The good news, according to registered dietitian Lisa Harkins, is that “there are no bad foods.” At the same time the Bayhealth Medical Center nutritionist is not sanctioning a bag of potato chips propped on your belly while reclining on the couch.
“Pace and portion control are critical to a healthy diet and weight control,” Harkins says.
We all know the importance of eating well to maintain healthy weight and avoid conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and some cancers. But we don’t always know how to go about it. News flash: Most so-called diets don’t help in the long run. Proper nutrition and dietary habits are basic.
Harkins advocates meal plans that include three 450-calorie meals and two 200-calorie snacks per day. That adds up to a sturdy 1,750 calories of energy, and that’s nowhere near a starvation diet. There’s sound biochemistry backing up such a plan, too.
“You should not go more than three or four hours without eating,” Harkins says. “That’s because it is critical to maintain a balance of hormones and blood sugar levels, which help you avoid cravings.”
Harkins says planning is key to sustainable long-term nutritional success. “Think about what foods you like to eat, then build a plan around them. And make it a nutrition plan, not a diet plan.”
Aymi Wyatt, a registered dietitian at Beebe Medical Center, believes starting with an assessment of current eating habits can be a good place to start.
“It’s important to learn what you are doing so you can see more clearly why you’re not achieving your goals,” Wyatt says.
She advocates maintaining a food diary and even blogging on the Internet so friends can help with tips and suggestions. She also prefers the glass-half-full approach to eating plans. “Think about the foods you should eat, rather than those you should be cutting out of your diet,” she says.
Perhaps the best way to think about nutrition is to think geography. Danielle Jerome, a registered dietitian with Christiana Care Health System, says the diet rich in plant-based foods that is favored by the diverse peoples of the Mediterranean region demonstrates a lower risk for heart disease than the typical American diet.
“These people eat very little red meat and much more fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, along with fish and olive oil,” Jerome says. She points out that the Mediterranean diet is more a style of eating than a diet. “It’s broad in scope, and can include a little red meat, sweets and wine, all in moderation.”
In summary, pick the foods you like to eat from these broad Old World categories, then focus on planning, pace and portion control to create a personal eating style that promotes nutrition and good health.
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Wyatt also waves the flag of moderation, no matter what regimen you choose to follow. “Use portion plates or measuring cups to determine appropriate portions,” she says. “And drink a glass of water between helpings. Giving time for food to digest will provide the satisfaction that you’ve had enough, without going back for seconds for that feeling of being stuffed.”
Wyatt says that much of eating is mental and behaviorally driven. By distinguishing hunger and appetite, you can develop the eating behavior that will help you reach your goals. “Something as simple as changing the door through which you enter the kitchen can be a way of eliminating a habit that predisposes you to making bad eating choices out of sheer habit,” she says.
Throw in a bit of physical exercise as well. Mediterranean people are not known as couch potatoes. But should you be among those who believe excessive physical exercise and physical fitness can offset bad diet habits, Harkins cautions otherwise. “Many fit people are guilty of eating too much fat, believing they can work it off in the gym,” she says. She recalls one client, a marathon runner, required quadruple bypass surgery. He erroneously believed that his road work allowed him “to eat anything he wanted.”
There are also those who try to short circuit the three Ps with supplements. Jerome is not a fan. “We know that health-providing components such as folic acid, antioxidants and lycopene are part of plant-based foods and whole grains,” she notes. “But when we try to isolate those components in supplements, the results are not the same.
“In order to mobilize fat out of body cells, these nutrients must all be working together and not isolated in supplements.”
There does seem to be one exception. “The omega-3 oil derived from fish appears to provide benefits whether eaten in the fish or taken as a supplement,” she says.
So what may the three Ps applied to your daily nutrition plan look like? Wyatt notes there are tools to assist in designing and monitoring a healthy eating lifestyle.
“Mypyramid.gov has excellent tools that can help you customize an eating plan based on inputs of age, weight, height, gender and activity levels,” she says. Other tools allow you to input your current food intake for an analysis of the calories, as well as recommendations, based on the five basic food groups, including suggestions on what to eat for your “discretionary” calories.