RESEARCH SAYS – Unraveling Mysteries of a Healthy Diet

Fruits and Vegetables

With all the hype surrounding diet and nutrition, it can be easy to become confused in the whirlwind of latest fad diets and contradictory recommendations. So what is a person to eat? Today I want to discuss some known facts and current nutrition research while relying on logic, reason and some common sense. To unravel the mysteries of a healthy diet, here are a few things we know to be true.

  1. Calories in versus calories out determine weight changes. If you consume more calories than you burn, you gain weight. If you burn more calories than you consume, you lose weight. If your calorie intake is equal to your calorie output, you maintain weight. This is basic math and does not get more complicated than that.  Now there are a few caveats here. Some want to argue that the type of calorie matters. You could say that is true or false. While it is easier to get too many calories from foods with more fat and sugar that are higher in calories than it is from eating too much broccoli, it does not mean that the type of food or nutrient is to blame. It just means that we can more easily consume excess calories from foods in this form than we would be able to say from a plate of vegetables. Vegetables are naturally low in calories because they are low in fat and sugar. If we add fat and sugar when cooking vegetables, we have now made them higher in calories and can more easily acquire excess from them. Since most whole foods contain plenty of nutrients including fiber that helps us feel full, we feel more satisfied with less than if we eat empty calories that are void of nutrients. According to an article from the Harvard School of Public Health, the percentage of calories coming from fat, protein or carbohydrate do not matter for weight loss in a laboratory study with controlled diets. It goes on to say that in studies where participants control their food intake, there may be an advantage to a higher protein, lower carbohydrate diet for weight control. This is likely related to the fact that it is much easier to overeat carbohydrate foods than protein foods. For chronic disease prevention, the type and quality of the food sources matter more than the relative quantity in the diet. The bottom line is calories do matter and the source of the calories are important.
  2. The same diet that reduces risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes also helps control weight. Whether you are trying to lose weight or just want to be healthier, the good news is that you can achieve both by following the same diet. Research and the test of time have shown that a diet high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes with fish and lean meat reduces the risk of many health conditions and can promote a healthy weight. We also know that a diet high in refined carbohydrates, unhealthy fats and sugary beverages leads to weight gain and increased health risks.
  3. Our diet and activity affect metabolism and metabolism affects weight.  When people say “I have a slow metabolism and can’t lose weight”, I say “Let’s fix the metabolism”. There are some things under our control and luckily this is one of them. While it is true that women have a slower metabolic rate than men, we can make a difference here. Muscle burns more calories than fat so exercise is a huge metabolism booster. Any type of strength training or weight bearing exercise can help build muscle to burn more calories. If you gain weight, your metabolic rate actually increases because of an increase in surface area. So if you weigh 200 lbs., you will have a higher metabolic rate than if you weigh 100 lbs. This means that you will burn more calories walking 5 miles weighing 200 lbs. than if you walk 5 miles weighing 100 lbs. Think of it as carrying an additional 100 lbs. while exercising. Other factors to consider that affect metabolism include getting enough sleep, eating enough quality protein, thyroid health, age and medications that affect metabolism.
  4. Fat does not necessarily make you fat. This point goes back to number 1 on our list. Even though fat contains more calories per gram than carbohydrate or protein, it is not necessarily responsible for promoting weight gain. It is the total calorie intake rather than the type of calorie consumed. Some studies actually show participants losing as much or more weight on a higher fat, lower carbohydrate diet. This is thought to be related to the fact that fat promotes satiety so you feel satisfied eating less. Here again the type of fat does matter. Too much saturated fat and trans fat may be more likely to increase weight as opposed to mono- and polyunsaturated fats and there is a definite correlation with chronic disease and the type of fat consumed. It is the total amount of calories not the type of calories that cause weight gain but the type matters for health.
  5. Increased protein intake may help with weight loss. This is related to the fact that protein promotes satiety. A higher protein diet also tends to be lower in carbohydrate but higher in fat so it is hard to isolate whether the protein or the fat makes the difference. Protein is important for maintaining muscle mass which helps with metabolism. But here again the type of protein matters. A higher intake of processed or red meat correlates with higher chronic disease risk than protein from fish, nuts, beans, seeds or poultry.
  6. Whole foods are better than refined foods for health and weight management. Our bodies need certain nutrients in varying quantity to function at its best. Whole foods provide the nutrients needed within a reasonable amount of calories. Refined foods like sugar, white bread, white rice, etc. offer calories but minimal nutrients. This imbalance of calories and nutrients leads to weight gain and increased risk of chronic disease.

There is so much that can be said about diet and nutrition but I think Michael Pollan summed it up best in his book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. While some of the book leaves room for debate, I believe the major premise of the statement above is good advice. Another great example can be seen in Dr. Weston Price’s book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. This book summarizes Dr. Price’s research on different people groups from several geographic areas and the impact of their diet on health. Both are interesting reads and full of thought-provoking nutritional insights. I have included a link to some of my favorite books below. Here is to good food and good health!


Diet Trends for 2017


       Photo courtesy of

Fad diets come and go just like trends in fashion. Personally, I do not follow the current trend in either, but that’s just me. So what are the trends to watch in 2017? Well according to an article in U.S. News and World Report, there are five trends gaining favor. All five of them involve moving to a plant-based diet and replacing animal products with more sustainable options. The popular trends include seaweed due to its high nutrient content, ancient grains like quinoa or amaranth as minimally-processed whole grains, meat-free burgers using mushrooms as a substitute, pasta as a main dish and algae products as replacements for animal products such as eggs and dairy. Sounds like meat is off the plate in the latest trends.

When Registered Dietitian/Nutritionists were surveyed for “What’s Trending in Nutrition“, the most popular response was clean eating. This focuses on whole foods, ancient grains, seeds and seafood with a focus on a Mediterranean-style diet. Clean eating emphasizes antibiotic-free meat and poultry for those that choose not to be vegetarian. Super foods will still have their place and avocado, ancient grains and green tea will remove kale from the spotlight. The Gluten-free and Paleo diet will still enjoy some popularity but there may be a slight shift away from the heavy emphasis on protein, especially from animal sources. Consumers are becoming more health conscious and want GMO-free, antibiotic-free, and hormone-free foods. But taste and convenience will still be a strong factor in food purchases. The influence of celebrities as well as social media also tends to sway food choices. Some foods may get a new lease on life and include probiotic foods like yogurt and keifer, lentils, full-fat dairy and plant proteins. As with any trend, foods will rise and fall in popularity based on current cultural influences. This is not all bad. The hype over fad diets and “super foods” will at least get people to try something different. It also creates awareness of the importance of diet on our health. So whether you are a vegan, clean eater, Paleo or Low Carb follower; there are plenty of choices if you are looking for a diet to follow. There can be good and bad in any diet plan so be an informed consumer and know why you are eating what you eat and how it can affect your health. For specifics on what diet might work best for your particular need, seek a qualified registered dietitian/nutritionist that can help you with an individualized meal plan. Eat well to good health!

2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans Summary

Due to the focus on nutrition over the last 100 years, many nutrient deficiencies have been eliminated.  But now we find an increasing number of the population suffering from chronic diseases related to poor diet as well as decreased physical activity.  What if the top chronic diseases including heart disease and type 2 diabetes could be eradicated by a change in diet? That was the purpose behind the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) that began in 1980. Every five years the research is reviewed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture and new dietary guidelines are released. The accuracy of these recommendations is important since many agencies follow the DGA when developing policies and public health education. The purpose of the DGA is to offer concrete dietary advice based on research in order to prevent disease. It is intended to meet the needs of an average healthy adult or child over two years of age.  It is not intended to treat or cure any disease. It can be modified as needed by each individual based on health status and/or food allergies or intolerances. A registered dietitian can help you interpret these guidelines and choose a meal plan that fits your personal situation and food preferences.

In an attempt to obtain unbiased information on which to base these guidelines, the government appoints a Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee made up of 15 highly qualified members that conduct research in the fields of nutrition, health and medicine. The members are screened for any potential conflicts of interest and are required to submit financial disclosure forms annually. Once the committee agrees on their recommendations, the reports goes to the secretaries of the federal departments and then is open to the public for comments. Next a report is drafted which is then reviewed again by the agencies and open for public comment. After this review, the dietary guidelines are published and implemented. There are a few changes from the 2010-2015 guidelines. These are listed below:

  1. The new guidelines emphasize the overall diet or eating habit of individuals rather than specific foods, food groups or nutrients. Since no one food is eaten in isolation but rather with other foods and food groups, it makes sense that the synergistic power of the diet is more important than the individual foods or nutrients themselves. The point is to eat a healthy diet over each stage of the life span in order to reduce risk of disease.
  2. Choose a variety of nutrient-dense foods from different food groups that provide adequate nutrients within a desired calorie limit.
  3. A focus on individual choices to exchange healthy foods for less healthy foods within personal and cultural preferences that are affordable and doable long term.
  4. Recognition that everyone plays a roll in food choices from home, school, work, communities and national regulations and must help support healthy eating patterns.
  5. The recommendation to limit dietary cholesterol intake to 300 mg or less was eliminated in the new guidelines due to the lack of evidence of dietary cholesterol having a significant impact on blood cholesterol levels.

One thing did not change, and that is the recommendation to limit calories from added sugars and saturated fat and reduce sodium intake. Due to the health concerns that may arise from too much of these dietary components, there are specific limits given. It is recommended that less than 10% of total daily calories come from added sugar or saturated fat and sodium be limited to less than 2,300 mg daily. Specific recommendations are also given for alcohol intake and defines moderate intake as being one drink daily for women and no more than 2 drinks per day for men. These quantities are based on the fact that overall calorie intake after getting all of the recommended food groups in sufficient quantity does not allow for more calories from added sugars, saturated fat and alcohol.

It is important to notice that the guidelines give options since there are many food choices available that can contribute to an overall healthy diet. The Healthy U.S.-Style Eating Pattern has two modifications. A Healthy Mediterranean-style and Healthy Vegetarian eating pattern are USDA dietary patterns included based on reduced risk of disease associated with them.  The new view of looking at eating patterns and health risk has shown a few common characteristics of diets that promote health. The most proven is that consuming more fruits and vegetables is good for us. Consumption of whole grains has also been noted but with slightly less consistency. Eating less meat (especially processed meat) and poultry, less refined grains, sugar-sweetened foods and sugary beverages has also been correlated with healthier outcomes. The reports goes on to say that it does not mean these foods cannot be included within an overall healthy diet but that a higher intake is associated with increased risk of certain diseases.  The 2015-2020 DGA also lists recommended calorie levels based on age, gender and activity level with the appropriate amount of foods from each food group to be included. This is important because we know that too many calories from any food group can lead to weight gain and increased risk of becoming overweight or obese.

So how do Americans measure up to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans?

  • 85% fail to get the recommended amount of vegetables
  • 75% fail to get enough fruits
  • 42% do not get enough grains
  • 85% do not get recommended amount of dairy products
  • 41% do not get enough protein
  • 70% exceed the recommended guidelines for added sugars and saturated fats
  • 90% consume more sodium than recommended per day

Nutrients that have been identified as being under consumed by some Americans include:

  • Calcium
  • Choline
  • Dietary Fiber
  • Iron (females age 19-50)
  • Magnesium
  • Potassium
  • Vitamins A, D, E, C

The groups overconsuming or under consuming certain food groups or nutrients vary by age, gender and even socioeconomic status. But the main concern is that a huge number of the American population does not consume a healthy dietary pattern. A gradual shift in food choices must occur before our nation will be able to see a reduction in chronic diseases.

For more information, you can review the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans here.

With so much information out there about nutrition and a new diet book seemingly published every hour, it is helpful to have evidence-based, peer-reviewed guidelines to help us make better choices. In the next few weeks, we will look at some popular diet trends and how they compare to the dietary guidelines. Please feel free to join the discussion in the comments below. If you find this article helpful, please share with others.


Happy Nutrition Month

Nutrition Tastes Good

Food and nutrition professionals everywhere are celebrating March as National Nutrition Month®. What started in March of 1973 as National Nutrition Week grew into a month-long celebration by 1980 due to the rising interest in nutrition. The American Dietetic Association (now known as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics or AND) started this campaign to bring education and awareness of nutrition and health. The American Dietetic Association’s (ADA) original purpose “to increase the public’s awareness of the importance of good nutrition and position ADA members as the authority in nutrition” remains the central focus today. This year’s theme is “Put Your Best Fork Forward”. Check out the National Nutrition Month website from AND for more information. March 8 is also Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist Day. So to all of my fellow nutritionists out there, “Happy RD Day”! It is an honor and privilege to be able to help others find health through good nutrition. There is so much controversial and just plain bad information out there today that it is refreshing to hear sound nutrition advice based on scientific research from a credible source. Registered dietitian/nutritionists must follow a Code of Ethics to practice in a manner that is consistent with current scientific research and recommended dietary guidelines.  Required continuing education of 15 hours every year helps RDNs stay up to date on the latest research. To locate a qualified nutrition professional that is registered with the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) and licensed to practice in your area, click here.

This month I will be focusing on the recommendations found in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, latest diet trends and what research says about the components of a healthy diet. The connection between diet and disease has been realized for a long time but science is just now starting to understand how food interacts with the cells in our body to produce health or disease. I find nutrition fascinating and hope you do too as we look at the many aspects of a healthy diet. Feel free to join in with your comments below. I know there are as many different opinions about diet as there are people, but I look forward to a polite sharing of views on this important topic. 🙂

Stress Management and Heart Health

Cucumber Smiley Face

Cool as a Cucumber

When it comes to handling stress, are you cool as a cucumber or hot as a hot pepper?  Stress is present every day but how we choose to handle that stress can impact our physical and emotional well being. So how does stress contribute to heart disease? Stress can increase blood pressure. If you already have hypertension, the increase in blood pressure is more dangerous. Stress can also lead to some unhealthy habits. Habits such as overeating, smoking or drinking too much alcohol can all increase our chances for heart disease. When we are under excessive stress, it is hard for us to take care of ourselves properly. We may not feel like eating healthy, exercising and avoiding those things that are bad for us.  If you find yourself always in a hurry to get stuff done, eating to make yourself feel better, working too much or procrastinating to do things, sleeping too little or too much, feeling drained of energy, smoking or drinking alcohol to calm down; you may need some help to handle stress. Here are a few ideas that may help:

  1. Talk it out. Sometimes it helps to discuss what you are experiencing with a close friend or family member. If you don’t feel comfortable discussing it with someone else, then talk to yourself. Talking out loud may help you work through a decision or emotion with which you are dealing. Prayer is another great way to seek help. Just remember to stay focused on the positives.
  2. Work it out. When you find yourself in the middle of a stressful situation, find ways to deal with it in the moment. This may include taking several deep breaths, slowly counting to 10, walking away, giving someone a hug or a smile, or slowing down and tackling one thing at a time. Finding a distraction that is appropriate for the situation can help you refocus.
  3. Reward yourself. This can be a huge motivator to help you get through tough times. Stress can make you feel bad so counteract that with something that brings you pleasure. Be careful with this one. Rewarding yourself with things like food or alcohol is not going to help you in the long run. Try a fun hobby, read a book, spend time with friends, play a sport, take a walk, listen to music or get a massage. This can put you in a better frame of mind to handle stress.
  4. Practice Relaxation! We forget how to relax when we stay uptight too long. Find ways to help yourself unwind in a healthy way. True relaxation takes practice. Try yoga, tai chi, meditation, prayer or visual imagery. Find a comfortable position. Take slow deep breaths to slow your heartrate. Focus on an object, word or verse. Imagine yourself in a beautiful location while closing your eyes. Play soft relaxing music in the background. After doing this a few times, you will find it easier to relax.
Puppy sleeping

Do you feel relaxed yet?

For more information and tips, check out this page at the American Heart Association.

What works to help you relax? Feel free to share your tips with others in the comments below. If you found this series on heart health useful, please let us know and share with others.