Ask a Dietitian

Your Nutrition Questions Answered

Last month, we hosted a Facebook Live and invited you to Ask a Dietitian in honor of National Nutrition Month. As promised, below you will find a summary of all the questions that we discussed, as well as the questions I promised to answer after a little time to research the topic. Beware, this is a LONG post, so if you’d rather watch the video, feel free!

Can you explain the new added sugar label?

You may have heard that the Nutrition Facts label is getting an important update. It will now clearly list the amount of added sugar a food item contains. The Dietary Guidelines recommend getting less than 10% of your calories from added sugar. For the standard 2000 calorie diet, this comes out to 50 grams of added sugar per day. Keeping added sugar below 4 grams per serving is a good rule of thumb. Unlike naturally occurring sugar, such as fructose in fruit or lactose in milk, added sugar is any type of sugar added to a food during processing. Added sugar adds extra calories with no additional nutrition, compared to fruit and milk, which provides many beneficial nutrients in addition to the naturally occurring sugars. MyPlate has a very long list of different names for added sugar you may find in an ingredient list.

When do calcium needs increase due to age?

Calcium is an important building block for strong bones and teeth. Children and teens need calcium to build strong bones as they grow. For most of adulthood, calcium needs are stable, as your bones and teeth aren’t changing size. But as you get into older adulthood, bones can begin to break down without enough calcium, so your dietary needs increase. Below is a table showing the specific Recommended Daily Allowances (RDAs) for calcium at each age range and this is a list of good sources of calcium from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Age Group Calcium Needs
1-3 years 700 mg
4-8 years 1,000 mg
9-18 years 1,300 mg
19-50 years 1,000 mg
MEN 50-70 years 1,000 mg
WOMEN 50-70 years 1,200 mg
71+ years 1,200 mg


What are the recommended serving sizes of vegetables?

A serving size is what is recommended on a Nutrition Facts label. Serving sizes are standardized by the government. The FDA uses 130 grams for vegetables as the Reference Amounts Customarily Consumed Per Eating Occasion, which is what Nutrition Facts labels’ serving sizes are based on. MyPlate uses 1 cup as the standard serving size for vegetables. 130 grams is a weight measurement while cups are a measure of volume, so 130 grams of different types of vegetables will be slightly different when converted to cups. So save yourself the headache and think in terms of cups. Most adults need 2-3 cups of vegetables a day.

What you actually eat is called your “portion.” Here’s an easy guide to using your hand to estimate a smart size portion. You might eat 4 different ½ cup portions to get your 2 cup servings of vegetables or you might eat 1 single 2 cup portion to get your recommended servings of vegetables.

Is there a concern with the raw sprouted grains in salads or sandwiches and e. Coli?

Sprouts, like alfalfa sprouts or bean sprouts, have been associated with e. Coli and Salmonella outbreaks. Bacteria and seeds both grow best in warm, damp conditions, so sprouts are risky from a food safety standpoint. Because sprouts are not cooked or sterilized during the sprouting process, if there are any bacteria present, it will grow and contaminate the sprouts. So if you’re eating raw sprouts, including sprouted grains, you’re at an increased risk of getting a foodborne illness.

However, most sprouted grain products I am familiar with are not served raw. Sprouted grain flour or breads made with sprouted grain flour have been dried or dehydrated, which helps to reduce the risk of bacterial growth. And if it’s been baked into bread, then it definitely has been cooked to a safe temperature.

For more information, here are some resources about food safety of sprouts from Colorado State University and an overview of sprouted grains from the Whole Grain Council.

What foods are good for muscle soreness (post workout, etc.)?

The evidence is fairly limited on what foods or nutrients are effective in helping with soreness after exercise. But there are some recommendations you can try to help with recovery. Antioxidants are substances found in food that help protect cells from damage. Muscle soreness is because of small tears in the muscle from being overloaded. When your body repairs this damage, then you get stronger. So antioxidants may help with limiting the damage and speeding up the repair of muscle fibers. Good sources of antioxidants are berries (especially blueberries), tart cherries, pomegranates, green tea, beets, grape juice, kale, red bell peppers, and spinach.

Other recommended nutrients for muscle soreness Omega-3 fatty acids (found in seafood), caffeine (in coffee or tea), taurine, glutamine, and allicin (in garlic). Additionally, make sure to drink lots of water to replace what is lost during exercise.

While not a food, active recovery can help reduce soreness better than inactive recovery. Gentle walks and a full body stretching will make you feel much better than hitting the couch for a few days. And of course getting enough sleep, which is the main time our body repairs and regenerates itself.

What foods are good for overall hair health (growth, shine & anti-breakage)?

The recommendations for healthy hair are the same as for skin (below) – lots of water, Omega-3s, Vitamin C, and biotin.

What are some good ways to balance carb to protein intake?

Using the MyPlate template is the best way to get the right mix of different food groups, which supply different amounts of protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Whole grains, fruits, and dairy are good sources of carbohydrates, while dairy and protein foods are higher in protein. Vegetables can vary depending on what types you are choosing. Non-starchy veggies that are lower in carbohydrates than root veggies or beans and peas. Beans and peas are higher in protein, while also providing carbohydrates.

For snacks, I always recommend trying to have at least 2-3 different food groups to help balance out the carbohydrates, protein, and fat. For example, instead of just an apple, which is mainly carbohydrates, pair it with peanut butter to add some protein and fat to make it more filling.

Explain probiotics and prebiotics. What is the difference? Why are they important?

Here’s a quick overview of probiotics and prebiotics and good sources of each. Eating probiotics and prebiotics can help improve the microflora of your digestive system. Microflora is basically the mixture of different types of bacteria living in your digestive system. A healthy microflora can improve your digestion and may help soothe issues with diarrhea or constipation. This is an area of nutrition that is emerging, so more research is being done to find out the health benefits of fermented foods (providing probiotics) and functional fiber (providing prebiotics).

What’s the next food trend you are seeing?

Here are several news stories about food trends for 2017:

During our Facebook Live chat, our commenters shared these trends that they’re seeing:

Mary Ann “Just got a RD magazine with Exotic fruit features. It mentions the following: Longan, Loquat, Ranbulan, mangosteen, finger lime, Guava, Cherimoya, Jackfruit, Passion fruit,… But don’t head out to you local grocery to find these just yet. Plus due to “supply and demand” these are probably not cheap either. Pulses, Flavored waters still are big, nut butters, Exotic grains, and Sprouted grains.”

Ann “Kombucha is getting to be a big trend now.”

Deb “Is the time that you eat meals also one of those trends?”

I mentioned intermittent fasting as one trend related to meal timing. Here are a few resources about intermittent fasting from eatright.org and Stanford University. Intermittent fasting can take a variety of forms. If you’re interested in trying this out, I would recommend the limited timeframe version. You essentially only eat in a certain window of time during the day, so from 7 am to 7 pm for example. This can help if you struggle with make poor food choices later in the evening. But overall, most people should focus first on following MyPlate, eating more fruits, veggies, and whole grains, limiting added sugar, and getting enough physical activity before making these types of tweaks to their eating habits.

What foods do you recommend eating before and after a workout?

There are three types of nutrients that provide the body with energy: carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Our bodies rely mainly on carbohydrates for fuel, while protein helps to build and repair muscles. So when we are burning lots of energy with intense physical activity, it is important to “pre-fuel” and “re-fuel” with enough carbohydrates and protein. A good rule of thumb is to eat a snack 1-3 hours before exercising and another snack within 15-30 minutes after exercising. If you time it right, your usual meal can count as one (or both) of these fueling opportunities. Good food choices for everyday physical activities are usually some combination of fruit and whole grains for carbohydrates and dairy, nuts or lean meat for protein.

Hydration is an important part of fueling your body during activity. Be sure to drink plenty of fluids before, during and after exercise, especially if you are sweating a lot. For most people, skip the sports drinks and drink plain old water to save unnecessary calories and sugar. However, if you are sweating a lot, outside in hot temperatures or exercising for more than an hour, sports drinks can help replace electrolytes (mainly sodium and potassium) that are lost through sweat to prevent dehydration and cramping. You can find more info in this blog I wrote a few years ago: https://blogs.ext.vt.edu/eatsmart-movemore/2013/06/28/fueling-up-for-fitness/ and this one written by a VT dietetic student: https://blogs.ext.vt.edu/eatsmart-movemore/2014/04/22/what-do-you-eat-after-exercising/

What foods were good for skin?

Your skin is the body’s largest organ and it is replaced every few weeks. Because it grows so rapidly, it needs a lot of nutrition to keep it functioning smoothly. Omega-3 fatty acids found in seafood, walnuts, canola oil, chia and flax seeds keep skin smooth and prevent dehydration of the skin. Omega-3 fats can also help protect the skin from sun damage. Vitamin A/beta-carotene in dark red and orange fruits and veggies, dairy products, butter, eggs, and liver and is necessary for the rapidly reproducing skin cells. High amounts of Beta carotene can give your skin a subtle orange tint for a healthy sunless tanned look. In fact, researchers have found that people who eat lots of fruits and veggies have a healthy glow from beta carotene that is rated as more attractive than a real tan: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/281734.php Too much beta-carotene can turn your skin very orange, but is harmless. Biotin, found in whole grains, meat, dried beans, vegetables, is the vitamin in prenatal vitamins people rave about for lush hair, skin, and nails. It helps with rapidly reproducing skin cells, as well. Vitamin C is involved in collagen maintenance in the body. Collagen is what keeps skin firm and smooth. Vitamin C is found in most fresh fruits and veggies, although red peppers, kiwi, citrus, broccoli and even potatoes are excellent sources of Vitamin C. Finally, hydration is an important part of keeping skin smooth and moisturized. Drinking at least the recommended 8 cups of water a day will make an immediate impact on your skin.

As Mary Ann mentioned during the Facebook Live chat, coconut oil is great for skin and hair – as a lotion or hair oil. I personally use it for chapped lips, dry skin on my hands during the winter, and applied to the ends of my hair when it gets dried out. Some people use it as a shaving lotion or a hot oil hair mask, too. It smells nice and rubs in without being greasy.

I’m an avid meat eater (like I don’t consider it a meal without meat)… how much should I have? How much red meat is too much?

You wouldn’t believe how often people ask me if I’m a vegetarian when they learn I’m a dietitian! Meat is a great example of how moderation works best for a healthy diet. Besides the usual meat choices of beef, chicken, and pork, seafood, eggs, and plant-based proteins, like beans, nuts, and seeds, are nutritious options that should be a regular part of our protein routine.

Most people only need about 5-6 ounces of protein a day. If you have 3 slices of bacon and an egg for breakfast, a grilled chicken breast for lunch, and a pork chop for dinner, that’s easily 7 ounces of protein foods. In general, most Americans get enough protein, but not enough seafood specifically. It’s recommended to increase the variety of protein foods by incorporating seafood in meals twice per week in place of meat, poultry, or eggs, and using beans or nuts and seeds in mixed dishes instead of some meat or poultry. For example, choosing a salmon steak, a tuna sandwich, bean chili, or almonds on a main-dish salad could all increase protein variety. We know that higher intakes of red meat and processed meat are associated with heart disease. But because of the way research studies have been designed,  the evidence is a little fuzzy on if the risk is due to processed meats, which are higher in sodium and nitrates, or the fat content (lower and higher fat choices were not separated out), or if red meat on it’s own is risky. This article is written for health professionals, but gives a good overview of the issue (http://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/0116p20.shtml).

For most people, shifting to nutrient-dense options, including lean and lower sodium options, will improve the nutritional quality of protein food choices and support healthy eating patterns. Working to serve smaller portions of meat while upping the veggies, beans, and grains in a meal is another strategy to enjoy meat while eating smarter and can help save money!

What are some examples of a nutritious breakfast that would keep you feeling full and energized?

Since your and Ashley’s two questions are pretty similar, I’m going to answer them in one response. In general, fiber, protein, and healthy fats keep you feeling fuller longer. Fiber is found in fruits, veggies, and whole grains. Protein is from meat, poultry, seafood, nuts, seeds, and dairy foods. Healthy fats are found in nuts, seeds, seafood, avocados, and olive or canola oil. Try to find a breakfast or snack combo that has at least two of these nutrients for the best combination. Another way to visualize it is to aim for 2-3 of the food groups from MyPlate (www.choosemyplate.gov) for snacks and 3-5 food groups for breakfast (or other meal). I’ve written blog posts with ideas for quick and easy breakfasts (http://blogs.ext.vt.edu/eatsmart-movemore/2017/02/09/quick-and-easy-breakfast-ideas/) and snacks (http://blogs.ext.vt.edu/eatsmart-movemore/2014/07/17/929/). http://www.eatrightpro.org/~/media/eatright%20files/nationalnutritionmonth/handoutsandtipsheets/nutritiontipsheets/powerupwithbreakfast2017.ashx

3 meals a day or smaller meals?

Whether three meals or multiple smaller meals is better depends mainly on the person. So choose what works best for your schedule and hunger cues. One word of caution with the smaller meals – make sure they truly are smaller. A lot of people get tripped up by eating the same amount as a “normal” meal and end up eating more calories over the course of the day.

Is skipping breakfast really a bad thing?

I wouldn’t call it a bad thing, but it’s probably better if you did eat breakfast. Breakfast literally means break the fast of not eating since the previous evening. Having even a small snack within an hour of waking up helps kickstart your metabolism, which might make you feel more alert and burn a few extra calories. Breakfast eaters typically have better nutrition quality (more fiber, vitamins, minerals) for the entire day and are more likely to weigh less compared to breakfast skippers. But this is correlation, not causation. Some people function just fine without breakfast. But if you aren’t a morning person or are trying to make a healthy change to your eating habits, this is a good place to start. If time is the issue, I definitely recommend this blog post, with ideas for quick and easy breakfasts: http://blogs.ext.vt.edu/eatsmart-movemore/2017/02/09/quick-and-easy-breakfast-ideas/

Healthy is often considered synonymous with low calorie. But what are some healthy high cal options?

Yes, unfortunately calories are often equated to how healthy a food is. But many higher calorie foods are really good for us. Off the top of my head, nuts, seeds, peanut butter, avocados, olive oil, dried fruit, and dark chocolate all contain essential nutrients but are higher in calories. A lot of these options are higher in fat, but the types of fat they contain are healthy (monounsaturated fats, omega-3s, etc.). So enjoy these foods, but keep an eye on portion sizes because it’s easy to overeat them.

When is bread good for you?

Whole grain bread in the right sized portions is good for you. Whole grains have more fiber, vitamins, and minerals than refined grains made with white flour. Most people need just 5-7 ounces of grains each day. Half of these should be whole grains. In general, 1 slice of bread, 1 cup of ready-to-eat cereal, or ½ cup of cooked rice, cooked pasta, or cooked cereal can be considered as 1 ounce-equivalent from the Grains Group. But a lot of people eat more than they need to and not enough as whole grains.

Can you explain the USDA’s nutritional guidelines?

Every five years, the USDA looks at the accumulated research about diet patterns, nutrient needs, and health to make the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. These guidelines are meant as a basic framework for a healthy, nutritionally adequate diet for generally healthy Americans ages 2 and up. These guidelines are not tailored to the nutritional needs of people with diet-related diseases, like diabetes or heart disease. Although they are updated every 5 years, the basic concepts of a healthy diet haven’t changed much since the 1960s – eat a variety of foods from each food group, focus on fruits, veggies, and grains while choosing lower fat meat and dairy options, limiting sodium, saturated fat, and added sugar. MyPlate is the latest representation of the Dietary Guidelines in a format familiar to most people, a plate of food. You can find more information about MyPlate and the Dietary Guidelines at www.choosemyplate.gov. This is a summary of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines with more detailed information: https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/resources/DGA_Recommendations-At-A-Glance.pdf

Do onions really absorb toxins?

There is a rumor going around the internet that says cut onions absorb toxins or germs or prevent the flu when kept in a room or are the real culprit in food poisoning from mayonnaise-based salads. The rumors say that eating cut onions that have been kept overnight is dangerous because of all the toxins and germs that have been absorbed, even if the onions have been properly stored in a closed container in the fridge. This rumor is from an old wives tale that has been around since the early 1900s.

But for all you onion lovers, it’s not true! The same sulfur chemicals that burn your eyes when chopping onions also kill germs, not attract them. Saving leftover onions carries the same food safety risks as any other cut fruit or vegetable. Peel and chop onions on clean surfaces with clean utensils and store in a closed container in the fridge within 1-2 hours of preparation. Cut onions will last 4 days in the fridge before you should throw them away.

Is a gluten-free diet healthy?

Gluten is a sticky, stretchy protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and possibly oats. Foods made with these grains, or products derived from these grains, such as malt or wheat based thickeners, contain gluten. This includes pasta, bread, cereal, crackers, croutons, gravy, beer, and many other foods. Gluten-free diets are really popular right now, and not just for people who have celiac disease. Celiac disease is a serious condition where gluten causes the body’s immune system to attack the digestive system, causing intestinal damage and nutrient deficiencies. The only treatment for celiac disease is a strict gluten-free diet for life. Gluten sensitivity is a less well-understood condition in which people react to gluten, but do not suffer intestinal damage like classic celiac disease. In both cases, eliminating gluten is necessary for a healthy diet.

However, if you do not have either of these conditions, removing gluten from your diet is not necessary for better health. If you remove gluten and eat more fruits, veggies, nuts, legumes, and other gluten-free whole grains instead, then you’ll likely feel better. But if you substitute gluten-free versions of crackers, cookies, pizza, or bread, you’ll probably not notice much difference. The effect is from what you are eating instead, more plant-based foods, not because you’ve cut out gluten.

Also, most gluten-free versions of grain products are made with refined grains and lots of thickeners to make up for the lack of gluten, so they tend to have less nutritional value than the products they replace. And most gluten-free products tend to be more expensive and not taste like the real thing. You can read more about gluten-free diets here: https://njaes.rutgers.edu/sshw/message/message.asp?p=Health&m=323

If you’re still convinced you might benefit from a gluten-free diet, try tracking what you eat for a few weeks. Take note of any symptoms you might experience and look for patterns with the foods you ate. If you think you see a link, visit your doctor or a registered dietitian who can help you find a cause and solution to your symptoms.

Is cooking with coconut oil healthier than cooking with canola or olive oil?

Coconut oil is such a hot topic in nutrition these days! It’s no surprise you are seeing more products in the store that contain coconut oil. Despite its increasing popularity, coconut oil is a highly saturated fat (see graph of the types of fat in different foods), with even more saturated fat than butter. Usually, oils from plants are unsaturated, but coconut oil, palm oil and cocoa butter are all high in saturated fats. Diets high in saturated fats can increase cholesterol, increasing the risk of heart disease. The Dietary Guidelines and MyPlate recommend limiting saturated fat to less than 10% of calories, or about 22 grams of saturated fat per day for a 2,000 calorie diet. 1 tablespoon of coconut oil has 12 grams of saturated fat, more than half the recommended daily amount in just this one food.

So not only is coconut oil not that great for our health, it’s also more expensive than other oil options. I actually wrote a blog post all about choosing the Best Fats for Cooking. Be sure to check it out. When you look at all of these facts (high in saturated fat, more expensive), buying and using coconut oil just isn’t a great choice in comparison to olive or canola oil.

Here are is are two good overviews of the research around the health benefits of coconut oil. In summary, coconut oil has a very high amount of saturated fat, much of it is a type of saturated fat called Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCT) that is digested differently than other types of fat. Medium Chain Triglycerides may aid in weight loss or have a neutral impact on blood cholesterol levels. However, the research doesn’t clearly show that coconut oil leads to weight loss or lower cholesterol levels. And the fact remains that it contains a lot of unhealthy saturated fat.

Is dairy actually good for you?

Dairy is one of the five MyPlate food groups and is well-known for it’s connection to bone health. In fact, milk and cheese are the top two sources of calcium in our diets. Milk has 9 essential nutrients that are used by the entire body, from supporting healthy vision to building muscles and bones. Dairy is also a source of saturated fats that should be limited to less than 10% of calories. By choosing low-fat (1%) or nonfat (skim) dairy products, you can get the same nutrients with less calories and saturated fat. So yes, dairy is pretty good for you.

But for some people, dairy can cause some issues. People who are lactose intolerant, including myself, can’t properly digest the milk sugar lactose, causing digestive discomfort. For people with lactose intolerance, there are strategies for incorporating dairy. Choose lower lactose dairy foods like yogurt or hard cheese instead of milk or soft cheese. Eat or drink small amounts and/or eat with other foods. Dairy is also one of the 8 major food allergens. People with a dairy allergy should not consume any dairy products. And some people do not eat or drink dairy because of personal beliefs.

So what should people who don’t want dairy eat instead? Calcium and Vitamin D fortified plant milks like almond milk or soymilk are good substitutes for milk. There are even some yogurt or cheese alternatives made from nondairy ingredients. Dark leafy greens are a good source of calcium that we could all use more of in our diets. Canned fish like salmon or sardines provide Vitamin D and calcium (eat the bones!).

What foods should we eat to have more energy throughout the day?

There are lots of things that can impact energy levels beyond just food. Sleep habits, how physically active we are, and general mood and stress levels can all affect energy. But there are some things you can do with what you eat and drink that can help. Everyone’s first thought when tired is more caffeine. And caffeine is quite effective at stimulating our nervous system and perking us up. But having too much caffeine can have drawbacks as well. Drinking caffeine too late in the day can disrupt your sleeping. And over time, you build up a tolerance to caffeine, which means you need more and more to have the same effect. So counterintuitively, I would say cutting back on caffeine is actually more helpful over the long run. If you can taper down (cold turkey can work, but expect withdrawal headaches and irritability!) to just 1 or 2 cups of coffee in the morning and no caffeine after lunch, you’ll end up sleeping better and feel more naturally energized.

Sugar also falls into this category! If you use sugar as a pick-me-up, try to cut back and power through the change until your body adapts. Try having more high-fiber carbohydrates (whole grains, nuts, fruits, and veggies) and protein (Greek yogurt, string cheese, nuts and seeds) instead of sugary snacks or drinks. These digest more slowly and prevent sugar highs and eventual crashes. Drinking enough water is also really important for energy levels. Being dehydrated can make your thinking fuzzy, sap your energy, and cause headaches.

What can I eat to speed up my metabolism?

Metabolism is affected by many things other than just the food we eat. Sleep habits, how physically active we are, body composition, and genetics all play a role in our metabolic rate. About 65% of your metabolism is spent keeping your body alive – fueling your heart beating, your lungs breathing, your brain and liver functioning, and all your cells alive and well at complete rest. But there are a few things you can do to support a higher metabolism. The remaining 35% is a little more variable and includes any energy spent on physical activity or other body movement and energy spent digesting food, so enhancing these can boost your metabolism.

Protein foods take a lot more energy (20-35% of calories) to digest and use for body processes than carbohydrates (5-15% of calories) or fat (4% of calories). This means that if you eat 100 calories of protein, you’ll burn 20-35 calories just digesting it, compared to 5-15 calories for carbohydrates or just 4 calories for fat. The recommended range of protein in a healthy person’s diet is 10-35% of calories, so by switching out some carbohydrates and fat for protein, you may burn a small, but possibly significant, number of extra calories without any work. Spicy foods (hot peppers, mustard, wasabi) have a similar effect on increasing the number of calories burned digesting food.

But the most impactful thing you do for your metabolism is physical activity, particularly muscle-strengthening exercises, and generally being less sedentary. Muscle tissue burns more calories than fat tissue. So the more muscles you have, the higher your metabolism. Exercise (jogging, lifting weights, group classes, etc.) and making an effort to move more throughout the day (standing at work, housecleaning, etc.) all add up to increase your metabolism, too. Find tips for adding more lifestyle physical activity here: http://blogs.ext.vt.edu/eatsmart-movemore/2015/10/16/lifestyle-physical-activity-how-to-move-more-in-everyday-life/

If you have any other questions, ask in the comments and I’ll answer those, too!

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