If I had to write a nutritional guide based on what I've been taught in school, it would hardly fill a flier. Commercials, on the other hand, provide quite an education: They show that thin young people eat burgers and fries, middle-aged women love Lean Cuisine meals and men don't seem to care what they eat.
Institutionalized education on the subject isn't much better. At best, nutrition makes a scant appearance on most school curricula. Cafeterias serve burgers, pizza and nachos alongside a few healthy options, and vending machines too often are filled with soda, candy and chips.
In contrast, an emphasis on exercise begins at a very early age. Practically as soon as they can totter around on two legs, we suit up our children for dance class, soccer or Little League, and many schools require gym class. Adults may change the way they exercise or how often, but many still go to the gym, take classes in cardio, yoga, cycling, etc., and hire personal trainers. Studies have shown that weight loss programs that combine exercise and changes in diet are more successful than those centered only on fitness regimens, so talking to a nutritionist can make a big difference.
Rebecca Markway Lee, a registered dietician at East Jefferson General Hospital, says the more people know about how eating habits affect health, the better. As a nutritional counselor, she finds people often don't know how to implement a healthy diet plan.
"Some people are eating foods that are OK for them, but their eating habits are not good," she says. "Skipping meals can trigger your body to go into starvation mode, which means your metabolism is slowing down significantly and is not burning the calories that it normally would.
"Usually, people who skip meals are so hungry by the time they do eat, that they overeat and flood their systems with sugar that the body isn't prepared to metabolize all at once. Likewise, very restrictive diets shut down your system. That is why women who exercise a lot and diet don't lose weight. Their bodies have gone into starvation mode, slowing down their metabolism."
It is much better to eat smaller servings several times a day. "People are usually pretty shocked when they see what normal portion sizes are supposed to be," Lee says. For instance, almonds are a good source of protein and make a good snack, but a serving is only about six almonds. Because we live in a super-sized society, people often have a false perception of how much food is appropriate, so Lee advocates keeping a daily log of food choices. "One of the keys to success is definitely self-monitoring through journaling," she says. "Seeing your calorie count and an honest tally of the foods you are consuming can be a real eye-opener. It creates accountability. That may not lead to a perfect diet overnight, but that will, in time, lead to healthier and healthier choices both in regards to the foods eaten and the amounts of food eaten."
Plans should be individualized, with achievable short- and long-term goals. After about six months, the plan should be reassessed and modified.
Jerry Couvillion wanted to learn how to eat right to manage his diabetes and began working with Lee at the end of May. "We spent an hour going over the diabetes diet," he says. "[Lee] marked down which foods I should eat and gave me a book to read, which I use every day as a guide." At first, he thought the change in diet would not keep him satisfied. "Before, I was eating normal foods that everybody eats — rice and gravy and meat — regular New Orleans fare. The most surprising thing (about going on the diet) was that I wasn't hungry all of the time. That shocked me."
Couvillion lost 10 pounds in the first 36 days of the diet and his blood sugar levels dropped. He credits part of the success to his food log. "I have a tablet that I write everything on," he says. "I know when I've reached my limit, and I scratch things off as I go. I couldn't make it any simpler than that."