Nutritionist Shares Knowledge
A: I have a degree in dietetics from Michigan State University. I did my clinical internship at the University of Michigan and my food service study at MSU. I worked as a clinical dietician nutritionist at Lansing General Hospital, which is now Ingham Regional’s Pennsylvania Campus. I also taught nutrition at Lansing Community College. I’ve been with Head Start for the last 15 years.
Q: What is considered obesity and how much of a problem is it in Michigan?
A: For children, we use a screening tool called the Body Mass Index (BMI)-for-age. It’s a way of assessing their height and weight but age is also a factor in that If a child is at or above the 95th percentile, they meet the definition of obese, yet they could just be a big kid that is considered obese. Michigan ranks in the top 10 for adult obesity in this country. It’s estimated about 14 percent of children in the state are obese as well—that’s about a percentage point below the national average. But when you take into account families in need in mid-Michigan, like those we serve through Head Start, the numbers are even higher.
Q: Why are those rates so high and what can be done?
A: It’s mainly due to the types of foods consumed. Fast foods or cheaper foods are not as conducive to maintaining a healthy diet. There’s also not much physical activity. Some children sit and watch television or play video games. Others, unfortunately, aren’t getting as much exercise, because they can’t. Some neighborhoods aren’t safe enough for children to spend much time outside.
Transportation is also a huge issue for some families. Even if they have access to a dependable car, they might not be able to afford the drive or belong to the local YMCA or the MAC [Michigan Athletic Club]. Michigan weather doesn’t make getting exercise outdoors easy either.
Q: Recent studies show the number of children living in poverty is on the rise in Michigan. How do families having a hard time making ends meet make sure they’re getting a well-balanced diet?
A: They have to be creative. Look for sales. One percent or skim milk is no more expensive than whole milk. Whole wheat bread adds nutrition as well and so do soups. If you’re making macaroni and cheese, add some canned or frozen mixed veggies.
They don’t have to be fresh to count—canned or frozen fruits and vegetables can be just as nutritious.
Q: How can we avoid overeating?
A: When shopping, make a list to avoid impulse buying. Take a lunch to work. Always carry a healthy snack, like fruit or pretzels, and avoid vending machines filled with potato chips and candy. Buy more nutritious snacks.
It’s a stereotype to assume that just because a food is healthy a kid won’t eat it. We’re finding more and more that if you give children a healthy choice, they’ll choose it.
Q: Is there a reason why some people will eat vegetables and other healthy foods but others won’t?
A: Studies have shown repetition is the key to teaching children and adults to eat healthier. It takes eight to 10 servings over time to teach picky eaters to like a food. The mistake most parents make is eliminating a particular food from a diet because the initial contact was a bad one. Over time, kids learn to like a variety of foods.
Q: But what if someone, adult or child, won’t eat healthy foods even after you’ve tried everything?
A: While most will adapt to the foods they’re given, some could be facing additional obstacles. There is some evidence that up to 25 percent of the population is what they call a “super taster.” That’s where a person’s taste buds detect more bitter flavors in foods. So even dressing up broccoli with butter or cheese doesn’t make the food palatable.
Being a picky eater could also be a phase. My 17-year-old son never ate bananas, then one day I walked into the kitchen and he was eating one. So never give up on getting them to make healthy choices.
Q: Are organic foods healthier?
A: Personally, I don’t think organic foods are significantly healthier than non-organic, in terms of nutrients, though there are environmental advantages. No pesticides are used in their growth, but there is little beyond that to suggest they’re healthier. There is some literature out there that suggests a particular type of potato grown in organic soil could have a higher degree of one or two nutrients, but might be lower in others.
Q: Are there certain foods or ingredients we should be sure we have in our diets?
A: Plenty of fruits and vegetables are good along with whole grains; low-fat dairy products are good, along with lean meats and legumes.
Q: Are there certain foods or ingredients we should avoid?
A: Transfats are something to look out for. Researchers aren’t sure if there is any safe amount, so they advise to avoid them as much as possible. When you look at the major causes of death in this country, they are heart disease, cancer and stroke. Cancer researchers come out strong urging us to avoid sodium nitrate, a preservative used in processed meats like bacon, ham, sausage and hotdogs. Save them for the ballpark or New Year’s Day.
Author: Jo Anne Paul-Stanton
Photography: Terri Shaver