Eat healthy and be healthy
It's lunchtime and you're in the cafeteria trying to decide whether to get a bag of chips or a salad sandwich. You know one's better for you, but it's still a hard choice.
As university and school start for the new year, many of us are faced with the harrowing task of having to prepare or buy our own meals, sometimes for the very first time.
With a limited budget, no time and sketchy food knowledge, eating healthy everyday can seem impossible, but with a bit of extra planning and some expert advice, it's easier than you think.
Back to basics
According to Professor Clare Collins, nutrition consultant for The Biggest Loser, the first step towards a healthy diet is watching what you put in your mouth.
"Get as many core foods as you can everyday – that's the answer to eating right. That means including a wide variety of cereals, fruits and vegetables in your diet," she says.
The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating (new window) suggests a large portion of what we eat should be made up of wholegrain breads, cereals, rice and pasta, vegetables, legumes and fruits. The guidelines recommend at least seven serves of those a day. The remaining daily intake should include lean meats and dairy, as well as junk food in moderation.
It's not always easy to eat healthily, though, and Professor Collins says young people often have the hardest time identifying whether something is good for them.
"Most of us think buying a juice or smoothie is the healthy thing to do, but we don't realise that a lot of those store-bought juices are packed with sugar and kilojoules," she says. "The same can apply for muesli snack bars, chocolate-coated cereals, refined white bread and pre-cooked meals."
As a simple guide, Professor Collins says natural is always better. "It's always healthier to buy an apple and wholegrain muesli than a pre-packed cereal that contains both, but is full of sugar," she says.
"Check the labels before you buy something and try to choose foods that are low in sugar and fat, but high in fibre."
You are what you eat
In the 2007-08 National Health Survey (new window) almost 25 per cent of adolescent Australians were overweight or obese.
While young people are growing, it's hard to determine exactly what weight is overweight. A Body Mass Index is used, and age, weight, height and sex are all important factors, but the results aren't exact.
For anyone over the age of 20, nutritionists agree that a BMI between 20 and 25 is a healthy weight range. To find out your BMI, you can use the Better Health Channel's online BMI calculator (new window).
The consequences of being overweight or obese are serious, especially for young people. Certain musculo-skeletal problems, cardiovascular disease, some cancers, sleep apnoea, and type 2 diabetes are all linked to having an unhealthy and inactive lifestyle.
You don't have to be overweight to have health problems, though. A bad diet alone reduces the immune system's ability to fight colds, can leave you feeling lethargic, and can affect your skin, hair and nails.
As Denise Griffiths, spokesperson for the Dietician Association of Australia, points out, it can also affect your performance at school or university, especially around exam time.
"Good nutrition is linked to concentration and skill. If students want to do well in their studies they need to give their brains the right fuel. Healthy food that is low in fat, low in sugar and salt and high in vitamins, minerals and fibre keeps the body functioning," she says.
"I encourage students to look after themselves, not just through a healthy diet, but through regular activity, regular sleep and being part of a social network. These are also great habits to take into adulthood and set you up for a happy, healthy work and family life."
It can be stressful juggling school or university, homework, a part-time job and friends, without having to worry about a healthy diet and regular exercise as well.
Takeaway food can seem pretty appealing, but Beth Scholes, VicHealth's senior project officer for food and nutrition, says it's not the answer.
"Most young people are living by themselves for the first time, but they might not have the skills to plan, shop and prepare food that is healthy, affordable and quick. They're tempted to just buy something, but we know that's never the cheapest or healthiest option, homemade food is."
"Start with something simple, like a baked potato with cheese, and then move onto a bean burrito. Before you know it, you'll be cooking delicious meals that are good for you, and pretty fancy," Ms Scholes says.
Cooking for one can be difficult, so if you live with other people, Ms Scholes says you should try to take it in turns or cook extra and then freeze it for when you're really short on time.
"If you take a moment to plan your meals, check what's on special and freeze, for example, ham and cheese sandwiches for lunch, you'll not only be saving money, but you'll probably be eating nicer and more flavoursome food."
A little help from friends
It's important remember that when it comes to healthy eating, you're not alone.
The Victorian Government's Better Health Channel (new window) plenty of tips and advice on how to eat better, but if you want to speak to someone in person, you needn't look further than your school nurse or university.
RMIT University has a dedicated health officer who is always there to provide advice and help you find health services near campus. Other universities, like Monash University, run regular fruit and vegetable drives to make sure you can buy cheap produce. Swinburne and Melbourne universities both have nutritionists and nurses available by appointment.
So if you're looking for some advice or just want to know how to eat healthier, don't be shy and visit a health officer at your university or school. It could be the first step towards living a better life, not to mention saving a ton of money on fast food!
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Articles Written by Elisa
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