· By Julia Boase
Five Simple Ideas You Can Implement Now to Improve the Health of Your Whole Family
Sometimes we know that our path to health needs a little reset. This does’t mean strict diets (I’m certainly not here for that) or even over hauling what you eat, but rather small simple changes that you can build on, that can really have an impact on your overall health. Small changes are also far more likely to be maintainable in the long term.
So with my dietitian’s hat on, today I’m bringing you my top 5 changes (in no particular order) I’d recommend to any family and why.
1. Add More Nuts & Seeds into Your Diet
With most (primary) schools now having a nut free policy many kids I see don’t eat much in the way of nuts.
Nuts and seeds are both powerhouses of nutrition. Rich in plant protein, fibre, plant based omega 3 (an essential fatty acid), vitamin E, zinc and iron (to name but a few) it’s no wonder they have been proven to have a diverse range of health benefits. Most people are familiar with the heart health benefits of consuming nuts, but there is also good scientific evidence that regular nut consumption can also prevent type 2 diabetes, reduced cancer risk, improve brain health, decrease the risk for depression and improve fertility. Most of these benefits are gained by regularly consuming 20 - 30g of nuts (a small handful).
Unsure how to include them in your diet each day? Here’s a few ideas
- Use a muesli that contains nuts or add your favourite nut on top of porridge (I love slivered almonds)
- As kids often don’t eat nuts at school I’ve come up with some smoothie recipes that incorporate nuts which my kids love. I regularly make these for after school snacks
- Add pepitas (pumpkin seeds) or nuts as a salad topper
- Bake snacks at home that contain seeds that you can send in the lunch box like my seedy cornflake slice
- My kids in high school (who no longer have nut free policies) like taking smoked almonds as a snack or muesli bars that contain nuts
2. Prioritise Family Meals
The importance of getting together as a family for a shared meal can not be over emphasised. When you have really young kids I know it can be tempting to get them fed and to bed to enjoy a quieter and more relaxing meal with your other half. I still distinctly remember the allure of putting my young toddler to bed to have a nice quiet dinner with my husband. By the time I had two kids, I knew I had to do better, as I knew the importance of that shared meal. So I went all in and succumbed to the fact that this was the season of life we were in, and the chaos and mess of the evening meal were part of that.
Why is it so important? Very young kids learn the process of eating (mechanics and all) by watching what you do with your food. They also learn that food is “safe” when they see their parents enjoying it, and overall it decreases the incidence of fussy eating. Nutrition improves too with a family meal. Studies have shown that children and teens that eat family meals consume less soft drink and “occasional” foods as well as more fruits, vegetables and dairy and are also more likely to be breakfast eaters. And the benefits extend beyond nutrition too. Teens who eat family meals have been shown to do better academically and have better mental health along with reduced “risk taking” behaviour like drug and alcohol use.
3. Drink Water
It seems like a no brainer but so many people just don’t drink enough water. Dehydration (even mild) causes constipation, tummy pains, poor concentration, headaches and fatigue. In my time working as a dietitian I’ve seen so many kids (and their parents alike) not drink enough and end up confusing their thirst with their hunger.
Then there’s all those beverages we consume instead of water. For adults I often see one too many milky coffees across the day. I love my coffee too, but the large sized coffees many of us purchase, contain a lot of calories we probably don’t need. My advice, try switching to a piccolo size for most of your coffees.
If you’re drinking soft drinks regularly then this is something I’d strongly consider limiting. The “empty calories” in soft drink are all too easy to consume, and of course are not good for oral hygiene. Teenage boys actually rate as the highest consumers of soft drink in Australia. My advice would be to set some ground rules around how your family consumes them. Completely banning them often puts (any food) on a pedestal and makes it even more desirable. I’d suggest that you role model it as an “occasional choice”. Don’t keep it t home but a glass out at a restaurant with dinner or at parties is about right.
What about diet drinks I hear you say? Sure they don’t contain the sugar or calories of the real thing, but there is now mounting concern that regularly consuming these sweetened beverages leads to a taste for sweetened foods and drinks, and has you wanting to consume more. I’d treat these the same way as I’d treat the real thing - a sometimes choice.
What about juice? You may recall the huge media circus that ensued last year when the health start rating of fresh juice was down graded from an automatic four stars to anywhere between 2.5 - 4 stars, whereas diet soft drinks got a 3.5 star rating. The problem with juice is that it’s very concentrated in fruit (and hence the natural fruit sugar) but minus any of the pulp (which adds fibre and satiety). I personally don’t agree with this downgrade as juice still delivers some quality nutrients (it’s a great source of vitamin C for example, and can be helpful for kids that are still learning to like fruit). I’d far prefer that there’s more education on how to consume juice as part of a balanced diet. A small 1/2 glass serving of fresh no added sugar juice offered once a day, can fit into healthy balanced diet. I offer my kids juice at breakfast time only a few times per week as the vitamin C can really help the absorption of iron from breakfast cereals.
4. Add in More Whole grains
Australians generally don’t eat enough fibre each day. Switching to whole grains is an easy way to get more fibre into your diet. Whole grains are also generally higher in nutrients than their white counterparts. Consuming more whole grains can lower your risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes whilst assisting in maintaining a healthy weight as well as maintaining good gut heath and digestion.
5. Pack Your Lunch
This isn’t just for kids but adults too! Whilst many canteens across Australia now have plenty of healthy options, many of the less desirable ones remain. Then of course there’s the bargaining with your child over which choices you’re happy for them to make.
And if you’re an adult venturing in to the foodcourt, well beware. Whilst there are certainly some great choices, too often take away style meals don’t have enough vegetables, are more likely to contain refined carbohydrates and be high in fat and calories. Sushi, or a salad would be my go to, if I was buying my lunch. Then there’s the expense. It’s hard to get anything much for under $15 in a food court and lunch orders for several kids certainly add up to.
Yes it’s onerous packing your own (or your child’s lunch) but it will help keep the family budget in check and will likely be more nutritious. It doesn’t have to be fancy either. Many of my lunches when I worked in a busy hospital job consisted of vita wheats, tinned tuna and 1/2 an avocado plus a piece of fruit and yoghurt (definitely not hard to put together). For kids there’s nothing wrong with a vegemite sandwich (preferably on wholegrain or wholemeal bread), some fruit, a healthy snack or two. Of course if you want some “fancier” or more interesting options then you know I have them for you, but it’s really down to what you can manage with the time and energy you have to put into it.