Ten Habits of the Healthy

We’ve all met those enviably healthy individuals who exhibit an apparent easy self-discipline in the areas of exercise, nourishing eating, and maintaining a healthy weight . How do these people achieve this and maintain it? Were they birthed by magic fairies or sprinkled with mystical pixie dust, or have they simply developed healthy habits? Our resident sports dietitian has a look at ten of the beneficial habits that most healthy people share in common.

1. They don’t skip breakfast

Your mum was right when she told you breakfast was the most important meal of the day. But why?

A woman in her 20’s recently came to see me to get some help with getting her weight under control. She was reasonably aware of what calories she should be eating, but was skipping breakfast, partly because of the evil lure of the snooze button, and partly because skipping the calories in the first meal of the day made her feel like she could use them somewhere else, perhaps for an enjoyable treat. After a bit of discussion, it soon emerged that by mid morning she was reaching for energy dense, nutrient poor,  high GI foods (hello muffins, white bread, cakes, crackers), as the mid-morning brain fog  and munchies set in at work. No breakfast had left her lacking in sustenance, willpower and mental energy, which ultimately set her up for dietary failure.

Breakfast is important because it breaks the overnight fasting period (you’ve just gone 8+ hours without food), helps refuel your energy (glucose) supplies, and kick starts your metabolism, by providing all the nutrients necessary to begin your day! Making sure you fuel your body with all the essential nutrients early on in the day allows you to better concentrate, focus and get going.

Science is now telling us that our willpower is a resource that has to be rationed out. In addition, this limited willpower resource is fuelled by glucose, and studies (for instance, this one) have shown that if you don’t have the required nutrition to fuel your brain properly, you run out of willpower. That doesn’t mean you need to suddenly binge on sugar… But it does mean that if you’re awake and attempting to exercise willpower, you’d better be properly fed!

Think twice next time you skip breakfast because you can’t be bothered, have ran out of time, or are too busy catching some extra shuteye. Research has shown that people who skip breakfast are more likely to:

    • Weigh more
    • Make poorer food choices
    • Have less nutritious diets
    • Overeat later on in the day
    • Suffer from fatigue
    • Have poorer concentration levels
    • Suffer from reduced mental performance
    • Be moody or irritable

What does the ideal breakfast look like?

A colleague of mine recently embarked on a ‘health kick’ and asked for a little guidance with his food. It didn’t take long to identify that his breakfast was the equivalent of five carbohydrate serves (75g of carbohydrate = 5 slices of bread or 8 weetbix or 8 medium bananas) and almost no fat or protein. The ideal breakfast, in contrast to his sugar laden and carbohydrate loaded seven weetbix with grapes, honey, sultanas and low fat (high sugar!) yoghurt, is one that provides plenty of protein, some slow burning carbohydrates, a serve of good fats, and plenty of vitamins, mineral and fibre (think fruit and veg).


Making sure you start your day with some good quality protein means you’re less likely to reach for that sugary mid-morning pick-me-up. Think eggs, natural yoghurt, cheese and unsalted nuts & seeds. Slow burning (low GI) quality sources of carbohydrates help refuel your energy stores after the night’s fast. Choose wholegrain breads and cereals (oats, quinoa, buckwheat) that are sure to keep your blood sugar levels steady and curb your cravings. Ensuring your breakfast contains some good fats helps promotes satiety. Eggs, avocado, raw nuts and seeds, flaxseed oil, nut butters and spreads are all great sources. Fruit and vegetables provide a wide range of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fibre (not to mention flavour and colour!).

2. They Fill Up On Fruit, Veg and Dine on Rainbows

When it comes to fresh fruit and vegetables, more is definitely better. A recent study has shown that eating seven or more portions of fruit and vegetables a day reduces your risk of death at any point in time by 42% compared to eating less than one portion. Aim for 50% of your meals to consist of fresh, non-starchy vegetables. Fruit and veg are considered low energy dense foods, meaning they provide very few calories in comparison to portion sizes. Eat a rainbow and try to incorporate as many different coloured fruits and vegetables as possible. Each colour carries its own set of unique disease-fighting chemicals.

  • Red (lycopene): This powerful antioxidant can help reduce the risk of cancer promote heart health.
    Purple/Blue (anthocyanin): This antioxidant has properties that protect cells from damage and can help reduce the risk of cancer, stroke and heart disease.
  • Orange/Yellow (carotenoids): Betacarotene, a carotenoid found in sweet potatoes, pumpkins and carrot, is converted to vitamin A, which helps maintain healthy mucous membranes and healthy eyes.
  • Green: Green vegetables contain a range of phytochemicals, all of which have anti-cancer properties. Leafy greens such as spinach and broccoli are also excellent sources of folate.
  • Brown/White: White fruits and vegetables contain a range of health-promoting phytochemicals, such as allicin (found in garlic) which is known for its antiviral and antibacterial properties.

3. They include lean protein with each meal

Protein is essential for the growth and repair of the body’s cells and plays an important role in satiety and fullness. However, most Australians consume enough (~1g/kg/body-weight/day) and contrary to popular belief, excess amounts will be stored as fat (not stored as muscle). High-protein, low carbohydrate diets, such as the Dukan diet and Atkins, make the body produce less insulin and when insulin levels are low, the body burns more fat. However, while high-protein diets can help with fast weight loss, those that are super low in carbohydrates are not advisable long term. To achieve a healthy weight that is maintainable, combine sensible portions of lean protein with low GI carbohydrates at mealtimes. An example might be:

Breakfast— 2 egg omelette with 1 cup of chopped veggies and 1 slice of rye toast.

Lunch— 100 grams of lean lamb with 2 cups of stir-fried veggies and 1 cup of rice noodles.

Protein comes from two different sources— plant-based (e.g. soy, nuts, legumes, grains) and animal based (e.g. meat, dairy, eggs) and it’s wise to incorporate both sources. Avoid processed meats and opt for fish, skinless chicken, turkey, eggs, low-fat dairy (but watch out for excessive sugar), and lean cuts of red meat.

4. They don’t suffer from portion distortion

It’s no secret that portions have increased dramatically over time, and that choosing smaller portions is an effective tool to help lose weight and keep it off. If you suffer from portion distortion and are having trouble downsizing your servings, try eating your dinner from a smaller plate and packing individual serves of snack foods instead of eating from the package.

How do your portion sizes stack up to the recommended serve sizes below?

  • Meat- 100-120g for women, 150-200g for men
  • Nuts- 30g-50g
  • Fruit- 1 medium piece
  • Salmon- 150g
  • Cheese- 30g
  • Rice- ½ cup cooked for women, 1-1.5 cups cooked for men
  • Pasta/Noodles- 1 cup  for women, 2 cups for men

5. They don’t avoid fat

A large-scale review of all scientific studies conducted on low-fat diets and weight loss found that there was no advantage to low-fat diets over calorie-controlled diets. To put it plainly, you can still achieve weight loss eating healthy fats, as long as your diet is calorie controlled.

Fats are an essential part of our diet as they contribute to flavour & satiety, help you absorb your fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E & K), help produce hormones in our body, and are an important structural part of our cells. Low-fat foods aren’t always low in calories or particularly nutritious. Some low-fat icecreams, yoghurts, biscuits, crackers, salad dressings are packed with extremely high in added sugar, salt and preservatives. Spend 15 minutes in your local supermarket reading the back of teh yoghurt labels— you might be surprised and shocked by how much sugar per 100g is packed into that 0% fat yoghurt.

The key to healthily consuming fats is to eat less trans and saturated fat (full-fat milk, meat, dairy, lard, processed & deep-fried food) and focus instead on eating the healthy polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, which lower bad cholesterol levels, thereby lowering heart disease risk. Good sources of polyunsaturated fats include fish, tahini, linseed, sunflower seeds, pine nuts, brazil nuts and safflower oil. Monounsaturated fats are found in avocados, almonds, cashews, peanuts and seed oils (canola, sunflower, soybean, olive, sesame, peanut).

Although there are no specific recommended intakes for fat, nutrition authorities usually advise you aim for 30% of your total kilojoule or calorie intake coming from fats.

6. They’re smart snackers

There is no one size fits all approach when it comes to meal times, therefore I advise people to snack if it suits them. Smart snackers eat according to their energy requirements and lifestyle needs. The requirements of a triathlete and a sedentary IT professional are obviously going to be very different. Contrary to popular belief, “starvation mode” will not be activated if you don’t eat every 2-3 hours. Your metabolism will not suddenly come to a grinding halt and suddenly stack the weight on. Snacking, however, may help individuals meet their nutrient requirements, prevent overeating at meal times, assist with keeping blood sugar levels stable (diabetes), and help refuel energy stores between workouts. One to two snacks per day as part of a healthy balanced diet is fine.

What does a sensible snack look like? Choose nutrition and calorie appropriate snacks (between 100 to 2000 calories each). Fresh fruit, low-fat Greek yoghurt, nuts, trail mix, protein balls/bars/shakes, muesli bars, whole grain muffins, bliss balls, green smoothies, roasted chickpeas & broad beans, popcorn, veggie sticks, homemade veggie dips, low-fat cheese & whole-wheat crackers, and boiled eggs, are some of our favourites.

7. They’re restaurant savvy

Aussies love their takeaway. The average Australian eats out twice a week, and in total, we spend $40 billion on takeaway food, per year! Whilst an occasional indulgent meal is not enough to derail your healthy eating habits, consuming energy dense takeaway foods (high in salt, sugar & fat, and low in fibre, fruit and vegetables) twice a week or more will send you off the rails and into a ditch. Making healthy choices can sometimes prove to be difficult. Check out this blog, that I wrote a few weeks ago.

Here are some of our top tips for being restaurant savvy:

    • Plan ahead— select venues that have healthy options
    • Don’t arrive to a restaurant, café or takeaway ravenous
    • Choose a light soup or salad if you’re having an entrée
    • Order an entrée-sized main meal to avoid portion distortion
    • Add extra vegetables or salad to meals
    • Stick to steamed and grilled dishes and avoid anything fried, creamy, battered or crumbed
    • Order sauces and dressings on the side
    • Don’t fill up on empty calories. Alternate alcoholic beverages with water or diet soft drink.

8. They keep a food diary

Several studies have shown that people who keep food journals are more likely to be successful in losing weight and keeping it off. In fact one study found that people who kept a food diary six days a week lost about twice as much weight as those who kept food records one day a week or less. For the six-month study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, dieters kept food diaries, attended weekly group support meetings, and were encouraged to eat a healthy diet and be active.

Recording food & fluid intake can keep mindless eating at bay, help identify mindless eating & triggers, and help make people aware of areas in their diet that need improvement. Recording hunger levels before and after meals can also help identify foods and meals that are most satisfying.

9. They don’t drink their calories

Diet soft drinks, coffee, coconut water, fruit nectars, vegetable juices, smoothies, energy drinks, flavoured water, and alcohol all contribute calories. Yet most of us are oblivious to the “hidden” calories we drink. One study found that sugar-sweetened drinks can contribute about 37% of our total daily liquid calories.

You may think that a glass or two of red wine at dinner is harmless, but the truth is, if you’re trying to lose weight or maintain it, every little bit adds up. Have a look at these numbers:

  • Regular latte 140 calories, 8g fat
  • Regular boost juice banana buzz = 450 calories, 70.8g sugar
  • 350ml iced coffee = 410 calories, 27g fat
  • 200ml red wine = 133 calories, 18.3 g alcohol

Alcohol can be part of a healthy diet and lifestyle when consumed in moderation. However, there are some simple pitfalls to be aware of, like the “Low carb” beers and wines that have become increasingly popular, in recent times. While they are lower in carbohydrate, they still provide roughly the same amount of alcohol and calories. Alcohol is energy dense, meaning it provides a lot of calories for a small amount, and also stimulates appetite, therefore increasing your intake of foods. Hungry for more on this topic? Check out our previous blog Sip it, or skip it?”.

10. They focus on what they CAN eat, not what they CAN’T

A weight-loss or healthy eating plan that leaves you hungry or fixated on what you can’t eat is unsustainable long-term and makes you more likely to binge. When people embark on a new healthy eating plan, it is important to find a happy medium and skip the “poor me” attitude (note: ditch the D word- diet!). Dieting, food deprivation and failure are all snuggled up together in the same bed. Successful weight loss and healthy eating involves changing your thoughts, which will in turn change your behaviours. Kick those three unruly bedfellows out from under the covers.

Thinking about all the foods you are being deprived of leads to…

Feeling deprived

e.g. angry, sad, frustrated, depressed, which leads to…

Behaving like you’re being deprived

e.g. eating foods from your deprivation list such as cake, chocolate.

Concentrate on the positives, such as “I can still eat dessert” and “I can still have an appetiser and main course”. Look forward to the delicious and nutritious meals you have prepared for yourself, and allow for an occasional treat in your healthy eating plan.

Finding balance in achieving and maintaining weight loss and healthy eating is attainable. Those who are successful usually have many of the above habits established as patterns of behaviour. Perhaps they have had them modelled by others, and adopted them unconsciously, or perhaps they have learned them by trial and error, and have deliberately cultivated them. Whichever it is for you, establish your goals to replace unhelpful habits with healthy ones (one by one), and focus on realistic ways that you can achieve and maintain these goals, long-term!