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Community Food Advisor

Promoting safe and nutritious food selection, preparation and storage practices.

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Nutrition Resource Centre

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Just Tell Me What To Eat!

Just Tell Me What To Eat!
Our next #30in30 #nutritionmonth blog post is from Devon Peart, MHSc and RD. Thank you for submitting!
Over the Christmas holidays I was at a party and a woman whom I had met briefly once before came rushing over to me and said “I just found out you’re a dietitian!” (I blame my husband for telling her). She quickly explained that she had gained X amount of pounds over the past year that she really wanted to shed. She said “I just need you to tell me what to eat. Just write it down and I’ll do it”. I told her that I could do that, but she would have to promise to eat what I said for the rest of her life. (I was joking; it was a party). She said well no, but she would do it for a week. You know what? I loved her honesty! Because she’s right. If I told her exactly what to eat, she would do it, for a few days, and then she would go back to her life. 
Yet the request is a common one. In addition to nutrition consulting, I teach Nutrition at Humber College. In the first week of class, I ask my students what they are hoping to learn about in the course. Their answers run the gamut, from antioxidants to weight management to gluten allergies and everything in between. But by far the most common answer is this: meal plans. Not meal planning, meal plans. These students will eventually be fitness professionals, specifically personal trainers, many are already working in the field. So they are thinking of their clients. But this mind-set, similar to that of the woman I chatted with at the party, is symbolic of the general attitude toward nutrition that many people have: just tell me what to eat. But I believe it’s not the ‘what’ that people need to know, it’s the ‘how’. How, on a day to day basis, do we eat in a way that promotes health, wellness and longevity?
A quotation comes to mind, from Maimonides, a Jewish philosopher of Spanish nationality who lived in the 1100’s: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”. It’s tempting to give people lists of foods, or a day or a week’s worth of meals and simply say ‘Here, eat this!”. But lists of foods, like the always sexy “superfoods” are a very small part of a larger conversation. We need to teach people about categories of foods, rather than individual nutrients and specific foods. Sometimes this means using the not-so-sexy Canada’s Food Guide! I can tell you that when my students complete an assignment where they analyze their own diets and compare to the CFG, they inevitably find the food guide a much more useful tool than they imagined it would be. Often times as health professionals we want the wow factor when working with clients, when it’s the basics that people need to know. When people understand that nutrients are distributed throughout foods, for example, then they see why it’s important to choose a variety of foods within each food group. And when they understand that each of the food groups offers its own set of health benefits, then they see why it’s a bad idea to avoid or eliminate whole classes of nutrients like, say, carbohydrates (and therefore entire food groups).   
In the field of nutrition, as the science has progressed, we have shifted our focus to individual nutrients (alongside the public obsession with supplements and the ongoing debate over which ones, how much and whether more is better). But what people need to know is how to choose a healthy diet, overall. And that means getting back to the basics of moderation, realistic portions and active lifestyles. And helping people understand the benefits of milk or milk alternatives, whole grains, fruits, vegetables and plant-based oils, nuts, seeds, legumes and perhaps meat. In other words, food. Real food, from all the food groups, in a rainbow of colours, that people choose for themselves according to their own tastes, appetite and lifestyle. The proportion of carbohydrate to protein to fat isn’t so important, because there isn’t one exact proportion that is synonymous with good health. Many different eating patterns can work, as we see from the variety of diets enjoyed in different cultures around the world—lower in fat, higher in fat, plant-based, mixed diets…all of these can be healthy. What matters most is quality; a diet rich in whole foods, prepared with minimal processing, most of the time. This is what I believe we should be teaching.         
Devon Peart is a Registered Dietitian with a Masters in Community Nutrition, and the Collaborative Program in Women’s Studies, from the University of Toronto. She is a consulting dietitian, teacher, writer and Huffington Post blogger. Devon recently consulted with the Nutrition Resource Centre, as Project Lead for the NRC Nutrition Navigator. Currently she is teaching in the Fitness and Health Promotion program at Humber College, and consulting with Nourishing School Communities, a national, multi-agency group with the goal of improving school food environments. 


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