What a Nutritionist Wants You to Know About Basic Nutrition
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Are we all sick and is our diet to blame? While we’re facing a public health challenge, says Allison Knott, MS, RDN, CSSD, a registered dietitian and board-certified specialist in sports nutrition, we might be focusing on the negative. With 50 percent of the American population suffering from one or more preventable chronic diseases, it’s easy to spend all our energy on finding the perfect way to eat.
But, rather than concentrate on how food might “secretly” be making us ill, Allison asked attendees at WELL Summit in Brooklyn in October 2018 to flip this narrative to the positive by asking what we can do to stay well instead.
Keep reading for what a nutritionist really wants you to know about basic nutrition.
According to a 2017 survey, eight in 10 Americans are confused about nutrition and report seeing conflicting nutrition information. How do we sift through the fiction to find the facts when it comes to food science? Here are three things Allison Knott wants you to know about basic nutrition—and how you can stay well.
1. Put the evidence in context.
When it comes to nutrition research, Allison says we need to be critical consumers, both of what we’re reading and of what we’re implementing into our lifestyle. She cautions us against making food decisions based on single studies and sensationalized headlines. Instead, Allison advises, “Look at the body of evidence and understand where we are in the science before we make changes to our diets, since single studies might not, and likely don’t, tell us the full story.”
And should you have a health reason to remove a specific food from your diet? Allison says to take note because, “it’s important to understand what nutrients might be missing as a result and how we can replace those nutrients.”
Allison further suggests heeding Dr. David Katz’ warning about reductionism by looking for patterns when it comes to nutritional concerns. Dr. Katz says, “With science driven forward by the view through a microscope, I worry that we may personalize medicine while overlooking the person.” But, by looking at the whole person, a nutritionist or doctor can see all her habits, her relationships, her emotional state and her physical activity levels, as well as dietary patterns. Both Allison and Dr. Katz remind us that taking a holistic view makes it easier to understand which areas to address first—and to not assume changing your diet is that first step.
2. Prioritize eating more fruits and vegetables.
Reports indicate that nine out of 10 Americans don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables. With all the information we do have, how is this still true? For starters, Allison wonders if we are overcomplicating choices when we try to figure out what is best. Are blueberries better than strawberries, for example? She says you should eat a berry because all berries are known sources of antioxidants containing fiber, and have vitamins that are beneficial to your health.
Like the pieces of an onion, Allison says the first layer to peel back with nutrition is whether or not you are eating plants, period. She poses two simple questions to help you prioritize your plant choices, “What is available and does it taste good?” It doesn’t get more intuitive and straightforward than that.
Whether or not the food you have available is organic and sustainable are secondary layers to consider. Allison admits these factors are more complicated. “In some cases, local might be more important than organic when it comes to sustainability, but the question of access is huge when it comes to individual and public health,” she says. When you rely solely on the label organic, she continues, you might be forgetting about the thousands of miles it took to transport the produce, compared to something sourced in your area from a farmer you trust.
If those are where your layers start and stop, consider yourself lucky. About 24.6 million people, or eight percent of the continental U.S. population, live in limited supermarket areas (LSAs), meaning we still have a ways to go to offer equal and affordable access to healthy food. “The priority should be to eat more plants first,” Allison reiterates, “moving through the layers of the onion from there.” Translation? We should all do the best we can with what’s available to us.
3. Focus on your whole diet.
What’s most important when it comes to macronutrients? Allison says it’s about the whole of what you eat, not the individual nutrients. Carbohydrates deliver glucose and are the body’s primary energy source. Protein rebuilds and repairs tissue, supports muscle growth and is vital for enzymes, hormones and antibodies. Fat carries vitamins, insulates and protects organs, and makes up 60 percent of our brains. Vitamins tightly regulate the body and are necessary for the whole metabolic process. When we evaluate what we’re eating with all of these nutrients in mind, Allison reminds us to look for these three components:
- Patterns: Healthy eating patterns matter. Don’t focus on single nutrients outside the context of the diet as a whole.
- Variety: Ensure you’re consuming adequate nutrients by seeking to eat a variety of foods.
- Quality: Nutrient-dense and quality of food make a difference in health outcomes.
Seems simple, right? With all the trends (coconut oil, turmeric and matcha, oh my!) we sift through on a daily basis, getting back to basics with nutrition is a step in the WELL direction.
Interested in how Allison got her start? Read more about her background in our Inside the WELL Summit: Meet Allison Knott interview.