How to make your diet more sustainable, healthy or cheap — without giving up nutrients

People choose certain foods or change their diet for a variety of reasons: to improve their health, lose weightsave money or because of concerns about sustainability or the way food is produced.

Consider the trend toward low-fat foods in the 1980s and low-carb diets in the 1990s, and now, the rise of plant-based protein products and ready-to-eat meals.

But before ditching your traditional food choices, it’s important to consider the nutritional trade-offs. If you are substituting one food for another, do you still get the vitaminsminerals and other nutrients you need?

In a recent article, I sought to raise awareness of nutritional differences between foods by producing a new index specific to Australia. Its aim is to help Australians make better-informed dietary decisions and obtain the recommended nutrients for good health.

Nutrients: Are We Getting Enough?

The Australian Bureau of Statistics publishes tables showing the usual intake of selected nutrients in the entire population. The tables also show the proportion of Australians whose usual nutrient intake is below what is known as the ‘estimated average requirement’.

Although Australian adults eat in a variety of ways, they generally get enough nutrients regardless of their diets.

For example, most people seem to get enough niacin (vitamin B3) and phosphorus. And the tables suggest that 97% of Australians get enough vitamin C.

However, inadequate intake of calcium, magnesium, vitamin B6, and zinc is common.

About two-thirds of Australian adults consume less calcium than is recommended (ranging from 840 to 1,100 mg/day depending on age). It is concerning that 90 percent of women over the age of 50 do not get enough calcium.

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Inadequate zinc intake is more prevalent among Australian men: more than half of those over 50 years of age consume below recommended levels.

So what about free sugars? These include added sugars and the sugar component of honey and fruit juices, but exclude natural sugars in intact fruits and vegetables. Milk.

Australians are recommended to limit free sugars to less than 10% of dietary energy intake. However, almost 50 per cent of Australian adults exceed this recommended limit.

Pay attention to under-consumed nutrients

Every food has a difference nutritious composition. And as the Australian Dietary Guidelines show, we need to eat a variety of foods to stay healthy.

We should pay particular attention to foods that are important sources of nutrients that large numbers of Australians do not get enough of. If possible, Australians should try to include more of these foods in their diet.

At the same time, foods with free sugars should be consumed only in moderation.

The new food index I have produced seeks to help Australians achieve this. Provides an overall nutrient composition score tailored to the Australian dietary context.

The index includes eight vitamins (B1, B2, B3, B6, B12, Folate, A, and C), eight minerals (calcium, phosphorus, zinc, iron, magnesium, iodine, selenium, and molybdenum), along with protein and free sugars.

These 18 items are weighted in proportion to the degree of inadequate or excessive intake in Australia. A higher score is better than a lower score.

The index therefore scores foods highly if they are low in free sugars and rich in the elements that many Australians need most: calciummagnesium, vitamin B6, zinc and vitamin A.

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Foods that contain few nutrients but added sugars score very low. For example, a chocolate chip cookie weighing 35 grams scored 0.004 and a sugar-sweetened cola-flavored drink scored less than zero.

Food swapping may not achieve similar results

The index can be used to compare foods that might be considered substitutes in the search for a diet that’s healthier, more affordable, or better for the environment.

For dairy products, 250ml of whole milk scored 0.160 and skim milk almost as high as 0.157.

The index shows the potential nutritional trade-offs when choosing dairy alternatives. A 250-ml serving of calcium-fortified oatmeal drink scored 0.093. Without calcium fortification, the score was reduced to 0.034.

As for meat, 100g of diced lean beef scored 0.142. An equivalent portion of a plant-based burger made from pea protein, with lots of added vitamins and minerals, scored nearly the same 0.139. This shows that plant-based alternatives are not necessarily less nutrient dense.

The index also shows the different nutritional needs of women and men. For example, the scores of two large eggs they were higher for women (0.143) than for men (0.094). This reflects, in part, the higher prevalence of inadequate iron intake among younger women.

Understand tradeoffs

To date, complete nutritional information on foods consumed in Australia has only been found in databases used by scientists and nutrition professionals.

For the average consumer, packaging in unprocessed food — such as fruits and vegetables, fresh meats and some cheese — do not usually include nutritional information.

Consumers can check the nutrition facts panel when shopping for processed foods, but only some nutrients are listed.

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I hope that my research can prompt manufacturers to produce more nutrient-dense foods or those formulated to meet the nutrient needs of a particular subgroup.

In the future, I hope the index will also be translated into a user-friendly format or app that Australians can refer to every day, to ensure their changing food preferences result in a healthier option.

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