All registered dietitians follow evidence-based practices, but all of us have different strategies and priorities when working with patients. Here are my 10 commandments for general healthful nutrition.
1. Nutrition is not “one size fits all.” Food means something different to every person, and those beliefs and emotions about food are a very critical piece in planning a healthful diet for each individual.
2. I believe everyone is an expert when it comes to their diet. It’s likely you know your likes, dislikes, which foods make you feel energetic or sick. But registered dietitians are the food and nutrition experts, translating the science of nutrition (biochemistry and food composition) into practical everyday solutions. There is a lot of food and nutrition advice available, be aware that the advice you are following is evidence-based and from a reliable source.
3. Be knowledgeable about your food. Have a basic understanding of where your food comes from and understand basic cooking techniques.
4. There is not one single diet rule that will magically make you healthy. I often hear “I eliminated (one specific food item).” Ignore health claims such as “asparagus cures cancer” and “wheat makes you fat.” Just as there is not one food that cures cancer, there is not one single food that will make you fat. Nutrition is much more complex, and the daily intake, not just one nutrient, needs evaluation.
5. The No. 1 goal I often assign patients is to eat more fruits and vegetables. Aim for nine servings per day — unless you have a medical condition such as diabetes or kidney disease, where you need to monitor carbohydrate and mineral intake. Fruits and vegetables are nutrient-dense, meaning they contain many vitamins, minerals and fiber while not containing very many calories.
Fruits and vegetables contain relatively minimal amounts of natural sugars and high amounts of fiber. Fiber helps slow digestion, which means the sugar in fruits and vegetables is gradually released over time. The slow digestion of fiber also keeps you feeling fuller for longer.
Limit dried fruits and fruit juices. Dried fruit and juice counts toward the daily intake of fruits, but the serving sizes are much smaller than fresh or frozen fruit. A serving of dried fruit is ¼ of a cup or a palm-full and a serving of juice is 4 ounces.
6. Know and follow portion sizes. Foods are not good or bad, every food can fit into a diet plan if you adhere to correct portion sizes and eat a balanced diet.
7. If there’s one food I would have you limit, it would be added sugars. It does not matter the type of added sugar. The nutritional differences between high fructose corn syrup, honey, agave nectar, table sugar, brown sugar, etc., are minimal. The American Heart Association recommends less than 35 grams of added sugar per day for men and 25 grams per day for women and children. Estimates say the average American consumes about 80 grams of added sugar per day.
This is especially true for beverages. Don’t drink beverages that contain calories! High-sugar, high-calorie beverages make it really easy to overconsume sugar and calories. Avoid sodas, sweetened teas, sports drinks and coffee drinks.
8. Fat is part of a healthy diet, but fat is calorie-dense, and excess calories are not healthy.
9. “Organic,” “natural” or “GMO free” does not equal healthy. Organic and natural foods can contain excessive amounts of sugar, fat and calories while containing very little vitamins or minerals.
Just because you may not be able to pronounce an ingredient on the food label does not mean that said ingredient is artificial or unhealthy. For example, “dihydrogen monoxide” is water; “pyridoxine” is vitamin B6; and “cholecalciferol” is vitamin D.