You can’t turn on the TV or read the news without getting bombarded with nutrition information. Celebrities reveal what they eat for great skin, and athletes share what they avoid eating for peak fitness. Meanwhile, studies come out that contradict one another: Drink coffee, don’t drink coffee. Eggs are good for you, eggs are bad for you.
If you’re confused about what to eat, it’s because none of that advice is tailored to your individual needs. That’s just 1 reason many people interested in eating healthier choose to work with a registered dietitian (R.D.) or a registered dietitian nutritionist (R.D.N.). When you team up with a nutrition pro, you’ll work with an expert focused on you and your health, lifestyle, needs, and goals.
“A dietitian is not there to judge you,” says Maggie Neola. She’s a registered dietitian and community nutrition program manager in Washington, D.C. “We are here to help inform your food choices. We don’t eat the perfect diet every day. We’re human, too, so there is relatability.”
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Dietitians are there to team up with you and help you find a healthy eating plan that works for you. But don’t worry — your R.D. or R.D.N. isn’t going to judge you, but rather help you make informed choices with what to eat for optimal health.
“We want to allow you to set goals that you’re able to be successful with and that will help you improve your health,” Neola says. “We’re your coach.”
While it varies by dietitian and practice, the first visit might last an hour. The dietitian will spend time getting to know you. They might have recent lab results or notes about a diagnosis from your doctor, but they also want to hear what’s important to you, Neola says.
Your dietitian might give you some suggestions for foods that will help you lose weight or improve blood pressure if that’s your goal.
But then you get to decide what will work for you and where you want to start. “You can’t change everything in a day,” Neola says.
There’s so much talk about eating better, but for the best results, you need to consider your own preferences and identify what that means for you.
“You need a more specific goal so you can celebrate progress,” Neola says.
Reaching big goals starts with taking small steps. For example, if your target is to eat 4 servings of vegetables a day, build up to it by getting 1 serving of vegetables a day. Then add a second helping and so on.
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Here are 3 eating goals that will help most people start to improve their health, according to Neola:
Most Americans don’t get enough fiber in their diets. Fiber is found in plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes (beans, lentils, and peas), nuts, and seeds. Getting adequate levels of fiber is linked to a reduced risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and even some cancers.
It’s especially key to add more veggies to your diet.
“Most people are eating nuts and seeds and some fruit, but the amount of vegetables, whole grains, and legumes that they’re eating is either nonexistent or insufficient,” Neola says.
So you might set a goal to try 1 new fiber-rich food each week. You could try different types of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to see what you like.
“Maybe you’re used to brown rice, but there’s a world of quinoa, millet, and barley,” Neola says. “The world of legumes is also expansive, and they’re so good!”
If you haven’t tried beans or broccoli since you were a kid, you might consider giving them a go since your food preferences may have shifted. You can also switch up the preparation styles to see whether you prefer roasted broccoli to steamed, for example.
Instead of sipping juice, sports drinks, and sodas that contain added sugars, set a goal to drink more water, Neola recommends.
If it helps, you can track your water consumption with an app — there are several to choose from — or with good old-fashioned pen and paper. Some people appreciate having a visual cue, such as filling their water bottle 3 times a day. Keeping water next to you throughout the day can also help.
A lot of the foods you see at the grocery store are highly processed, meaning they lack fiber and whole grains, and they contain added sugars and oils, Neola says.
On the other hand, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are unprocessed or minimally processed. That means they’re close to their natural form, which is healthier for you. “They are in the package they’re supposed to be in,” Neola says. “Everything that’s in an apple is supposed to be there.”
So another simple goal on the way to eating better could be to cook one more meal a week with whole foods, rather than heating up and eating a boxed meal.
If you’re looking to improve your health, working with a dietitian could be one of the best moves you can make. “It’s really useful to get that full assessment to understand your nutrition needs,” Neola says. That way, you’ll gain healthy eating tips and recipes that truly make sense for you.
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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. January 7, 2022. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/71/wr/mm7101a1.htm?s_cid=mm7101a1_w
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Retrieved from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/carbohydrates/fiber/ Accessed March 23, 2022.