The 10 most common questions a dietitian is asked about food

How many eggs can you eat a day? Should I go gluten-free? Is full-cream milk healthier than skim? And other burning questions.

Susie Burrell

When it comes to food and nutrition, there are plenty of different opinions floating around about food, diet and weight loss.

These beliefs can be based on something we’ve learnt, experienced ourselves or heard courtesy of old wives’ tales. No wonder there is so much confusion when it comes to what we should eat.

So, as a dietitian who receives many, many food- and nutrition-related questions, here are the most common ones, and what the science actually shows.

The cholesterol in eggs does not automatically increase blood cholesterol levels.
The cholesterol in eggs does not automatically increase blood cholesterol levels.iStock

How many eggs can I eat each day?

If there is a single nutrition question that comes up more than all the others, it is without doubt about eggs. Specifically, how many eggs are “safe” to eat, especially if you have high blood cholesterol. So common is this question, that it has prompted researchers to examine it closely in studies, and the conclusion is that while eggs, like all animal-based foods, do contain cholesterol, this cholesterol does not automatically increase blood cholesterol levels. Rather, blood cholesterol is impacted by a number of variables including liver function. As such, if you have high blood cholesterol, current recommendations are to enjoy up to an egg a day, or two if you do not have elevated cholesterol levels.

Is full-cream milk healthier than skim milk?

Animal-based milk contains the naturally occurring sugar, lactose. It is a commonly held belief that skim milk is significantly processed, and has sugar added in processing, making it a poorer choice nutritionally than full-cream milk. This is not the case. Not only is skim milk minimally processed, with no sugar added, full-cream milk actually contains more of the naturally occurring sugar lactose than skim milk, making low-fat milk lower in fat, calories and sugars.

Neil Perry’s grilled sirloin steak with peperonata.
Neil Perry’s grilled sirloin steak with peperonata.William Meppem

Is chicken healthier than red meat?

If you are considering which type of animal-based protein is better from an overall health perspective, it really comes down to the cut. A piece of lean red meat contains significantly more iron and zinc than chicken breast, and also higher amounts of total fat. While chicken breast is nutrient rich and a lean source of good quality protein, popular cuts including wings, drumsticks and thigh meal are significantly higher in fat, and in this case would be considered far less healthy than lean meat. If you do include animal-based protein in your diet, the take-home message is to opt for the leanest cuts possible. If you’re comparing lean chicken to lean red meat, the latter offers a greater number of key nutrients per serve.

Should I go gluten-free?

Gluten is a protein naturally found in wheat and as such you’ll find it in bread or cereal-based products made from wheat including breakfast cereal, biscuits, pasta, bread and wraps as well as a number of sauces and dressings. There is nothing inherently bad about gluten; it is naturally occurring and the regular consumption of gluten will not result in any adverse effects for the majority of people who eat it. For the 1 per cent of the population who are diagnosed with coeliac disease, however, they will need to completely avoid gluten for life.

For those who prefer not to eat gluten as a personal preference, keep in mind that gluten is commonly found in ultra-processed foods including a range of snack foods, biscuits, pastries, cakes and fast food, and as such avoiding these foods may partially explain why people feel better choosing to eat gluten-free. Alternatively, some people who think they can’t tolerate gluten may actually be sensitive to fructans, which are present in many wheat products.

It is also important to know that gluten-free diets have been shown to be significantly lower in a number of essential nutrients including vitamin D, vitamin B, dietary fibre, iron, zinc and magnesium and as such, if you need or choose to eat a gluten-free diet, keep an eye on your nutrient intake.

In general, nutrients are best absorbed from food rather than pills.
In general, nutrients are best absorbed from food rather than pills.iStock

Should I be taking supplements?

There are thousands of vitamin and mineral pills, potions and powders you can buy to supplement your diet with and few of them will cause adverse effects. But the reality is that unless your dietary intake is poor, most of them are unlikely to be doing a lot. In general, nutrients are best absorbed from food, thanks to the synergistic effects of consuming them in combination, and unless you know that your intake of a nutrient is clinically low, for example iron or zinc, in many cases you are wasting your money on products that you simply do not need.

What is the healthiest alcohol?

While there are types of alcohol that are lower in calories, and/or alcohol overall, there is no healthier type of alcohol. All alcohol is considered a toxin, and as such the liver works hard to process it as quickly as possible. For this reason, no matter what type of alcohol you consume, the less the better from a health perspective.

Australian extra virgin olive oil is exceptionally rich in natural antioxidants.
Australian extra virgin olive oil is exceptionally rich in natural antioxidants.iStock

What is the best type of oil for cooking?

With exceptionally high levels of antioxidants that help to protect our cells from damage, olive oil has one of the highest proportions of monounsaturated fat and lowest proportion of saturated fat of all the cooking oils available. While many Europeans believe olive oil is best for salad dressings or to dip bread into rather than cook with, the truth is good quality Australian extra virgin olive oil is so rich in natural antioxidants that it helps protect the oil from molecular damage at high temperatures. This is opposed to imported oils, which may be blended and as such not as good for cooking. This means as long as you opt for Australian extra virgin olive oil, it is the only oil you need in your kitchen.

Should I avoid fruit?

Carbohydrate-based foods including bread, rice, cereals, pasta and fruit are digested in the body into individual glucose molecules that can be utilised as fuel for the muscles and the brain. Whilst all fresh fruits contain the naturally occurring sugar fructose, which is metabolised in the liver, it is not better or worse than any other sugar when consumed in moderation (ie, two to three serves of fresh fruit each day). On the other hand, more processed forms of fruit, as found in juice and dried fruit, are much more concentrated in energy and sugars. As such when it comes to fruit, fresh is always best.

Alison Roman’s frozen honey yoghurt.
Alison Roman’s frozen honey yoghurt.
William Meppem

Is honey healthier than sugar?

While honey may be perceived as a less processed form of sugar, ultimately simple sugars including table sugar and honey are broken down into the same molecule in the body, and processed in a very similar way. As such, honey is not significantly better than regular sugar.

Is breakfast the most important meal of the day?

While some fasting regimes have inadvertently suggested breakfast is not so important, from a metabolic and appetite regulation perspective, there is a lot to be said for including a protein-rich breakfast in your day within an hour or two of waking. Not only does a breakfast meal add key nutrients to the diet, it also helps to shift daily calorie intake towards the first half of the day, and helps to avoid the snacking and grazing that is associated with skipping or pushing the first meal of the day to late morning.

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