Get a healthy helping of nutrition facts

DOVER –– It’s March once again, and that means it’s National Nutrition Month; a time to reflect on your personal eating habits.

In an ever-changing world of nutritional information, it’s important to see if your diet aligns with the findings of the latest scientific research.

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“It’s one of the things I love about my profession,” said Lourie A. Cherundolo, a clinical dietitian manager at Beebe Healthcare. “It’s an evidence-based field and we are always learning more.”

But findings can be complex and difficult for the general population to digest. So since 1943, the U.S. government has been providing recommendations in an easy-to-understand format firstly in the text-based “Basic 7” and “Basic Four” before implementing its first visual guide — a food pyramid published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1992.

In 2005, the food guide pyramid was replaced with “MyPyramid,” a more abstract version of the original pyramid that omitted illustrations of the foods that fit into each basic food group.

And instead of one pyramid showing a generalized guide for everyone, there were 12 different versions to accommodate different ages and sexes. Each included serving size recommendations but like the food guide pyramid was replaced.

In 2011, the USDA debuted a new set of dietary guidelines demonstrated by “MyPlate,” a diagram that utilizes a pie chart instead of a pyramid.

The chart uses only colors to separate the different food groups and has been made more practical by excluding specific serving sizes.

“MyPlate is a simpler way of presenting what we should be eating and shows it on a plate because we usually plan what we eat meal by meal, not for the day as a whole,” Ms. Cherundolo said.

The most basic takeaway from MyPlate is that a daily diet should consist of 50 percent fruits and vegetables with the other half of the diet including complete protein, whole grains and dairy.

Fruits and veggies

When it comes to fruits and vegetables –– the foods that should be taking up half your plate –– choosing local options is the most beneficial to your health.

“A positive trend we’re seeing with nutrition is the farm to plate movement,” Ms. Cherundolo said. “When people buy their produce from local farms, we know the produce is moving quickly from the field to your kitchen so it’s has a high nutritional value. Produce in the grocery store may have been picked before it was ripe and it has been a while since it was picked. Both lead to a lower nutrient content.”

When deciding which fruits and vegetables to eat, it’s important to keep your plate colorful by incorporating a wide variety, not just broccoli and carrots.

“We know that some dark-green vegetables have cancer-fighting properties and that tomatoes are associated with a healthy prostate and blueberries are associated with vision health,” Ms. Cherundolo said. “So with a variety of fruits and vegetables, you can receive many health benefits.”

The second half of your plate

In MyPlate, the half that doesn’t consist of fruits and vegetables includes protein, grains and dairy.

Grains are the biggest portion of the remaining plate and larger emphasis than ever is being placed on the importance of avoiding refined grains. According to Health.gov’s 2015 dietary guidelines, refined grains include white flour, rice, bread and pasta.

The refining process removes the bran and germ from the whole grain, stripping it of dietary fiber, iron, and other nutrients.

“When this process is done by machine, it takes away a lot of responsibilities that should be left to the body and reduced the nutrition value while causing a spike in blood sugar,” Ms. Cherundolo said.

Good examples of whole grains to incorporate into your diet are brown rice, barley, corn, oats and quinoa. On pre-packaged grains, “whole grains” should be the first ingredient listed.

In the most recent USDA update, the protein section which has always included meat, seafood and eggs now places more emphasis on plant-based protein-rich sources like nuts, seeds, soy products and legumes (beans and peas).

“It’s not just about vegetarians and vegans, it’s that more and more people are cutting out or reducing the amount of meat they consume,” Ms. Cherundolo said.

And the reduction of meat consumption isn’t only attributed to animal lovers, it can be attributed to millions of people who care about getting healthy.

“There’s a major focus on greatly reducing and even eliminating saturated fats now, and most of our saturated fat comes from meat,” Ms. Cherundolo said. “People are coming to realize there are alternatives to meat. You can still get the complete protein you need from plants without the saturated fat and cholesterol that come with meat.”

Aside from saturated fats and cholesterol, many meats like smoked, cured or processed meats are now considered carcinogens by the World Health Organization.

“Is meat as bad as smoking? Probably not,” Ms. Cherundolo said. “But based on scientific evidence, it has been grouped with cigarettes, and when people hear ‘carcinogen’ they know that’s not something they should put in their body.”

Complete protein alternatives to meat that can be incorporated into a daily diet are soy-based items like tofu and even grains like quinoa.

“If you went on the street five years ago and asked someone what quinoa was, they would have no idea,” Ms. Cherundolo said. “But now, it’s common. It’s a complete protein health food and it’s another example of the public stepping up to eat healthier.”

Beebe Healthcare reports that there is strong scientific evidence that adults who reduce their intake of meat, processed meat and processed poultry are associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, obesity and some cancers.

Ms. Cherundolo added that non-meat complete protein sources like soy can still allow for muscle tone and definition, will allow the body to repair itself like protein from meat and can satisfy your body’s protein cravings.

But those cravings usually taper off around middle age, so as you get older, including complete protein in your diet is something you need to be more aware of.

“I work at a hospital so a lot of patients we see are middle aged or older and they don’t crave protein and in many cases aren’t getting enough and don’t even realize,” Ms. Cherundolo said.

The smallest portion left on MyPlate is dairy; and for those who are lactose intolerant or choose not to consume animal-based dairy products, soy milk is now included in the dairy portion.

According to the USDA, soy beverages fortified with calcium, vitamin A, and vitamin D are included as part of the dairy group because they have a very similar nutrient composition as dairy milk and can be used for identical purposes when it comes to both drinking and cooking.

When choosing your milk, the USDA advises choosing low-fat or non-fat options to reduce caloric and saturated fat intake while still receiving the benefits of the vitamins, protein, calcium, potassium and magnesium.

Looking outside the plate

No mention of sugar is made on MyPlate and Ms. Cherundolo said it’s because the focus of sugar has recently changed.

“It used to be all about added sugar, but now it’s just sugar in general we should be worried about,” she said.

But one obstacle to keeping track of sugar is what’s on the nutritional facts label –– or what isn’t on it.

Unlike most nutritional values listed, sugar is only listed in grams, without an accompanying percent of daily value.

“We’re hoping for an overhaul of the nutritional facts label soon, but it is good to also know the target numbers by grams not just percentages,” Ms. Cherundolo said.

Generally sugar should make up less than 10 percent of your daily food intake and that usually comes out to about 22 grams for the average person. For measure, 22 grams is just about five teaspoons.

An important guide which includes information about sugar and should be used alongside MyPlate is the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The DGA is updated every five years to align with the newest medical and scientific research and the 2015-2020 guide is currently available at Health.gov.

The five overarching themes of this edition of the DGA are follow a healthy eating pattern across the lifespan; focus on variety, nutrient density and amount; limit calories from added sugars and saturated fats and reduce sodium intake; shift to healthier food and beverage choices and; support healthy eating patterns for all.

Even if you are following the recommendations from both MyPlate and the DGA, your diet might not exactly be healthy.

“A lot of people might think that just because they’re following the recommendations they’re being healthy but in many cases, people are getting way more than they need,” Ms. Cherundolo.

She said it’s not uncommon for people to be eating a serving three times as large as what the true serving size is, but it’s not always their fault.

“Plates are now 12 inches across when they used to be eight and some of the silverware is just huge now,” she said. “You could practically garden with some of the forks that are being produced now.”

But there are some moves in the right direction with restaurants now offering more low-calorie options and even menus with smaller serving options.

“I think we are seeing a lot more people caring about their health but we still have a long way to go,” Ms. Cherundolo said.

Many people still go day after day without a concern for their diet and put themselves at a higher risk of obesity which can cause further complications like diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and stroke.

But others who are watching their weight may be going about it the wrong way.

“People are always looking for the simplest way to get from A to B,” Ms. Cherundolo said. “So people are willing to buy into quick fixes like fad diets or not eating at all when in reality, none of those are ways to lose weight or get healthy. It’s why you see so many people yo-yo with their weight. They may try one of these methods and lose some weight but they’ll gain it back twofold.”

If you’d like personalized information about nutrition or an individualized plan to lose weight and get healthy, it’s best to seek the advice of a professional nutritionist and not just to blindly follow what the TV says.

“The biggest challenge we nutritionists face when working with individuals looking to get healthy is the misconceptions they have,” Ms. Cherundolo said. “People hear about fads on the news from people like Dr. Oz and immediately consider that a reliable source when people who work in my field, nutrition is our profession and our passion. People need to understand they can rely on professional nutritionists to provide them with scientific information and legitimate advice.”

Further information about MyPlate and the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans can be found online at Health.gov.

Reach staff writer Ashton Brown at abrown@newszap.com. Follow @AshtonReports on Twitter.

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