11 Diet-Related Questions Dietitians Are Asked the Most
Plus, the answers to them all.
To say there's a lot of confusing and contradictory diet-related advice swirling around is an understatement. One day, eggs are bad for you. The next, eggs are the only thing you should ever eat. Then coffee's announced as the worst, only to be touted as a magic elixir for your health an hour later.
Okay, maybe we're being *a tad* melodramatic, but still—healthy eating is hard. It's no wonder so many of us get in touch with dietitians during our search for clarity. We probably end up asking a lot of the same questions too.
So which diet-related conundrums are dietitians asked to clarify most? You asked, they answered:
1. Should I avoid gluten?
Recipe pictured above: Bean & Barley Soup
"Gluten is a protein present in wheat, barley and rye, and for most people it doesn't cause any health problems," says Stacy Rae, RD, CSCS, registered dietitian and founder of Stacy Rae Wellness. You should avoid gluten if you have celiac disease. You may also want skip gluten if you have irritable bowel syndrome and it is a trigger food for you (causing symptoms like bloating, abdominal pain, constipation and gas).
There are also some people without celiac disease who might have a non-celiac gluten sensitivity, Rae adds. They might experience similar symptoms but to a lesser degree, or find they experience fatigue or stomach pain after eating gluten.
"If gluten is a concern, I always recommend experimenting," says Rae. "Go three weeks eating products with gluten, then three weeks eating a diet entirely free of gluten, and keep a daily log of your mood, energy levels, gastrointestinal patterns and overall feeling." After the six weeks is up, your log should indicate if gluten is safe to keep in your diet or if you're better off without it.
It's worth noting that very few people have celiac disease (about one percent of the population). Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is more common, but still rare. For most people, foods that contain gluten can be a part of a healthy diet.
Related: Is Eating Gluten-Free Healthier?
2. What foods can I eat to help keep me full longer?
One of the most common reasons people feel perma-hungry is they're not eating balanced meals. "When a client complains to me of constant hunger, the first thing I explore with them is their regular food intake," says Rae. "Many times, they're simply getting insufficient protein or fat during their day."
Protein and fat are the two macronutrients that have serious satiety skills. Fiber's another way to amp up fullness—it slows down digestion and absorption of nutrients, while allowing for more controlled blood sugar and feelings of satiety.
"To better control hunger, I recommend including a lean protein, a healthy fat and a high-fiber carb at each meal," says Rae. "So instead of having chips for a snack, choose half an apple with a hard-boiled egg and a handful of almonds."
3. Should I do a juice detox?
Nope. Juicing can actually raise your blood sugar levels and leave you exhausted from the blood sugar highs and lows, as well as the anxiety that can be triggered. "Our bodies are built to detoxify themselves, so eating lots of plants and drinking water assists in that process," says Amy Shapiro, nutritionist at Daily Harvest.
Our liver, kidneys and GI system naturally help our body detox. Juice cleanses are typically missing important nutrients (protein and fat) and don't provide the energy your body needs to function.
Read more: Is a Liquid Diet Healthy?
4. Do I have to eat breakfast?
"I recommend eating something about two hours after waking up, but it doesn't have to be huge," says Shapiro. "It can be a banana, a smoothie, an egg—just something to prevent you from getting too hungry at your next meal, which can cause you to overeat." You want to eat at optimal hours where you can use (instead of store) your energy, so if you're looking to cut out a meal, Shapiro recommends eating dinner earlier (say, at 5 p.m.) instead of skipping breakfast.
5. What about the sugar in fruit?
Recipe pictured above: Fresh Fruit Salad
Sugar from fresh fruit doesn't have the detrimental health effects that added sugars have—in fact, eating more fresh fruit is one of the best things you can do to improve your diet.
"When we eat a piece of fruit, we're not just eating the sugar it contains; we're also getting fiber and thousands of phytonutrients and antioxidants that promote health," says Marta Ferraz-Valles, RDN, registered dietitian-nutritionist in the Institute for Digestive Health & Liver Disease at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland.
Bonus: If you're struggling with sugar cravings, increasing your fruit intake may decrease the frequency and severity of your cravings in the process. "I encourage my patients to eat at least 3-4 servings of fresh fruit every day," says Ferraz-Valles.
6. What supplements should I be taking?
In an ideal world, we'd score all of the nutrients we need from whole foods. In the real world? Not so much.
While supplementation should be personalized based on your needs and deficiencies, "there are a few supplements that are more commonly needed," says New Jersey-based registered dietitian-nutritionist Kim Arnold, RDN.
Because it's super-difficult to get enough vitamin D from food, Arnold suggests requesting a vitamin D lab at your next doctor's appointment to determine how much you should be taking. Also, omega-3s: "I rarely come across someone who eats the recommended servings of fatty fish," she says. People who have food allergies or restrictions may need other nutrient help. For example, vegans may want to check their levels of vitamin B12 or iron.
You could also try a high-quality multivitamin, per Arnold, "They're always a good backup to catch any vitamins or minerals that may be lacking." You should always consult with your doctor or pharmacist before popping supplements though, as they can interact with medications and procedures.
7. If I get fiber from veggies and nuts, is eating grain foods really necessary?
"Fiber is hardly the only benefit that whole grains have to offer," says Kelly Toups, RD, Boston-based registered dietitian and director of nutrition at Oldways. Yes, whole grains are an important source of fiber in the American diet, but they also contain other important vitamins and minerals (such as vitamin E, zinc, lignans and phytoestrogens), some of which may have anti-carcinogenic properties.
Plus, the fiber in whole grains seems to have different impacts than that from fruit or vegetables, says Toups, so having a healthy variety of fiber sources in your diet is important for keeping your gut microbiome happy.
8. With so many confusing claims on food packages, how can I tell if something is really whole-grain?
Look for the word "whole" in the ingredients list—whole grain, whole corn—or look for the whole-grain stamp, says Toups. It's a black and gold symbol that shows how many grams of whole grain are in one serving of a product.
Products that contain 100% whole grain—and at least 16 grams of the stuff—are eligible for the 100% whole grain stamp, while products labelled with the 50%+ stamp contain at least 50% whole grain, at a minimum of 8 grams per serving. If a product bears the basic stamp, that means it contains at least 8 grams of whole grain per serving, but the rest of the grains may be more refined than whole.
9. Should I cut carbohydrates?
Recipe pictured above: One-Pan Chicken Parmesan Pasta
There's a lot of confusion out there about carbs, especially with the rise of diets like keto. "Instead of completely cutting out carbs, I advise my clients to focus on the quality and quantity of carbs they're eating," says New York-based registered dietitian Claire Virga, RDN.
Carbs aren't all white bread, pasta and sweets—the carb food group also includes whole grains, fruit, vegetables and legumes. "These minimally processed, high-quality carbs provide us with energy and are loaded with fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants," says Virga. "We need these foods to support our digestive health, immune system and gut microbiome."
10. Do I need to only eat organic foods to be healthy?
Eating foods labeled as organic reduces your exposure to synthetic pesticides—but nutritionally, candy is candy whether it's labeled organic or not.
"Vegetables and fruits should be consumed on a regular basis to promote optimal health," says Brooklyn-based registered dietitian-nutritionist Maya Feller, RD. "I generally tell my patients to make a balanced choice that's sustainable rather than if the food's organic or conventional, especially if it's a choice between eating a fruit or vegetable or not."
11. Is [blank] bad?
Recipe pictured above: Turtle Brownies
"It's a different food every time—gluten, sugar, dairy, the list goes on—but my answer's always the same: 'What does 'bad' mean to you?'" says Brooklyn-based registered dietitian Rachel Larkey, RD. "I find that people's fears are often more harmful to their wellbeing than any food could be." Barring allergies or serious medical needs, no food is either "good" or "bad," and no food is off-limits. All food is just food. "The more we fear foods, the harder it is to have a balanced way of eating that supports your health," says Larkey. Bottom line: "Everything in moderation" is a cliché for a reason.
Related: What Is Intuitive Eating?