Monica Reinagel’s Tips for Healthy Eating

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Monica Reinagel, MS, LN, is a licensed nutritionist, a professionally trained chef and host of the #1-ranked Nutrition Diva podcast. Her highly-anticipated new book, Secrets for a Healthy Diet: What to Eat, What to Avoid, and What to Stop Worrying About is your essential guide to the healthiest choices, both at the grocery store and at every meal and snack of the day. Check back next week to read her new blog, Nutrition Over Easy, which will be featured on HerBusyLife.com

The following is a Q & A with Monica on her new book.

There have been a lot of books and news stories lately proclaiming the virtues of a meat-free, vegetarian diet. What’s your take on this? Is meat really that bad?

Vegetarian is as vegetarian does! A meat-free diet is not automatically a healthy diet. And, to be fair, a diet containing meat is not necessarily unhealthy. Whether you’re vegan, vegetarian, or a meat-eater, your diet will only be as healthy as you make it. And the rules are basically the same for everyone.

Here they are:

  1. Don’t eat too much. No matter what kind of foods you do or don’t eat, it’s important to maintain a healthy weight.
  2. Eat a balanced and varied diet that meets your nutritional needs.
  3. Eat your fruits and vegetables.
  4. Limit your consumption of processed foods, which tend to be high in sugar and salt.

Although I don’t eat a lot of meat myself, that has mostly to do with environmental and ecological concerns.

What’s the one thing we should all throw out of our pantry?

Throw out any old cooking or salad oil. The oils that are most vulnerable to oxidation are the ones that are highest in polyunsaturated fats. These include grapeseed, walnut, sesame, soybean, corn, and anything labeled “vegetable oil.”  If it smells rancid or “off” or it’s been in your cupboard for more than six months, toss it.   Rancid oils contain free radicals that can do a lot of damage in your body and are not safe to eat.  If you use nut and seed oils like walnut or sesame, buy them in small quantities and store them in the fridge. For all-purpose cooking, use olive or canola. You can store these in a cool, dark cupboard (never over the stove!!) but don’t buy more than you can use up in three months.

What’s the number 1 nutrition mistake health-conscious people make?

It’s a tie: 1. We fall for the “health halo” effect.  People tend to over-estimate the nutritional value of a food that’s labeled “whole-grain” or “gluten-free.” Or, they under-estimate the negative impact of a food because it contains a healthful ingredient like flaxseed.

You have to be particularly on guard against the health halo effect when you shop at those natural or whole foods stores we all love. Everything in the store seems so virtuous. The chips are gluten-free, the sugar is organic, and the bacon is free-range. There are flax seeds on the waffles, green tea in the ice cream, and the sodas are sweetened with pure cane sugar–no high fructose corn syrup here!

The glare from all those health halos can be blinding. It tends to lull people into thinking that they don’t need to pay attention to what they’re buying. They figure if it’s being sold in a store like this, it must be good for you.

But glue a flaxseed to a corn chip and you have, well, a corn chip plus a flaxseed.  The lack of flaxseeds is not the thing that makes corn chips not-so-good-for-you–it’s the salt and the fat and the fact that, given half a chance, corn chips will happily take up the space in your life that would otherwise be occupied by actual vegetables.

Remember that chips, crackers, cookies, ice cream, and other snacks and treats are still extras–even when they contain goji berries or air-dried sea salt. They may be free of preservatives or other scary things but they’re still not contributing much to the nutritional quality of your diet and they can easily displace other, healthier foods.

And don’t let yourself be so dazzled by the presence of oat bran or the absence of MSG that you overlook the basics. Check the nutrition facts label to see how much sodium is in that spinach-powdered popcorn, or how much fat is in that preservative-free cheese cake, or how much sugar is in the whole-grain granola.

2.  We get hung up on the details.  Some of us spend too much time worrying about the small stuff, like whether our ketchup is made with high fructose corn syrup rather than cane sugar, or whether a some of the nutrients in the broccoli are lost in the cooking water, and yet we somehow overlook the big stuff, like the fact that we’re averaging only 1 and half servings of vegetables every day, or the fact that sweetened beverages make up1/3 of our daily calories.

Start with the stuff that matters most. Then, if you have time and energy to worry about the little things that make the difference between “ a healthy diet”  and “a ridiculously healthy diet,” go for it. Or, instead, use that time and energy to enjoy life and make the world a happier place.

What does a Nutrition Diva’s typical diet for the day look like?

You can get a good idea of my typical diet from the recipes and meal plans in Secrets for a Healthy Diet. They’re all based on the meals and recipes I make for myself!

First thing, I usually have tea or coffee and homemade kefir (a sort of drinkable yogurt) with pureed strawberries.   But that’s not really enough to get me to lunch. A couple of hours later I usually eat again: some eggs or oatmeal or a homemade dried fruit and nut bar (recipes for all of these are in the book).

Because I work at home, I often have leftovers for lunch.  If there are no leftovers, I might make a salad and open a can of tuna or sardines, or heat up a frozen bean burrito.

Although I do eat meat, dinner at home is more often than not vegetarian.  In the winter, lots of hearty soups, stews, pasta, roasted vegetables, and sautéed greens. I tend toward Mediterranean cuisine in the summer: tabouli, falafel, hummus, grilled fish, tomato salads, and fresh fruit.

I have a horrible sweet tooth and am powerless to resist sweet treats. So for the most part, I don’t keep them in the house. When I’m entertaining, instead of serving a gooey dessert, I like to put out a big platter with dried and fresh fruit, whole nuts, and dark chocolate.

If I get the munchies after dinner, I make popcorn with a little butter and olive oil.

What’s the number one food myth you’d like to bust for good?

That you need to eat every three hours to keep your metabolism from slowing down.  Just because you’ve heard this a hundred times, from everyone from your mother to your dog walker to your spinning instructor doesn’t make it true! You’d have to go several days without eating (or eating very little) before your metabolism would begin to adjust. Going 3 or 4 or even 12 hours without eating will not slow your metabolism.

Your book is called Nutrition Diva’s Secrets for a Healthy Diet; so what are your top nutrition secrets?

Here are the four things that I think have the biggest impact on the nutritional quality of your diet.

  1. Don’t drink your calories. Soda, flavored coffee drinks, alcoholic beverages, and even vitamin waters and sports drinks add nothing to your diet nutritionally and are a major source of excess sugar and calories. The average American drinks a quarter to a third of their daily calories every day. And those liquid calories account for the excess calorie intake that has resulted in our obesity epidemic.
  2. Limit your intake of concentrated sweeteners—including natural sugars like honey and maple syrup.  If I could wave my magic wand and change one thing about the typical American diet, it would be to cut the average sugar intake in half. I think that one change would largely solve many of our most intractable public health issues, such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
  3. Eat your vegetables! Vegetables are the primary source of most antioxidants, fiber, phyto-nutrients and other disease-fighting compounds. If you’re not eating the recommended five servings a day (most people don’t), you’re missing out on these nutrients. (And studies show that taking the same nutrients in a pill does NOT offer the same benefits.) As a bonus, vegetables tend to crowd other, less healthy foods out of your diet. People who eat more vegetables tend to eat less sugar, salt, and fat.
  4. Eat more whole foods and fewer processed foods.  Processed foods tend to be higher in the stuff we don’t want (like sugar, sodium, and excess fat) and lower in the stuff we DO want (like fiber and nutrients.) It’s great to read labels when you buy food but it’s even better to eat fewer foods that have labels!

What are your guiltiest food pleasures?

It’s a lot easier for me to say no to a French fry than to pass up something sweet. Probably my guiltiest pleasure is those little red Swedish fish. There’s literally nothing redeeming about them—they’re pure sugar. But I love them.

I had a bad day yesterday and ate all of the cookies, doughnuts, nachos, and French fries in sight; should I eat only lettuce the next day to make up for it?

One day or overeating isn’t going to make you fat any more than one day of eating nothing but cabbage soup (or lettuce) is going to make you thin.  When it comes to maintaining a healthy weight, or even just trying to eat a healthy diet, I suggest that you not focus too much on your best days or your worst days. In the long run, what really matters is how you eat most days.

We hear so much conflicting information on alcohol; how much is good for you?

It’s true that people who drink alcohol moderately tend to live a bit longer and be a bit healthier than people who don’t drink at all. And it really doesn’t matter what you drink: wine, beer, or spirits. But (and this is a huge BUT), any benefit disappears as soon as your consumption exceeds one drink a day (for women) or two drinks a day (for men).

And we’re not talking fish-bowl size margaritas and martinis, either. A serving of hard liquor is just one and a half ounces—or 3 tablespoons.

Because the harmful effects of drinking too much are far, far greater than the positive effects of drinking just a little, I don’t think anyone should start drinking for their health. And if you find it difficult to drink moderately—as many people do—it may be better not to drink at all.

What are five healthy snack foods that I should keep in the kitchen?

  • Hummus or guacamole (and raw veggies to dip in them)
  • Unsalted nuts in the shell (or natural nut butter)
  • String cheese
  • Popcorn (but not the microwave kind!)
  • Fresh fruit—whatever’s in season

Is high fructose corn syrup really the devil? How can I avoid it?

Avoiding HFCS is easy.  Simply avoid packaged and processed foods. (Do you have a bottle of high fructose corn syrup in your cupboard? I didn’t think so.) When you do buy packaged foods, check the ingredient lists for high fructose corn syrup (or it’s PC new name: “glucose-fructose syrup”).  However, if you simply replace all the high fructose corn syrup in your diet with another form of sugar, you really won’t have accomplished much.

The reason that high fructose corn syrup has become public health enemy #1 is not because it’s so much worse for you than regular cane sugar; it’s because we’re eating it in ridiculous amounts.

If 25% of your calories come from concentrated sweeteners (which is typical these days), it doesn’t matter whether it’s in the form of high fructose corn syrup or organic raw cane crystals: it’s a problem.

By the same token, if you limit your added sugar intake to 5 or 10% of calories, as health experts (including me) are recommending, you’re going to be a lot better off—even if some of that is in the form of high fructose corn syrup.

Free Downloads

Download free chapters from Nutrition Diva’s Secrets for a Healthy Diet

Read Chapter Three — Packaged and Prepared Food

Read Chapter Six — Snacking Well

LISTEN to Monica’s Nutrition Diva podcasts on iTunes!

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