Getting healthy can seem like a daunting challenge.
For so many of us, it means substantial lifestyle changes, and those aren’t easily accomplished.
We decided to sit down with an area dietician to go over some of the most common questions and issues when it comes to diet and nutrition.
Julia Henry has been a dietician for about four and a half years, currently working at Capital Region Medical Center.
Henry is an Arkansas native who moved to Missouri more than 10 years ago. About four years ago, she moved to Jefferson City where she now works as an in-patient dietician, mostly seeing patients who are having gut-related surgeries. Henry goes over any dietary changes each patient may require after surgery to ensure both their recovery and long-lasting health improvements.
She said she originally decided to become a dietician because she wanted to teach people that having a healthy lifestyle doesn’t have to be complicated. And while that’s still true (she noted that we all tend to overcomplicate things, especially our diets), Henry said she used to be more focused on weight than she is now.
“I’m a very different dietician than I was when I was in school,” Henry said.
Henry said she learned through her work that weight is not the best indicator of health, citing how different each of our bodies can be. The fact that she’s not focused on weight in her work often surprises her clients, Henry noted, who tend to expect that from people in her position.
“People’s weights fluctuate daily, that’s just how the body works,” Henry said. “Everybody’s bodies are different … there’s a lot that goes into weight.”
Henry’s answers have been edited for clarity.
Q. What is the most common misconception people have about diet and nutrition?
A. “That there has to be a lot of rules or that it has to be really carefully monitored. I think there’s a tendency nowadays to be very regimented … it’s not necessary, not usually anyway.
Also, because weight is such a focus that people have, one of the misconceptions is that you can control your weight by eating and exercise. That’s not always the case.”
Q. What tips would you give to someone who is looking to eat healthier in the new year?
A. “Not to stress about what you should or shouldn’t be eating. I always tell people that unless you have a food allergy or take a medication that interacts with a certain food, there’s not really anything you can’t eat. All food is fair game. … Focus on hunger and fullness. There’s no right or wrong way to eat.” Henry cited how we eat as babies, simply letting our guardians know that we were hungry and eating until we’re full. ”
It’s called intuitive eating … but as we get older we learn a lot of different food rules and things like that, and it makes it harder to eat intuitively as people are afraid they’re going to eat all the wrong things. Pay attention to how hungry you are, eat when you’re hungry and make sure you’re getting a variety of foods. That’s the biggest thing for just getting adequate nutrition.”
Henry said people should also notice how different foods make them feel. “If you do notice that a certain food seems to cause you problems all the time, it’s probably a good idea to maybe look a little closer at that. And at the other end of that spectrum, when you notice that certain foods make you feel really good, give you a lot of energy, those are probably foods you want to eat more of.”
Q. When it comes to popular diets, what should people keep in mind?
A. “There’s a lot of ways that you can define dieting. A lot of times, people call it a lifestyle change, or a protocol, but it can all still be a diet. Usually, people are doing it to lose weight, I’ve found. As far as specific diets that are out there, like the ones that talk about eliminating certain foods or food groups, there’s really not any evidence that they’re, first of all, going to work for everybody. There’s really not any one diet that’s going to work for everybody, because we’re all so different. And I get concerned when we start eliminating entire food groups that we’re eliminating important nutrients. … Keto (a popular high fat, low carb diet) is a very, very high fat diet and it’s original intention was to treat seizures in children. It’s a form of medical nutrition therapy. And because it’s such a strict diet, it actually required a medical team, which would include a dietician, to help administer that to make sure that patients were getting all the nutrients that they needed and to deal with the side effects like constipation. … The evidence for using it in seizures is pretty good, it’s pretty remarkable actually … but as far as using it for weight loss, there’s no evidence that any one diet in particular is going to keep weight off people in the long run. There is a lot of evidence that when your weight goes up and down, we call it weight cycling, that’s really not good for you. My concern with a lot of those diets is because people are usually trying to lose weight, I have a lot of concern about that weight cycling. In the long run, I think people are trying to lose weight because they think it will make them healthier but (weight cycling) will not make you healthier.
The other thing I get concerned about is that some of those diets are so restrictive and have so many rules that I worry about disordered eating behaviors, which I think are pretty common in our culture. … Especially for people who are susceptible to developing a full-blown eating disorder that can really lead down a path of really dangerous eating habits.
If you’re doing these things because you’re expecting a certain outcome and they don’t work, people tend to blame themselves, and it’s not their fault. It’s the diet.”
Q. For people who are considering changing to a vegetarian or vegan diet, what should they keep in mind when it comes to nutrition?
A. “There’s certain nutrients that are of concern and those would be iron, zinc, calcium, iodine, vitamin D and B12.” Henry provided HER Magazine with a list of other sources for those nutrients:
Henry noted that folate intake tends to be high in vegetarian diets and can mask a B12 deficiency.
“Anemia is a concern because the most readily absorbable iron is going to be found in meat, but there are certainly plant sources for it. … If you’re going to do a supplement, they’re not regulated the way that food and medication are, so it’s hard to know sometimes what you’re getting in a supplement. I always encourage people to look for third party certification because those organizations actually test the supplement so they know it contains what it says it does in the quantity it says it does.” (She noted that iron absorbs more easily with something acidic, so taking an iron supplement with a glass of orange juice can help. Calcium competes for absorption, so taking an iron supplement with milk is probably not the best idea, she added.)
Q. Some people have a sweet tooth or snacking tendencies. How can those cravings be satisfied in a healthy way?
A. “Don’t restrict those foods. Whenever we restrict something, especially if it’s something we love, that’s the only thing we can think about. So it’s really hard then to eat an amount that’s going to be satisfying and not just overeat that food. There’s a meme about this: If you want a cookie but you’re in a dieting mentality, you might eat a rice cake. But that didn’t really satisfy you, so then you might find one of those 100-calorie pack of cookies, but that didn’t satisfy. So then you eat like three cookies whereas an intuitive eater might eat one cookie and then be done. … You want to make sure you have a variety of snacks available that might satisfy any craving you might have. That way you can make a conscious decision: Am I hungry? What do I actually want? And then you can go on with your day.”
Q. What would you suggest for people who feel their lives are just too busy between work, children, activities, etc., to plan and make healthy meals?
A. “Slow cooker or an instant pot. Those are amazing. … If you’re already making a recipe, try doubling it and freeze half of it. Plus, a lot of grocery stores now offer pick up or delivery, which can be great. … You can do just snack plates and you can easily get all of your food groups in one plate. Just load it up with fruits and veggies, meats and cheeses, maybe throw some crackers on there. That’s the easiest thing sometimes. If you have a lot of things in the fridge, you can have a clean out the fridge buffet. That makes one night of cooking easier.
You can roast a bunch of vegetables at once on a sheet pan. Add some chopped vegetables to a frozen pizza.”
Q. Anything else we should keep in mind?
A. “I really do encourage people not to focus on weight because I’ve had enough patients, and I’ve experienced it myself, where even when they’re making a lot of changes that are very good for them, really are improving their health and they’re enjoying the changes,” when they don’t lose weight, they get disheartened. Henry said it’s important to enjoy both food and exercise in a healthy lifestyle, emphasizing that losing weight and being healthy are not the same thing.
“I had a patient tell me one time that they really liked the food they were eating now that they were making healthier choices and they liked the activities they were doing, the exercises were fun for them. But they were so frustrated because the weight didn’t come off. And I remember asking them, ‘well, if your weight and doesn’t change, would you still continue to do these things?’ And they were like, ‘well, no, what would be the point?’ Because it’s improving their health and they’re enjoying it. … I think if we can focus on what actually makes us healthy instead of focusing on a bunch of numbers, if we can focus on those things we can control, they can definitely improve our health.”