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What's the perfect diet?

By Matt O'Neill, MSc(Nut&Diet), APD

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Is there a perfect diet for every individual? How well do you need to eat to optimise your health? Read on to discover what you should do to build your perfect diet.

What is the number one payoff you want from your diet? Is it fat loss, optimum health, endurance performance, sensory food pleasure or some other benefit? You may need to prioritise according to you needs.

If you are younger and your first priority is fat loss, choosing a diet with less than 1200 calories will pose a challenge for consuming all the nutritional goodies that optimise health. So it's true that some popular diets will compromise health for slimness. Chances are, you'll also have to trade off some food enjoyment to achieve your desired body fat level.

As we get older, this slender priority can change. We either abandon strict dietary control, favouring the sensory payoffs of calorie rich food and drink or we learn to cut a deal with ourselves to maintain a manageable diet. So, if a manageable diet is now perfect, what does it look like?

Conventional wisdom

Conventional wisdom is the term often used to describe nutrition recommendations based on a large pile of research that points to a similar conclusion. For example, health authorities recommend we minimize saturated fats such a full-cream milk, butter and fatty red meat because it's pretty clear that these `bad' fats raise blood cholesterol and contribute to coronary heart disease.

Although it's really hard to prove, we are pretty sure that eating lots of fruits and vegetables reduces the risk of many cancers because populations who eat the most fresh produce tend to experience less cancer.

Dietary guidelines and food group serving recommendations reflect conventional wisdom and provide a starting point for building the perfect diet.

These include at least the following daily serving targets for good health:

  • 1-2 serves (80-100g/serve) of lean meat, fish, chicken or non-animal alternative
  • 2 serves (150g/serve) of fresh or canned fruit.
  • 3 serves of dairy products (250ml milk, 40g cheese, 200g yoghurt)
  • 4 serves of vegetables (1/2 cup cooked or 1 cup salad)
  • 3-5 serves of whole grain cereals (1 slice bread, ˝ cup cooked pasta, 30g breakfast cereal)
How well do you stack up against these food figures? You can consume more protein and less carbohydrate within the ranges above if you like.

Cutting edge nutrition with omega-3s

I understand that now having mastered the manageable diet you now want to optimise your intake of nutrients. This will help you fight off disease and maximize physical and mental performance.

The story of omega-3 oils offers a good example of how nutrition recommendations continue to be optimised with new research. A little over a year ago, the first national recommendations for omega-3 oil consumption were announced in Australia, reflecting growing evidence that we need to eat more of this essential nutrient. More and more research is showing how omega-3s play a vital role in heart and mental health.

Omega-3 oils include the polyunsaturated fatty acids docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), docosapentanoic acid (DPA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).

DPA, EPA and DHA are long-chain fats found in oily fish, seafood and to a lesser extent in meat and eggs. ALA is a shorter chain fat found in plant foods such canola oil, linseeds and walnuts and needs to be converted into the longer chain omega-3s in our body.

We need to eat omega-3s, just like vitamins and minerals because our body doesn't make them. To prevent deficiency, which among other conditions has been linked to mood disorders and depression, health authorities recommend 90mg/day.

To reduce the risk of chronic disease, particularly coronary heart disease, around 500 - 600 mg/day omega-3s is recommended. Most people consume less than a quarter of this amount.

Up to 3000 mg/day is Generally Regarded as Safe (GRAS) by the US Food and Drug Administration. With higher amounts, there may be some risk of excessive bleeding in some people.

The American Heart Association (AHA), as do most nutrition organisations recommend at least two meals each week of fatty fish like mackerel, herrings, sardines, salmon, tuna and including oils and foods rich in alpha-linolenic acid. If you already have CHD, the AHA suggests 1g EPA and DHA a day.

So, what is the perfect amount of omega-3s? We don't exactly know and are not sure what ratio of specific omega-3s is best, but the guidelines above are our best bet. For optimum health, eating fish has more evidence than taking fish oil capsules, but pills are more convenient.

For more on omega-3 oils, visit:

And what about antioxidants?

Nutritionists got very excited about individual antioxidants like beta-carotene and vitamin C in the early 1990's, only to discover that the synergistic package of antioxidants in whole fruits and vegetables appears to be the real provider of benefits. Scientists are still trying to work out optimum doses, but 5-7 serves of brightly coloured fruits and vegetables is a good daily target. There's mixed evidence supporting supplementation with specific antioxidants and research on the benefits of whole plant extracts is still in its early days.

Over the edge?

Eating your greens is a good idea, but sometimes this good habit can go too far. Writing in the March 10, 2007 issue of the British Medical Journal (BMJ), medical doctor Ben Goldacre was critical of TV nutritionist Gillian McKeith's claim that chlorophyll is high in oxygen and that you should eat “lots of dark green leaves, because they will really oxygenate your blood.”

Ben wrote, “As any 14 year old biology student could tell you, plants only make oxygen in light: it's very dark in your bowel; and even if, to prove a point, you put a torch up your bottom, you probably wouldn't absorb too much oxygen through the gut wall.”

So eating to increase your chlorophyll intake is not required as part of the perfect diet. Also not required, are all-too-common challenging recommendations including, but not limited to:

  • Avoiding dairy products unless you have been diagnosed with a cow's milk allergy or lactose intolerance.
  • Only eating organic foods when eating a wide range of conventionally grown and washed produce will reduce your exposure to pesticides anyway, and
  • Eliminating carbohydrates when wholegrain choices contain a variety of protective antioxidants.
Goldacre says, “Basic uncomplicated dietary advice is effective and promotes health. Overly complicated, confusing, tinkering nutritionism is poorly evidenced because it's a branch of the entertainment industry.”

As one commenter at Goldacre's website posted in response to another of Goldacre's articles, “Her [McKeith's] programmes should be proceeded with some kind of warnings of `Don't try this at home' as Jackass or others.”

Your perfect plan

If you naturally eat a diet with loads of the nutritious foods mentioned in this article, well done! You've substantially cut your health risk and can expect to add years to your life and well as life to your years.

If you can identify areas of your diet that need improving, focus on these. For example, you may need to eat more dairy products to supply your bones with calcium.

If you feel you've been distracted by dietary extremism or the challenge of finding the perfect diet frustrates you, simply start with a good diet outlined above. When you've mastered good (what conventional nutrition wisdom suggests), only then start tweaking to optimise your diet.



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