How to Embrace National Nutrition Month
New research and practical pointers for getting healthy, and staying that way
Posted March 17, 2016
Since it’s National Nutrition Month, it is the perfect time to highlight some of the latest nutritionally related research as well as remind you of some old tips that stand the test of time in efforts to help you stay healthy and fit. However, you must first have a basic comprehension on which factors contribute to weight gain and loss, metabolism, as well as how to differentiate between healthy food and “junk” food- because as science tells us, not all calories are created equal.
Calories in and calories out: weight status and metabolism
It’s important to remember the basics- a calorie is a unit of energy. All food has calories and our body utilizes them for a host of different metabolic processes that require energy to function. Our total energy expenditure (TEE), which is how many calories we burn in total, is comprised of our resting metabolic rate (REE), diet induced thermogenesis (how many calories are burned by processing and storing what we consume) and physical activity. Our REE, which accounts for most of the calories burned on a daily basis, uses energy for functions like breathing, temperature regulation and circulation. REE varies from person to person based on factors such as fat mass and fat free mass, with muscle and organs burning more calories that adipose tissue.
It’s important to remember that changes in weight (and metabolism) are also impacted by other factors such as such as medical conditions, medications, gender and age, however, the same rules apply- if you eat more than you use, the extra calories are converted and stored as fat, leading to weight gain and increased adiposity. Conversely, by eating less calories (or burning more calories through exercise) than your body is using, creating a caloric deficit, weight loss should ensue. Although this is an over-simplistic explanation on calories, metabolism and weight status, it is important to keep in mind when understanding your own personal weight goals.
Healthy or junky? Read the label!
First step to eating healthier is understanding how to read, and interpret a nutrition label. Importantly, don't forget to read the ingredients! Since ingredients are listed in descending order of amount added, this part of the label will let you know what the majority of the food or beverage is made of. And don't be fooled by good marketing- “natural” or organic foods in excess still lead to weight gain (for example- your body processes organic sugar and white sugar the same).
Check out the FDA’s website for a tutorial for reading a label.
Some practical tips backed by old and new research:
1) Make your weight loss tips realistic
Having unrealistic weight loss goals can make a person believe it is unattainable, causing them to quit too early. Many people may have a set goal in mind to loose 25, 50, even 100 pounds, but research shows us that once we gain weight, our body fights to keep it on, and fights even harder to get it back once its lost- making long term weight loss difficult for most.
But there’s good news! You may have heard that just 5-10% of weight loss will provide many benefits, but how good is only a 5% loss? Previously, there wasn't much data on only 5%, however a new study supports the 5% claim. To put it in perspective, if you’re starting at 200 pounds, that's only 10 pounds. Although higher levels of weight loss were associated with greater metabolic improvements, this randomized controlled trial found that only a 5% reduction in body weight led to improved insulin sensitivity in the liver, muscle and adipose tissue, as well as improved beta cell function in the pancreas (1). So start small and take it from there!
2) Opt for a balanced diet instead of fads
It’s extremely difficult to “prove” that a diet will lead to significant weight loss and improved metabolic functioning, so when diets make outlandish claims- be skeptical. Nutrition research relies heavily on cross-sectional data, or retrospective analyzes of dietary intakes to make associations between food, nutrients and health. Even well studied diets, such as the Mediterranean style or DASH diet have been evaluated utilizing data from tools like surveys and food frequency questionnaires, which inevitably induce bias into the results.
If you are trying to test whether a certain food delivers substantial health benefits, or test for a superior ratio of macronutrients, it’s hard to do without impacting other areas of the diet. For example- if you’re trying to lower your carbohydrates to 20% of your diet, you have to increase the other macronutrients (to make 100% total) so it’s hard to tell which had the beneficial/negative effect- the reduced carbohydrate level, or the higher amounts of fat or protein?
So, next time a new fad diet comes on the market, look at the research supporting these claims and talk to a health care professional first. The popular Paleo style diet, which many people swear by, was recently put to the test. Pre-diabetic mice were fed a high fat, low carbohydrate diet, mimicking the Paleo diet, and the researchers found this diet actually worsened their blood glucose control, increased fat mass and caused weight gain (2). Chances are eating a balanced diet consisting of a variety of fruits, vegetables, healthy fats and high fiber carbohydrates, is not only more realistic (since it doesn't restrict entire food groups) but also doesn't exclude vitamins and minerals found in the food groups that are being restricted in many fad diets.
Some easy diet tips to keep in mind:
- Load half your plate up with fruits and vegetables
- Aim for fish high in omega 3 fatty acids at least 2x week
- Cook at home as much as you can
- Use fresh spices instead of adding salt
- Avoid processed foods and sugar sweetened beverages
- If you need more structure, try the DASH or Mediterranean style diet, both diets are much easier than a new fad diet and are backed by a lot more scientific research.
3) Healthy fats? Probiotics?
Having a healthy snack on hand helps put the kibosh on late afternoon sugar cravings. If you plan ahead and have a healthy snack ready, this will make you less likely to run to the vending machine for a bag of chips or candy bar when you start to feel the afternoon slump. Although these highly palatable foods taste delicious while eating it, these foods will most likely leave you feeling hungry soon after, wanting more, and won’t provide any significant nutrition.
Insert Nuts- lately, nuts have been touted as miracle foods loaded with healthy fats, protein, fiber and have an abundance of vitamins and minerals. Although the serving of nuts is small (remember to measure them out so your not consuming a lot more calories than you thought) this portion is the perfect amount to help improve your diet. Almonds in particular have recently been associated with a myriad of benefits. Just 10 almonds a day has been shown to improve markers of lipid metabolism, such as significantly increasing HDL (good cholesterol) and lowering total cholesterol, triglycerides and VLDL and LDL cholesterol (3). They also seem to impact overall diet quality; when participants were asked to consume 1.5 ounces each day, there was an improvement of Healthy Eating Index Scores (a measure of diet quality), which the authors posit was most likely due to decreases in junk food consumption. So plan ahead, and bring a little baggie of almonds with you to combat those afternoon sugar cravings.
Don't like nuts? Try a cup of Greek or Icelandic Style yogurt. Not only does it provide calcium and protein, but it also is a great way to get in your probiotics. Although there are many probiotic supplements on the market, many are not “broad spectrum,” meaning they don't provide more than a few different strains. Limiting yourself to one or two strains via supplementation can change the ratio of your flora. Since the research is still in its infancy, little is know on the long -term implications on health and disease. However many factors influence gut health. Favorable changes in the microbiome are seen post weight loss and in healthy diets high in fruits and vegetables. Conversely, higher populations of undesirable strains are associated with a diet high in processed food and meat, obesity, poor mental health, diabetes, and decreased immunity. So next time you want a snack, grab a yogurt to improve your gut health and fight off hunger.
4) Get moving!
We all know that exercise is good for us. It helps us burn calories, tone up and feel energized. Nowadays people sit too much. Whether it’s because they work at a desk for 8 hours a day, or like to sit for long hours binge watching a television show, it’s impacting our health for the worse. Research shows that sitting for too long is associated with a multitude of chronic diseases such as type 2 Diabetes and obesity, and may lead to premature death. The good news is, simple strategies like setting an alarm on your phone to remind you to get up from your desk every hour at work (and walk to the water fountain to refill your water bottle- double benefit!) can make significant differences. Further, just taking the steps instead of the elevator, not only burns more calories, but also is associated with a younger brain. A recent study found that besides education, people who take more flights of steps have “younger” brains as measured by the amount of grey matter seen by fMRI, when compared to people who took the steps less (4). In addition, another study conducted in senior centers found that those who burned the most calories had the largest volume of grey matter and lower risks of developing dementia, so start exercising!
Happy National Nutritional Month!
1) Magkos F, Fraterrigo G, Yoshino J, et al. Effects of Moderate and Subsequent Progressive Weight Loss on Metabolic Function and Adipose Tissue Biology in Humans with Obesity. Cell Metabolism, February 2016
2) B J Lamont, M F Waters, S Andrikopoulos. A low-carbohydrate high-fat diet increases weight gain and does not improve glucose tolerance, insulin secretion or β-cell mass in NZO mice. Nutrition & Diabetes, 2016; 6 (2) e194.
3) Jamshed H, Sultan FA, Iqbal R, Gilani AH. Dietary Almonds Increase Serum HDL Cholesterol in Coronary Artery Disease Patients in a Randomized Controlled Trial. J. Nutr. 2015;145(10):2287-2292.
4) Steffener, Christian Habeck, Deirdre O'Shea, Qolamreza Razlighi, Louis Bherer, Yaakov Stern. Differences between chronological and brain age are related to education and self-reported physical activity. Neurobiology of Aging, 2016; 40: 138
Dr. Nicole Avena is a research neuroscientist, author and expert in the fields of nutrition, diet and addiction. She received a Ph.D. in Neuroscience and Psychology from Princeton University, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship in molecular biology at The Rockefeller University in New York City. She has published over 70 scholarly journal articles, as well as several book chapters and books, on topics related to food, addiction, obesity and eating disorders. She also edited the books, Animal Models of Eating Disorders (2012) and Hedonic Eating (2015), coauthored the popular book of food and addiction called Why Diets Fail (Ten Speed Press), and recently finished her new book, What to Eat When You're Pregnant. Her research achievements have been honored by awards from several groups including the New York Academy of Sciences, the American Psychological Association, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and her research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Eating Disorders Association.