Getting the real deal on your meal
By Neale McDevitt
Our diet. It’s something that we think about constantly, whether it’s planning tonight’s supper, making lunches for the kids or hoping to drop a few pounds. Surprisingly, even though it is essential to our wellbeing, many of us don’t understand how our diet really works – or should work. Angel Ong is here to change that. A Faculty Lecturer and Clinical Coordinator for Professional Practice in Dietetics at the School of Dietetics and Human Nutrition, Ong is all about spreading the gospel of healthy eating habits – especially pertinent seeing as how March is Nutrition Month in Canada. Ong sat down with the McGill Reporter to talk about the simple ways we could all improve our diets.
What is the foundation of a healthy diet?
The first thing people should do is familiarize themselves with the Canada Food Guide (CFG).
There are four food groups that we need to have in our daily diet: vegetables and fruits; grain products; milk and alternatives; and meat and alternatives. For each age group there is a recommended number of servings per day from each food group. And if a food doesn’t fit into any one of these categories we shouldn’t be eating too much of it. For instance, a chocolate bar isn’t a milk product – unfortunately. Maybe you should have a fruit or yogurt as a snack instead of that chocolate bar.
Every meal should contain food from at least three of the groups.
By those parameters all dressed pizza is a complete meal then, no?
[Laughing] Unfortunately not. The CFG also promotes lower fat choices, especially lower in saturated fat. Pepperoni is extremely high in saturated fat and sodium. If it was homemade whole grain pizza and you substituted the pepperoni for chicken or lean ground beef, that’s a better choice. It’s all about moderation and variety. You can have some pizza now and then but you shouldn’t be eating it every day.
Then it’s OK to treat myself with the occasional cookie?
Of course. You can’t restrict yourself too much. Definitely treat yourself, but don’t treat yourself every day. Don’t deprive yourself of anything. Just be mindful and know what you are eating.
Sometimes the situation – during the holidays for example – makes it difficult to eat mindfully.
Try your best to follow the CFG. If you have a social event or a business meeting at a restaurant, always try to choose the healthier option. Or if you know your portion is a little bigger than normal or is a little high in fat, make up for it the rest of the day.
By skipping a meal?
Definitely not. You shouldn’t focus on the calories – you should focus on the fact that missing a meal is not good. It is some sort of restriction. Your body needs energy to fuel your daily activities. If we skip a meal, we won’t have enough energy to do all the things we want to do. And often people who deprive themselves will binge later on and it will backfire. If you exaggerated the previous day, try to make healthier options the next day. But skipping meals is definitely a no-no.
So, no starvation diets?
Exactly. Our body is very smart and it will adapt to what we call the starvation mode. Your metabolism slows down so you can have as much reserve left as possible during the starvation period. In the beginning, people might see that they are shedding a few pounds. But eventually it will plateau because the body adapts.
So what’s the best way to lose weight?
Portion control. But to do it properly you should consult a dietician. In order to be effective during a weight loss period, people must have a realistic time frame to reach their goal. You should not lose more than one or two pounds per week in general.
Then we should ignore those infomercials with people who lost 20 pounds in a month?
People who have a lot of excess weight can shed more pounds especially early on. For people who are just a little overweight it is impossible to lose 20 pounds in a month.
How important is it to read food labels?
I would strongly encourage it. The Nutrition Facts table on each label tells you how many calories each portion provides and how much of each nutrient your serving contains. The important thing is to look at the per cent daily value. Anything that is five per cent or less means it is low in that nutrient. Anything that is above 15-20 per cent is high in that nutrient. Obviously, we want nutrients like fibre, calcium and iron to be 15 per cent or higher. But if it something we want to avoid, like sodium and fat – we want them to be below five or as low as possible.
One of the main purposes of label reading is to help people compare foods. For example, if you have two granola bars then you would read the label and see which one has more fibre, which one has more fat.
Tell me again, which is the good fat?
We want to avoid saturated fats and trans fat and we want to use unsaturated fats. It is much healthier to use things like vegetable oil, olive oil and canola oil instead of butter when you cook.
Organic foods are safer than non-organic. Fact or myth?
Myth. In Canada organic and non-organic foods are grown and produced under strict regulations to make sure they are safe for everyone to eat. Neither one is really safer or more nutritious to eat.
Avoid carbs to lose weight. Fact or myth?
This is a very common myth. Yes, people who follow a carbohydrate-reduced diet may lose some weight initially, but it is only for the short term. You just can’t keep it up for the long term and it isn’t part of a healthy diet.
In general people want a quick solution where they can see quick results, so they go for fad diets like this one.
Eight glasses of water a day. Fact or myth?
Myth. Every person has their own individual needs. Not just for calories but also for fluids. How much water you need will depend on your size, your height and the level of your physical activity. Also, we have to take into account other fluids – coffee, tea, juice – as part of our fluid intake. The bottom line is, water is the best source of fluid to quench our thirst.
Extra protein builds muscles. Fact or myth?
Protein alone does not build muscle mass. You also need a good strength-training program along with enough calories from healthy foods, as well as the proper recovery time and sleep to promote muscle growth.
A lot of people have the misconception that right after a workout they have to have a protein shake and that they must consume a lot of protein throughout the day. Not true. Overdoing it only adds extra calories. Yes, some bodybuilders might benefit from more protein, but the average person who is following a regular exercise regime doesn’t need more. Our North American diet already provides more than enough protein.
Are there such things as so-called superfoods?
The media would have us believe there are superfoods, but the fact is that no food has super powers to keep us healthy on its own. Also, there’s no strict definition of a superfood and, instead, it is a term that is generally used to market a trendy food. In the end, the key to good health is to eat a variety of healthy foods.