First let me start off by saying I love what I do. However, there is a time I have come to dread more than others in my career; the moment I tell people I'm a dietitian. This tid bit of information is then followed by two standard questions: “What is that?” (I’m a nutritionist, in layman’s terms), and “Oh, cool! What should I eat?” (internal eye roll).
Don’t get me wrong, I really do enjoy helping people with their nutrition-related problems and questions. After all, I've pursued a career in it. There are, however, certain questions that irk me more than others when I'm given a limited amount of time to answer. I get it - people would rather ask a quick question than pay the fee to sit down in a one-on-one session for a proper assessment. And a lot of time people probably don't feel like they need to see a dietitian since the internet does such a good job of acting like one (sense the tone). So, in an attempt to help people understand what I do, and the proper questions to ask, I've decided to list the top three most common questions I get as a dietitian, and some suggestions on what to ask instead, to get the most out of your impromptu nutrition session.
1. "What should I eat?"
This is perhaps the most common question a dietitian will come across in their career and with good reason. It's the most basic question that we, as health professionals, try to answer on a daily basis. But if it were so simple to answer, there would be only one book written on the perfect diet instead of entire sections of bookstores dedicated to them. There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to eat healthy but nutrition is a very individualized science and what you should be eating depends heavily on your specific needs. Nutrition incorporates physical, medical, psychological, lifestyle, and emotional factors that are taken into account to accurately evaluate nutrition status and provide realistic and attainable goals. I usually have so much more to ask before I can answer this seemingly simple question. In reality, it can't be answered in a neat little package and, to be honest, you won't be happy with any answers I can dish out on the spot. Rather, sitting in a one-on-one session with a registered dietitian can help you develop healthy eating habits and lifestyle changes intended for long term success. The time and energy it takes to be motivated and stay motivated with nutrition goals is an ongoing process and having your own personal cheerleader (Go you!) is a definite necessity.
"How can I know if what I’m eating is right for me?"
This question is a little easier to deal with since the answer is staring right back at you in the mirror. My answer: listen to your body. This is possibly the most important aspect of nutrition and is fundamental to overall health. Let me get down to the nitty-gritty. Put simply, your body is constantly sending signals to different organs and regulating itself so that it can run properly. For example, gut health is an important indicator as to whether or not the food you are eating works for you. Symptoms like bloating, gas, constipation, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting are all signs that something isn't working however people often get carried away and cut out entire food groups in the hopes that all their symptoms will be swept away with it. In reality, this can do more harm than good since cutting out these food groups essentially eliminates important nutrients and often times people are ill-equipped with how to get them elsewhere. While understanding the messages your body is sending you is crucial, drastic changes shouldn't be made unless absolutely necessary and certainly not without follow up from a health professional. But, your gut reaction (pun intended) to food is only a small, albeit significant, piece of the puzzle.
You also need to take into account your mood and general disposition before, during, and after eating. Cravings, obligations, and health-related reasons are just some of the driving forces behind the food choices you make. Have you ever had that dreaded sluggish feeling after that “I-promise-it's-my-only-cheat-meal” meal? We've all been there and we all know it's a terrible feeling. On the other hand, when you eat a salad completely devoid of anything but vegetables, you may feel unsatisfied and wanting something more. These are some other indications your body is telling you that what you ate may not have been the best choice and lacking (or in excess of) in specific nutrients. At the end of the day, your body is the best tool you have to tell you if what you are eating is really right for you. As a dietitian, I can help with the fine-tuning and maintenance to keep it working at top speed.
2. "What is the healthiest food I can eat?"
Unfortunately, there is no single miracle food that will cure all your ailments. No food item contains all the nutrients we require to have a balanced diet. Even different foods within the same food group don’t have the same nutrients. The combination of foods from the various food groups is essential to staying healthy and feeling satisfied. Imagine eating only one thing for the rest of your life simply because it was the "healthiest" option. What's healthy for one person may be considered unhealthy for another. I won't be telling you to have peanut butter if you're allergic to peanuts so, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, this question is, once again, too general. As a general rule of thumb, I believe that a plant-based diet with lean protein (think chicken, tofu, turkey, fish) and fibre-packed carbohydrates (think whole grain bread, rice, and a ton of fruits and vegetables) is a great start, as boring as that may be. Also, if there were such a thing as the perfect food, where would the joy of eating come from? We should consider ourselves lucky that we have the ability to eat a variety of foods that contribute to our overall health and satisfy our palates! After all, there's a reason the saying goes "variety is the spice of life".
"How can I properly balance my meals?"
Asking this question allows room for more discussion and can offer insight on what constitutes a healthy diet. Your meals and snacks should consist of a variety of foods that, together, provide the nutrients you need.
For meals, ideally you should be eating from at least three food groups and snacks should consist of one to two. For example, adding a lean protein source to a roasted veggie and quinoa salad can give you a great mix of food groups and nutrients that you need to get through the day. Adding some homemade granola to your afternoon can add some much needed crunch and fibre to keep you satisfied. Keep in mind, though, that not all foods are created equal. For example, iceberg lettuce doesn’t provide nearly as many nutrients as darker greens like kale or spinach so knowing what makes your food healthy is a huge part of eating well. All this to say, get creative with your food combinations and enjoy the variety your grocery store or market offers!
3. "What’s the best diet I should be on?"
The way the word “diet” is typically used implies a restriction, which goes against my philosophy of eating which is based on the principles that food should make you happy and healthy. Every year there seems to be more and more diets and fads to choose from. One day the enemy is carbs, the next, it’s fat. With nutrition “facts” too readily available, it can be hard to make informed decisions about what we should and shouldn’t eat. So this might not be what you want to hear but my answer to this question is typically: “There is no best diet”.
I've seen, from experience, that once there's a self-implemented dietary restriction, it becomes the only thing that person wants to eat. Sure, these diets might do the trick for a short period of time but my concern is always what the long-term plan is. When diets are too restrictive, there is limited scientific information on whether the long-term effects and adherence to these diets is feasible. Long term success is usually seen when there is consistent follow up and support, since nutrition goals are constantly changing along the way.
"What are some simple changes I can make to my diet?"
Any change in your eating habits will seem like a huge challenge at first. I like to see if small adjustments can be made first and, if successful, move on to bigger changes. General guidelines to live by when trying to eat healthier apply to most people and include tips like only eating when hungry, and eating at regular intervals to avoid hunger pangs.
Other tips start to become much more individualized and require a full assessment to make a proper recommendation. It's important to remember that when making changes to your diet mindfulness is crucial. Being mindful of what you are eating and why you are doing so are very important questions you need to ask when making lifestyle changes. I have found that the people who have the best results tend to be the ones that are very motivated about what changes they can make and don't get easily discouraged if they don't see the results of their efforts right away. Luckily, all your questions and concerns can be answered with the help of your - you guessed it - registered dietitian!
This post was meant to shed some light on the questions you really need to ask when you spot a dietitian. Nutrition is a fast changing science where up-to-date knowledge of trends and facts are necessary to make the right choices. This, combined with the notion that nutrition is a highly individualized science, makes it close to impossible to answer all questions in one quick meeting. Rushing through something as important as your health is never a good idea and, in the end, people usually walk away disappointed and with more questions than before. Speaking with a dietitian can provide valuable insight on what would work best for you. But that's just my two cents. Any more, and it'll cost ya.