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The way we were - Catherine Saxelby on three decades of nutrition

By Paula Goodyer

For over 30 years dietitian Catherine Saxelby has helped consumers navigate nutrition both via Foodwatch and books like Nutrition for Life, her healthy eating guide first published in 1986 - a time when paleo was about fossils, not food, and no one had heard of oat milk.

Since then we’ve with dieted with Atkins, South Beach, the Zone, the Liver Cleansing Diet and Dukan and gone up and down with carbs and fat. But one thing stays the same: our belief in food heroes and villains and the magical thinking that eating - or avoiding - single foods or nutrients will deliver better health.

“Thirty years ago the demon was fat.  Now gluten is the bad guy and our heroes are superfoods,” says Catherine whose new edition of Nutrition for Life is out in February.  “We’re looking for villains and magic bullets when we should be looking at our diet and lifestyle as a whole. “

With gluten, she suspects that changes to bread processing introduced in the 1970s could explain some problems with gluten.

“A longer fermentation time helps break down gluten and carbohydrates but I’d say that since the 1970s proofing time with bread has dropped from overnight - 12 hours - to around two hours,” she says. In the ‘70s Australian bakeries  adopted a new British technique called the Chorleywood method that cut production time  so dramatically that it took around two hours from when the dough was mixed until the bread was sliced and wrapped, explains Catherine who worked at the Bread Research Institute in Sydney at the time. “It made the average loaf softer, reduced its cost and more than doubled its life - but it’s come with a cost to our health.”

So what were we eating in 1986?  

“Food was simpler and often monotonous. If you were health conscious you drank a diet cola called Tab, not kombucha, and water came of a tap,” Catherine says. “Meals were more predictable - typically something like lamb cutlets, mashed potatoes and frozen peas for dinner and Weet-Bix for breakfast. If you were dieting there were Limmits - meal replacement biscuits that were the forerunner of the shakes and meal replacement bars we have now. A school lunchbox had a sandwich, a piece of fruit and milk. We didn’t have a problem with child obesity and it was safe to pack a peanut butter sandwich - nut allergy was uncommon.”

Three decades on, what’s improved?

“We’re less obsessed with calories and we have Health At Every Size (HAESTM) where we’re encouraged to be happy with our bodies without wishing to modify them. Our food is more diverse and we’re becoming more conscious of tackling both food waste and waste generated by packaging,” she says. “We’re also better at doing surveys that tell us what people are truly eating and we’ve got better at food labelling. The Health Star Rating is a step in the right direction, although it has its limitations - but I think food is so complex that it’s difficult to come up with a single system that works for all foods. For instance, smoked salmon is NOT equivalent to apples. Some food companies are also improving food by using less sugar and salt and reducing portion sizes.”

…and where could we do better?

“Food technology has made junk food so delicious that it hits our bliss points and makes it easy to eat too much. We’ve also failed with alcohol - with the exception of low alcohol and no alcohol beer - because we’re up against powerful marketing forces that want us to drink more,” she says.   

We’re also still struggling to persuade people to avoid highly processed food, she says, pointing to the promotion of plant based diets as an example of the challenge.

“The message about a plant based diet is good if it means eating more vegetables and legumes - something dietitians have recommended for years. But since the 80s, our demand for convenience has grown and it’s now collided with the plant-based eating trend, leading to some alternative meat products that are highly processed and high in salt. There are also the food miles involved with some of these products from overseas like Linda McCartney from the UK, Funky Fields from Denmark and Beyond Burgers from the USA.”

“If people want to avoid animal foods for ethical reasons, that’s fine but we need to steer them away from highly processed alternatives - and if they’re avoiding meat for health reasons, the message is that you can eat well on a good flexitarian diet with a little meat as well as on a good vegan or vegetarian diet.

“Women often do this well and eat meat in recommended amounts but it’s men, especially older men, who need to be eating less.” 

Catherine Saxelby was the 2014 winner of the Bruce Chandler Book Prize from the Australian Institute of Food Science and Technology for best food writing related to nutrition and food technology. She has written 12 books and 5 eBooks. Her new edition of Nutrition for Life is published by Hardie Grant, RRP $34.99 out in February 2020.