By Stacy Kennedy, MPH, RD, CSO, LDN; Reboot Nutritionist
March is National Nutrition Month and as a Registered Dietitian one question I get asked all the time is…What do you eat? Just try walking through the café line at work as an RD without generating lots of stares and comments…it’s inevitable! But, I’m happy to share my top ten most surprising secrets to staying healthy with you.
Being a lifelong healthy weight-er is no accident, but that doesn’t mean that dieting is the answer to staying slim. It’s absolutely not 100% genetics either, although having healthy weight parents helps. But “diet” really is a 4-letter word that causes more trouble than good. It’s all about mindset. I am still human, so after freshman year of college when late night pizza, breadsticks, frozen yogurt and alcohol led to an 8-pound weight gain and my favorite summer clothes not fitting, I didn’t diet. Instead, I simply lived at home that summer, ate my mom’s healthy homemade cooking, went on daily walks and within a few weeks the spare tire was gone.
I’ll share a bucket list item with you…competing on Chopped! Hey Food Network, hope you’re reading this! I watch lots of cooking shows, think and talk about food all the time. It’s not because it’s my career, it’s actually the other way around; I’ve turned one of my passions into my work. In fact, my husband was shocked at how often my family talks about food, recipes, shopping, cooking, what we’ll eat for dinner as our lunch topic of conversation, yet no one is overweight. That “outta sight outta mind” adage doesn’t always work, it can backfire and you may end up obsessing over food. Having food on the brain helps you plan and preparation is key for healthy eating success.
Counting up calories burned during exercise, as a sort of freedom to eat more, ends up shifting energy balance in an unhelpful way. In other words, don’t look to exercise alone as a weight loss tool, it usually backfires. Exercise is important for health and wellness and as a petite woman I like to look and feel strong. I want to know I can care for my kids in any situation and that being small won’t stop me. I focus on fitness for the many health benefits like: immunity, mood, energy, heart health, strong bones and a sharp mind, rather than a slim waistline, although that’s a nice side effect. While exercise compared to diet isn’t as helpful for weight loss, it is very beneficial for maintaining a healthy weight. Both are always needed – whether losing, maintaining or gaining weight, just in varying emphasis.
In college while studying nutrition, I started figuring out that many of my chronic ailments, like migraines and IBS, could be healed and prevented with a healthy diet. Once I understood this on a more scientific level, it got even easier to choose the good stuff and limit the less healthy things all around me. Finally accepting that beer and bread gave me a horrendous headache and bloated belly, it was easy to avoid these. I never feel deprived. It’s a choice to feel well, not a punishment or missing out on life. My 6-year-old with food allergies summed it up best, saying that he wasn’t ready to test any new foods, “I don’t want to feel sick just to eat some food.”
Whether it’s curfew or chocolate, we all rebel. That’s simply human nature. Making hard and fast rules leads to wanting to break them. All of the arbitrary rules we read in the media drive me nuts! “Don’t eat after 7 pm,” – is that Eastern time, Mountain time, what if I don’t get home from work until 8 pm?! “Never eat bread” is another one – while I often choose to skip the bread at meals and get my “sandwich” as a “salad,” it’s not all or nothing. If I want bread you better believe I’ll have some (gluten-free of course!).
Even as a self proclaimed “rebel,” I do still follow many of the rules, well…most of the time. Knowing that breakfast is one of the most important meals, I had to figure this one out. At the same time, periods of fasting, like intermittent fasting, may also benefit immunity and metabolism. So, I go for the best of both worlds. Since I don’t wake up hungry but hit the ground running with kids off to school and yoga most days of the week, I add nourishment that’s easy to digest. For me, that means a fresh juice or smoothie about an hour after waking up. I always make extra so each family member gets their own glass and dose of nutrients!
Luckily the paradigm is shifting and healthy foods like nuts, nut butters and avocado are slowing breaking down barriers and improving their image. It’s about time, since what we now call “healthy fats,” are foods rich in nutritious, anti-inflammatory fats and packed with fiber, vitamins and minerals, like vitamin E, omega-3s, zinc, selenium and calcium. It is true that you don’t need to eat a lot volume to get a lot of nutrients so I keep each portion to about a handful which is approximately 1 serving or ¼ cup.
I’ll share a secret…sweet potato and really good (skin-on) homemade fries are my indulgence that I give myself some leeway on. I gladly forgo dessert and bread when dining out in favor of a side of old-fashioned fries. In fact, my Mother-in-Law’s favorite pregnancy story about me is the time I had an entire plate filled with about 6 different varieties of potato served at the holiday buffet. But guess what?! Yup, morning sickness, crushed! Of course my plate looks balanced most of the time, but we all have context when what is usually “overdoing it” becomes “necessary.”
Culture has a big influence on our food preferences and even some cravings. Potatoes are a huge part of my cultural background. Being from the South, part Russian, now married to an Irishman, eliminating potatoes from my diet would be blasphemy. When I hear the backlash against bananas and potatoes, likening them to sugar sweetened beverages, cake or cookies it makes my blood boil! While yes, it is sad — get it, SAD (Standard American Diet) — that one of American’s top consumed “vegetables” are french fries – not all potatoes are evil. And both bananas and white potatoes contain the type of fiber that can help feed your microbiome, in turn keeping you healthy.
Forget portion control and go for proportion control. By following the balanced-plate model and making at least half your plate veggies I can naturally dilute carbohydrate-rich foods or higher calorie items, like nuts and avocado on my plate.
This “secret” is hands down the most important one when it comes to just about everything! Like getting the right nutrients to fuel your system, staying well with age and maintaining a healthy weight. Whether you juice, blend, bake, roast, grill, sauté, chop, harvest or grow your veggies, both cooked and raw have merit. It’s all about enjoying eating the rainbow and plenty of it.
What are your top secrets to staying healthy?