Food rules you can live with

Rebecca Toutant, dietitian, certified diabetes educator, personal trainer and Wellness Manager at CHA

What we eat is affected by emotions, stress, culture, money and our environment. Often strict diets and meal plans don’t work because they don’t take our real lives into account. Rebecca Toutant, dietitian, certified diabetes educator, personal trainer and Wellness Manager at Cambridge Health Alliance, spoke with CHA patients to understand what makes healthful eating so tough. You can learn a lot from these experts.

Here are four ways to improve your eating.

Find the balance -- all colors included. Some patients believe they need to avoid all white foods such as white bread, white rice, potato, pasta, etc. to help them control their weight and blood sugar. However, most people found this didn’t last long because some foods are an important part of identity. As one patient said, “I cut out all white foods like rice, potato, and tortillas from my diet, but it made me feel separate from my family and my country."

“The goal is to choose foods with more fiber, that are less processed - but that’s not always based on color,” said Rebecca Toutant. “For example, cauliflower is white but still has plenty of fiber. Instead of looking at one food or color, look at the balance of your entire meal. You can add fiber to your meals without giving up the foods that are important to you by increasing the portion of beans and reducing rice/tortilla or including more vegetables with a smaller portion of rice.”

Sugar too. It’s a common belief (and fear) that eating or drinking sugar harms our health. But as one patient put it, “It’s too delicious!”

“We are hard-wired to enjoy sugar,” explained Toutant. “Sugar activates the pleasure center in our brain - it can boost our mood and give the body quick energy. It’s a common part of the human experience and connects us to others - cake at parties, pastries after a church service, dessert at picnics, or a treat at the end of the day."

The American Heart Association encourages people to limit sugar to 6-9 teaspoons per day (or 25-36 grams). “Occasionally going over that limit won’t cause harm.” said Toutant. “If you find yourself regularly eating more sugar, find out why. For example, if you’re feeling sad or stressed, you may eat more sugar to feel better. That’s not a bad thing! We all deserve to feel better. However, simple ‘self-control’ won’t help. Instead, focus on getting more sleep and managing stress. Food preferences may naturally change without effort.”

How often to eat? People are confused about how often to eat, some believe they need to eat every few hours to be well. as one man said, “I work in construction - there’s no fridge and I get one break at lunch time. I can’t eat more often than that.”

Luckily, there’s no magic number of times to eat each day. Eating every 3-4 hours can prevent your hunger from getting out of control. When you’re very hungry, hormones in your body change, increasing your cravings for sugar, fat, and starch in larger than usual portions. The solution? “Pay attention to your hunger,” advised Toutant. “If you find yourself starving at any meal on a regular basis, it means you went too long without eating. Try to insert a quick balanced snack that has protein or fat with a carbohydrate - such as yogurt, bread with tuna, hard boiled eggs and crackers, or fruit with nuts between meals to keep hunger in check.”

End of day eating. Many patients said late night eating is a problem. But as one woman said, “I don’t get home until 7pm and I’m starving. I tried fasting but just couldn’t stick to it.”

“The time of day is not the problem. It’s how we physically and emotionally change in the evening,” explained Toutant. Our metabolism doesn’t necessarily slow at night. If too much time has passed from the last meal, this can lead us to prefer high energy foods (sugar, starch, fat) in bigger portions. For some, late night eating is linked to seeking relaxation. “Pay attention to your emotional and physical state in the evening,” advised Toutant. “If you find yourself exhausted, stressed, lonely, or starving, acknowledge that and consider using additional tools to bring yourself to center. Examples might include a quick nap, a few deep breaths, calling a friend, playing music, or drawing. Eating an afternoon snack can also help.”

It’s easy to get caught up in food rules. But there’s no magic formula or secret to healthy eating. Instead, it’s about balancing human and physical needs to find a way of eating that works for you.

Cambridge Health Alliance

Contributed By: Cambridge Health Alliance

Cambridge Health Alliance is an academic community health care system committed to serving all members of our communities. We have expertise in primary care, mental health and substance abuse, and caring for diverse and complex populations. CHA patients receive high quality care in convenient neighborhood locations, and have seamless access to advanced care through CHA’s affiliation with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. With over 140,000 patients in Cambridge, Somerville Everett and Boston’s Metro North, CHA is working hard to offer the integrated services its communities need now, and in the future.