Diet therapy

10 Tips for better food choices this Christmas

For the past 2-3 decades we have been advised to lower our fat intake in order to reduce obesity, diabetes, heart disease and some forms of cancer.

This measure has helped to reduce our heart disease by 53% over the last 23 years (Australia dropped 64%) but we are still third fattest of all OECD countries (Australia is 5th).1
Weight control is key to better health but with so many diets available it can be confusing to know where to start.
Christmas tends to be a time of overconsumption so what can we all do to rope in these stats, better the Australians  and build healthier lives?

1.See your GP for a check up

Find out your blood cholesterol, blood glucose and blood pressure status.Aim for Total cholesterol <4 mmol/L; LDL (bad) cholesterol < 2.0 mmol/L; Triglycerides <1.7 mmol/L and HDL (Good) cholesterol >1 mmol.2

Also check your weight and Body Mass Index to give you a goal to focus on over the summer period if yours is deemed too high.

2.Lower saturated fat and trans fat

This goal to lower your total and LDL cholesterol is still valid and can be achieved if we trim off the visible fat from ham, cut back on sausage and bacon in the turkey stuffing, swap the cream and ice-cream for yoghurt, and make smaller pieces of shortcake and Christmas mince pies. Also try to avoid highly processed foods such as crisps, cakes and biscuits as these can be a major source of unhealthy trans fat.

3.Change the type of fat

Dietary fat should sit between 25-35% of total energy depending on your health goals. Increasing fat towards the higher level of 30% can help reduce Triglyceride and the bad LDL cholesterol levels, particularly in Type 2 diabetes, provided these fats come from polyunsaturated fat.3This tends to be in line with the traditional Mediterranean diet which also lowers Triglycerides.

So this Christmas try to eat fatty fish like salmon more frequently, whole grain breads and cereals, oils in cooking and salad dressing; margarines in place of butter and, raw unsalted nuts and seeds rather than crisps and fried snacks.

4. Eat high quality protein

Choose lean red meats and keep serving sizes down to around 60-90g cooked meat per serving 4 as this is a good source of iron, zinc and Vitamin B12. Aim for 3 red, 2 white and 2 non meat meals/week. Avoid processed meats such as bacon, sausages and luncheon meat and if buying ham this Christmas buy a few slices rather than a ham on the bone. Take care when barbecuing as eating charred meat can increase the risk of cancer. 5

Vegetarian meals with higher protein include legumes, soy and beans and fat reduced milk and milk products. Vegans may find it helpful to consult a dietitian for an assessment to ensure an adequate intake of nutrients and particularly energy during periods of rapid growth or if involved in vigorous exercise.6

5. Limit added sugar

The World Health Organisation (WHO) last year advised a reduction in added sugar intake.

They recommend levels of < 10% of total energy for adults and children (50g) and < 5% for good health (25g) excluding the sugar found in whole fruit, milk and vegetables. 7
As there is a direct correlation between added sugar and raised blood lipids 8 it is important to mindful this Christmas of the sugar that you add to desserts, cakes, cooked fruit, beverages and confectionery and try to cut back.

Studies looking at Fructose have found that this does increase Triglycerides when levels exceed 60g/day for up to 4 weeks. 3 However very few people consume pure fructose to this degree. Most of our fructose does seem to be highest in fruit and in particular dried fruit. So for people concerned about their weight and cholesterol levels then these two things need to be watched over Christmas and summer months when fruit is plentiful and Christmas cakes, pies and puddings are more freely available. Dietary guidelines recommend 2-3 servings of fruit/day.

6. Eat more plant based foods but with care

While many carbohydrate foods may contain natural (intrinsic) and added (extrinsic) sugar they are also an important source of starches and dietary fibre essential to good health.

Fruit, vegetables, bread and cereals provide energy to fuel activity and growth and are a source of vitamin C and B group vitamins important for nerve health and cellular metabolism.

Dietary guidelines to lower elevated lipids recommend the use of whole grains, high fibre, low GI and GI Load and less refined carbohydrates (such as confectionery, white bread, rice, pasta, crackers etc).
Dietary fibre contributes bulking agents to our diet which speed the transit time of waste products through our gut reducing the risk of bowel cancer and aiding weight and cholesterol management.
Some dietary fibres also contribute a prebiotic function supporting the growth of beneficial microbiota keeping our bowel healthy, reducing inflammation and aiding the immune system. 11

Prebiotic’s can be found in wheat bran, oats, barley, onion, leeks, garlic, apple, asparagus, banana, flaxseed etc

There are limits however as to how much fibre one can take. The hulls of seeds, nuts, grains and legumes contain phytate which in excess can reduce the absorption of iron, calcium and zinc. 10 Genetic improvements of the zinc and iron content of grains is being undertaken and phytate can also be reduced by methods such as fermentation, soaking and germination.

Some people may also experience gut discomfort, abdominal pain, bloating and altered bowel habit with higher levels of prebiotic. Athletes for example requiring very high carbohydrate intakes (often > 60% of energy) may need to reduce their dietary fibre intake if this becomes a problem. Children and the elderly also need less than adults. A Dietitian can help you find the level right for you.

If you are interested in learning more about your bowel movements the Bristol Stool Chart 11 can help you recognise changes in bowel function and if concerned then discuss this with your doctor or Dietitian before taking any form of dietary supplementation.

7.Pay attention to the combinations of food you eat

Studies of the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) containing 55% of total energy as carbohydrate found that Triglycerides could still be held in check if the carbohydrate was taken as 8-10 servings of fruit and vegetables, whole grains, low fat dairy foods, lean red meat, fish, poultry, nuts and beans and limitations were placed on Discretionary foods. 12
We tend to focus on one food or nutrient when discussing health rather than remembering it is often the combination of foods which may matter most. So this Christmas try to increase your variety of food groups listed above.

8.Keep well hydrated

Fluids are essential to carry nutrients for cellular growth and remove waste. Dietary fibre absorbs moisture as it traverses the gut and swells keeping the bowel contents moving and preventing constipation. Thus fluid intake is an essential component of bowel health and needs extra vigilance during hot summer months.

The type of fluids consumed are also important. Limit sugar sweetened beverages and diet soft drinks in favour of more still tap water and fat reduced milk to assist weight management and aid bone health. Carbonated drinks can contribute gas to the bowel causing bloating and abdominal discomfort, another good reason to avoid these. 13

Alcohol can be a major source of sugar and calories in the diet and even in small amounts can increase triglycerides.14 So this Christmas try to cut back and investigate some of the low alcohol drinks now on the market.

9. Limit salt intake

Salt increases blood pressure and the risk of stroke and can reduce bone density. 15

This Christmas avoid cured meats such as ham, bacon and sausages and highly processed foods such as crisps, salty crackers, extruded nibbles, pastry and fried foods. See our recipe and article section for healthier meal and snack ideas.

10. Exercise more

With few exceptions people are encouraged to increase their physical activity to control diabetes, obesity, heart disease and improve mental health. 16

So monitor your current efforts, set your self a daily goal, particularly if travelling over Christmas and try to bring exercise into your group activities. Swimming, dancing, cycling, biking, playing backyard cricket every bit counts. If you can make exercise part of your social engagements then you are helping your friends to also become more active, keeping you company in a longer, healthier life.

Wishing you all a safe and healthful Christmas.

More articles by Lea on similar topics

Wise up to discretionary foods

Whats the fuss about fructose?

How to put real flavour into your food
Tips to help you shake the salt habit

What are our children drinking?

8 tips to help you break the sugar habit

Make healthier decisions this Christmas



1 Broughton,C. NZ Heart disease deaths higher than OECD average. Feb 2 2016

2 Understanding your cholesterol results. Health info

3 American Heart and Stroke Associations Triglycerides:Frequently asked questions

4 Eating and activity guidelines statements for NZ adults 2015

5.National Cancer Institute. Chemicals in meat cooked at high temperatures and cancer risk. prevention/risk/diet/cooked-meats-fact-sheet

6 Rogerson,D. Vegan diets: practical advice for athletes and exercisers. J.of International Soc. of Sports nutrition Sept 2017 14:36

7.WHO calls on countries to reduce sugar intake among adults and children. WHO 2015

8 Welsh, J.A. Sharma,A. Abramson,J. Vaccarino,V.Gillespie,C. Vos,M.B Caloric sweetener consumption and dyslipidaemia among US adults. JAMA 2010 April 21; 303(15):1490-7

9.Muir,J. Gibson,P. Morrison,M. McNamara,L. Vietich,P. Study comparing the effects of diets low and moderate in natural prebiotic fibre on gut flora profile and sense of well being in healthy Australian adults. ACTRN12617000205336

10. Prynne,C. McCarron,A. wadsworth, M.E, Stephen, A.M Dietary fibre and phytate; a balancing act. Results from 3 time points in a British Birth Cohort. Br.J.Nut 2010 Jan:103(2):274-280

11.The Bristol Stool Chart

12. Chiu, S. Bergeron, N.Williams, P.T. Bray G,A. Sutherland, B. Krauss R.M. Comparison of the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet and a higher-fat DASH diet on blood pressure and lipids and lipoproteins: a randomized controlled trial. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2015

13 Stanhope K.L. Medici, V. Bremer A.A. Lee, V. Lam, H.D. Nunez, M. Chen, G.X. Keim, N.L. Havel, P.J. A dose-response study of consuming high-fructose corn syrup–sweetened beverages on lipid/lipoprotein risk factors for cardiovascular disease in young adults. Amer. J. Clin. Nut March 24 2015.

14.Klop,B. do Rego, A.T.Alcohol and plasma triglycerides Curr. Opin. Lipidol 2013 Aug 24 (4) 421-6

15 Turlova, E. Feng,Z. Dietary salt intake and stroke Acta Pharmacol.Sin 2013 Jan 34 (1);8-9

16.MOH How much exercise is recommended ?

About the author View all

Lea Stening

Lea is one of New Zealand’s leading paediatric dietitians and also specialises in Sports Nutrition. She has specialised in Paediatric Nutrition for 31 years and in 1985 was the first paediatric dietitian to enter private practice in New Zealand. Lea helps families through her private consultations, public lectures, newspaper and magazine articles as well as television and radio interviews. Read more »

View all posts by Lea Stening »


Leave a Reply

Also in Diet Therapy View all »

  • Weighty issues

    In recent years, the ‘diet mentality’ has been criticised, coupled with the new movement toward body positivity, mindfulness and ‘self-care’. Does this approach work for everyone? What other tools might we need to consider? Read more »

  • Building better bones!

    Bone is a living, growing tissue that is forever changing but needs to be fed. Easily taken for granted, it's not until we stub our toe or suffer a fracture that we register the importance of bone to our life and freedom. Learn more.. Read more »

  • 6 reasons to control, not cut your carbohydrate...

    Are you needing to lose or gain weight, control blood pressure, reduce insulin resistance, diabetes, PCOS or heart disease? Dietitians recommend that controlling rather than cutting your carbos, can provide many health benefits. Read more »

  • Love your liver

    Most of us take our liver for granted until something goes wrong. Learn how amazing this organ is at keeping the systems in our body running each day. Understand the risk factors to liver health and where to get help if needed. Read more »

  • Use nutrition knowledge to empower you to a...

    How do you learn & where does your nutrition information come from? How much do you eat to stay well & to fund changes in activity levels? What beliefs & attitudes prevent you from making better food choices? Learn more Read more »

  • Are you an emotional eater?

    Emotional eating isn't an eating disorder. It is a dyfunctional relationship with food. Associated with depression, anxiety and binge eating. It is highly addictive, causes ill health, needs to be taken seriously. Here are tips to help. Read more »

  •  Healthy Heart Heros

    We may feel surprised when a well known athlete dies of heart disease, but this is a disease that affects us all. While the NZ Heart Foundation offers community guidance and education, health promotion comes from within Read more »

  • Are you energy deficient?

    Energy deficiency is more common than you may think and can be found in our hospitals, schools and kindergartens, rest homes and on our sports fields. It can affect over and underweight people. Are you at risk? Read more »

  • Thinking of going vegan?

    Veganism can be a very healthy lifestyle but there are some important things to know about before deciding that veganism is going to be right for you and will provide sufficient energy to fulfil the life goals you have in mind Read more »

  • Vitamin D for growth and immunity

    Recent research has highlighted the importance of vitamin D to respiratory health with those who are deficient being 5 times more likely to contract Covid-19. It is important for children, athletes and the elderly. Find out why? Read more »

  • Dietary Guidelines are constantly changing:...

    Although science is constantly evolving, generating new recommendations to improve our health, for many people their eating habits are based on things other than their longevity so are guidelines still relevant today? Read more »

  • Break free from Fad Diets

    New diets pop up every day. Who should we believe? NZ Broadcasting student Louise Trenouth, on assignment, puts questions to Lea in an effort to understand Fad Dieting. Read more »

  • How to make the most of a plant-based diet

    The plant-based diet is widening the range of foods on our supermarket shelves. How do they compare with standard meat and dairy products for nutrition value? Find out.. Read more »

  • Healthy At Every Size (HAES): the debate

    The Healthy at Every Size (HAES) paradigm, focusing on body acceptance and healthy lifestyle changes, is gaining a lot of media attention as a possible way of curbing our escalating obesity stats. Find out more. Read more »

  • Are you afraid of the scales?

    Everyday we measure things such as the time, money, distance, our cholesterol, petrol etc yet many people fear measuring themselves Read more »

  • Stay in ‘the loop’ for a brighter...

    Loneliness and social isolation are being increasingly seen as risk factors to good physical and mental health. Learn how to stay connected with others and improve your sense of well being in 5 easy steps. Read more »

  • Unlock your potential with food

    The power of food can change your life and Dietitians can help you unlock your potential through food. Read more »

  • Dietitians and Nutritionists what’s the...

    Dietitians are the most credible source of nutrition and food knowledge when you need to apply it to health and disease in NZ. Read more »

  • Wise up to Discretionary Foods for better health

    If you are struggling to lose weight or lower your cholesterol then taking a closer look at your intake of discretionary foods can improve your results. Read more »

  • How to put ‘real’ flavour into...

    It can be so easy to snip the top off a packet of flavouring when cooking. But if we really want to reduce the salt, fat and sugar in our diet natural flavours are best. Find out how. Read more »

  • Dietary help for women with PCOS

    Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is a common cause of infertility in 6-20% of women of reproductive age causing a range of hormonal and metabolic effects that can impact on a women's physical and mental health. Read more »

  • Garnishes galore and all those “little...

    Is garnishing getting out of hand? Find out how much energy those "add ons" really do add. Read more »

  • 7 Myths about weight loss

    Lea Stening shares 7 common myths about weight loss and concludes that "you actually need to eat quite a lot of food in order to lose weight". Read more »

  • Time your eating for better performance?

    If playing sport or exercising, understanding the GI can help you to select foods that will provide optimal energy at key stages of activity for better performance. Read more »

  • Tips to help you ‘shake off’ the...

    In a bid to reduce the intake of processed foods many food manufacturers are modifying their products to meet new food guidelines particularly regarding salt. Find out if you are still getting too much? Read more »

  • Is going “Gluten Free” a healthy...

    As the popularity of gluten- free diets grow we need to question whether in fact it is a healthy option for any of us and if not how can we make it so? Read more »

  • Does your diet tick all the boxes?

    Is dieting still fun if it ages you? Find out if your diet ticks all the boxes for your better health and performance. Read more »

  • 10 tips to prevent weight gain in marriage

    When couples move in together they set in motion changes to their long-term health. While there are many health benefits of living together managing weight may need extra care and attention Read more »

  • Sports supplements should be taken with care

    While some supplements are well recognised as being useful to performance others can lead to positive drug testing and disqualification as well as endanger long-term health. Read more »

  • Changing our “weight talk” may...

    A child can build their confidence and self esteem if monitoring their growth rate is accompanied by positive health messages about weight, fitness and energy to achieve in life. Read more »

  • Don’t let stress fractures slow your...

    Stress fractures are not just a problem for athletes who overtrain. They can affect anybody as they also relate to lifestyle and nutrition choices. Find out if you at risk. Read more »

  • Nutrition for distance runners and “fun runs”

    Distance running and “fun runs” (and walks) of varying length and degree of difficulty are becoming popular, attracting family and community groups; recreational and elite participants. Paying attention to sports nutrition can improve an athletes performance and enjoyment of these events Read more »

  • Juice diets – are they as healthy as...

    For busy people, who might rather drink than chew their fruits and vegetables, the juicing trend sounds like a "gods send". What possible disadvantages could there be to health? Find out the pros and cons of this new diet craze. Read more »

  • Driving for a living? 10 tips to help your...

    Spending hours behind the wheel is a huge recipe for weight gain and increased risks to our health. Driving is something that affects us all. Read more »

  • Feeling full is the secret to weight loss

    Gaining an understanding of the many factors contributing to a sense of fullness can provide some very powerful tools for those seeking to lose or control body weight and find more energy for life! Read more »

  • Can coconut improve our health?

    Coconut oil was once associated with tanning. Something young people coated themselves with before lying out in the sun “to bake”. Today coconut products are being heralded by many as the new “wonder food" that can cure many ailments. We take a look at some of these claims. Read more »

  • Dietary help for depressed athletes

    Although athletes may benefit from an exhilarating endorphin rush on exertion that elevates their mood and suppresses feelings of pain it will not stop them from experiencing, at times, anxiety and bouts of depression just like the rest of us. Nutrition is one treatment option that can speed recovery. Read more »

  • Sugar control is essential for better health

    After years of encouraging a low fat diet with some success (a decline in heart disease and some forms of cancer) attention is now focusing on sugar as a possible reason for our weight and diabetic problems. Read more »

  • Boosting fibre intake offers health benefits

    Research shows that a diet high in fibre can reduce the risk of developing diseases such as type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, bowel and breast cancer, gallstones, diverticular disease and weight gain. It also seems that some fibres are better than others. Read more »

  • Diet can offer protection when cold conditions...

    Cold injuries and illness occur in a wide range of physical activities. An understanding of the importance of sports nutrition and planning appropriate meals and snacks can offer some protection and may also improve overall performance Read more »

  • Healthy diet aids menopause management

    Menopause is a natural biological process women pass through and just like puberty it is not a medical illness. A woman's experience of Menopause is very individual and so there is no one "cure" for the range of symptoms that may be experienced. Read more »

  • Could the French Diet reduce obesity in New...

    The French diet is relatively high in saturated fat and yet in 2012 the French have a low incidence of obesity (11% compared to 28% in New Zealand). Why is this? Read more »

  • How to increase the ‘Good’ fats...

    If you are thinking of cutting fat out of your diet stop right now. Fat is important for nerve and cellular function but choosing the right “type” of fat is what matters most to our long term health. Read more »

  • Can a high fat diet improve sports performance?

    Fat carries more energy than other macro nutrients (9kcals/37kJ/g compared to 7kcal/29kJ/g for alcohol and 4kcal/17kJ/g for protein and carbohydrate respectively). So with so much energy to offer does eating more improve performance? Read more »

  • Healthy ideas for family takeaway meals

    Did you know that in 2012 around 21% of New Zealander’s weekly food expenditure was spent on eating out and takeaways? Read more »

  • Are you a “sneaky snacker”?

    Some people find it hard to control snacking and are continuously thinking about food. They may find themselves constantly picking, stock piling foods in drawers and cupboards at home and work. Read more »

  • Vegetarians face extra hurdles

    Despite the apparently healthier lifestyle vegetarian athletes (like anybody) can still become overweight, hungry, bloated and suffering from multiple nutrient deficiencies. Read more »

  • The gut-brain axis is important to sporting...

    Do you ever suffer from” runners diarrhoea”, bouts of anxiety , fatigue, abdominal pain or gas when facing competition? Read more »

  • Swim for your life

    Whether you are swimming for fun or competition this sport has many health benefits that can be enhanced with good nutrition. Knowing what to eat and when can also greatly improve your enjoyment of the sport as well as your level of performance. Read more »

  • Eat your way to healthier nails

    The quality, appearance and growth of our nails often reflect the state of our general health and the adequacy of some essential nutrients in our diet. Read more »

  • Skin care for active people

    The stress of competition, the sun and wind, sweat, chaffing and high sugar levels are just some of the things that can aggravate the skin conditions of athletes and very active people. Read more »

  • Care for “the carers” during family...

    When family members are sick or hospitalised it can be very challenging to find the time to exercise and maintain a healthy diet for yourself. Particularly if you are working, caring for children, or trying to complete a course of study. Read more »

  • Don’t let disordered eating ruin your...

    An eating disorder can affect anyone at any age, any sport, any background and any gender. The symptoms may build slowly well before the illness becomes evident. Often it is an athletes support team such as parents, friends, team mates and coaches that pick up on the symptoms and can prevent the disorder from ruining the athletes sporting career. Read more »

  • Could your weight be disabling you?

    The human body is hugely resilient, constantly strengthening muscles and remodeling bones and joints to take up new loads. However as we age and weight is gained and lost, metabolic changes can take place that alter this remodeling process and can set us on a path to failing mobility and independence. Read more »

  • Obesity problems may start in the womb

    Overweight and obese women are a greater risk of developing complications endangering their own health during pregnancy and are also more likely to bare children who are overweight themselves Read more »

  • Put Sports Nutrition to work

    Many workers use enough energy and essential nutrients each day to power a marathon. If not replaced then a lack of these key nutrients can lead to fatigue, accidents and injury that can affect their long-term health and mobility. Read more »

  • Athletes protect your winning smile

    Athletes protect your smile and your wallet as painful tooth erosion is not only expensive it can also rob your training time and performance. Read more »

  • 8+ Tips for managing teething troubles

    Few children escape teething without some discomfort. Rosy flushed cheeks, a runny nose, irritable behavior, disturbed sleep and bowel function are all hallmarks of tooth eruption Read more »

  • Facing the down times without weight gain

    Nothing can be more infuriating for an athlete than after months of intense training an injury sees you ‘sidelined’. Read more »

  • Sports nutrition for women

    Women who push the boundaries of their lives to take on new challenges and sporting events are usually also trying to juggle their work, home and training existence. With good sports nutrition advice It is possible to find renewed energy. Read more »

Would you like to subscribe to our fantastic FREE monthly newsletter?

Each month we'll keep you up-to-date with the latest nutritional articles and healthy recipes from You are free to opt out at any time, but we think you'll enjoy what we've got in-store for you.

Plus as a bonus offer — subscribe today and receive FREE weight loss tips for two weeks! Learn how a number of foods, many one would consider 'healthy', may in fact be slowing your progress.


Yes please, it sounds great! (and it's FREE after all).



No thanks, I'm not interested (or I'm already a subscriber and really enjoying these fantastic newsletters!).