A Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) can play an integral role in an individual’s life. RDNs can explain how to eat for health and help clients:
who are trying to get pregnant or who are currently pregnant reduce the risk of neural tube defects;
manage chronic conditions like diabetes, ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s, heart disease, and hypertension through diet;
tweak diets that may be causing digestive issues like constipation, gas, bloating, and diarrhea;
improve sports performance;
ensure healthy infant development;
understand food labels;
overcome disordered eating;
navigate dietary restrictions and food allergies;
and manage weight in healthy ways.
It can be a financial commitment to work with an RDN who doesn’t accept insurance. And for good reason- RDNs understand the science behind how food affects the body and are trained to help everyday people understand it, too.
Many insurance companies don’t reimburse (or reimburse fairly) RDNs for their work with clients. (For what it’s worth, many RDNs can provide a superbill to submit to insurance companies so patients can be reimbursed for out-of-network care.)
If you’re not ready to commit to working with an RDN and want to try some do-it-yourself (DIY) behavior changes first, below are five free strategies on how to eat for health.
How to Eat for Health Secret #1: Add More Fruits and Vegetables
The first free "how to eat for health" strategy is increase fruit and vegetable intake. Although many people mistakenly believe that RDNs will tell them what foods NOT to eat, the truth is that RDNs will help clients consider how they can ADD nutritious foods to their everyday eating patterns.
Fruits and vegetables are at the top of the list for almost every health concern, including weight management, preventing diabetes, dementia, heart disease, and fetal development.
Fruits and vegetables are naturally low in calories (with the exception of avocado). They offer vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that help cells function properly in the body.
Research has found that obese individuals usually have a higher ratio of certain bacteria in their guts while lean individuals have a higher ratio of a different type of bacteria. In simple terms, one theory is that when good bacteria from nutritious foods crowd out the bad bacteria, the body has a better chance of losing weight. Fruits and vegetables are prebiotics that will feed the good bacteria in the gut.
The fiber in fruits and vegetables also helps us feel full longer, can reduce LDL cholesterol, and prevent blood sugar spikes and crashes (and prevent diabetes).
How Many Fruits and Vegetables Should I Be Eating?
You can learn how many servings of fruits and vegetables are recommended per day and find sample menus that incorporate sufficient fruits and vegetables here.
How Eating More Fruits and Vegetables Helps With Health
Adding more fruits and vegetables is an easy, non-invasive approach to health that can work for many people because:
The body’s cells are nourished and metabolism usually starts to work how it’s supposed to
Fiber fills up the belly and leaves less room for high calorie foods and obesity-linked bacteria
Research shows that moods improve with increased fruit and vegetable intake, reducing the desire for high-fat, high-sugar comfort foods
Healing is accelerated with increased micronutrients like vitamin C, which may lead to more mobility.
How to Eat for Health Secret #2: Increase Physical Activity
Although exercise isn't a way to "eat for health," it goes hand in hand.
Physical activity absolutely is part of the health equation. Jessie Carpenter, MA, MS, RD, LD with a degree in Health and Exercise Science and Owner of Nutrition Prescription LLC says:
"According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion who publishes the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans,
the MINIMUM amount of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity is 150 minutes per week or
the MINIMUM amount of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity is 75 minutes per week
in addition to 2 strength training sessions per week.
So, for instance, this could look like brisk walking Monday through Friday for 30 minutes each day plus a strength session on Tuesday and Thursdays.
The minimum physical activity provides a plethora of health benefits, yet one would need to do more minutes per week to promote and achieve weight loss. Most large health entities, like Mayo Clinic, say to perform:
at least 300 minutes of exercise per week for weight loss.
Note that vigorous-intensity activity can be more time-efficient in burning calories than moderate-intensity activity."
What Type of Exercise Works Best for Health and Weight Loss?
Most people benefit from different types of physical activity, including stretching, cardio, strength building, and high intensity interval training (HIIT).
Jessie recommends "HIIT sessions most often to clients for a number of reasons. They:
elevate your heart rate (and can do so quickly)
can be done on a tight schedule as they are designed to be a quicker workout at 15-30 minutes each (i.e., you’re not spending hours at the gym and you can do them in your home or in a hotel room even)
can increase your VO2 Max (if you’re into that sort of thing!)
are adaptable to your exercise level, from novice to expert
provide a big bang for your health buck in a short amount of time, like only 3 sessions a week."
Examples of HIIT exercises would be alternating sprinting for 15-30 seconds with jogging or walking for 1-2 minutes; jumping jacks, or burpees.
Another 21 slower HIIT exercises that you can do easily at home are demonstrated in this SELF magazine article.
Debunking The Myths of Exercise
According to Jessie,
"Many believe doing cardio in a fasted state will burn more fat, but studies have shown that this is not the case. You may burn more fat during the cardio session, but your body slows the fat-burning process during the rest of the day so the loss over time evens out. You can exercise fasted or fed and see similar results."
Another myth that Nutrition Prescription LLC says has lingered in and out of the gyms is:
"being in a 'fat burning zone' of one’s heart rate. This is also not true as there is no such zone. The idea is that a steady state will burn fat or more fat, but looking at HIIT research alone would debunk this (see above)."
How to Eat for Health Secret #3: Check Your Meds
Another action worth taking is checking the side effects of any medications you may be taking.
Some medications can cause negative health consequences like higher blood sugars, higher (or very low) blood pressure, weight gain, or insomnia.
If that’s true for one of your meds, you can check with your doctor about whether there’s another medication that you can take that doesn’t have those side effects, or if the dose could be lowered.
How to Eat for Health Secret #4: Swap Soft Drinks for Water
Research has suggested that beverages are the leading contributor of added sugar in the diet, which of course packs on calories and may lead to diabetes and heart disease.
To reduce daily intake of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs), replace half of each SSB with still water or flavored sparkling water each day. Keep weaning until your SSB intake is down to zero. This can take up to two weeks, which is generally the time it takes to break a sugar addiction and get used to the taste of water.
Even if you drink zero-calorie drinks sweetened with an artificial sweetener, it’s a good idea to switch to water as your main source of hydration.
More research is coming out to suggest that artificially sweetened drinks (think Splenda/ sucralose, aspartame, etc.) may lead to increased cravings for calories and contribute to weight gain and other health concerns. See more on added sugar and sugar alternatives here.
How to Eat for Health Secret #5:
Be Consistent with Breakfast Every Day
The Sister Study reviewed data of over 47,000 women and found that eating breakfast or not eating breakfast consistently was the key to reducing the risk of obesity. Those who ate breakfast irregularly 3-4 times a week were 11%-17% more likely to be obese compared to women who never ate breakfast or ate it every day of the week.
If you don’t eat breakfast consistently, that may work for weight loss. However, it can also lead to weight gain, spikes in blood sugars when something is finally consumed, and nutrient deficiencies.
If you're concerned about weight, prediabetes, or nutrient intake, you might need a change. Your body may be telling you it's the type of body that needs breakfast to get its metabolism jumpstarted for the day. Evidence suggests that eating breakfast seven days a week is better than occasionally.
Visit ZESTNutritionService.com/blog for breakfast recipes.
For Individualized Support
Bottom Line: These five behavior changes can work for many people. If you've tried these already without much success, it may be time for some individualized expert support from an RDN.