CATES: One Change at a Time: Balanced nutrition

By Carol A. Cates, MSN, MBA, RN

Chief Nursing Officer

Odessa Regional Medical Center

Low-fat diet, low-carb diet, high protein diet, gluten-free diet, lactose-free diet, keto diet, the list of diets goes on and on. I don’t know about you, but for me it seems like with every new diet that comes out what to eat and not to eat just gets more confusing.

I will be the first to admit that I am not a nutritionist or dietician. But, I do know that fad diets and diets that make certain types of foods “evil” tend to be unsustainable for most people. That has certainly been my experience. I’ll be honest, nutrition and diets are a hard subject for me to talk about, because I don’t ever want anyone to think I am a “do as I say, not as I do” person, and I have struggled with my weight my entire adulthood.

A couple of years ago, two things hit me really hard when it came to my own health, weight, and nutrition. First, was that my age and my mom’s age when she died from cancer were almost the same. My mom’s only risk factor for cancer was her weight. The second was my grandson. My youngest child barely remembers my mom because he was so young when she died. Selfishly, I would like my grandson to be able to remember me. At that point, I knew I had to make changes in how I eat that would be sustainable and not about a size, but about being healthy.

It’s taken me a couple years, and a lot of help from physicians and dieticians and support from family and friends, but I am down over 75 pounds from where I was. I am still not exactly where I want to be, but I can honestly say my doctors tell me I am a lot healthier, the only prescription medications I take now are for allergies, and my joints rarely hurt. It has made playing with my grandson so much more fun; I can get down onto the floor and back up again and run around the yard easily when it was hard before.

If you look at the diets that have stood the test of time and provide a good basis for health in all body types, they are diets that are built on a variety of foods. Weight Watchers and Mediterranean diets are good examples of diets that have been around for decades and have proven results in attaining and maintaining ideal weight. Those diets focus on fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins. Sugars, salt, and fats are always in moderation. Those diets actually work well for people who are underweight too! Being underweight is as a significant risk to health as being obese. It’s just not an issue that is talked about much.

There is a great tool that has really helped me during my journey over the last two years. It’s called the healthy eating plate. I try to follow this “food map” whenever I eat. The first part of the plate is actually the plate itself.

Have you noticed in family heirlooms, antique stores, or thrift shops how much smaller plates were 50-100 years ago? Many nutrition studies have linked increasing plate size and increasing serving size as part of the obesity epidemic. That works in reverse too, if you use a smaller plate, like a salad or dessert plate, you are less likely to overeat.

When you are filling your plate, divide it in half. For one half, further divide that into 2/3 and 1/3 sections. The 2/3 section fill with veggies, and the 1/3 section with fruits. On the other half of the plate divide in half again. One of those sections is for lean proteins and the other is for whole grains. At the top of the healthy eating plate is a big glass of water to remind you of the importance of water in a nutritious diet, and there is also a small flask with a dropper top for healthy fats. It’s small to remind that those things are good and even needed but in small quantities.

One of the things to keep in mind when it comes to fat and sugar is how Mediterranean’s eat desserts. Desserts, with all the sugar and fat they can contain are not prohibited in Mediterranean diets, in fact, in most Mediterranean cultures, desserts are celebrated. However, those desserts are tiny compared to the desserts we serve in America. Most are just a bite or two. That is why diets like the Mediterranean diet and Weight Watchers are sustainable, they aren’t about deprivation but moderation.

There may also be some light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to which diets work for who and why. The National Institutes of Health is currently conducting a study that should shed a great deal of light on healthy eating. They are going to study more than 10,000 participants who will be tracked using in person and video surveillance 24/7 and will have everything they put into their mouths catalogued for a minimum of 6 weeks. People will be randomized into all sorts of different diets, like low-carb, low-fat, and even junk food. The participants will have weight tracking, lab work, and many other tests during the study. The goal of this research is to find diet plans that can be used to optimize the health of specific people based on things like age, gender, and genetic background. It’s really meant to find each of us a diet that is sustainable and works!

It is so easy for those of us in health care to say, “eat better”. But the doing part is incredibly difficult. That is why I am closing with the biggest part of my success the last two years and will be for the rest of my life: a fantastic support system. Friends and family that cheer the victories, commiserate with the stumbles, and hold me accountable, even when it would be easier to say, “of course you should get seconds.” I didn’t know that the people in my life were willing to be that for me until I spoke to them about my concerns about my health and asked them for help. I cannot thank my support system enough. As you add balancing nutrition on to your one change at a time list, don’t forget that support system. It’s much easier to make good food choices when you have someone across the table making them with you.