Kath Younger, Registered Dietitian RD Answers Nutrition Questions

Kath Younger is a registered dietitian and the creator of Kath Eats Real Food, a healthy food and lifestyle blog read by over 15,000 visitors a day that celebrates life through the lens of food. Below she answers 10 of the most common nutrition questions we receive. Have fun growing your nutrition smarts!

1. How does the USDA determine the amount of calories, fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbs, and protein I should eat in a day?

KY: The nutrition facts label includes information to help you make informed decisions about the recipe you are about to cook and enjoy. In addition to the serving size and nutrient amounts, there is a column of information with the % Daily Values. The Daily Values reflect the percent of nutrients the food contains based on a 2,000 calorie diet.

The FDA, the group that regulates the nutrition facts label, chose 2,000 as a conservative average calorie level for men and women, but because your individual calorie needs can change greatly depending on lifestyle and activity, the Daily Value is best used for comparison’s sake. The Daily Value percentage tells you if a food is nutrient dense (a high percentage of your daily goals) or lacking (a low percentage) in nutrients. These percentages are best used as a meter for how nutrient dense a food is rather than a literal tally for your day.

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2. I am trying to lose weight. Should I try eating less than the USDA recommended amount of fat and carbs?

KY: If you are trying to lose weight you’ll want to take in less calories than you burn over time. Our bodies need both fat and carbohydrates to function, so cutting them out or drastically reducing one or the other will do your body more harm than good.

The best plan for weight loss is to reduce your portion size and mindfully pay attention to what you are eating. The fat and carbohydrate levels on the nutrition facts label will help you decide how calorie-dense a food is or if you want to have a smaller serving size.

Since the Cook Smarts labels also give you a breakdown of what ingredients are contributing to each nutrient, they can help you decide if you want to lighten up on a particular ingredient (like oil).

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3. Are there instances where you would recommend less than the USDA recommended amount of fat and sodium?

KY: Fat and sodium are all nutrients we need in our diet, so completely cutting them out would deprive the body of nutrition it needs. However, restaurants are known for serving entrees with incredibly high levels of fat and sodium, so you’re off on the right foot by preparing meals at home with Cook Smarts!

If you’re watching one nutrient level in particular, such as sodium, you as the cook can control how much goes into your recipe. Check the nutrition facts label before you begin cooking to see if this is a recipe particularly high in sodium and adjust your salt seasoning accordingly.

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4. I read a recent study that said sodium isn’t actually bad for you. Should I believe that?

KY: Sodium itself is not bad for you – the body needs sodium to regulate blood pressure and volume as well as for muscles and nerves to work properly. Many foods naturally contain small amounts. Most of our sodium intake comes from salt added to processed foods as a preservative. A high sodium intake is linked with high blood pressure, which can increase risk of heart disease and stroke.

Again, you’re on the right path by your efforts to cook meals at home. Restaurants love to over-salt their food, but as the chef of your kitchen you are in control over how much salt you add. Many of the Cook Smarts recipes give you the direction to “season to taste” and this is when you want to use salt sparingly.

Ingredients that can be high in added sodium include broths, olives and canned foods like beans. Most grocery stores carry low- or no-sodium versions of these, which allow you to customize your recipes even more.

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5. How do I determine the amount of calories I should eat every day?

KY: If you multiple your weight in pounds by 15 you’ll get a ballpark estimate of calories needed to maintain your weight at a relatively sedentary activity level, but this number is just a guess. The best way to figure out how many calories you need per day is by trial and error. Cut back on your portion size for a few weeks and see if you lose weight. If you stay the same weight, you are likely eating closer to maintenance levels.

Also note that your activity level will drastically change the calories needed to maintain or lose weight, so even once you figure out a number that works for you, an increase or decrease in activity level can change that target yet again.

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6. Wow, oil sure has a lot of calories and fat. Should I avoid oils altogether?

KY: Oil is made up of 100% fat, which is the most calorie-dense of the macronutrients. At 9 calories per gram, it’s twice as calorie dense as carbohydrates. But just because it’s higher in calories doesn’t mean it’s bad for you! Fat is important for skin and hair health, to absorb vitamins A,D, E, and K, to keep you warm, and as a source of stored energy, among other physiological roles. Not to mention it makes food taste great! Because of this, restaurants tend to go overboard with fat, which means meals eaten out are much more calorie dense.

Cook Smarts uses fats in proper cooking proportions that diffuse throughout the servings and result in a relatively small (and healthy) amount in each dish. Oils like sunflower and peanut are good for high heat cooking, and more delicate oils like olive, almond and walnut are great for salad dressings and finishing foods.

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7. What’s the difference between the different types of fat? Which are good and which are bad?

KY: The unsaturated fats are known as the “good” fats because they shift cholesterol levels to healthy proportions, lowering “Lousy” LDL and raising the “Healthy” HDL.

In contrast, saturated fats raise cholesterol, clog arteries and increase the risk for heart disease. The USDA recommends limiting saturated fats to less than 10% of daily calories and minimizing trans-fats as much as possible.

There are four kinds of fat that you’ll find on a nutrition label:

  1. Monounsaturated fat – Liquid at room temp / Found in olive oil, olives, avocados
  2. Polyunsaturated fat – Liquid at room temp / Found in vegetable oils, nuts and seeds (omega-6) and fish (omega-3)
  3. Saturated fat – Solid at room temp / Found in animal products, coconut and palm oils
  4. Trans-fat – Found in processed foods as partially hydrogenated fats and only minimally in natural sources
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8. I’m vegetarian. What nutrition elements should I focus on?

KY: Vegetarians should focus on ensuring their diet is varied and diverse with plants and animal products that contain the nutrients commonly found in higher levels in animal meat and fish. These include omega-3 fatty acids (walnuts, flax, DHA supplements), iron (beans, lentils, greens, dried fruit), zinc (legumes, grains, nuts), calcium ( dairy products, kale, broccoli, bok choy), vitamin D (mushrooms, fortified milk) and vitamin B-12 (nutritional yeast).

Food combining and variety is key to ensure that vegetarians consume complete protein combinations of all 8 essential amino acids throughout the day, particularly vegans.

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9. It seems like studies and research are constantly changing the definition of what’s ‘healthy.’ What should I do to make sure I’m eating a healthy diet?

KY: The only diet that has stood the test of time is a diverse diet based on real food. Medical professionals agree that eating a rainbow of colorful fruits and vegetables and enjoying a wide variety of different ingredients will ensure you are covering all of your nutritional bases. Cooking your own meals is the best way to take charge of the food you put in your mouth. You are taking the first step to being your healthiest by making cooking a priority!

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10. How should I use Cook Smarts’ nutrition info to inform my eating habits or decisions?

KY: The Cook Smarts nutrition facts label not only gives you a snapshot into a recipe’s serving size and calorie level, but it teaches you a bit more about the nutrition behind the ingredients themselves. Click on the triangles, and you can see a breakdown of the ingredients that contribute to a macronutrient and use that information to adjust the recipe to suit your needs (like reducing fat or sodium). This information will help you prep, cook and eat smarter!

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