Struggling to stick to a meal plan? Mix 'n' match these six core food groups to suit your taste preferences, lifestyle and personal health goals. Stephanie Osfield writes. 

How to build your own meal plan

 

 

Protein

Protein is a necessity for fat loss, muscle gains and optimal function of all the cells in your body. “Of the major macronutrients such as carbohydrates and fats, protein rates higher on the satiety scale, which means it makes people feel full for longer after a meal,” says Melanie McGrice, dietitian and spokesperson for the Australian Dietitians Association. “This may be in part because protein helps to suppress levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin.”

Unlike many carbohydrates, protein does not cause a large spike in your blood glucose, which is good news for your waistline. “Keeping your blood glucose stable means that your insulin levels don’t spike, which can reduce your risk of developing weight gain and diabetes type 2,” says McGrice. According to the Australian Dietary Guidelines, the current recommended daily intake (RDI) for women is 46g per day and 64g for men – which equates to protein roughly the size of your palm.

As well as driving or curbing your appetite, protein may rev up your body’s ability to burn fat. These waist-whittling benefits were highlighted in a study conducted at Pennington Biomedical Research Centre in Louisiana. When subjects were fed 40 per cent more kilojoules than usual, researchers found people eating a low protein diet not only stored 90 per cent of that excess energy as fat, they also lost more muscle – bad news for your metabolism. By contrast, people eating a higher protein, higher kilojoule diet gained less weight while simultaneously gaining more lean muscle.

Though lean meat is certainly a good protein source, research suggests most people already eat far too much of it – particularly red meat, which is high in saturated fat. So don’t forget to include some plant sources of protein in your diet plan, such as pulses and legumes. It’s a fallacy that you have to become a master of seeds, nuts and beans to ensure intake of all the nine essential amino acids found in meat. “Biochemistry has now shown us that as long as you’ve had a variety of plant-based foods over the course of a day or so, your body will take the amino acids from the ones it needs, as it needs them,” explains Stanton. “Plant foods also contain non-haem iron, which some experts believe may be a healthier form of iron than haem iron, which is found in meat.”

 

Good Sources:

» Fish, including salmon, tuna and mackerel

» Lean chicken, turkey, beef and lamb

» Legumes and pulses, such as chickpeas, lentils, tempeh and edamame beans

» Seed grains such as quinoa

 

Fruit and vegetables

Vegetables are low in fat and high in fibre so they promote weight loss and help you maintain a healthy weight. Fibre-rich plant foods actually take up more space in your stomach, triggering a response in the nerve-stretch receptors in your stomach wall, and quickly trigger hormones that tell you that you’re full, shows research from the University of Sussex. Bye-bye unhealthy morning or afternoon snacks.

As vegetables are packed with antioxidants and polyphenols, they may help reduce risk of heart disease, diabetes and depression and also offer protection against cancer.

If you struggle to love foods such as broccoli, kale, cauliflower or eggplant, then you need to try giving them a makeover:

» Pairing foods: you don’t like a lot (broccoli) with food you do like (parmesan cheese).

» Keeping it varied: check out meal ideas on blogs and websites. If you get bored you are less likely to stick to your meat-free days.

» Re-thinking your snacks: make mini vegetable-balls and serve with tamari, or whip up some dips like hummus or guacamole and serve with carrot, cucumber and celery sticks.

» Spinning an old style: go beyond different green varieties of salads and try salsas, bean or roast vegie salads, and salads mixing lots of vegetables with a little wholemeal pasta or quinoa. With mashes, try broccoli or pumpkin or cauliflower, with a little stock (rather than milk and butter) and top with a crumbling of goat’s cheese.

» Dressing or spicing them up: your taste buds will atrophy if you keep serving boiled vegies night after night. So mix it up. Bake sweet potato and top with a little pesto; add a tamari and orange juice sauce to beans topped with almond slivers; and sauté or water stir-fry a mix of vegetables together, such as parsnip and pumpkin or zucchini and capsicum, then add a dash of oil and oyster sauce.

» Make vegetable boats: stuff potatoes with beans and fill vegies such as capsicums and tomatoes with a quinoa and vegetable mix. Use lettuce leaves like cups or bread. Scoop out the middle of a cooked zucchini, add to a mix of rice, garlic, mushrooms and capsicum then refill the zucchini shells with the mix.

 

Good Sources:

» Blue/purple: blueberries, plums, black grapes, red cabbage, beetroot, eggplant

» Red: tomatoes, capsicum, watermelon, pink grapefruit, rosehips, strawberries

» Yellow: lemons, pineapple, limes, grapefruit, star fruit, paw paw

» Green: cabbage, zucchini, avocado, asparagus, spinach, pears

» Brown: rye bread, brown rice, oats, wholemeal pasta, flaxseed, soybeans

» White: onions, garlic, parsnips, potatoes, cauliflower, white nectarines

 

Wholegrains

Grains are high in carbohydrate, vital for energy production, concentration and mood. They are low in fat, which is good for your heart and your weight. Plus they are good sources of protein and provide your body with fibre, vitamins and minerals. Wholegrains are particularly beneficial because they still contain bran, endosperm and germ, which are all higher in fibre and nutrients. According to the Grains and Legumes Nutrition Council (GLNC): “Wholegrains contain more than 26 nutrients and phytonutrients, which are bioactive substances thought to play a role in disease protection.”

They contain:

» Dietary fibre: such as lignans, beta-glucan and soluble pentosans

» Vitamins: especially B-group vitamins and antioxidant vitamin E

» Minerals: including iron, zinc, magnesium and selenium

» Many bioactive phytochemicals: including phytoesterols (which help lower cholesterol) and carotenoids (which act as antioxidants).

“There is now strong and growing evidence that regular consumption of grain foods, specifically wholegrain, play an important role in disease protection,” says the GLNC. Studies in the USA, UK and Europe consistently report that the consumption of wholegrain foods reduces overall disease risk and death from all causes. If you have issues with gluten, use gluten-free grains such as buckwheat.

 

Good Sources:

» Rye

» Stoneground wholemeal flour

» Spelt

» Brown rice

» Steel cut oats

» Freekah

» Bulgur

» Buckwheat

 

Dairy

There is plenty of evidence to justify dairy foods as part of a healthy diet plan, beyond the well-known perk of helping to strengthen bones.

Foods such as kefir and yoghurt provide good live bacteria to benefit gut health. Research from the University of Copenhagen has also shown that cheese appears to boost levels of butyrate, a compound that is produced by gut bacteria and has numerous benefits for overall health. Full-fat milk, cheese, yoghurt and butter products may also be healthier than previously thought. Harvard research shows that they contain trans-palitoleic acids (TPA), fatty acids linked to healthier levels of blood cholesterol, lower inflammation, stable insulin levels and improved insulin sensitivity. This may be why high-fat yoghurt and cheese are now being linked to lower risk of type 2 diabetes.

Along with gluten, a growing number of people have been steering clear of dairy foods in recent years. In addition to true lactose intolerance, some people find that foods such as milk and cheese contribute to stomach upsets, acne or pimple outbreaks, headaches and skin rashes. The answer? Try goat or sheep’s milk: many sensitive individuals tolerate these dairy forms better than the cow version because it has a closer make-up to the human breast milk we consume as babies.

Good Sources:

» Plain pot-set Greek yoghurt

» Kefir

» Goat’s or sheep’s cheese

» Cheese

» Milk