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Food for thought for a nutritionist

As a Registered Dietitian, Grace Kopf of Nourish2FlourishRVA advises children, adolescents and adults on weight management, diabetes, and gastrointestinal and eating disorders. She cautions people not to expect perfection from themselves when dieting. ASH DANIEL

It’s that time of year again, where we stop to reflect on old habits and set goals for the new ones. And for many of us, that means re-evaluating the way we nourish our bodies, whether it’s through exercise, stress management techniques, or just the food we eat.

A Chesterfield resident and Registered Dietitian at Nourish2FlourishRVA, Grace Kopf has practiced nutrition and dietetics since 2005 and has extensive experience working with adults, adolescents and pediatrics in weight management, diabetes, gastrointestinal disorders and eating disorders.

The Observer recently spoke to her about sharing some tips and suggestions for people who want to start the New Year by eating healthy and making smart food choices.

Observer: During the pandemic, some people either ate too much or turned to the latest diet fad. How can either of these two things affect people’s health?

To manage: Some people use food for calming purposes, whether it’s overeating or undereating, to feel more in control during stressful situations. COVID-19 has resulted in chronic and sustained stress, and yes, I have seen significant increases in weight gain, fad diets, and eating disorders. Manipulation of diet (whether overeating or undereating) can increase physical stress on the body as well as adversely affect mental well-being. Fad diets tend to provide a sense of initial control, but later on people tend to feel like they’ve failed if they are unable to keep to the rules and stipulations of the diet.

Observer: In cold weather, many people stay indoors and have access to cooking and food all day. What’s your short list of suggestions for getting through the winter months without overdoing comfort food?

To manage: Find other ways to get the feeling of comfort that food provides; food tends to be potent, but there are many other activities that can be calming. Boredom of eating is a big problem for many people, so making sure you have activities that bring joy and entertainment is important. The holidays are a time for special foods which tend to be heavier; it’s part of the vacation experience and certainly enjoy it, but try to practice portion control and listen to and respect your body’s full signals!

Observer: Can you tell us what a healthy relationship looks like with food?

To manage: The healthiest relationship with food is simple: eat when you are hungry and stop when you are full. The human body is an amazing machine and sends signals to tell us exactly what we need. Very low calorie diets are unfortunately effective at first, however our body adapts to the food environment it is put in, and weight loss tends to level off after a while. At this point, the person’s body has become accustomed to a lower calorie environment, which makes it difficult to eat normally again. Calorie management can be very effective, but it’s important not to cut calories too much. Choosing hearty, nutrient-dense foods can make us feel like we’re not deprived and can create the energy deficit necessary for weight loss. A healthy relationship with food includes all foods in moderation, as feeling deprived or restricted doesn’t tend to be sustainable.

Observer: As we look at our day, how can we plan to eat the right food groups that will help us maintain our health and weight? Should we eat healthy snacks between meals for example?

To manage: Snacks are definitely a good idea. They can maintain our metabolism between meals and prevent hunger at the next meal. Skipping meals and snacks is, in my opinion, the main culprit in weight problems. If you think of metabolism like the gas pedal in a car, you get the best gas mileage with “cruise control”. The body must receive food steadily and evenly throughout the day to keep the metabolism running; when you take long breaks between meals it can create ups and downs with the metabolic rate which can affect weight.

Observer: What do most people forget or have trouble with when trying to eat healthy?

To manage: Most people automatically think that they need to avoid sugar, carbohydrates and fats in order to “eat healthy”. This is not true. All foods are part of a healthy diet, as long as we strive to include nutritious and “fun” foods every day.

Observer: Many people are turning to smartphone apps to manage their diet. But what are the nutritional limits of such a technology?

To manage: It is actually quite astonishing how much technology has advanced with nutritional applications. Food databases are extremely beneficial for people who make an effort to be calorie conscious or for those who pay attention to certain foods (i.e. carbohydrates or sodium). There is more information than ever before, which is both useful and harmful. Apps are a great way to educate yourself and create a sense of responsibility and awareness about what you eat. The downside is that apps don’t know everyone and people rely on the ratings provided by apps to guide their food choices. Additionally, someone may have “food issues” that the app is unaware of, which can be counterproductive. In summary, apps are great for helping the person become more involved, but recommendations aren’t always appropriate for different people. I would recommend that your “meal plan” be determined by a registered dietitian based on all aspects of your nutritional history and then use the app to follow that plan.

Observer: What message do you want people to hear about nutrition and healthy eating?

To manage: There are two things I want everyone to remember: All foods are part of a healthy diet, and making healthy choices “more often” is all you need to do. People tend to be overwhelmed with “only healthy foods” or “only that many calories” and then they jump ship. Please don’t expect perfection on a diet. It’s OK to be spontaneous and go with what you think is right at the time. Try to have a base of nutritious foods sprinkled with fun bits and pieces here and there. This is something we can do for the long haul! ??

This article appeared in print in Health Matters, a special section of the Chesterfield Observer.

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