Day after day, client after client, nutritionists see the same common concerns: portion size, sugar and sodium consumption.
But these are not necessarily the top areas we go wrong in, according to three leading nutritionists.
Underconsumption of dairy, overconsumption of alcohol and, crucially, a misunderstanding of carbohydates are key problems, they say.
Sports dietitian, Katherine Shone, says she spends much of her time ‘‘defending poor little carbohydrates’’. One of the biggest myths she encounters among clients is that carbohydrates should be avoided.
‘‘Carbohydrates provide us with energy that our body needs; they also maintain stable blood sugar levels. A lot of carbohydrate foods are also high in fibre and other nutrients as well.’’
Good carb options, she says, are pasta, brown rice, basmati, cous cous, quinoa, barley, fruit and even dairy, of which, she says, many women struggle to get enough. ‘‘The average Australian woman needs about 1000 milligrams of calcium per day, which means they need to be striving for around three serves of dairy per day.’’
A 'serve' is 250ml milk, 30-40g cheese or a 200g tub of yogurt.
Nutritionist and author of Losing the Last 5 kg, Susie Burrell, sees alcohol as a bigger issue than dairy. She believes focusing on reducing alcohol consumption is key. ‘‘Alcohol is a massive problem in Australia. Particularly with women grabbing a bottle at the end of the day [to de-stress].’’
Besides the empty calories of alcohol, the problem is that when we drink we tend to get lazy and reach for calorie-dense comfort-foods — and, again, dietitians' sights turn to excessive carbohydrates.
‘‘Low carb is bad; reduced carb is good,’’ she says.
She says many cut carbs during the day, which results in starving and then inevitably splurging — often to mop up the booze in our bellies. Instead, she says, we should keep alcohol consumption to weekends and dot our day with carbs, lightening up on them at night. By lighten, she means ‘‘half a cup of pasta instead of three cups’’.
Some dieters, however, follow the fashion of avoiding carbs completely after sundown. ‘‘A typical myth I see is ‘no carbs after 5pm’,’’ says Kathleen Alleaume, nutritionist and author of What’s Eating You? ‘‘Carbs cannot tell the time and the time of day you eat carbohydrates makes no difference whatsoever to your waistline.’’
Indeed, one recent study, conducted over six months, found greater weight loss, abdominal circumference and body fat mass reductions in participants who ate carbs at night.
The key is quality, not quantity.
Dr Mehmet Oz, a popular TV personality and doctor, writes: ‘‘Avoid the lure of low-fat foods, which contain a sizable amount of calories [and] avoid the lure of low-carb foods, which sometimes have more calories from from sugar. [Instead] try to have 40 per cent of your total caloric intake come from complex carbohydrates ... Choose whole grains (oats, whole wheat and brown rice), beans, legumes, fruits and vegetables.’’
That carbs, or fat — or sugar for that matter — are not ‘‘good’’ or ‘‘bad’’, but fine in moderation and in context, depending on individual circumstances, is an issue many struggle with.
Nutritionists say it is not surprising, given that we are overfed mixed messages on food.
One of the latest studies, by David Ludwig of the Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children’s Hospital, found that a diet of healthy carbohydrates, rather than low-fat or low-carbohydrate diets, offered a better chance of keeping weight off without nasty side effects.
"We should avoid severely restricting any major nutrient and focus on the quality of the nutrient," Ludwig told US newspapers.
Says Alleaume: "‘Bottom line: carbohydrates do not make you fat. The amount you eat does."