Food & Nutrition

5 common nutrition questions

Accredited practising dietitian Themis Chryssidis answers his clients’ five most common questions.
Published 21 June 2018

What a nutritionist wants you to know...


#1: Pasta is bad, right?

Wrong. Pasta is food and no food is inherently bad. You are not committing a crime. You are simply eating a delicious combination of flour, eggs, and water. That’s it.

However, the way we eat pasta in Australia is a problem. Pasta meals are often too large and lack vegetables and protein, so we eat too much pasta in one meal. If I ate a plate of steak I would gain weight. The difference is the fat and protein in the meat slows down digestion and keeps me full, and the act of chewing the meat also makes me eat slower, therefore I eat less. We also usually eat meat with vegetables, which dilutes the meal’s kilojoule content.

Next time you have pasta, don’t fear it; enjoy it. Here are some healthy and nutritious pasta suggestions. Cook one cup of dried pasta with a tomato-based sauce and a delicious vegetable side. Also, try to add some protein.

Traditionally, minced meat is added to pasta, but you could also try lentils, chickpeas or seafood. The meat (or meat alternatives) and vegetables will leave you satisfied without overeating.


#2: Does fruit have too much sugar?


Aside from vegetables, I honestly cannot think of a healthier, more convenient and socially acceptable snack. Despite their sweet flavour, most fruits do not contain a large amount of sugar, but they do provide plenty of vitamins, minerals, low-GI carbohydrate, fibre, and antioxidants. We need to stop demonising individual nutrients.

We eat foods, not nutrients. Removing one nutrient from your diet can result in serious deficiencies due to the removal of other healthy foods. Blanket nutrient exclusions also lead to confusion. It may lead people to begin considering soft drink and fruit as equal, despite honestly and logically knowing that they are not.

As a dietitian, I have never suggested that sugar is healthy or should be consumed freely. It depends on how the sugar is being consumed. Yes, if you can avoid added sugar, such as in your coffee, great. If you have one coffee a day with one sugar, try to reduce the sugar to half a teaspoon. Overall, though, one teaspoon of sugar in one coffee per day (depending on the rest of your diet) is unlikely to be a major problem. When someone has six sweetened coffees a day and that leads to six teaspoons of sugar consumed, it’s time to consider how to reduce their intake.

Similarly, fruit contains sugar. But it can’t be removed and it’s packaged up as part of a nutritious, convenient snack. If I remove fruit from my diet because I don’t want to eat sugar, what about all the other quality nutrition I’m missing out on?

Yes, sugar in its refined form and added to food provides little nutritional value. However, we eat food, not plain sugar. A lot of the time – especially in the case of fruit – the positives outweigh the negatives. If they don’t, as is the case with much processed, packaged food, try to cut down. Ditch the bags of lollies – but then enjoy a piece of nutritious fruit.

How much?
Australian guidelines recommend two serves of fruit a day. A serve is one medium-sized fruit such as a banana, two smaller fruits like plums or a cup of fruit salad.


#3: Is it bad to eat after 8pm?

There is very little credible evidence to suggest that eating after a specific time at night results in weight gain. I often advise clients to instead look at what they eat late at night and how they eat.

If you’ve had dinner and are snacking on sweet biscuits, chocolate or cheese and crackers, is it the time of the day that’s the issue, or the fact that you have eaten 1000-2000kJ without realising it?

Or, if you’re eating dinner late, is it the time of the meal or the food you’re eating that’s the problem? Consider the practical implications of eating late. When was your last meal? Are you starving when you get home? As a result, do you prepare a balanced meal with three to four serves of vegetables, or do the vegetables get forgotten because you haven’t got time? Are you hungry and as a result eat a larger portion than you need? Is your serve of meat, rice or pasta larger than usual? Or do you simply order takeaway chicken and chips or pizza instead of eating a nutritious, balanced, portion-controlled meal?

Sure, if you eat a main meal and go to bed not long after, you may wake up slightly heavier. However, this slight variation in weight from day to day is normal and will level out within a few days. So the time of day that you eat isn't the issue; it’s the effect that eating late could have on your food choices and portion sizes that could be problematic.

Midnight snack?
If you find yourself feeling hungry at night and wanting to raid the fridge, have a healthy snack such as a slice of wholegrain toast with nut butter or a boiled egg.


#4: Should I cook with olive oil?

In short, yes. There isn't a healthier oil available. Olive oil is full of healthy monounsaturated fats which are linked to reduced inflammation; improved heart, eye and brain function; reduced risk of heart disease and reduced risk of Alzheimer’s. Plus, it’s full of healthy antioxidants.

The argument against olive oil is that cooking it causes trans fats and free radicals (here comes the science part). The application of high heat and pressure to any oil causes free radicals, and trans fats which are linked to increased overall mortality and, in general, are not healthy.

Trans fats exist naturally in small amounts in animal-based foods and are manufactured by taking an unsaturated fat, which is liquid at room temperature, and adding a hydrogen molecule to its chemical structure to form a solid at room temperature.

The most volatile part of a fat molecule is its carbon double bond. Saturated fats have no double bonds, are solid at room temperature and hence are considered the most stable to cook with. This might be true but it does not make them healthy.

The more unsaturated a fat is (or the more double bonds it has), the more opportunity there is for trans fats to be created. Olive oil is a monounsaturated fat, so the fat molecules only have one double bond. This reduces the amount of trans fats and free radicals that can be created. Furthermore, in order to create them, temperatures must exceed the smoking point of the olive oil which, in the case of good-quality extra-virgin olive oil, is about 240 degrees Celsius. Practically speaking, this is very unlikely in the domestic setting. Most people cook at no more than 180 degrees Celsius.

To make a long story short, olive oil’s high antioxidant content will help fight the free radicals created when it is heated. At worst, a very small amount of trans fats are created when heating olive oil at very high temperatures. Even then, the overall health benefits of olive oil, whether used at room temperature or heated, still far outweigh other oils.

The good oil
Studies have shown olive oil consumption may help protect against some cancers and improve blood pressure, immune function and rheumatoid arthritis.


#5: Should I snack during the day?

Yes, absolutely! If you’re like me and love food, you’ll take any opportunity to enjoy a meal or snack. I often encourage clients to eat small, frequent meals spread evenly throughout the day. This helps manage blood sugar levels and helps keep energy levels stable. Snacks should also be considered a valuable opportunity to consume important nutrients and are crucial for helping to ensure we meet our daily nutrient requirements.

Snacks also help people make sensible food choices. I often say that the key to making good food choices is controlling your hunger, putting yourself in a position where you can resist temptation and making a decision with your brain, not your stomach.

Sensible snacking ensures you’re not starving at mealtimes and, consequently, you’re more likely to make a healthy choice. If a small tub of natural yoghurt and a handful of nuts mid-morning helps you make a healthy choice at lunchtime, it’s a worthwhile investment.