Photo: The simple truth about healthy eating: A dietitian's perspective

(Credit: veronicajauriqui via Flickr)

By Jessica Begg, BSc, BASc, RD

People often have more than one health concern they are trying to manage with food. And so they will visit a dietitian and ask questions about whether foods that help lower their cholesterol will exacerbate their diverticulosis, or if the way they manage their blood sugar will conflict with their goals of losing weight.

When considering an individual's health concerns, I try to look at the person's body as a complete system, meaning that a change in one area will affect change in another. It shouldn't be surprising that most strategies used to manage one chronic disease can also be used to manage others.

I also like to take discussions with clients beyond their own selves and their immediate home and work environments to include the larger natural ecosystem around them. We shouldn't look at any problem in isolation. What and how we eat not only affects our own health but the health of the world around us. At times it can be confusing to try to balance our health and our environmental impact. I find that taking care of ourselves and our environment are synonymous with managing multiple health issues.

I suggest that my clients eat less meat and increase consumption of alternative protein sources. Beans and lentils are high in fibre, both soluble and insoluble. Soluble fibre helps lower cholesterol and insoluble fibre helps maintain bowel health. Getting protein from sources like beans and tofu also lowers the amount of saturated fat that comes with a meat-heavy diet. Decreasing the amount of saturated fat at meals also lowers cholesterol. And eating more beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds instead of meat lowers your risk of cancer. Choosing meatless meals, we also know, significantly decreases the environmental impact that comes from meat production.

Preserving local agriculture helps decrease the carbon footprint of shipping foods, and also helps maintain a community's self-sufficiency. The longer a food item has to travel, the greater the chances are that it has been picked long before it ripens. This means that items have less time to gain nutrients from the soil and may also lose nutrients during shipping. Choosing locally grown foods maximizes freshness and nutrition.

Recent research touts the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. They have been shown to improve mood, heart health, and cognitive function. Omega-3s are produced by algae (phytoplankton) in the ocean, and then accumulate as they move up the food chain. Species with the highest levels of omega 3s are small oily fish like sardines, mackerel, and herring. Not only are these species nutritious, they are often sustainably caught, have a small carbon footprint, are readily available in most stores, and are inexpensive. Most of the world's catch of these species is used for animal feeds so direct human consumption is not only healthy but a better use of these seafoods.

Processed foods also have a negative impact on both our health and environment. When food is highly processed, nutrients are often removed and preservatives and sodium are added. And processed food often requires more packaging to make it appealing. I think of those pre-packaged children's lunches that have a child's entire recommended daily value of sodium and half the amount of fat in just one meal. One could also compare a big sack of oatmeal in its most natural form to the individual packages of oatmeal that have sugar and salt added. Going back to cooking foods from their basic components limits the amount of packaging and also maximizes the nutritional value.


The more we learn about how our food choices influence our health, the more we see that the simplicity of our grandparents' diet had a lot going for it. Eat less meat, buy your food from the farmer down the road, eat sustainable seafood, and slow-cook your oatmeal. The more we stray from this path, the further we move from taking care of ourselves and our environment.

Jessica Begg BSc, BASc, RD is the Registered Dietitian of Flourish Wellness + Nutrition in Vancouver. She also works for Vancouver Coastal Health teaching Cardiac Rehabilitation classes and works in Eating Disorder clinics in the Lower Mainland. She holds degrees in Biology from Simon Fraser University and Food and Nutrition from Ryerson University.

November 9, 2010