Shattering the Illusion: There is No Magic Nutrition Wand

Shattering the Illusion: There is No Magic Nutrition Wand

Shattering the Illusion: There is No Magic Nutrition WandThere is no magic nutrition wand. And no, I’m not hiding one in my desk drawer while telling you this. Good nutrition is a lifestyle, not a rule book. It’s a moving target for every person since every day is not the same and there are constantly new foods and new choices. No single food will make or break your health, eaten in moderation. As a mentor dietitian once told me, “I never give my patients meal plans because I want to teach them how to eat, not what to eat.”

I come from a background philosophy that every food fits a healthy lifestyle. There are parameters, though. Portion size is one of those. A person can’t gorge them self on less nutritious foods daily and expect to be healthy. A few chips with a sandwich at lunch, though, or a small bowl of ice cream once in a while are fine. As long as you don’t have nutrition-related health problems or metabolic disorders, there is not necessarily any need to strictly prohibit any particular food. But you still have to be mindful of what else you eat and how much you eat.

The question “Can I eat __________?” will often be met with, “That depends.” It depends on several factors: what else you eat and how much as previously mentioned, but also how often you eat that food, how much exercise you do, the health risks you may have, and what you’re trying to achieve, among others.

Nutrition is simultaneously unclear since it is not black-and-white, while also being much simpler than how it is generally perceived. A varied diet of foods from each food group is a great general rule of thumb, and figuring out the details is where things get a bit trickier. That’s what I am here for, to help give you the tools to navigate the choices available in world full of food. So even though there is no magic nutrition wand I can share with you and I won’t tell you what you can and can’t eat, conscious decisions about food choices can lead to a healthier, more nutritious lifestyle.

And now that you don't have to be perfect, you can be good.
The Meaning of TRY

The Meaning of TRY

As Yoda said, “Do or do not. There is no try.”The Meaning of TRY

Far be it from me to disagree with the character of Yoda, but within the realm of health goals, I disagree with this particular piece of advice.

“All-or-nothing” thinking is a common problem among those who have health goals. It is the idea that if you’re going to eat healthy, you’ll have nothing unhealthy, and if you slip up and eat something less nutritious, you give up and stop eating healthy foods altogether. Another example is if you were to set a goal to go to the gym for an hour 5 days a week. If you only have time to work out for 30 minutes, you won’t go at all.

You can see where the all-or-nothing mindset is problematic. Often, you’ll find yourself worse off as a result of all-or-nothing thinking than if you had just allowed yourself a treat and continued on with your healthy behaviors.

From my perspective, Yoda is encouraging this all-or-nothing thinking. And while that may be sound guidance in other aspects of life or in a galaxy far, far away, it doesn’t have a place in health goals and behaviors. In this area, this IS ‘try.’

Try covers the middle ground between do or do not. Try is what you do when you don’t know what you’re capable of and you want to move forward. Try is how you accomplish the small steps to reach a bigger goal. Try is how you keep yourself on track even after slipping up, and try is how you avoid making yourself crazy by being super strict with yourself. Try is brave, because it’s an attempt in the face of possible failAs long as you are trying - honestly trying - it will get easier.ure.

Here’s the tricky part, though – how do you know that you’re trying? It’s important to make sure that you’re truly making an effort and actually taking real steps toward your goals, rather than just skating by on old habits instead of making the decisions to do better, wishing things were different, and labeling it as “trying.”

Try Check-in:

  1. Do you feel satisfied with your effort, or do you feel like you could easily have done better? If you’re at the end of a workout, feeling like you’re making no progress toward your goal to run a 5K, but you still have plenty of energy, maybe you could have run a little harder or a little longer.

  2. Are you using mini-goals as stepping stones to your big goals? If you are a chronic soda drinker and you quit it cold turkey, but find yourself picking up the habit again every time you slip up and drink one soda, it would probably be helpful to set mini-goals to cut out one soda a day each week.

  3. When you have a bad day or a slip-up, are you able to regroup and continue making progress? Health is a lifelong journey, and abandoning good habits because you ate too much cake at a birthday party or you ate out every day while on vacation will be detrimental. Cut yourself some slack and get back on track.

Do and do not certainly exist. But for all the times in between when you don’t know if you can make it from do not to do, there is try. Skip the all-or-nothing mindset. As long as you are trying – honestly trying – it will get easier.

How do you try to meet your health goals?

 

Sources:

Anderson D. Moderation in All Things: How to Avoid the Diet Blues. SparkPeople. http://www.sparkpeople.com/resource/motivation_articles.asp?id=729&page=3. Published 2015. Accessed April 2015.

Food Sleuth: How to Read Front-of-Package Labels

Do you ever find yourself wondering how healthy certain items at the grocery store really are? When you see bright wording on the package like “cholesterol-free” or “natural,” those foods can seem pretty enticing in terms of health benefits. There is a lot more to it than just what those labels say.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversees the regulation of food labeling. This includes the Nutrition Facts label and ingredients list, but also that eye-catching, carefully designed front-of-package promotion that draws your attention so that the product will find its way into your shopping cart more easily than others. While the FDA requires that these claims must be true, sharp marketing minds may try to trick you into making an uninformed choice.

Front-of-package labeling, while true, may not reflect the most important aspects of the nutrition of the product. The claims may make the food sound more nutritious than it is, or may distract you from less-than-shining aspects of the product. Here are some examples that may trip you up:

  1. High, low, reduced, good source, free, etc. (i.e., high fiber, low sodium, reduced fat) – these claims must meet specific government definitions related to the amount of the nutrient in question. However, these levels are relative to comparable products. Check out the Nutrition Facts label and compare it to similar products to find out where it really stands.
  2. Cholesterol-free – watch out for this on foods that only contain plants. Plants don’t have cholesterol in them anyway, so even though it is true, this claim may be used to distract from less-desirable aspects of a food (for example, mixed nuts that have excessive amounts of salt added).
  3. Natural and organic – ‘natural’ means the product does not contain synthetic or artificial ingredients, while ‘organic’ refers to the methods used to grow or produce the food. These are often equated with ‘healthy,’ a term that is defined by the FDA using criteria that limits fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium, as well as sets minimum amounts for vitamins, minerals, and other beneficial nutrients. While products may be ‘natural’ or ‘organic,’ they may not be ‘healthy.’
  4. Made with Whole Grain – this claim can be made even if all the grain in the product isn’t whole grain; the whole grain may only comprise a small percentage of the total grain. To reap the full benefit of whole grains, look for 100% Whole Grain products and check the ingredients list to make sure whole grain is one of the first ingredients.

Check out this video from Carlene Thomas, RD, for a great example of how to avoid the pitfalls of front-of-label marketing:

When it comes to front-of-label packaging, remember that the food producer has an entire marketing department whose job is to get you to buy their product. They will do everything they can to convince you their product is great so you don’t question it. But you’re not defenseless – if the front-of-package labeling is the devil on one shoulder, the Nutrition Facts label and the ingredient list are the angels on the other shoulder. These sources of obligatory honesty will tell you the truth about the foods you’re buying, so use them to your advantage to make the healthiest choices for yourself.

Have you ever been tricked by front-of-package labeling? Share your stories and what you found out in the comments!

 

Sources:

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Food label helps consumers make healthier choices. http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm094536.htm. Published October 14, 2014. Accessed March 15, 2015.

Nutrition is More than Calories

Many people are mainly concerned with food and healthy eating for the purpose of managing their weight and therefore their appearance. Just think of the number of advertisements out there for companies claiming they can tell you which foods to avoid or include to ensure that you lose weight. How many Pinterest boards could you fill up with the low-calorie recipes you’ve found?

Nutrition is more than calories. Even though it is important to avoid regularly eating too many calories, there is much more to consider when it comes to making food choices.

The human body is an independent machine, able to build and repair itself (barring severe injury, illness, or genetic anomaly), given the appropriate tools. Food provides the tools for every organ system to keep running optimally. Here are just a few examples of what the body gets from food:

  • Ingredients for the chemical reactions that take place in the body – some of those chemical reactions create new compounds that are used in other chemical reactions
  • Proteins and parts of proteins that are used to build the structures of the body
  • Calories that are turned to energy for use by the brain, muscles, and other organs
  • Elements that are used to create compounds called neurotransmitters that carry nerve impulses between the brain and the body
  • Compounds to create healthy red blood cells that take oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body
  • Fiber that influences physiological processes in the colon

Even though calories are important, nutrition has a much more profound effect on your body than your weight and how you look (see my post on total health here). When you make decisions about nutrition, it is important to consider how a variety of nutrients affect your health.

There are two broad categories of nutrients:

  1. Macronutrients – these are the calorie-yielding nutrients that the body requires in large amounts: carbohydrates (sugars and starches), proteins, and fats.
  2. Micronutrients – these are nutrients required in small amounts that do not contribute calories but are extremely important in the functions and structures of the body: vitamins and minerals.

Both macronutrients and micronutrients are vital to ideal health. Even those that are needed only in very small amounts can have a huge impact on health and a deficiency can result in severe illness. Take iodine, for example. Although the Estimated Average Requirement for iodine is only 95 micrograms per day for adults, failure to get enough can lead to goiter, decreased metabolism, and mental retardation. Iodized salt takes care of this problem, but iodine is a great example of how a tiny amount of one single nutrient can severely affect health.

But if a little is good, more is not necessarily better.

Getting enough nutrients is essential, however, taking the mass action approach and eating huge amounts of food all the time is not the answer. The body is built to process nutrients in various systems, use the amount it needs, and get rid of the rest. Too much of a nutrient over a long period of time can wear out the system and cause problems. For example, very high intake of carbohydrates (think: drinking mainly soda every day) over time takes a toll on the body and can result in decreased ability use carbohydrates effectively.

Finding the right balance of nutrients is key.

myplate_greenDon’t worry – I’m not about to tell you that you have to figure out how much of every nutrient you need and eat a very specific diet based on those needs. Everyone can meet their requirements, even without a degree in nutrition. Here’s the secret: Eat a variety of foods from each food group. Nutrient-dense foods can be found in all food groups, and eating different kinds of foods provides a spectrum of required nutrients. So choose those low-calorie, nutrient-dense fruits and veggies, but know that there are lots of great nutrients in higher-calorie foods like nuts and avocados, too.

 

Sources:

National Academy of Sciences. Dietary Reference Intakes. Institute of Medicine. http://fnic.nal.usda.gov/dietary-guidance/dri-nutrient-reports/vitamin-vitamin-k-arsenic-boron-chromium-copper-iodine-iron. Published 2001. Accessed March 7, 2015.