Helping Clients Develop Healthier Dietary Habits

Nutrition author Adel Davis used to claim, “You are what you eat” (Davis, 1970). Beyond diet, we “are” to some extent also how we exercise, how we sleep, and how we interact with our environment. That is because these are all variables which ultimately determine the condition of our physical self, which greatly impacts our capacity to express ourselves on other levels of being. In this article we examine the main considerations for a healthy diet, identifying brief points that you may wish to emphasise to any clients who need information on the topic in their quest for high-level wellness. If you suspect (or are told) that your client is not eating a healthy diet, the following case study (which can be followed with discussion you lead) can yield much insight about the level of understanding your client has about basic dietary needs. Offer the client a copy of the case study and then ask for his/her opinion about what Albert may be not getting enough of, getting too much of, or generally doing unhelpfully.

Case study on diet: Albert

Albert puts in a busy day as a health professional. When he comes home, he crawls wearily onto his couch and drops off to sleep until his wife tells him it’s time to go to bed. He does an occasional 15-20 minute jog, but has no hobbies or other leisure pursuits apart from drinking many huge chai lattes at cafes. Albert’s diet consists of: toasted white bread, butter, and jam for breakfast; a few oranges, cheese, salted sunflower seeds, and chai lattes throughout the day; and fried (caged) eggs and more oranges for dinner (if it’s his night to cook) as he watches the news. Albert spends a lot of time sleeping on his days off. He has low energy levels, but no other medical symptoms; his GP recently gave him a thorough check-up and declared that Albert was healthy. If you ask him how he is, Albert replies, “fine, thanks”.

Albert’s doctor may subscribe to a disease-oriented way of thinking about health, for Albert – although not experiencing any particular disease at the moment – is far from “well”. There could be many things in his life weighing him down that we are not told about, but one thing emerges: Albert’s diet – not seemingly too bad at first glance – leaves a bit to be desired. As you read about his typical daily food intake, did anything strike you as either a “sin of commission” or the opposite – one of omission? Take a moment now and have a go at offering your analysis on what you believe Albert could eat more of, eat less of, or do differently:

Why eat healthy?

If you ask most of your clients why they should eat a healthy diet, chances are that many of them will get the answer right. Eating the right foods can help us maintain our ideal weight, avoid many if not most health problems, greatly improve our mood, and generally improve our wellbeing. Most of us know that we should eat right, and more, know what we should eat. Yet the typical Western diet remains full of processed meats, packaged meals, sugary and/or salty snacks, and takeaway food. Many nutritional authorities have linked an unhealthy diet to mental health disorders such as ADHD, Alzheimer’s disease, and schizophrenia, to name but a few (Robinson, Segal, & Segal, 2015), so the sooner we change our habits, the sooner we do our part to lessen the burden of ill health on ourselves, our families, and our communities. But what do you say when your client asks, “So what is “healthy eating?”

There is a huge risk for anyone daring (foolish?) enough to offer nutritional advice: for just about every dietary tip one “expert” offers, there is usually another “expert” offering contradictory advice. So even though the dietary notions we propose below are basic and generally uncontroversial, do not be surprised if some of them run counter to other research or advice you or your client have run across lately. What to do about this confusing state of affairs? We recommend that, because diet is such a central part of any wellness program, you encourage your clients to take on being intelligent consumers of the information coming out: studying it, analysing it, and making up their own minds about what is right for their bodies, lifestyles, and food preferences. In that context we offer these basic ideas about healthy eating that you can pass along to receptive clients.

Tips for healthy eating

Eat foods that are as close to the raw (unprocessed) state as possible. The fresh fruits and vegetables (five to seven servings a day) and lean, fresh meats that you eat are shown, over and over again, to have more of the helpful nutrients your body needs and can absorb than packaged, de-natured foods with long lists of ingredients (which are mainly synthetic chemicals, with supplements added).

Eat mindfully. This involves not only eating slowly (so that your stomach has the requisite time to send a message to your brain that it is full), but also focusing on your food. Your television, phone, computer, and any other electronic devices should be turned off or in the next room. Some nutrition professionals advocate eating with other people as opposed to sitting in front of the telly, but we point out that conversation still involves a distraction. Focused-on food is more satisfying and will help you to feel full more easily without overeating.

Be sure to eat breakfast. It is the most important meal of the day, and study after study shows that kids who eat breakfast do better at school. Adults who eat breakfast more easily maintain their right weight.

Make sure you ingest enough protein. With the all-important roles of cell repair, cell regeneration, hormone production, and blood sugar management, protein is a basic building block in a healthy diet. You should have it throughout the day, in relatively equal amounts at each meal. You need at least 0.8 grams of high-quality (lean) protein per kilogram (2.2 lbs) of body weight, and older adults should try to get 1 – 1.5 grams of lean protein for each kilo of body weight. This means that even a relatively slender 55 kg (121 lb) older adult would require around 55 – 82 grams of protein per day, and her younger counterpart would need a minimum of 44 grams. An adult weighing 68 kg (150 lbs) would need between 54 grams (if the person is younger) and 68 to 102 grams if older. By comparison, an egg tends to have about 6 grams of protein. The good news is that, if you are getting sufficient high-quality protein, your cravings for the foods that hurt your health are vastly reduced (Better Health Channel, Victoria State Government, 2012; Eden, 2009).

Get your fat right! Well, we don’t mean your fat, but the fat you take in. “Bad” fats – such as the trans-fats found in most takeaway meals, processed foods, vegetable shortenings, margarines, biscuits, and snack and fried foods – increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, and other “killer” diseases. “Good” fats include monounsaturated fats – such as those found in nuts, avocados, and seeds – and polyunsaturated fats, including the “Omega 3” group found in fatty fish (salmon, herring, anchovies, sardines, mackerel, and fish oil supplements) and flaxseed and walnuts.

Recent nutritional discoveries are focusing not only on the Omega 3 fats, which for some time we have known are helpful to us, but also the ratio of Omega 6 fats to Omega 3 fats. We need both, but in the right proportions. We should have Omega 6: Omega 3 ratios of somewhere between 1:1 and 1:4, but sadly, most Westerners’ diets have ratios more like 20:1 or even 40:1. Omega 6 fats, found in vegetable oils such as corn oil, sunflower oil, and safflower oil, are more emphasised in the Western diet, and it is easy to create health-jeopardising imbalance (Eden, 2009).

Even vegetarians must look out here, as many varieties of nuts and seeds have outrageous ratios. Sunflower seeds, for example, have a ratio of 472:1, and even cashew nuts are 48:1 (Cordain, 2011), so if these were to be your main source of protein, you could be undermining your health. Sometimes you can “shop smart” around this issue; caged eggs are 20:1, but free-range eggs have the right ratio (Eden, 2009). Watch this space, as studies give us increasing information about the many diseases we cause ourselves by this imbalance. And a note on saturated fats: we are now finding out that not all of them are bad. Coconut oil, for example, much beloved in the Asia-Pacific region, has lauric acid, which is protective against heart disease by helping to eliminate the gut bacteria which increase inflammation and elevate the risk for cardiovascular disease (Cordain, 2011).

Watch your “white poisons”. Brian Tracy (best-selling author and motivational speaker but not a nutrition expert!) warns against too much consumption of what he calls the white poisons. This notion nicely encompasses many dietary problems for typical Westerners. We have white (processed, refined) flours, white salt, and white sugar, all of which undermine our wellness (Tracy, 2010). If you are going to eat grains (many people are adopting grain-free, “Paleo” diets these days), then be sure to consume ones which have not had the fibre and other nutrients stripped in the refining process. It is said that meal worms placed into jars of white flour don’t even eat any of it; they seem to know that there is nothing in it to nourish them (source unknown). Ditto salt (you are better off with sea salt or Himalayan salt), and less refined sweeteners, such as honey (Robinson et al, 2015). All of these foods, however – even the recommended versions – should be consumed in moderation. Be adventurous instead with herbs and spices, such as garlic, turmeric, chili, basil, and parsley.

Eat a variety of foods, but aim to feel just satisfied rather than stuffed. You’ve probably heard the term, “portion control”. You can achieve it more easily on smaller plates, whose surfaces you have covered more with different-coloured fruits and vegetables than the other food groups. Your lean protein might take up about as much space on the plate as a deck of cards, and your carbohydrate serving could be about the size of a traditional light bulb. Make your “seconds” veggies rather than the carbohydrates of potatoes or pasta. In this category, we can also say that this sort of gentle restraint can work when eating out as well. For example, you can save money and reduce the possibility of over-consuming by ordering a medium size latte, not the largest one. Similarly, you can share large portions between two people, or order “starter” size for yourself rather than mains size.

Enjoy the foods you love on occasion. We all know the scenario where several friends go to the ice cream shop for a treat, but only the one who has recently been on a diet orders two banana-splits! That person was probably experiencing deprivation. Rather than saying that any food is off-limits now and forever, amen, try to think in terms of a little bit of what you love as an occasional treat. Knowing that the food is not gone forever can help you enjoy it as an indulgence, returning to your more healthy habits as a lifestyle.

Eat when you are hungry. However, don’t get too hungry; your blood sugar may swing wildly, causing intense (read: unhealthy) cravings. One solution for this is to consume mostly low Glycaemic Index foods, which release their energy over time, stabilising blood sugar, rather than causing it to spike and then crash as high Glycaemic Index foods do. Some people need to eat smaller meals, up to five or six times a day. Others are better off with fewer, but more substantial, meals. See what works for you.

Be strategic with food. Prepare your own meals as much as possible (you have more control), read the labels on the foodstuffs you buy (are you aware of how many names crafty food manufacturers have managed to give to sugar and salt?). Avoid high-kilojoule drinks and foods, and always focus on how you feel after a meal; if you feel nauseated or drained of energy, it’s probably not a health-inducing food for you.

Don’t diet and don’t count calories. Most diets depend on restriction in some way in order to achieve the weight loss or gain. Even people on a maintenance diet are sometimes tempted to count calories, but for both instances, we question: is it really necessary? To get your nutrients in balance with one another and your diet in balance with the rest of your life (especially including exercise) is to come into a balanced (i.e., ideal) weight, sooner or later. For those with hormonal or other issues inhibiting weight loss or gain, special assistance may be needed, but for most people, observing the chief dietary principles we have outlined here will tend to enhance wellness and bring your weight into line. Moreover, studies have shown that the more frequently a person has dieted, the greater are that person’s chances of being overweight and even obese in later life. Dieting also puts people at greater risk of developing food intolerances and digestive problems due to the over-consumption of some foods and the exclusion of others. A better option seems to be to aim for a healthy, long-term lifestyle eating regimen (suggestions in this section adapted from: Change4Life, n.d.; Eden, 2009; Robinson et al, 2015; Better Health Channel, Victoria State Government, 2012).

Tweaking the diet – questions to ask clients

Based on what you have just read/heard, how do you rate your diet? We are not talking about the occasional treat, but about your regular eating habits. Answer the following questions and make any additional notes here to capture your sense of how your diet is enhancing or undermining your wellness – and what you plan to change for the areas where you are undermining yourself. Don’t forget to reflect on any obstacles you will have to work through in order to implement the changes, including possible resistance in yourself to feeling regimented.

  • One of the features of my diet that I feel good about and want to keep is:
  • The named feature (above) improves my health by:
  • The aspect of my diet I most feel the need to change is:
  • This food or way of eating is hurting my health by:
  • What I plan to eat (do) differently from now on is:
  • I anticipate a bit of resistance to my plan from (myself, partner, friends, family, realities of grocery shopping, etc.):
  • I plan to overcome this resistance by:
  • The support person/people who will help me with my dietary change is/are:

Albert: Our analysis

After reading the tips for healthy eating, what would your client say that Albert’s dietary (and possibly energy) problems are? Invite your client to share his/her thoughts on what Albert could improve. We are not dieticians, but here are some observations we made about Albert’s diet in light of the tips we offered (which are consistent with what nutrition experts say):

There do not appear to be any veggies anywhere in Albert’s diet! Of the 5-7 daily servings we should all have, probably 3-5 should be vegetables, not fruit. The toast, butter, and jam he has for breakfast could be improved in several ways. He is not taking any protein with a meal like this, and the jam might be high in sugar content. It would be better to consume whole-grain bread than white bread, which is probably high Glycaemic Index, and therefore contributing to energy spikes with subsequent crashes.

It’s great that he’s having oranges throughout the day, but there are at least two concerns with this: (1) they are taking up stomach space that vegetables could be occupying; (2) when oranges are his sole means of fulfilling the fruit and veg requirement in his diet, there is very little variety, which would give him a far better chance of meeting daily vitamin and mineral requirements than sticking with a sole food.

To get enough volume of food with such a limited number of foods, Albert is undoubtedly eating too much dairy with the cheese (which could be a problem with the fats in it) and the milk from the lattes. He is also likely to be consuming too many seeds/nuts, which have much less protein than fat in them (albeit possibly good fats). So there may be problems with the amount of fat, the type of fat, and the total caloric intake.

Sunflower seeds, in particular, have a very high Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratio, so even though he is a vegetarian –- usually regarded as a healthy eating style –- Albert may be courting heart disease through this fats imbalance. The sunflower seeds are salted, so he may be getting far too much salt (and it is likely to be salt of a “low-class” variety, not sea salt or Himalayan salt). In addition to the excessive dairy, the numerous chai lattes are probably adding far too much sugar/sweetener to his diet.

His fried, as opposed to hard-boiled or poached, eggs are adding more fat to his diet (we do not know what type of cooking oil he uses, but this may or may not be a high quality one). By using caged eggs rather than free-range ones, he is hugely increasing (yet again) the Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratio of fats.
When he eats dinner while watching television, Albert is paying attention to that, not his food. The frequent bad news in the news may not improve his digestion (!), but in any case, by not focusing on his food, he is probably enjoying it less and therefore needing to eat more of it in order to be satisfied. We can only hope that Albert realises at some stage how his dietary practices could be contributing to his low energy and takes action to restore a healthy balance.


  • Better Health Channel, Victoria State Government. (2012). Healthy eating tips. Better Health Channel, Victoria State Government. Retrieved on 20 January, 2016, from: hyperlink.
  • Cordain, L. (2011). The Paleo Diet: Lose weight and get healthy by eating the foods you were designed to eat. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
  • Davis, A. (1970). Let’s eat right to keep fit: A practical guide to nutrition designed to help you achieve good health through proper diet (Revised Ed.). San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. ISBN-10: 0151503044. ISBN-13: 978-01515003049.
  • Eden, K. (2009). The 11 most important rules for healthy eating… yes, most important. Retrieved on 20 January, 2016, from: hyperlink.
  • Robinson, L., Segal, J., & Segal, R. (2015). Healthy eating: Easy tips for planning a healthy diet and sticking to it. Retrieved on 20 January, 2016, from: hyperlink.