Nothing sparks a conversation at a party quite like the statement: “I’m a registered dietitian nutritionist.” No one ever replies, “Oh, that’s nice” and changes the subject. Nope. Cue the avalanche of questions. But, hey, it’s only natural. We all eat. So why wouldn’t we want advice from someone who specializes in helping people use food to feel better?
There’s a boatload of nutrition tips and advice out there – some good, some bad. It can feel impossible to digest (pun intended!). In case we never meet at the appetizer table (dietitian central), here’s a run-down of the most common questions I hear.
(Before we dive in, I’ll share that these answers include general information. The perk of making an appointment with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist is that you’re able to get answers that apply to you and your lifestyle on a very personal level.)
What’s the healthiest food?
While many manufacturers would love to say they sell the world’s healthiest food item, it doesn’t actually exist. In fact, eating only one food isn’t healthy (or fun). Rather than striving to eat large amounts of a single food, you should be seeking the right foods in the right combination.
Think of assembling a car as creating balanced nutrition. A steering wheel is important, but 100 steering wheels will never make a car. It needs to be surrounded by the other parts – an engine, brakes, wheels – to do its job.
Spinach is a healthy food, but it doesn’t put much gas in the tank as a stand-alone, even if you eat a pound. Pair spinach with some avocado chunks, sunflower seeds, chickpeas, black beans, tomatoes and strawberries. Then you’ll find yourself fueled for the long haul.
How much protein do I need?
As a dietitian, it’s important for me to know why you’re asking. Depending on factors like age, height, body weight, medical conditions, lifestyle and physical activity, the answer to this question can vary widely.
Based on the recommended dietary allowance (RDA), you can calculate general protein needs as follows: divide your current weight by 2.2 (this is your weight in kilograms). Now multiply that number by 0.8. The answer is a very general idea of how much protein you may need.
To put protein needs into perspective, a 3 to 4 ounce serving of lean meat (think chicken and turkey) provides about 20 to 25 grams of protein. A half cup of black beans or 2 tablespoons of peanut butter both provide about 8 grams. One half cup cottage provides about 14 grams.
Something to remember: proteins are made up of amino acids. Some protein sources are complete proteins, meaning they offer all nine essentials amino acids, which the body is not able to make on its own. Protein from animal sources and plant foods such as soy or quinoa is considered complete. Incomplete proteins come from plant sources and only offer some of the nine essential amino acids. The math-free version of this advice: include a lean protein with each meal and aim for variety in other sources of protein you eat each day.
Is it better to eat three meals – or 5 to 6 small meals – a day?
Ravenous hunger resulting from hours without eating can make it difficult to make healthy meal choices – and easy to eat to the point of feeling uncomfortably full. Eating more frequently throughout the day helps some people control extreme hunger and make balanced food choices. Others feel pressured by the clock and get stressed trying to find six times during the day when they are available to eat. Three meals a day may be plenty for some.
Rather than sticking with strict, predesignated times to eat, try rating your own “hunger scale” from one to ten. Ten is a “serious case of hangry” and one is “I just ate. I’m comfortably full.” Avoid waiting until your hunger gets to an eight or nine!
Try pairing a moderate portion of a lean protein with a complex carb (hello, fiber) when you feel at a five or six on the scale. Eat some apple slices with nut butter or roasted chickpeas. This method is more intuitive as it requires you to check in within yourself throughout the day to assess how you’re feeling and when you might be ready for food.