this is not the case.
The concept of nutrient density, that is, how many nutrients a food provides relative to its kilojoule value, therefore needs to be considered to distinguish healthier choices within each of the food groups, making it easier for people to meet nutrient requirements without overdoing the kilojoules.
Another issue requiring attention is the fact that healthy fats, such as those from vegetable and seed oils, are considered ‘‘ extras’’ in the diet, and lumped together with biscuits, pies and chocolates as foods to eat only occasionally. Research shows that without adding sources of healthy fats to the diet, it is very difficult to meet daily requirements for some of the fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamin D and E, and to meet requirements for essential fatty acids.
With today’s obesity epidemic, the concept of kilojoule control is also an extremely important one to get across in any population healthy eating guide. The AGHE currently lists serving sizes of foods that vary in their kilojoule value by up to three-fold, making application of the guide to weight control very limited.
Incorporating other aspects of a person’s lifestyle that impact on their ability to eat well would also be desirable.
Dealing with clients through our clinic, it’s clear the extremely important role that a positive mind, a balanced lifestyle, supportive friends and family and a healthy social life all play on a person’s ability to eat well.
Similarly, physical activity is a major factors needing consideration when determining how much a person should eat daily.
Ideally, all of these concepts will be taken into account when the AGHE is reviewed and the final model will not only be reflective of current nutrition science, but will recognise factors of importance to individuals and populations when it comes to actually putting the recommendations into practice. Sharon Natoli is an accredited dietitian and director of Food & Nutrition Australia.