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10 secrets to eating healthy

Winnipeg dietitians share their tricks for upping the veggies, cutting the sweets and keeping the portions under control

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Wave, November / December 2012

By the very nature of their work, dietitians should be among the healthiest eaters on the planet. Seems logical, right?

After all, these folks know Eating Well with Canada's Food Guide, the bible of healthy eating, inside and out.

Of course, dietitians are not just knowledgeable about food, they're also big fans of cooking and eating.

As Colleen Rand, Manager of Clinical Nutrition Community for the Winnipeg Health Region, says, dietitians believe food should be used "to express love and friendship, continue tradition, preserve culture, nourish our bodies and spirit, celebrate, grow and heal."

Naturally, it helps if you can do all these things in a way that is healthy. With that in mind, we asked ten Winnipeg Health Region dietitians to share their secrets for eating healthy. In the pages that follow, they will share their insights into how you can eat well and eat healthy at the same time.

1. Start your day right

Marni Robert believes it is important to start the day off with a good breakfast.

"There's a lot of research showing that kids who eat breakfast perform better in school. They have more energy and can concentrate more," she says.

Although some people say they skip breakfast because they are not hungry or feel they don't have time in the morning, Robert says that missing the first meal of the day is not a good idea. "It's important to get in the habit of eating breakfast," says Robert, a clinical dietitian with the Winnipeg Health Region.

Some people may feel that they can lose weight by skipping breakfast. But Robert says this is unlikely to happen.

She says those who do skip breakfast may find themselves overeating at lunch or snacking constantly through the evening, usually on food that is not healthy.

She points to a study that looked at those who eat once or twice a day as compared to those who eat three times a day. The study concluded that "those who eat less often, often eat more calories overall," she says.

Robert says a healthy breakfast should include something from three to four food groups: dairy, grains, protein and fruit. It is important to note that those who skip breakfast are missing out on certain nutrients. A typical breakfast usually includes a serving of milk - which contains calcium and Vitamin D - along with fruit and protein.

Robert has a tip for those who feel rushed in the morning. She powers up her day by making a smoothie with milk, yogurt, a banana and a quarter cup of flax or hemp seeds.

"Some people find it's faster to put that in a go-cup than making a meal with whole-wheat toast, poached eggs, a couple of slices of orange and a cup of milk."

2. Homecoming queen

There's a danger zone in her day that Colleen Rand used to fall prey to: a time in late afternoon, when she's hungry, and hasn't yet made dinner. That's when she's most likely to eat, mindlessly, foods that are high in sugar or fat, like salty taco chips and salsa.

"I'm a 'homecoming queen,' which means I'm so hungry at the end of my work day that the minute I'm in the door at home at 5:30, I'm looking for something quick to eat," says Rand, Manager of Clinical Nutrition Community for the Winnipeg Health Region. "And it's usually too much of the wrong thing." Her secret is to identify the most problematic time of day for eating mindlessly, be it just before dinner, late at night or even in the middle of the night. "People eat foods that are that are easiest when they are really hungry or a lot of something they really like."

In order to give up her title as homecoming queen, Rand made a plan. She has a small snack at 4 p.m. while still at work. "I might eat some cheese and crackers, or a handful of nuts, a carton of yogurt or some apple slices," she says. "It quells the hunger, which means I'm not eating unthinkingly when I get home. Same goes for when I'm watching TV, or under stress."

3. Power-crunching

When Jean Helps realizes she's short on vegetables, she reaches for a carrot.

Everyone likes carrots, says Helps. They're a good source of vitamins and fibre, which help reduce your risk of cancer and heart disease. They're good for your eyesight and complexion, too.

"A carrot is portable and easy to serve. Cut it into sticks and serve with a dip. While you're at it, add other vegetables, like red pepper and sugar snap peas. Even the fussiest of kids will go for that," she says, noting that a daily serving of an orange vegetable provides needed nutrients, and a carrot fits the bill (as do sweet potatoes and squash).

You may be surprised at how much you enjoy the taste and texture of other vegetables you haven't yet tried. "People don't eat enough vegetables, especially the colourful ones that give you the most nutritional bang, like carrots, tomatoes, spinach and sweet potatoes," she says.

Other ways to fit more vegetables into your daily routine include tricks like chopping spinach and adding it to spaghetti sauce. The spinach adds to the sauce and you don't even know it's there, says Helps, Regional Manager of Clinical Nutrition, Long Term Care Sector. "Another idea is to add cauliflower when you're making mashed potatoes. This way, you get two vegetables in one dish."

Helps always keeps frozen vegetables on hand, like carrots, peas and spinach. She likes these better than canned vegetables, which contain extra sodium. Frozen veggies can be added to stews, soups and stir-fries.

4. Sleight of hand

There's a bit of food magic going on at Andrea Rodrigue's house.

She uses a simple illusion to convince her family they're eating lots of food, when actually they're getting portions that are perfect for their body size and condition.

Her secret? She serves dinner on luncheon plates. The smaller plates make food portions look bigger. "I compared the size of my dinner plates to ones I had years ago, and found out that the dinner plates are bigger now," says Rodrigue. "If we ate off the bigger plates, we'd be getting 200 to 500 calories more per meal."

Switching to a smaller plate is part of her philosophy that the best diet is the one you don't know you're on.

Using dinnerware to control the amount of food you eat is a hot topic for dietitians. Rodrigue says if you offer kids 250 mL of milk in a tall, thin glass and the same amount in a short, wide glass, kids invariably pick the taller glass. "It's all about perception. Kids think there's more liquid in the tall glass, and they also think that more is better."

Rodrigue recommends the book Mindless Eating by author Brian Wansink, which talks about plates and portion sizes, and how to change eating habits in slow, thoughtful steps.

"It comes down to knowing ahead of time, and a bit of planning. Put your food into small bowls or plates so it looks bigger. Your plate should be divided into sections, with ¼ protein, ¼ starch and ½ vegetables," says Rodrigue, who is the Site Leader of Clinical Nutrition at Victoria General Hospital. "And if you finish eating, and are still hungry 20 minutes later, then eat a little more, preferably vegetables."

5. Fibre fills you up

The question of whether the cup is half empty or full is moot for Alison Cummins.

That's because half a cup is all she needs to make her happy - half a cup of fibre, that is, usually in the form of high-fibre cereal added to her regular cereal in the morning.

That half-cup of bran gives her 12 grams of fibre, which is almost half the daily requirement for a woman.

"Women are supposed to get 25 grams and men are supposed to get 38 grams of fibre a day," says Cummins, Regional Manager, Manitoba Partnership Dietetic Education Program with the Winnipeg Health Region. "Most of us fall woefully short."

The reason is that people look at the daily requirement, and count up how many vegetables it would take to hit that goal. For example, it would take 2.5 cups of carrots to get the same amount of fibre as a 1/2 cup of highfibre cereal. Only Bugs Bunny would be thrilled to eat that much.

"So it seems rather daunting, until you know my secret," says Cummins, adding that the roughage in fibre does wonderful things for your digestion and bowel health, keeps cholesterol at bay, and a high-fibre diet helps with colon cancer, among other health concerns. "Fibre also fills you up, so you're not hungry that soon after eating it."

6. Follow the clues

Just like a sleuth in a whodunit out looking for clues, Kathleen Richardson has been known to take a magnifying glass to the grocery store.

She's searching for clues to reveal the true offenders: packaged and canned foods that are high in salt, sugar and fat. To do so, Richardson reads the labels on all cans, boxes and plastic wraps.

"One of the most startling places you'll find high levels of sodium - salt - is in ready-to-eat foods, like frozen dinners. I once saw a package of frozen wonton soup that had 54 per cent of the daily suggested sodium content in it," says Richardson, a Chief Nutrition and Food Services Officer with the Winnipeg Health Region. "That soup went back on the shelf."

Labels give you information about the ingredients, a nutrition facts table, and sometimes misleading information about what the food is supposed to do for you, says Richardson.

"Beware a product that boasts. Marketing can make you think a bran muffin is high in fibre and low in fat, but really, that muffin is also full of sugar."

To avoid this, read the percentage chart on every label, she says. An important first step is to look at the serving size, and compare it to what you'd normally eat. For example, if you like to eat four cookies, but the serving size is listed for two cookies, you're getting two times everything on that nutrition facts list.

"You want to pick items that have more vitamins, more fibre, more calcium and iron," she says. "The facts list also is a guide based on the average adult calorie intake, which you should be counting, in order to help yourself meet your goals."

7. Step away from the food

Just like in real estate, location means everything when it comes to arranging your food at home, at work, and even where you like to party.

"It's true," says Nancy Doern-White. "If you stand within arm's reach of the goodies on the buffet at a holiday party, you're going to find yourself eating mindlessly. So you have to position yourself away from the food. Put some treats on a plate, and go find a good conversation to join. Or else you're going to eat more than two times what you normally would."

"Location, location, location" is Doern- White's mantra for setting up her home and office for food success. Clean your house by getting rid of trigger foods that you crave, and restock with healthy treats. Put the cookies and chips out of sight, hide the candy dish and rearrange the fridge so the kolbasa is at the back of the shelf.

"Cut up carrot sticks, and put them in bowls in the fridge with a little water, so you see them when you open the door. Put out bowls of cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, etc. It's like marketing. You tend to eat what you see first, what's conveniently at hand," says Doern-White, the Lipid Clinic Dietitian at the I. H. Asper Institute at St-Boniface Hospital.

The same goes for the office. Keep a supply of apples and sugar snap peas on hand, and avoid that trip to the junk food machine, she says. "I'm not saying never eat treats, but to set yourself up for success through locating the healthy food at hand."

8. Slow it down

When life gets too rushed, Brenda Hotson slows down and savours the food on her plate.

Eating slowly not only allows her to taste the flavour, but also tune into her body's messages about when she's full.

"By eating slowly, I often don't finish everything on my plate, especially when I go out to a restaurant," says Hotson, Regional Manager of Clinical Nutrition, Acute Care, for the Winnipeg Health Region.

"We're such a rushed society. So when we eat in a rush, we lose track of our hunger, and cannot tell when we're full."

It takes a while for your stomach to signal your brain that you're full. A lot of times, you don't realize your stomach is full, especially if you finish a big meal in just a few minutes, says Hotson.

She loves the slow food movement, which was born in reaction to fast food served by restaurant chains. Not only does the slow food movement encourage people to take time when cooking, but it encourages them to use fresh ingredients and eat meals with their family.

"I have four boys, and we eat as a family as much as we can," says Hotson.

"But instead of eating huge meals, we take our time and eat realistic portions."

9. Sporting strategy

As your workout ends, the recovery clock begins to tick.

That is when a quick snack can have a major impact on restoring your body's energy supply, repairing and building muscle, and losing fat.

Jeremy Amman says that your body begins to deplete its nutritional stores during moderate- to high-intensity activity lasting more than 20 minutes. This can be during a lunchtime exercise class, a brisk evening walk, or a pick-up hockey game.

Your carbohydrate stores are burned for energy, muscle proteins are damaged, and fluids and other nutrients are lost in sweat. Improper refuelling can cause sore muscles and make you feel unusually tired for the next few days. "Eating a snack full of protein, carbohydrates, and fluids, like ½ cup of berries and cup of chocolate milk, within 30 minutes of finishing your exercise is the best way to help rebuild, refuel, and rehydrate your body," says Amman, a clinical dietitian at the Health Sciences Centre.

Chocolate milk really is a post-exercise wonder food, he says. "It is not only an excellent source of protein, carbohydrates, and fluids, but also contains calcium and Vitamin D for bone health, B-vitamins for producing energy, and sodium and potassium which are important nutrients lost in sweat," says Amman.

10. Bottoms up

Making healthier drink choices is a small change that can make a big difference to your health.

The truth is many drinks contain a fair amount of sugar, which means they also pack lot of calories, says Angela D'Avanti, Regional Manager, Operations with the Winnipeg Health Region's Nutrition and Food Services.

Dietitians refer to the sugar found in soft drinks and the like as "added sugar." Most people should have no more than 13 teaspoons of added sugar per day, says D'Avanti.

But it doesn't take long for the added sugar to add up. "For example, a can of pop contains 10 teaspoons of sugar and specialty coffee with syrup and whipped cream can contain 16 teaspoons of sugar," she says. The problem is that these are empty calories that are void of the nutrition needed to stay healthy. "Some drinks have as many calories as a full meal," she says.

As a result, D'Avanti suggests that people try to choose drinks with no added sugar, like water or milk. Water is the refreshing and guilt-free "bottoms up," she says. "If you hate plain water, add a slice of lemon or lime or try sparkling water," she says.

It's also good idea to carry a water bottle, given that women need two litres of water and men need three litres of water each day.

Of course, this does not mean you need to stop visiting your barrista. Most coffee shop favourites can be made with low-fat milk and sugar-free flavouring. D'Avanti, for example, says her favourite coffee shop drink is an "Earl Grey, sugar free vanilla, skim milk latté.

Susie Strachan is a communications advisor with the Winnipeg Health Region.

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