Take a moment to consider what your grandmother used to eat. Likely something small to start the day – a black coffee or cup of tea with a slice of toast or perhaps some breakfast cereal and regular milk.
Lunch would have been a simple sandwich followed by a piece of fruit and dinner, a couple of chops with a few different vegetables such as potato, carrots and peas.
Coffees were enjoyed plain; snacks occasional and the effects of much less food overall could be seen on our bodies, which were a lot smaller and on average 8-9 kilograms lighter than the average Australian woman is today.
Overweight and obesity rates have consistently risen over the past 50 years, and along with them a range of diet-related diseases.
We can learn a little from our grandparents about the art of eating in a way that is much more conducive to weight control.
Quick analysis of a typical daily dietary intake in 1960 reveals significant differences, with calorie intake now 500-800 more per day than consumed 60 years ago.
On reflection, it is not overly hard to see why this may be the case – the glut of processed snack foods, increasing reliance on fast food and high-calorie meals enjoyed at restaurants and cafes.
Couple this with continued reductions in activity thanks to sedentary work, more time spent in the car and less manual housework and it means we are basically eating a lot more and burning a lot less, becoming much larger humans in the process.
While we cannot turn back time, nor would we want to, what we can do is learn a little from our grandparents about the art of eating in a way that is much more conducive to weight control, while still enjoying all of your favourite foods.
Dinner doesn’t get simpler than Adam Liaw’s mince and veg. Photo: William Meppem
Meals were infrequent and early
The structure of our days has changed significantly in the past 50-60 years, with coffee and breakfast now more likely at 9am or even 10am each day compared to 7am at the breakfast table back in the day.
Lunch is no different, with a classic one-hour lunch break at 12 replaced with a grab-and-go experience much later in the day. Dinner at 6 for the whole family is long gone, with the evening meal more commonly enjoyed much later in the evening and often picked up on the way home from work, school or the gym.
Looking back, it was not only the five to six hours in between main meals that helped to ensure you were hungry come meal time, but consuming the majority of calories within a 12-hour window back then was conducive to both digestive health and weight control.
Meals were much simpler
Forget a piece of meat served with salad or vegetables for dinner, or a small bowl of breakfast cereal to start the day. Nowadays, our food is far from simple.
Supermarkets are brimming with varieties of protein, vegetables, sauces, marinades, flavours and ultimately calories that we add into even the simplest of daily meal choices.
Indeed, there are many benefits from being exposed to a range of cultural food experiences, foods and tastes and flavours but keeping portions under control is the only way we can enjoy a greater variety of food without chronically overconsuming.
Snacks were light and occasional
Advances in food technology throughout the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s mean we could suddenly manufacture a wide range of bites, balls, bars, biscuits and crackers, which has ultimately resulted in multiple aisles in the supermarket dedicated to snacking.
This is in contrast to an occasional piece of fruit, or plain biscuit to accompany a cup of tea or black coffee mid-morning or afternoon.
Coffee was not a meal
While there are some benefits from consuming dairy milk, or plant milk that is fortified with calcium as a routine part of the daily diet, it needs to be remembered that milk-based coffee contains calories and not an insignificant number.
Old-school cups of tea and coffee with a dash of milk contain just 10-20 calories per serve. On the other hand, even a small milk-based latte or cappuccino contains 60-80 calories, and this increases up to 200-300 calories for larger coffees typically available at takeaway coffee shops.
As coffee is a daily, sometimes multiple times a day habit, the liquid calories add up, and we also know that humans are not overly good at eating less when they have consumed some of their calories in a liquid form.
Portions were controlled
Think back to the plates your grandparents served their meals on. Most likely they were one-third to one-half the size of plates used today, and the same with the bowls and even glasses.
This basically meant that meals – all meals – including breakfast and even dessert, were much smaller.
Perhaps one of the most practical and poignant things we can learn from the past is that we can enjoy all the foods we like to eat, we just need to eat a whole lot less of them.
Susie Burrell is an accredited practising dietitian and nutritionist and holds a master in coaching psychology.