8 Things Dietitians Wish Everyone Knew About Nutrition
Deliciously simple tips to help you eat well and live healthier
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Mention you’re a registered dietitian and odds are good someone at the party (remember those?), in the grocery store aisle, or at the dentist’s office will start drilling you about their diet. I’ve heard everything from “Is sushi really a problem when you’re pregnant?” and “Can I eat a whole bunch of bananas every day?” to “Will this tea lower my blood sugar?” and “Isn’t my XYZ random fad diet awesome?!”
There’s an abundance of ongoing nutrition research, and interesting data or apparent contradictions is often reported as major news. Couple that with the fact that food manufacturers pounce on developments that help them market their products, and it can create lots of confusion about what an optimal diet looks like.
“The running joke is that the answer to any nutrition question is, ‘It depends.’ And I know that most people are looking for clear and concise answers,” says Katie Goldberg, MCN, RDN, LD. “But nutrition is personal. I can't answer many questions from clients without knowing their personal medical history, health goals, and food preferences and intolerances. Generic answers just aren't possible, because there are no generic people.”
From a clinical perspective, it’s true that individualization is key. But there are general guidelines that can help most people make dietary changes to promote wellbeing and better health. And that doesn’t mean dieting or counting calories. Here’s a taste of what registered dietitian nutritionists (RDNs) want you to know, plus recipes to help you get started.
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1. Eat real food
Dietitians know folks want exciting, groundbreaking news about what to eat. But the big, (not-so-secret) secret isn’t all that glamorous — healthy eating means emphasizing a variety of whole foods that pretty much look like you’d find them in nature. If most of what you consume grows on a tree or out of the ground — think fruits, veggies, legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, herbs and spices — you’re on the right track. A little animal protein (meat, poultry, fish, eggs, cheese, etc.) can round things out if you’d like, but isn’t absolutely requisite in a well-balanced diet.
Whole grains? Check. Fruit? Check. Ultra-simple, 5-minute prep? Check. This hearty (and heart-healthy) homemade breakfast is easily customizable, and you can have it ready in the time it takes to brew your coffee.
The beauty of this sheet pan dinner (beyond the ultra-easy clean-up) is how well it illustrates what “real food” looks like. Simple, straight-from-nature ingredients come together quickly for a nutritious, satisfying meal that can make even a busy weeknight feel special.
Don’t let this recipe’s allegedly lengthy prep time scare you off — if you’ve already got frozen bananas and strawberries on hand, this dairy-free, no added sugar wonder comes together in minutes, no ice cream maker required. Feel free to add dark chocolate chips if you’d like.
2. Think outside the box (or bag, or package)
Contrary to popular belief, most dietitians aren’t interested in dictating food choices — and we want people to enjoy favorite foods (yes, even dessert!). In fact, lots of us are foodies, and prefer to focus on what we can add (rather than take away) to help folks enjoy healthier lifestyles. So when there’s RDN consensus on what to avoid, that’s advice worth heeding.
If there’s one thing we want people to replace all (or most) of the time, it’s processed foods. If food comes in a wrapper, understand that “the front of the package is like advertising,” says Sandra Knoll, MS, RD, LDN, who notes it’s vital that people know “how to decipher the nutrition label themselves.” Sarika Sewak, MPH, RDN, concurs that “the goal of companies is to sell you something,” and flipping over the package to look at the label can tell you if “something is too good to be true.”
Contrarians will point out that most food is processed (think washing, cooking, freezing, etc.), but that’s not what we’re talking about at all (see #1). The science is clear that ultra-processed foods are a major culprit in promoting inflammation and disease, including diabetes, cancer, and heart disease, among others. So if the front of the cracker box boasts about high fiber, but the label on the back reveals they’re high in trans fat, sodium, and preservatives, look for better crackers. That’s not to say you can’t indulge the occasional nostalgic desire for a Mallomar, or add pepperoni to your pizza once in a while. But a steady diet of highly processed convenience foods (think soda, most packaged snacks, processed meats like hot dogs and cold cuts, chicken nuggets, instant soup mixes, anything you'd call junk food, etc.) is a recipe for poor health. Luckily, there are lots of easy, creative takes on convenience food, like these:
Boxed mac and cheese may be convenient (and much loved), but even if the package touts “real cheese,” those packets are pretty removed from an actual hunk of cheddar. Making mac and cheese from scratch is definitely an improvement. Better yet, take a cue from Maya Feller, MS, RD, CDN, who swaps in whole wheat macaroni and adds lots of veggies.
Chicken nuggets are ultra-popular, but most frozen and fast food versions are also ultra-processed. This recipe is a great example of how to use minimally-processed packaged ingredients (hummus, whole wheat panko) strategically, to turn out a healthier take on an American fave.
Granola bars may have a health food gloss, but many contain so much refined sugar that they’re essentially glorified candy bars. These DIY, allergy-friendly bars get their sweetness from fiber-rich, nutrient-dense dates. If nut allergies aren’t a concern, you can boost their protein and crunch factor with nuts.
Water is essential to life. We need it to support countless metabolic, physical, and mental functions, and dietitians are quick to note that most of us need to drink more of it. Fortunately, we get water from lots of hidden sources — think cucumbers, lettuce, melons, juice, soups, milk, ice cream, etc. Excessive amounts of caffeine can have a diuretic effect, but a cup or two of coffee or tea certainly counts toward your hydration goals. What we don’t need is water laced with several tablespoons of sugar (sorry, soft drinks). These hydration hacks deliver flavor without a significant calorie boost.
Who says water has to be plain? Flavor it with fruit, veggies, or herbs, and it’ll be easier to remember to drink up. As this recipe smartly recommends, be sure to wash your produce before infusing your water.
Fresh pineapple and ginger — a delicious pair with anti-inflammatory benefits — are simmered, pureed, and strained into a kicky flavor concentrate to mix with iced tea. Though this recipe calls for a bottled brand, you can easily brew and chill your favorite tea instead.
Soda fans take note: If you crave a little sweetness with your fizz or a bolder taste than flavored seltzer alone can provide, try this sparkling water hack. The basic formula (a little fruit concentrate or juice + lots of bubbles) lets you DIY a refreshing drink that’s got far less sugar than the average soda.
4. Play (vitamin) “D”efense
As many dietitians will point out, humans eat food, not nutrients. So it’s a bit of a slippery slope to talk about the importance of specific vitamins, minerals, or food components, because it tends to make people fixate more on those individual nutrients, or seek supplements or fortified products rather than minimally-processed foods. But an orange, for example, has benefits far beyond its Vitamin C content; likewise, balanced meals deliver synergistic nutritional benefits.
The reality, though, is that subclinical and clinical vitamin D deficiency is a concern in populations worldwide. Vitamin D plays important roles in immunity and bone health, and has gotten significant media attention lately thanks to emerging research suggesting it may confer some protection against severe COVID-19 infection. And it’s an unusual nutrient, because few foods naturally contain it — our bodies synthesize vitamin D with the aid of sun exposure, which is harder to come by in the winter. That is not to say that supplemental megadoses are wise, or that vitamin D is a magic bullet against COVID-19. But it’s likely a good move to emphasize vitamin D-rich foods including fatty fish and mushrooms.
Salmon gets lots of shine for its vitamin D content, but Rainbow Trout bests it — a 3-ounce portion contains 645 IUs, or about 80% of the recommended daily value (DV) for adults and kids over age 4.
Mushrooms are one of the only vegetarian sources of naturally-occurring vitamin D. This easy recipe features them atop store-bought ravioli; opt for ricotta-filled pasta and you’ll get an extra vitamin D boost, since milk is fortified with it. Of course, veggie- or tofu-filled vegan ravioli are also a delicious choice.
Small but mighty, sardines are nutritional powerhouses. Rich in anti-inflammatory Omega-3 fatty acids, they also contain a respectable amount of calcium and vitamin D. If you’re new to the little fish, opt for skinless, boneless sardines — which have a milder flavor — in this quick, easy recipe.
5. Microbiome magic
“A healthy gut goes beyond digesting food to fuel our bodies,” notes Emma Fogt, MBA, MS, RDN, LDN, FAND, who specializes in digestive health. “Our guts host trillions of bacteria in the large intestine which orchestrate mood, our immune systems, weight and even [our response to] stress. Replacing unhealthy fats, processed foods, and sugary sweets in the diet with more whole plant-based foods not only adds more fiber to the diet but contributes to a healthy and diverse gut environment.”
Korean cuisine boasts hundreds of kimchi recipes, and thanks in part to the growing interest in fermented foods and their health benefits, it’s showing up on supermarket shelves (look for refrigerated brands, which have viable probiotics.) Try it in this omelet, which includes mushrooms and scallions, for a fabulous breakfast (or breakfast-for-dinner).
If you forget about yogurt after breakfast time, give it a whirl in this savory sauce. Pair it with Mediterranean or North African fare, try it in wraps, or just swipe it up with warmed whole wheat pita.
Haven’t jumped on the sourdough bandwagon, but like being ahead of the curve on nutrition trends? There’s new incentive to try your hand at bread baking. Postbiotics are generating buzz, and while they’re produced in a healthy gut when probiotics feed off prebiotics, they’re also present in foods like sourdough bread. This step-by-step, photo-illustrated recipe will take you from starter-making to baking your first loaf.
6. Forgo fad diets
Every year or so a new (or repackaged) fad diet promises weight loss, muscle gains, perfect sleep, enhanced immunity, health, and happiness. Some pull basic principles from legitimate science or medical nutrition therapies, but misinterpretations or sketchy hypotheses abound. Many are hard to follow or nutritionally unbalanced, others are potentially dangerous, especially long-term.
As a dietitian in UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital’s ketogenic diet program, Sarika Sewak, MPH, RDN, is uniquely placed to weigh in on the mainstream keto diet trend. She notes that a true ketogenic regimen “is a medical treatment” meant to help control epileptic seizures. The trend diet version isn’t nearly as strict, yet still carries long term health risks, so she recommends people who follow it work with an RD and have bloodwork every 3 months to monitor for cardiac and bone health issues or micronutrient deficiencies. Still, Sewak understands that trendy diets hold appeal, and wants to meet people where they’re at. “I would say no matter what fad diet you’re going to do, the rules stay the same — eat real food, eat more fruits and veggies. You can do ‘keto’ with a cheeseburger with bacon on it. Your intuition knows that’s not a healthy diet. But you can also have a ‘keto’ diet that’s got green vegetables and nuts and seeds — mainly plants.”
These veggie-packed mini-frittatas make a great on-the-go breakfast. Pair with whole grain toast and a piece of fruit if you’re not restricting carbohydrates.
Packaged broccoli florets virtually eliminate the prep in this super-simple recipe that makes it very easy to eat your vegetables.
If you’re on a low-carb diet, it’s essential to opt for healthier fat sources (think olive oil and nuts vs. animal fats). Avocados are rich in monounsaturated fats, which help promote heart health.
7. Supercharge your snacks
“Food is powerful,” says Kanisha Neal, RD, CLEC. Harness that power with smart snacking that’ll help you fill in nutrition gaps, try something new, or take baby steps towards healthier habits.
Roasted chickpeas make a phenomenal snack for kids and adults alike. The protein- and fiber-rich goodies are full of important nutrients, and are great eaten out of hand or added to soups, salads, or wraps.
It’s fun to fancy up your snack presentation sometimes (and it’s a great tactic for enticing picky kiddos to try new things). But you could just as easily toss the ingredients in a bowl and enjoy it salad-style. Either way, this veggie-packed snack is a win.
These stuffed sweet potatoes make a substantial snack. Paired with soup or a salad, they also work as an easy meal when you’re not in the mood to make multiple dishes.
8. Honor heritage foods
Food is so much more than fuel for our physical bodies — what we eat connects us to our families, friends, our own cultures, and those of others. “Every person's heritage, culture, and lifestyle impacts their needs and wants,” notes Manju Karkare, MS, RDN, LDN, CLT, FAND.
So while certain eating patterns — like the traditional Mediterranean diet — get a lot of attention, they’re far from the only ideal. Dig into the research, and you’ll discover that heritage diets from around the world share important, health promoting features, like an emphasis on produce and whole grains, with meats reserved as an accent or for special occasions. In other words, no matter where you’re from, the food of our collective ancestors is worthy, nutritious, and worth exploring.
Dals are a mainstay of Indian cuisine, and a delicious way to add lentils to your diet. This version simmers red lentils with baby spinach and warming spices; the recipe features step-by-step photos to help you prep.
Reviewers rave about these greens, which are braised with aromatic spices and onions. They’ll complement a wide range of dishes, and make a nice change from simple steamed veggies.
This gem of Persian cuisine marries pomegranate concentrate with ground walnuts to make a gorgeously flavorful sauce. Sadaf.com is a good source for pomegranate concentrate if you can’t find it locally.
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