As a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, I’ve dedicated my life to understanding food and nutrition. It’s a complex field. Yet some of the advice I hear and read is too simple.
“4 foods you should never eat!”
“The one simple trick to help you shed belly fat!”
These hyped-up articles would have you believe that focusing on one thing will solve all your diet problems – and don’t we all wish for that magic bullet? But the true foundation of healthy eating is variety and moderation.
It takes a variety of foods to provide our muscles, organs and cells with the vitamins and energy to thrive. That means picking whole foods from all five food groups – dairy, fruit, vegetables, whole grains and protein – and eating them in your favorite combinations over a week’s time. Eating healthy is not about perfection, but about making sure that some days you do better than others.
With that in mind, here are some DOs and DON’Ts that will help you cut through the fad diet clutter.
DON’T focus on one number.
As a dietitian, I frequently use a calculator to add up numbers for calories, carbs and protein to help a patient meet their goals. But focusing on a single number oversimplifies things.
For example, if your goal is just to meet a minimum number of calories to lose weight, you can do that with an infinite mix of foods. Let’s say your goal is 2,000 calories a day to maintain your weight. Supposedly, whether you eat all your calories from kale or quinoa, if you go over your calorie limit, you will gain weight over time; if you eat less than the calorie goal, you will lose weight. That is the idea of calories at its simplest.
But that isn’t how our bodies work.
Even though kale and quinoa are both “super foods,” eating nothing but one of them would leave you with serious nutrition deficiencies. Not only that; you would get bored.
DO make the calories count.
Not every low calorie food is worth it. As a dietitian, I talk about foods having a nutrient bang for the calorie buck. This means the foods you eat have good amounts of vitamins and minerals, and will provide good energy and protein and modest amounts of fat.
If you only look at the number of calories, your choices tend to have less overall nutrition. I often hear that people choose milk alternatives to try to reduce their caloric intake. It’s true that a cup of almond milk is about 40 calories less than a cup of skim milk. But look beyond the calories, and you’ll find that milk has eight times the protein and nine essential nutrients – nutrients almond milk tries to imitate with a long list of added vitamins. Don’t just look at the calories; look at the overall nutrition on the label.
DON’T cut out a whole food group.
Many fad diets call you to eliminate an entire food group, like carbs or dairy. But when you cut out a whole segment of the available food, you miss out on important nutrients specific to that food group. Without a clear knowledge of how to replace the missing nutrients, this can lead to deficiencies.
I hate to hear about a singular food or food group being villainized because it has too much fat or too much sugar. For example, some diets eliminate something simple like a banana because it has sugar. That’s crazy. If every food had a nutrition label, you would see that fruits and vegetables include sugar as the main source of energy. Dairy has natural sugars as well. And in our bodies, all carbohydrates break down to sugar, whether they are whole grains or refined. These natural sugars are not evil – in fact, they are essential.
As long as you don’t have an underlying condition like diabetes, you will not go into sugar shock from eating bananas. Fruits, vegetables and dairy have other nutrients in them like fiber and protein that slow down digestion and help slow the release of the sugar into your blood stream. Though we can easily overeat carbohydrates (and many of us do), it is important to include them.
Barring some unique dietary restriction like a food allergy, you should still be eating all food groups in moderation.
DO stock your fridge and pantry with foods you will actually eat.
Don’t get caught up with whether something is “clean,” gluten free or “natural.” Those labels don’t matter if you won’t actually eat it. Moderation means you eat enough to get full, you enjoy the food you eat and you make mindful choices of what you put on your plate.
For my 5-year-old son, this is an important concept. Moderation means we eat a variety of foods over the week. He could eat oranges all day today and eat yogurt all day tomorrow. My goal is to teach him that we should enjoy our food. That doesn’t mean everything he puts in his pie hole is the most delicious thing he has ever eaten. At times, when we are hungry, it is ok to choose the less-healthy choice, as long as we make the better choice for the next meal.
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