Healthy diets versus fad diets for people with disability
On May 6, International No Diet Day is all about combating food stigma, body image issues and inappropriate dieting. Here at Active Ability, we’re firmly against unrealistic body image expectations and fad diets that promise quick fixes or encourage unhealthy thinking about food and eating.
Instead, we believe in the value of good lifelong nutrition for promoting physical and mental wellbeing. In recognition of No Diet Day, this article looks at some reasons why fad dieting isn’t good for you, and how people with disability can foster healthy eating habits for life.
What is a fad diet?
If you watch TV, read magazines or use social media, it’s highly likely you’ve come across some form of fad diet. But how can you tell if a new diet craze is simply that – a craze – or a genuine new eating approach based on quality research?
Some common signs can help you spot a diet that’s probably just a craze. Fad diets often:
- promise a miracle result or fast fix
- require you to avoid or limit specific food groups
- promote certain foods or food combinations
- require you to buy special products
- have rigid rules, often with a focus on weight loss
- use testimonials to make claims about success
- use emotive and persuasive advertising
- lack solid evidence for their effectiveness.
If you’re thinking about trying a new diet, be extra cautious if it displays some or all of these characteristics.
Why are fad diets a problem?
Fad diets may help you lose weight in the short term but are not the best way to think about food and eating in the long-term. They are usually difficult to sustain and often involve limiting whole food groups. For this reason, they can deprive you of the nutrients you need for good mental and physical health. They can lead to dehydration, fatigue, constipation, nausea, and headaches.
Importantly, they can also adversely affect your relationship with food and how you think about your body.
It’s a better idea to focus on developing healthy eating habits you can sustain over your lifetime. Your body needs a range of foods, eaten in balance, to maintain good health and reduce your risk for developing a chronic condition or disease, such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and cardiovascular disease[i].
What is a healthy diet?
For healthy people, following the Australian Dietary Guidelines is an excellent place to start. Created by nutrition and medical experts, these guidelines are based on extensive reviews of nutrition research and aim to help everyday Australians make eating choices that promote health and wellbeing and reduce the risk of developing a diet-related condition or chronic disease[ii].
In a nutshell, these guidelines recommend that healthy adults should:
- Eat nutritious foods in amounts that meet your energy needs and be physically active to help maintain a healthy weight and muscle strength.
- Eat a good variety of nutritious foods every day from the following five groups:
- grains, especially wholegrain and high-fibre types (including bread, pasta, rice, oats, and cereals)
- a plentiful and varied range of vegetables (aim to eat lots of different types and colours), plus beans and/or legumes
- mostly reduced-fat milk products and/or milk alternatives, including cheese and yoghurt
- foods containing protein, including lean meat, chicken, eggs, fish, tofu, nuts and seeds, and beans/legumes
- Limit eating foods that contain added salt or sugar and/or saturated fat, such as packaged snacks, cakes, biscuits, burgers, pizza, pies, deli meats, chips, confectionery, soft drinks, chocolate and pastries. These foods are fine every so often but should only be eaten occasionally and in small amounts.
- Aim to drink plenty of water each day.
- You should also limit your intake of alcohol.
The guidelines recommend you prepare and store food safely to minimise your risk of getting sick from eating something that’s been contaminated. They also recognise the importance of breastfeeding for infants.
If you’re a healthy adult and follow these guidelines most of the time, you can be confident you’re eating a healthy diet.
What type of diet is right for me?
If you have a disability or chronic health condition, the standard guidelines may not be your ideal option. For example, people with coeliac disease need to follow a gluten-free diet, people with autism can be problem feeders, and people with diabetes may do better with a lower intake of carbohydrate foods. It’s important to see an Accredited Practising Dietitian, like our dietitians at Active Ability, to ensure your diet is suited to your needs.
People with disability might need some extra support to eat well. This could include help with:
- knowing which foods are best to include more of, and which ones to avoid, to best manage your condition and reduce your risk of developing a health condition or illness
- reading and understanding food labels
- learning how to shop for healthy foods
- learning to plan and prepare meals and snacks that support good health
- preparing and storing food safely
- training support workers to help prepare healthy meals.
Your nutrition needs also change throughout your lifetime[iii]. Children and adolescents need specific nutrients to support their growing brains and bodies, as do pregnant and breastfeeding women. As you get older your nutrition needs also change. A qualified dietitian can create a dietary plan to suit your requirements and preferences.
Why diet matters for people with disability
Choosing to eat well is one of the most important ways you can achieve or maintain a healthy weight, have enough energy, and reduce your risk for developing a chronic health condition or disease. This is especially important for people with disability, for a few reasons.
Firstly, people with disability are more likely to develop overweight or obesity, with statistics showing 72 per cent of Australians with disability are overweight or obese, compared to 55 per cent of the general population aged two and over[iv]. Overweight and obesity are linked with several health conditions, including high cholesterol, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke and some cancers[v].
They are also more likely to report not eating enough fruit and vegetables each day, not getting adequate levels of physical activity, and that they smoked daily[vi]. These are all behaviors that can be changed to significantly improve health and wellbeing and reduce disease risk.
It’s also important to point out that disability and chronic health conditions are interrelated. Research has shown that people with disability are more prone to developing a chronic condition, and people with a chronic condition are more likely to develop disability[vii].
If you have a disability or chronic health condition, these factors add up to make a healthy diet especially important.
However, people living with disability sometimes face greater challenges to developing healthy eating habits, such as needing assistance with everyday living activities (like planning and preparing healthy meals), a greater likelihood of experiencing a mental health condition, and trouble accessing health services[viii].
If you need some support to develop healthy eating habits, Active Ability’s dietitians would love to help. We focus on helping people with intellectual disability, neurological conditions and mental health issues achieve optimal health, wellbeing and function through great nutrition.
We have no waiting times, so you can get started towards eating for better health right away. Our friendly and experienced dietitians can see you at your home, school, workplace or other convenient location.
[v] https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/obesity Accessed 29.4.2021