23 April 2012

4 ways to change your diet

The public generally complains that nutrition experts overwhelm them with information. DietDoc shows how you can make and maintain a sensible change or two.



The public generally complains that nutrition experts, health workers and the media overwhelm them with so much information about healthy eating and diets that they cannot absorb all this information and end up doing nothing. In other words, we the ‘diet informers’ are actually achieving exactly the opposite of what we set out to do and leave a baffled public in our wake.

I have thought about this conundrum a lot lately and have decided that I need to write some simple articles with health messages that everyone can understand. So here goes for starters with an article on ‘Tips for Healthier Meals’.

Select goals

If you want to make sense of the tsunami of health and diet information that you are drowning in, it may firstly be a good idea to start by selecting one or two goals - not more.

Ask yourself, “What do I want to achieve first?” Let’s say your goal is just to eat a healthier diet and to ensure that your whole family also eats a healthier diet, then you still need to select one or two prime goals that will help you achieve this change in behaviour.

The following changes to your diet would probably make it a healthier option:

  • Eat more fruit and vegetables
  • Eat more legumes
  • Eat more dietary fibre
  • Eat more low-GI foods
  • Eat more low-fat dairy foods
  • Eat less salt
  • Eat less fat, especially saturated and trans-fat, and cholesterol
  • Eat smaller portions and/or reduce your energy intake

One glance at this list and most people will just give up because of a million excuses -

‘Hubby and the children don’t like eating vegetables’

‘We have never eaten legumes before and I don’t know how to prepare them!’

‘I thought dairy foods are fattening?’

 ‘My daughter is allergic to fruit.’

 ‘Healthy foods cost too much.’

‘I have to use take-away meals, ‘cause I don’t have time to prepare food at the end of a long day!’

This is why I am suggesting that you only select one healthy change at a time. Rome was after all not built in one day either.

How to make one dietary change

Let’s take one of these suggested changes as our example to see how a regular family can apply this change successfully despite all the problems, excuses and other seemingly insurmountable hurdles.

I am going to use ‘Eat more low-fat diary foods’ as my example, as dairy foods are often the first foods that get discarded when people want to lose weight or reduce their fat intake to combat high cholesterol levels or heart problems. This ‘Throw out the dairy’ attitude is particularly prevalent among women, especially teenagers and young women between the ages of 20 and 30 (the vital years from puberty to 30 when we are supposed to deposit as much calcium as possible in our bones for the future to prevent osteoporosis, and even for the present to prevent stress fractures in otherwise healthy young people).

As a caring Mom, I have decided to ensure that all the members of my family are going to drink and eat more low-fat dairy products, despite my daughter’s fear of gaining weight, my son’s idea that anything that does not contain CO2 and caffeine is ‘Not cool’ and my hubby’s attitude that ‘Milk is for babies, and certainly not for red-blooded men with hair on their chests and a six-pack in the fridge turning blue!’


Because most people don’t appreciate being told what to do, I am going to invite them to a family indaba and explain that I would like to introduce a new good habit - ‘Eating/drinking more low-fat milk and dairy products’ - into our daily routines and that I would like their help.

When the initial noise and arguments have died down, I will give my family 3 good reasons for using more low-fat dairy, namely:

  • Milk and dairy products are mega-sources of calcium which we need for strong bones and teeth - 1 ml/g of milk/yoghurt/cottage cheese contains 1 or more mg of calcium and we need up 1300 mg of calcium a day (Gov. Gazette, 2010)
  • Low-fat milk and dairy products are NOT fattening and in fact research has shown that a diet which contains at least 3 portions of low-fat milk or dairy products a day, actually improves weightloss
  • Modern milk and dairy products are used as sports drinks by athletes and are funky enough for teenagers who don’t want stress fractures

I will then ask my beloved family members to make suggestions to help me include at least 3 servings of low-fat milk or dairy products in our usual menus.

Here are some ideas I hope they come up with!

  • Using low-fat plain yoghurt with chopped chives, black pepper and a pinch of garlic instead of sour cream on baked potatoes
  • Taking a flavoured milk to school to enjoy after sport
  • Having low-fat cottage cheese in one of many delicious flavours such as biltong, sweet chili or smoked salmon, on ProVitas as a snack when watching sport on TV, instead of loading up on fatty, salt-drenched crisps
  • Eating macaroni cheese to ensure that we have one meatless-meal a week
  • Having a glass of low-fat milk at night before bedtime and before we brush our teeth (!) to make everyone relax and have a good night’s sleep thanks to the high tryptophan content of milk which boosts brain serotonin levels
  • Serving low-fat flavoured yoghurt with fresh fruit as a dessert
  • Using low-fat or fat-free milk to make custard to serve over fresh or stewed fruit.

Click here for the nurtitional values of dairy foods

Make sure that you write down all the suggestions and that you start applying them immediately. Involve each member of the family as much as possible so that they feel they are part of the process.                                 


It may help if you, or some of the other members of the family, keep records of your progress:

  • How long since you made the change for the better?
  • How many times a week do you drink milk, or eat dairy products?
  • How many extra mg of calcium do you each ingest per week or per day because of this positive change you have made to your eating habits (remember there is approx. 1 mg of calcium in each ml of milk or each g of cottage cheese - see Table below)?
  • Draw a graph to illustrate your progress, because seeing is believing.

If you and your family can make one positive change towards eating a healthier diet in the next 3 months, then you can perhaps tackle the next positive change at the beginning of August - just a thought. And by the end of a year you could have made 4 life-changing improvements to your diet - one simple step at a time.

So give it a thought.

(Dr IV van Heerden, aka DietDoc, April 2012)

(Picture: Woman making salad from Shutterstock)

Ask DietDoc a question. 


(Government Gazette, (2010). Nutrient Reference Values (NRVs). Regulations Relating to the Labelling & Advertising of Foodstuffs. No. R. 146. Foodstuffs, Cosmetics & Disinfectants Act, 1972 (Act 54 of 1972). Government Gazette. Np. 32975, 1 March 201. Gov Printer, Pretoria;  Wolmarans P et al (2010). Condensed Food Composition Tables for South Africa Medical Research Council, Parow Valley, Cape Town, 2010.


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