Dietitians are up on the most current nutrition research, know about the pros and cons of every trendy eating style and are trained to help people make dietary changes that can improve their health in a variety of ways. In other words, they are true nutrition experts.
But any dietitian will tell you nutrition science is constantly in flux, which means recommendations for a “healthy” diet have changed somewhat over the past decade. Plus, as dietitians gain more experience, they learn beliefs they once held about healthy eating, either before they received their degree or even afterward, might not be so clear cut after all.
That’s why we polled expert dietitians on what they wish they could tell themselves 10 years ago about what it really means to eat healthy. Here’s what they had to say:
“NO FOOD IS ‘BAD'”
“As a younger person, I weighed more than I do now and for years never allowed myself to eat a bite of a sweet,” says Amy Goodson, a registered dietitian who is a specialist in sports dietetics. “They were off-limits, even on Christmas. But the reality is you can enjoy a bite of anything and it does not change your weight, neither does two or three bites. The key is enjoying your favorite higher calorie foods in moderation. All foods fit in a healthy eating pattern, some foods just need to fit in smaller amounts.”
“DON’T FEAR FAT”
“I wish I had not spent so many years afraid to eat fat,” says Lauren Harris-Pincus, a registered dietitian and author of “The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club.” “I think of all the deliciousness I missed like avocados, nuts and seeds, as well as all the fat-free cheese and Snackwells I ate thinking they were better for me. Fat-free frozen yogurt with sprinkles is not a balanced lunch.”
“THERE’S NO ONE RIGHT WAY TO BE HEALTHY”
“Almost any diet or way of eating can work for any one person,” says Jill Merkel, a registered dietitian who specializes in sports performance. Individual preferences and what’s sustainable for each person matters, she adds. “So while I don’t promote any certain type of diet or way of eating (just a balanced approach), if I have a client that is currently eating a certain way (vegan or keto, for instance), and feels like it is a good fit for them, I will work with them to make sure they are doing it in a healthy way, getting the full nutrition their body needs.”
“BMI ISN’T AS USEFUL AS WE THOUGHT’
Body Mass Index used to be key in determining whether someone was at a healthy weight. These days? Not so much. “BMI tells us very little about a person beyond their size, and there are so many other biological markers that better measure someone’s health we too often ignore by focusing on weight,” says Hannah Meier, a registered dietitian.
“SMALL, LONG-TERM GOALS ARE THE WAY TO GO”
“It’s easy to demand: ‘go (insert food group here)-free!,’ ‘give up your favorite coffee order!’ ‘no more this or that!’ But those demands often only work short term,” says Micah Silva, a registered dietitian. “Set realistic goals that can last a lifetime, no matter how small they seem. Whether it is to eat half a pizza, with a side salad in lieu of a full pizza or to mix honey into your plain yogurt instead of buying pre-sweetened yogurt, remember that the small changes add up, and expecting change in a week is unrealistic.”
“IF IT SOUNDS EXTREME, IT PROBABLY IS”
“If what you’ve heard about a diet, supplement or food sounds too good to be true, or completely freaks you out, you’re likely missing some facts,” says Stacey Mattinson, a registered dietitian. “There’s a reason fad diets and superfoods go in and out of style. Nutrition as a science is ever-evolving, and agricultural methods are seldom black and white.”
“WEIGHT LOSS ISN’T EASY”
“I used to think that people who ate well and exercised 5+ times a week, per the pubic health guidelines, would have few problems losing weight and maintaining weight loss,” says Julie Upton, a registered dietitian and co-founder of Appetite for Health. “As I’ve been in the field longer, I’ve realized that almost everyone who has any success at keeping pounds off has strategies that they live by to avoid weight gain.” In other words, they have to put in continuous effort. “This often means that they follow their own ‘rules’ to stay on track, they rarely go off the rails, and when they do, they quickly counteract their slip-up.”
“STRIVE FOR PROGRESS, NOT PERFECTION”
“Yes, it’s important to nourish our bodies with healthy foods,” says Lauren Manganiello, a registered dietitian and certified personal trainer. “Food is fuel and we want to give ourselves the best. However, it’s just as important to enjoy life and celebrate our small successes. When we aim for perfection instead of progress, we’re setting ourselves up for failure. My most successful clients are the ones who implement small, incremental changes which ultimately leads them to their long-term goal.”
“HEALTHY EATING MEANS MORE THAN FRUITS AND VEGETABLES”
“I used to think that the healthiest days of eating were those where I would consume primarily fresh produce,” Meier says. “Of course, there is nothing wrong with fresh fruits and vegetables, and I still believe that everyone should have access to a wide variety of plant foods. But there is so much more to a healthy diet than fruit and vegetables! Our bodies perform best with a balance of fruits, vegetables, proteins and healthy fats, and this balance can look different for every person and every culture. There is absolutely no ‘one-size-fits-all’ healthy diet, and it definitely doesn’t have to be a giant salad at every meal if that isn’t satisfying or part of your heritage.”
“ONE MACRO PLAN DOESN’T FIT ALL”
“When it comes to weight loss, studies show calories are king,” Mattinson says. “You don’t have to be on a low-carb, low-fat or high-protein ‘diet’ for it to be effective. Moderately reducing your calories with filling foods and following a macro plan that feels sustainable for you will be most effective.”