CSIRO diet for women and girls focuses on nourishing our bodies

We've seen low-carb, protein-plus and healthy gut plans and now women and girls are the target market. Picture: Shutterstock
We've seen low-carb, protein-plus and healthy gut plans and now women and girls are the target market. Picture: Shutterstock

As women, we're often too busy thinking about what to feed everyone else to worry about what we're feeding ourselves.

We're the "gatekeepers" of food in many households, particularly those with young children, doing the majority of the planning, shopping and cooking.

We have numerous roles at different life stages. There are many ways we combine paid and unpaid roles, such as caring for children, older relatives and others.

All too often, self-care takes a back seat, yet it is essential.

For decades, the CSIRO, Australia's national science agency, has conducted research into understanding the critical role that food and nutrition play in our overall health.

Since the Total Wellbeing Diet was first launched back in 2005, the CSIRO has brought the evidence-based research into our kitchens.

We've seen low-carb, protein-plus and healthy gut plans and now women and girls are the target market.

And for the exact opposite reasons why most "diet" plans tend to focus on women and girls.

"Women can have quite a complex relationship with food," says Dr Jane Bowen, co-author of The CSIRO Women's Health and Nutrition Guide.

"We do feel incredibly responsible for the health of families, we're often the main providers of food, but at the same time, there's that guilt, maybe, about not being so-called 'perfect', cooking perfect meals, or even looking perfect."

Dr Bowen says the CSIRO wanted to look at the issues in a practical way, look at dietary habits, and reflect on whether or not they were helpful and healthy.

"It's all about a healthy lifestyle at every stage, which is why we've looked at the stages of puberty, early adulthood, pregnancy and breastfeeding, and menopause.

"Women have a very unique physiology, we have quite significant hormone cycles, as well as our monthly cycles, there are the changes that occur during the major adjustments such as puberty, pregnancy and menopause.

"We know women want trustworthy information, we know they want to eat well, and they're inclined to seek out how to eat well so we knew this book would fill that gap."

Dr Bowen says it crucial for women to focus on nourishing their bodies, rather than focussing on a kilogram target, at every life stage.

"Social media pressures and perhaps non-evidence-based advice leaves women feeling like they need to deprive themselves," she says.

"Whereas we are much more focused in this book around being abundant with the nourishing whole foods like vegetables and healthy fats and oils and meat and low-GI carbohydrates.

"And thinking about it in a long-term approach to our health because we know that that's where you get the health gains, rather than from the short-term, highly-restrictive approaches that we can't stick to."

Dr Bowen is a senior scientist and dietitian with the CSIRO, with a PhD exploring how different proteins affect our appetites and a focus on "health on the inside". As the mother of young children herself, she admits she loves cooking and working out how to adopt healthy lifestyle choices that work for the whole family.

"My husband's always saying, you can let me cook too," she says. "It's my form of relaxation and it is a lovely thing to bring family and friends together, it's much more than just nutrition.

"It's about family and socialising and culture as well. I think it's a really big part of food in Australia, we have so many cultures, such amazing food and produce, and that comes with so much opportunity."

The CSIRO Womens Health and Nutrition Guide, by Dr Jane Bowen, Associate Professor Bev Muhlhausler and Gemma Williams.

The CSIRO Womens Health and Nutrition Guide, by Dr Jane Bowen, Associate Professor Bev Muhlhausler and Gemma Williams.

Dr Bowen is quite interested in changes during menopause and says more research needs to be done.

"In our 40s, as we approach the perimenopause stage, a common observation that women have is that their body shapes change. It's easy to blame that on hormones, and hormonal changes, but there are plenty of lifestyle habits that can minimise that," she says.

"Some changes in our body shape do relate to hormones, but we also tend to have a very busy lifestyle where self-care and physical activity might be a lower priority. It is really important for our own health to stay active and to also make sure that we're getting enough calcium.

"Our oestrogen levels plummet during menopause and that has a significant impact on our bone density. Calcium, and protein, are really important for bone health and it's much better to manage that proactively then to be told in your 50s that you've got low bone density."

Food to focus on during menopause

There are some specific food groups and nutrients that are beneficial during and after menopause:

Fruit and vegetables: eating plenty of fruit and vegetables is particularly important during and after menopause. These are packed with vitamins and minerals, fibre and antioxidants, and regular consumption has been shown to help reduce hot flushes in some women.

Omega-3 fats: Some, though not all, studies have suggested that omega-3 fats can help relieve the symptoms of menopause. This can be achieved through regular fish consumption or dietary supplements.

Low-GI foods: These can help lower blood sugar levels, and eating these foods rather than sugary alternatives can help reduce hot flushes.

Phytoeostrogens: These plant compounds occur naturally in many foods, but especially in soybeans, tofu, chickpeas, flaxseeds and black tea. There has been some controversy about whether these help or hinder women during menopause. Reviews of high-quality research suggests they may have some health benefits, along with possibly protecting against heart disease.

Lean meat, eggs and dairy: These provide protein and calcium to help prevent muscle loss and support bone health, both of which become important during and after menopause.

  • The CSIRO Women's Health and Nutrition Guide, by Dr Jane Bowen, Associate Professor Bev Muhlhausler and Gemma Williams. Macmillan Australia, $39.99.

Lamb ragu with olives and polenta

Lamb ragu with olives and polenta. Picture: Rob Palmer

Lamb ragu with olives and polenta. Picture: Rob Palmer

Polenta is a staple in many parts of Italy and makes a wonderful accompaniment to this ragu. The ragu can be stored in the fridge for up to three days or frozen. Thaw the frozen mixture in the fridge overnight and reheat in a large saucepan over medium heat, ensuring it is heated throughout before eating.

Ingredients

600g diced lamb

1 head garlic, outer leaves removed, halved horizontally

4 large zucchini, thickly sliced

2 large red capsicums, seeded and thickly sliced

2 large green capsicums, seeded and thickly sliced

2 red onions, cut into thick wedges

2 lemons, cut into wedges

1 small bunch oregano

3 tbsp pitted kalamata olives, halved

1 litre salt-reduced chicken stock

170g instant polenta

1 tbsp olive oil

rocket or other leafy greens, to serve

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 160C (140C fan-forced).

2. Combine the lamb, garlic, zucchini, capsicum, onion, lemon, oregano, olives and 500ml of the stock in a large, heavy-based roasting tin. Cover with a double layer of foil and slow-roast for four hours or until very tender. Remove and set aside to rest.

3. Heat the remaining stock in a saucepan over medium heat. Slowly whisk the polenta into the hot stock, making sure no lumps form. Cook, whisking constantly, for five to seven minutes or until the polenta is very thick and the grains are tender. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the olive oil until melted and well combined. Season with freshly ground black pepper.

4. Divide the polenta among plates and spoon the lamb ragu over the top. Serve with rocket or other leafy greens.

Serves 4.

Thai salmon and rice noodle salad

Thai salmon and rice noodle salad. Picture: Rob Palmer

Thai salmon and rice noodle salad. Picture: Rob Palmer

You can try other varieties of fish in this recipe, such as Australian mackerel, pink snapper or flathead. Similarly, regular cabbage or lettuce can be used in place of Chinese cabbage. Enjoy heat in your Thai meals? Add some chilli powder to the Soy, sesame and ginger 3-in-1.

Ingredients

1 tbsp Asian spice booster (see below)

4 x 150 g skinless, boneless salmon fillets, cut into 2cm pieces

1 1/2 tbsp sunflower oil

160g finely shredded Chinese cabbage

250g cherry tomatoes, halved

1 large carrot, cut into thin matchsticks

300g snow peas, trimmed, halved lengthways

1/2 x quantity soy, sesame and ginger 3-in-1 (see below)

640 g (4 cups) soaked brown rice vermicelli noodles

Method

1. Combine the spice booster, salmon and oil in a bowl and set aside.

2. Place all the remaining ingredients in a large serving bowl and toss to combine. Set aside.

3. Heat a large non-stick wok over high heat. Stir-fry the salmon in three batches for 3-4 minutes each or until just cooked and golden crisp. Transfer directly to the noodle mixture and gently toss through. Serve warm.

Tip: This is a good recipe for children who prefer each meal component to be kept separate on their plate.

Serves 4.

Asian spice booster

Ingredients

1 tbsp onion powder

1 tbsp garlic powder

2 tbsp ground coriander

2 tbsp ground cumin

2 tsp salt-reduced lemon pepper

Method

Place all the ingredients in a screw-top jar, seal and then shake until well combined. Store in a cool, dark place for up to two months.

Soy, sesame and ginger 3-in-1

Ingredients

1/2 cup salt-reduced soy sauce

8 drops sesame oil

1 tsp Asian spice booster (see above)

2cm piece ginger, finely grated

Method

Place all the ingredients in a screw-top jar, seal and then shake until well combined. Store in the fridge for up to five days. Before using, shake well and season with freshly ground black pepper.

Serves 4.

Strawberry crumble

Strawberry crumble. Picture: Rob Palmer

Strawberry crumble. Picture: Rob Palmer

This is a great chance for the kids to help out in the kitchen. The whole family will ask for seconds of this simple and tasty treat.Fozen strawberries work well too.

Ingredients

600g strawberries, hulled and halved

3 tsp balsamic vinegar

2 tsp pure vanilla extract

75g plain flour

45g rolled oats

1/2 tsp mixed spice

1 tbsp brown sugar

2 tbsp light margarine

1/2 tsp icing sugar

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 200C (180C fan-forced).

2. Place the strawberries in a 20cm round pie plate. Drizzle with the balsamic and vanilla and toss to coat well. Set aside.

3. Combine the flour, oats, mixed spice and brown sugar in a bowl. Add the margarine and gently rub together until rough crumbs form.

4. Sprinkle the crumble over the strawberry mixture and bake for 12-15 minutes or until the top is golden and the fruit is bubbling. Dust with icing sugar and serve.

Serves 4.

This story Why nourishing our bodies is the key - at every life stage first appeared on The Canberra Times.