Crucial First Steps to Eating Healthier

A Woman Eating Healthier - with Apples!

Apples are one of her preferred healthy foods. Discover Yours!
Image courtesy of Microsoft Images

An assessment I previously created exclusively for clients, you can get your own personal copy of the JM Wellness “Healthy Food Preference List” by clicking here.

Eating healthier is a clichéd term that benefits from greater specificity.  In previous posts (Part 1 & Part 2) I’ve discussed the idea of organizing foods by nutrient density: “the amount of nutrient bang for your calorie buck.”  In essence, all foods can be generally categorized into one of four categories:

1. Low Calorie, High Nutrient Foods: Most fruits and vegetables

2. High Calorie, High Nutrient Foods: High starch vegetables (potato, sweet potato, corn, etc.), whole grains, avocado, nuts, seeds, legumes, beans, minimally processed oils, low-fat dairy, lean meat, fish

3. Low Calorie, Low Nutrient Foods: Lo-cal/”Diet” foods, hard candy, Popsicles

4. High Calorie, Low Nutrient Foods: Doughnuts, ice cream, candy bars, cake, cookies, fried foods, triple bacon cheeseburgers, alcohol

Eating Healthier

Eating healthier is a two-step process:

Step 1: Move from lower-nutrient foods to higher-nutrient foods.

Step 2a: If looking to lose weight, focus more on the low-calorie, high-nutrient foods and portion control of the high-calorie, high-nutrient foods.

Step 2b: If looking to gain weight, get in your low-calorie, high-nutrient foods, but also focus on increasing your portions of high-calorie, high-nutrient foods.

Makes sense, right?  But of course, common sense isn’t always common action. (A great quote I got from my Wellcoaches training, I’ll be using it a bunch in the future.)

When confronted with the general task of eating healthier, I found people typically respond with general questions like, “What’s healthy?” or “What foods should I eat?”  And my response is: high-nutrient foods you like.  There’s no point in me telling you to eat cabbage, lima beans, plums, and almond butter if you hate cabbage and plums, and are allergic to almonds.  However, I quickly realized that people still wanted a little more specificity – a little more guidance – so I created my “Healthy Food Preference List” assessment form which has been a huge hit.  A form I previously created exclusively for clients, you can get your own personal copy by clicking here.

The Healthy Food Preference List provides you with a relatively comprehensive list of healthy foods (guidance), while still allowing you to choose which foods you like, or dislike, or have never tried (flexibility).  From this assessment form, you’ll have an extensive list of foods that you can use as a springboard for meal, snack and recipe ideas.  

When you download the file, you’ll notice the assessment is broken down into separate sections: grains/starches, veggies, fruits, lean proteins and healthy fats.  Veggies & fruits can generally be considered low-calorie, high-nutrient foods while grains/starches, lean proteins and healthy fats will fall under the high-calorie, high-nutrient food category.  Obviously, if you’re allergic to a food, avoid it.

*Note: Depending on your eating philosophy, you may feel that certain foods on the list aren’t “healthy” and that’s your decision to make.  I tried to provide a comprehensive list of foods that are generally accepted as healthy to reach, and benefit, the greatest number of people.  If you feel differently, feel free to mark it as “Don’t Like.” 

Taking It a Step Further

If you’re up to a challenge, consider doing the following with the results of your Preferred Healthy Food Assessment:

1. Find three to five recipes using some of your preferred healthy foods that look good to you and you can imagine yourself preparing given your current schedule.  If you can, aim to use a fruit or vegetable in most, if not all of the recipes.

2. Select at least two menu options at all of the restaurants and take-out places you frequent that primarily focus on your preferred healthy foods.  Take a moment and sit down with the menu (either online or on paper) and mark the selections.  Then consider making an easy-to-access comprehensive list on a single piece of paper.

3. Consider trying a new food each week (a food you marked at “Never Tried”) – this can expand your healthy food repertoire, promote variety, and help avoid burnout from eating the same five foods every day.

Want to Eat Better or Lose Weight? Write on!

Man Writing What He Ate

Do you spell spaghetti with one “t” or two?!?
Image Courtesy of Microsoft Images

Keeping a food record, independent of other factors, can lead to better weight loss across a wide range of people.  Click on the link and check out figure #4 a little more than halfway down the page – the more food records kept, the more weight lost.

Why does food journaling work? Because it gives you a moment to pause and consider what you’ll be eating…and why you’re eating it.  Journaling also provides you with a concrete record to review and learn from.  Patterns and trends that you never considered become crystal clear when you look at it on paper:

  • Seven hours between meals leads to an afternoon crash and overeating at dinner.
  • Every time you go out with friends you end up eating and drinking a little more than you wanted to.
  • It’s too hard to say no to the brownies in the house after dinner.
  • A stressful day always leads to a comfort food.  And so on.

The main objection I (and probably many other dietitians) get from people in response to keeping a food record is that they “don’t have the time” to keep a detailed record and “don’t want to measure” everything they eat.  My response?  Don’t worry, do your best.

Of course, the more detail I can get the better, but keeping a food journal, especially in the beginning of my relationship with a client is not to analyze their exact daily caloric intake.  Instead, it’s to give me an idea of the types of foods they eat, when they eat, where they eat and of course, why they eat.  It gives me a lens into their life, via their food.  Because in the end, changing a person’s eating habits impacts a lot more than just what they eat.

More importantly, though, this exercise provides my client with an opportunity to become aware of, and reflect upon, their own eating habits.  By the time I see them for their first session, they’ve usually already got their own ideas on how to make changes. I’m there to be a sounding board, correct any misconceptions and help make the proposed eating improvements the “path of least resistance.”

Can you devote 3 to 5 minutes a day to your health? And you don’t have to touch a measuring spoon (unless you want to).  Just focus on three things:

  1. What you ate
  2. When you ate
  3. Why you ate (were you really hungry?  Or just bored?  Or stressed?)

Extra credit responses include where you ate and rough estimates of how much you ate – just use your hand (a fistful, a palmful, a fingertip, etc.).  Get access to the easiest, most comprehensive food journal (a $15 value) by subscribing to the monthly JM Wellness newsletter to the right.

Then at the end of the week spend 3 to 5 minutes reviewing the record and seeing where you could, and are willing, to improve.  Or contact me and we can review it together!

Reference: :

Fructose Follies – High-Fructose Corn Syrup better for you than Agave?

Agave in the Wild - Sweet.  Really Sweet.

Agave in the Wild – Sweet. Really Sweet.
Photo by Juan Gnecco,

Fructose Effect On Brain May Explain Link To Obesity
Sources: Medical News Today & Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA)

Do you shun high-fructose corn syrup as a processed chemical but love agave as a natural sweetener?  Believe it or not, you might actually be better off with the high-fructose corn syrup (ideally, you’d reduce how much you have of both). A recent study by Page et al. in JAMA found that consuming fructose (compared to glucose) led to lower blood flow and activity in the part of the brain that regulates appetite and lower levels of the hormones that lead to feeling full.  And most agave nectars have significantly more fructose than high-fructose corn syrup.

First, a somewhat brief lesson on carbs, how fructose plays a role, and why you should care.

Like glucose, fructose is a mono-saccharide – an individual building block of larger carbohydrates. For those counting, the third mono-saccharide is galactose.  Think of these guys as the individual Lego-blocks.

Most of the carbs we know, or care, about (dairy, pasta, bread, sugar, etc.) are built from these Lego-blocks.  There are two frequently used terms here: simple sugars/carbs and complex carbs.  Simple sugars refer to mono- and di-saccharides.  Disaccharides are made up of two (di-) Lego pieces put together.  The three di-saccharides are:

  • Mannose – Two glucoses – Rarely found in food alone, usually a part of larger chains called polysaccharides (aka complex carbs)
  • Lactose – One glucose and one galactose – Typically found in dairy foods
  • Sucrose – One glucose and one fructose – Typically found in naturally occurring sweet foods (fruits) and processed foods.

Long-story short, larger carbohydrate Lego structures are considered complex carbohydrates.  These are typically the carbs found in pasta, rice, bread, veggies, legumes, etc.

Technically, it’s easier to break down simple carbs in the body than complex ones just as it’s easier to break apart a smaller Lego structure than a bigger one.  But not so fast; most carbs are not delivered by themselves in a nice, neat package (you don’t eat a spoonful of mannose or lactose) – they are grouped together with other nutrients like protein, fat, fiber and water.  The key is what package the carbs are delivered in – so not every simple sugar is bad for you (fruit vs. candy) and not every complex carb is a healthy option (refined pasta vs. quinoa).

Now you know carbohydrates.  Moving on to our featured carb, fructose…

Fructose, because it’s absorbed differently by the body (via the liver) than glucose, has a lower glycemic index (GI) rating – the rating system used to measure how fast a single food increases your blood sugar.  That’s why things like agave became all the rage when any and all low-GI foods were “the thing.” And there’s still some potential value for athletes and diabetics (to be discussed in future posts).

However, just because it’s absorbed slowly doesn’t mean it should be absorbed to begin with.  Most of us don’t go around eating 100 grams of isolated carbs (well, except for Pixy Stix, Fun Dip and other sugary snacks).  If you’re eating carbs with other foods like protein, fiber or fat, the whole GI rating system goes out the window.  The take home message from all of the low-GI gurus became: eat more fruits, veggies, whole grains, healthy fat and lean protein.  Eat less junk food.  Big surprise.

As expertly pointed out by Medical News Today, our two main sources of fructose these days is fruit and processed foods.  Fruit packages the fructose with lots of water (most fruits are more than 90% water by weight) and fiber.  The fructose is also likely trapped within the tough-to-digest cell walls of the fruit, which means digesting the fructose is harder (unless you juice it).  Imagine surrounding the Lego-blocks with a taped-up cardboard box.  You have to open up the box before you get access to the fuel (more effort required for breakdown) and if the boxes are moving on a conveyer belt similar to your digestive system, you may not get to all of the boxes, so some goes undigested (which means less calories).

In many processed foods, fructose is added to make them sweeter and more shelf stable.  These foods, on the other hand, don’t always have water, fiber, or nice natural walls to make accessing fructose harder.    It’s a party train of absorption all the way down the digestive tract!  But we shouldn’t just pick on little old fructose, because he’s rarely found in isolation; he’s usually teamed up with glucose as a part of sugar (50% fructose / 50% glucose) or high-fructose corn syrup (55% fructose).

Per the study above, fructose fails to regulate the reward and appetite system in our brain so we tend to overeat when eating large amounts of fructose compared to glucose.  But my frustration with this study is: the average person doesn’t drink a “glucose” or “fructose” solution.  They drink juice, eat fruit, eat brown vs. white rice, drink soda and eat candy bars.  Which is a combination of nutrients and physical properties that lead to different absorption rates.

My take home from this study?  Eat less processed junk.  And run a study comparing MRI images of the brain on apples vs. soda vs. meal replacement bars with man-added fiber.  Also, consider how many apples you’d need to eat to get the same amount of fructose as a candy bar or soda.

Research Roundup – Jan. 30 2013

Research Roundup!

Research Roundup!

Study #1: Too Little Sleep Spurs Appetite-Boosting Hormones

Process worked differently in men, women.

Sources: MedLine Plus

Jason’s Thoughts:

Lack of sleep impacts many aspects of healthy living, including appetite.  Sleep is when your body repairs itself, converts thoughts to long term memory and more.  If you’re getting less than 6 hours of sleep, you could make a healthy habit change by focusing on getting even 30 or 60 extra minutes of sleep a night.  Set a timer to stop working at a specified hour, create a routine, try to keep as much light out as possible (including your cellphone screen) and don’t do anything in bed except sleep (well, and that too) so your body doesn’t associate your bed with any other activity that could keep you awake.  If you have racing thoughts when trying to go to bed, write down all of your worries or concerns on a piece of paper until you can’t think of anything else to write.  Then try going back to bed.  Or you could do warm milk if you’re not lactose intolerant.

Study #2: Yo-Yo Dieting Can Hurt the Heart:

Older women who lose weight and then regain it may raise their risk of cardiovascular trouble.

Sources: Healthday and Journals of Gerontology

Jason’s Thoughts:

There’s always been debate on whether yo-yo dieting can have negative effects beyond the weight regain.  This study suggests yes, at least for older women.  I think it really ultimately comes down to the related changes in body composition.  If your weight loss comes from ½ muscle and ½ fat and your weight regain is primarily fat, then you have less lean body mass, a slower metabolism and likely more inflammatory issues going on in the body.

Samantha Heller, exercise physiologist and clinical nutrition coordinator , says it best in the article, “This small study is a great example of why we need to avoid fad diets and diet programs, potions and pills that promise quick weight loss … while it can be frustrating to take the slower, healthier route to weight loss, the long-term results are ultimately more satisfying and healthier.”

Living healthier is a skill that must be learned, or relearned.  It’s not about the speed of weight loss, it’s about permanency.  I want every pound lost to be one that never comes back.

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