It’s the start of a new year and with the school term approaching, it’s back to packing lunches! For many parents, having the time and resources to prepare nutritious and delicious lunches every morning is a daunting task. This is particularly challenging here in the Top End, where the heat and humidity makes keeping food fresh a very difficult feat. So we have put together our top dietitian tips to help take the guess work out of lunch box preparation! Ditch the guilt and go stress-free with our lunchbox guide below.

1. Include a variety of core foods

Knowing exactly what to put in lunch boxes (that kids will eat) is always a challenge! However, it doesn’t need to be complicated. The key here is to focus on the core food groups, being fruit, veg, dairy, meat/alternatives and grains/cereals. Mixing and matching a range of foods from each of these groups is the best way to ensure a variety of nutrients to support growing kids.

2 serves of fruit

Chopped, whole, peeled or pureed, fruit can be included in a variety of forms. To prevent the age-old problem of chopped fruit going brown, drizzle with lemon juice or encourage kids to eat the fruit whole if possible (e.g. apples or pears). 

1-2 serves of veg

Including at least one serve of veg throughout the day is a great way to add extra nutrients and fibre. However, many parents will be familiar with the struggle of vegetable sticks that always seem to be left in lunch boxes at the end of the day. Don’t let this get you down – the key here is to keep offering and encouraging them. Using baby carrots, cucumbers and cherry tomatoes are a great way to save time on chopping and preparation and they can be used again if not eaten. If time permits, adding grated veg to small muffins or fritters can help sneak in some veg for fussy eaters. 

1 serve of protein

Adding a protein source is a great way to fill little tummies. This could include meat, eggs, beans, chickpeas, nuts/seeds or tofu. If you opt for meat/eggs, these can easily be added to sandwiches (e.g. sliced chicken/turkey), served plain (e.g. boiled egg) or be in the form of leftovers. However, keep in mind that these need to be kept cool for food safety (see below). If you are wanting a more temperature safe option, nuts/nut spreads (if permitted at the school) are a great way to include protein without having to worry about temperature. If your child’s school doesn’t permit nuts, roasted chickpeas are another great option and can be purchased at your local supermarket in the health food isle.

1 serve of dairy

Dairy is an important source of calcium for children and can be a great lunchbox addition if you are able to keep it cool (see tips below), cheese and yogurt are generally the most lunchbox friendly options! For those with lactose intolerance, opt for lactose free options or coconut yogurt. 

2-3 serves of grains/cereals

These are going to be the primary energy source for growing and active kids. Wholemeal bread, wraps, leftover pasta/rice and plain crackers (e.g. Ryvitas, vita wheats, corn thins) are all fantastic options. For children with allergies or intolerances, gluten free alternatives can be found for most of these (e.g. gluten free bread, rice/corn crackers). 

Occasional extras

Including a small treat 1-2 times per week should not leave you feeling guilty. These can be tasty and nutritious at the same time (think homemade baked goods, anzac biscuits, bliss balls or muesli bars). Just remember these foods can be high in sugar and saturated fat, so shouldn’t be an everyday food. 

2. Hydration 

Water is the best option to keep kids hydrated and is particularly important during the summer months. Try using an insulated water bottle, refrigerate overnight or add ice cubes to keep water cool. Avoid packing sugary drinks such as fruit juice, cordial or flavoured milks as these are low in nutrients and can increase risk of tooth decay. 

3. Food safety 

Keeping food fresh and cool during the hot summer months is essential if you are packing perishable options such as meat, dairy or eggs. We recommend; 

  • Using an insulated lunchbox or bag 
  • Including an icepack or frozen water bottle (wrapped in small cloth/paper towel to absorb water as it defrosts)
  • Leaving pre-packed lunches in fridge until you leave the house 
  • Use small insulated containers/thermos to keep food warm (e.g. soup or pasta) or cold (e.g. yogurt) 

4. Time

Save time in the mornings by prepping lunches the night before and leaving them in the fridge overnight. Encourage kids to get involved with washing fruit and veg, portioning snacks and packing items into their lunchbox. 
Finally, remember it doesn’t need to be perfect every time! Kids are adaptable and variety is important. If you’re out of fresh fruit one day – swap it for dried or tinned, if there’s no salad for sandwiches – just go for vegemite or peanut butter. Whilst we may only see colourful, perfectly packed lunches on social media, that’s not always realistic. Go easy on yourself and keep it fun by letting the kids be involved! To get the kids involved you can download our printable activity sheet and get your kids to have a go at creating their own healthy lunchbox. Download here

Balance Diet Centre: Is Processed Food Really The Enemy?
Balance Diet Centre: Is Processed Food Really The Enemy?

With the rise of ‘clean eating’, the narrative around ‘processed foods’ has become one of fear and avoidance. This is due to the fact that we are constantly bombarded with information telling us that processed food causes cancer, chronic disease and weight gain. However, whilst there are elements of truth in this message, the reality is not so black and white. 

Minimally Processed Food

First of all, ‘processed foods’ fall on a broad spectrum, ranging from minimally processed, to ultra-processed; quite simply, processed foods are any food which is altered from its original state. This can be as simple as freezing, grinding, drying and chopping or more complex processes such as pasteurisation and hydrogenation. What is often overlooked is that processing food products can often serve an important purpose with regards to keeping food fresh (think frozen fruit and veg), ensuring food safety (think milk pasteurisation), adding valuable nutrients (think vitamin/mineral fortification) and improving convenience (think canned legumes and chopped salads). This doesn’t necessarily mean these foods are any less ‘healthy’. In fact, many of these products are staples of a balanced and nutrient dense diet, including items such as yogurt, tofu, olive oil, tuna and many more. Removing these foods in the name of ‘clean eating’ is neither health promoting nor realistic. 

Ultra-Processed Food

Now let’s look at those foods which fall towards to opposite end of the spectrum (heavily or ultra-processed). These include products that are made primarily from the extracted components of foods and include multiple ingredients. This may sound scary, but many familiar/everyday food products fall into this category, including breakfast cereals, muesli bars, ready-made pasta sauces and flavoured yogurts. These foods often have additives such as preservatives, thickeners and non-sugar sweeteners, with names we don’t always understand. So, does this inherently make these foods ‘unhealthy’? The answer again is no. Whilst research does suggest that a diet high in ultra-processed foods is associated with obesity and poorer health outcomes, this is driven by the tendency of these foods being energy dense and high in saturated fat, sugar and salt. However, with some savvy shopping and the right information, it is absolutely possible to eat well regardless of processing levels. Key nutrient indicators to look out for include; 

  • Saturated fat: aim for less than 2g per 100g
  • Trans fat: aim for less than 1g per 100g
  • Sugars: aim for less than 10g per 100g 
  • Sodium: aim for less than 400mg per 100g 

Reading the ingredients panel can also help you look out for ‘hidden’ salt, sugar and fats. 

Sugars

Sugars may often be listed in different forms, such as, maltose, brown sugar, corn syrup, cane sugar, honey and fruit juice concentrate. Ingredients are generally listed by weight, so try to limit consumption of products which have sugar listed in the first three ingredients. Surprising hidden sources of added sugar include products such as salad dressings, marinades and sauces. Luckily, many of these can be made easily at home with minimal ingredients (e.g. olive oil and lemon juice as salad dressing). 

Sodium

Sodium (or salt) is another common additive to improve the taste and prolong the life of packaged products. This may appear on the ingredients list as salt, sodium, baking soda, sodium bicarbonate or monosodium glutamate (MSG). Reducing salt intake is particularly important for individuals with high blood pressure or kidney disease, so we recommend sticking to <400mg per 100g. Similar to sugar, sodium can often slip into our diets without us realising in items such as canned foods (e.g. beans/chickpeas), baked goods, spreads and sauces. However, there are plenty of reduced salt alternatives out there once you start looking!

Saturated Fat

Saturated fat is also important to consider when purchasing processed foods as it is often used to improve the palatability and texture of foods. Saturated fat comes in many forms, particularly animal based products (e.g. cream, butter, animal fat), palm oil and coconut oil. These are often added to foods such as baked goods, fried foods, chocolate and processed meats. Limiting saturated fat to <2g per 100g is recommended to reduce risk of high cholesterol or heart disease. 

So Can I Eat Processed Food?

In summary, the majority of foods available in our supermarkets are processed to some degree. Many of these products are staple components of a balanced diet and should not be eliminated for the sake of ‘clean eating’. However, being informed and conscious when shopping and reading labels will allow you to be selective about which products you purchase and avoid unnecessary added sugars, sodium and unhealthy fats to better support your health.

Did you know COVID-19 isn’t the only Pandemic happening at the moment? Yes that’s right, there’s another pandemic that is present. It’s a silent disease that often goes unnoticed, and its estimated nearly every second adult living with this illness doesn’t know they have it. Can you guess it? It’s Diabetes.  

November 14th marks World Diabetes Day and 100 years of insulin. This year’s theme is better access to care for treatment and prevention. With over 50% of current diagnoses being preventable, we thought we’d put go through all the diets on trend at the moment and evaluate which is best for diabetes management and prevention. 

Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension (DASH) Diet  

The good: Promotes a high intake of vegetables, fruits, low fat dairy foods, true whole-grains (i.e. with the grain intact), poultry, fish and nuts with a low intake of red meat, sweets, beverages containing sugar and sodium.  

The benefit:  

  • Reduce risk of developing diabetes 
  • Can promote weight loss 
  • Lowers blood pressure 

Low-Carbohydrate Diet  

The good: Promotes a diet rich in low starch vegetables, fats from animal foods, oils, butter, avocados, nuts and seeds, and protein from meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, eggs and cheese.  

The bad: Limited in plant foods such as fruit and whole-grains such as pasta, rice and bread. There is also no consistent definition of “low” carbohydrate. A literature review we looked at deemed low carbohydrate to be 26-45% of total energy intake.  

The benefit:  

  • Can reduce HbA1c  
  • Can promote weight loss 
  • Lowers blood pressure 
  • Increases HDL-C and lowers triglyceride levels  

Low-Fat Diet  

The good: Promotes a high intake of vegetables, fruits and whole-grains, as well as lean protein foods including beans, legumes, and low-fat dairy foods. The review we looked at defined low fat as a total fat intake of <30% of total energy intake, and a total saturated fat intake of <10%.  

The benefit:  

  • Reduces risk of developing diabetes  
  • Can promote weight loss  

Vegetarian/Vegan Diet  

The good: (Obviously) promotes a high intake of plant-based foods including fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy products (if vegetarian), legumes, tofu, nuts and seeds.  

The bad: Can put you at risk of some nutrient deficiencies such as omega-3’s, iron, zinc, vitamin B2 and B12, if not done right, particularly if following a vegan diet. 

The benefit:  

  • Reduced risk of developing diabetes  
  • Can reduce HbA1c 
  • Can promote weight loss 
  • Lowers LDL-C and non-HDL-C  

Mediterranean Diet  

The good: Promotes a diet rich in plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts and seeds, true wholegrains, fish, seafood, olive oil as main sauce of dietary fats, and low-moderate amounts of dairy products (mainly yoghurt and cheese), eggs (less than 4/week), red meat, and wine. 

The benefit

  • Reduced risk of developing diabetes  
  • Can reduce HbA1c 
  • Lowers triglyceride levels  
  • Reduce risk of a major cardiovascular event  

The Verdict:

As you can see, each diet has its pros and cons but all have some merit. We find the best diet of them all though is the Mediterranean diet as it has a triple action: to prevent diabetes, manage diabetes and prevent cardiovascular issues. 

Did you know food and nutrition play a huge role in our mental health? With World Mental Health Day in October just past and particularly given the ordeal we all have been through over the past two years (thanks COVID), we thought we’d start the month with some nutrition tips to help improve our mental health management! 

There are so many ways nutrition can play a role in mental health, so let’s take a dive into which nutrients play a specific role in mental health and how you can incorporate these foods to improve your wellbeing.

Omega-3 

Numerous studies show that a higher omega-3 intake is positively associated with improvements to mood disorders. Omega-3 plays a role in regulating the new growth of brain cells that are responsible for cognition and emotions. 

There are a number of different types of omega-3 chains, however focusing on the longer chain (marine based) omega-3’s, there are three different types: EPA, DPA, DHA. While the exact amounts we need to have a positive effect on disorders like depression is unknow, we do know that EPA and DHA has the biggest impact. 

Currently the Australian guidelines suggest aiming for 400-600mg of long chain omega-3’s per day for general health, while some research suggests bumping this up to 2000mg per day for mental health benefits. In food talk, this looks like: 

  • 2-3 servings of oily fish per week (e.g. salmon with skin on, canned fish in olive oil blend, rainbow trout, mussels and mackerel)
  • Omega-3 enriched eggs 
  • Fish oil supplements 

Zinc 

Zinc is an essential trace mineral we need in our diets as it plays an important role in our immune health and wound healing, however increasing research indicates it also plays a role in managing depression. A number of studies show people who suffer with depression also have low serum (blood) zinc levels. There isn’t enough research to say exactly how much zinc is needed to combat depression, however current guidelines suggest aiming for 8-11mg per day for general health and not to go over the upper limit of 40mg per day. With this said, some studies have found aiming for 25mg in combination with prescription medication can help improve symptoms of depression. Food sources of zinc include: 

  • Oysters 
  • Lean meats (beef, pork and chicken)
  • Legumes (baked bens, black beans, chickpeas) 
  • Nuts and seeds (cashews, almonds, pumpkin seeds) 
  • Low fat dairy (milk, yoghurt and cheese) 
  • Fortified breakfast cereals (e.g. Kellog’s Special K and Uncle Toby’s Iron plus)

Folate 

Folate (or folic acid) is a part of the B-group vitamin complex and is essential for red blood cell development and health cell growth and function. Similar to zinc, there are many studies that show serum (blood) folate levels are low in people with depression and more and more research is coming out suggesting that supplementation in combination with prescription medication can help reduce symptoms of depression. A good starting point is aiming for at least 400mcg as per the Australian guidelines, but try not to go over 1000mcg. If you’re trying to increase your folate intake, aim to have more: 

  • Dark leafy green vegetables (spinach, cabbage, kale, spring onions)
  • Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli and brussel sprouts)
  • Legumes (chickpeas, lentils and kidney beans)
  • Orange colored fruits (oranges and mangoes)
  • Fortified cereals (e.g. Kellog’s Special K and Sanitarium Weet-bix)