Health & Wellness | Nutrition

Expert Advice For Improving Your Diet

Tips from the pros on how to shop, eat and digest food better


Rhode Island is chockfull of dietary professionals, from registered dietitians to board-certified health coaches, willing to dish out their best in nutrition information. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to healthy eating, but everyone can benefit from these core principles.

Eat The Rainbow
Vegetables are often the missing link in an average American’s diet, but their inclusion alone can pave the way for some serious health improvements, including lowered cholesterol and blood pressure, improved digestion and weight loss. “Fruits and veggies provide both soluble and insoluble fiber, which slow the rate of digestion so individuals feel satiated (i.e. fuller) for longer periods of time,” states Board Certified Health Coach Jeannette Bessinger ( In fact, vegetables should comprise about half of your plate, the more variety the better. Adults 19 years and older should consume at least 1.5 to 2 cups of dark leafy greens per week, which are full of vitamins A, C and K, folate, iron and calcium, in addition to 5.5 to 6 cups of bright orange and yellow fruits and vegetables that are rich in flavonoids, lycopene, potassium and beta-carotene.

Get Friendly With Healthy Bacteria
In addition to steaming, broiling, roasting and sautéing, fermenting vegetables can unleash their powerful role in digestive health. Traditional Foods Chef Rachael McCaskill ( recommends a small portion of fermented foods – roughly two to three tablespoons – with every meal. Lactofermentation, a preservation method involving raw vegetables, water and salt, imbues foods with beneficial bacteria that aid in the digestion and absorption of fats and proteins.

Focus on Quality
Eat a diet made from high quality plant and animal foods as close to their natural state as possible. “Optimal food choices are local, seasonal and organic. When buying animal products, aim for wild-caught fish, pasture-raised poultry (including eggs) and grass-fed meats,” offers Jeannette.

Not only does buying local support our economy, shorter transit times maintain the food’s delicate nutritional profile, as well. “When food is transported over long distances, the produce lacks the same nutrition and flavor as if it were locally picked due to the process of respiration. When vegetables are harvested from their vines, respiration breaks down their stored organic materials so produce can breathe on their own,” says Corey Confreda of Confreda Greenhouses and Farms ( Plus, grass-fed beef contains up to five times more heart healthy omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, which helps raise good (HDL) cholesterol, while pasture-raised poultry is guaranteed to be antibiotic- and hormone-free.

Chew More
And even more. The mouth is responsible for two crucial components of digestion: mastication and enzyme release. “Vegetables and grains have cellulose-based casings that encapsulate the oils and micronutrients at their core,” states Jeannette. These delicate nutrients are not fully absorbed unless their fibrous walls are broken, and require more than the average American’s five to seven chews per bite: think 30 times.

Understand Portion Sizes
Although portion needs are unique to each individual, Nutrition Consultant Susanna Post ( and Registered Dietitian Jennifer Arts use household items to gauge standard food measurements and make serving sizes more applicable.

  • 1 cup of vegetables = baseball
  • 1/2 cup of pasta = light bulb or tennis ball
  • 2 tablespoons = golf ball
  • 1 tablespoon = poker chip
  • 1 slice of bread = cassette tape
  • 3 oz of chicken or meat = deck of cards
  • 3 oz fish = checkbook
  • 1 ½ oz of cheese = 3 dice or a tube of lipstick
  • 1 serving of fat = 1 thumb for women and 2 for men

Debunk Package Claims
Or better yet, ditch them completely. “It’s safest to ignore package claims and go straight to the ingredients list on food labels,” states dietetic intern and University of Rhode Island graduate Kelly Presbrey. Why? Package claims are largely unregulated and often misleading, while Nutritional Facts panels are always regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

“Jump down to the ingredient list where items are listed in order of their quantity, from greatest to least. If it’s a whole grain, whole grain will be the first ingredient,” states Kelly.

When scoping out ingredients, be mindful of names you don’t recognize. “There are many words used to mask ingredients that are actually sugar or added fat,” notes Susanna. Even worse, “low-fat food can be extremely high in sugar,” states Jennifer. Corn sweetener, malt syrup, cane juice, dextrin, maltodextrin, diatase and any ingredient ending in “ose” signify adds sugars. Any mention of “hydrogenated” or “partially-hydrogenated” oil implies the presence of trans fats, and individuals should avoid such products regardless of the package’s claims.

Know Your Cravings
“There is no proof that cravings signify nutrient deficiencies in the normal population,” says Kelly. Instead, “cravings mostly sprout from habits.”

“Allow yourself to detoxify from sugars, grains and starchy foods and pay attention to what your body is asking for,” suggests Rachael, like confusing thirst with hunger. Be mindful of internal and external triggers, including memories, sights and smells and understand the difference between hunger (the physiological need to find and eat food) and appetite (the desire to eat regardless of bodily needs).

When cravings do arise, however, understand that they are only temporary. “The acute phase of most cravings lasts for ten minutes, and nearly all cravings will resolve on their own within an hour if you don’t act on them,” says Jeannette. And, if you do indulge, do so moderately. “One small indulgence – a few bites of cake rather than a whole slice – will never derail a diet, but it’s important to not let it be the start of a junk food streak,” offers Jennifer.

Shop Smarter
“For the highest quality, start at your local farmers’ markets or even join a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) through Farm Fresh Rhode Island,” Jeannette suggests. Even better, “buy a whole animal to split with a family,” like Rachael does. Not only is whole animal eating more sustainable, a snout-to-tail approach offers more variety from nutrient-dense organ meats and bone broth that are typically lacking in modern diets.

And, when a trip to the grocery store ensues, understand that not everything needs to be organic. “Use the ‘Clean 15’ and 'Dirty Dozen' list to make your choices,” advises Susanna, and stick to the store’s perimeters where the healthiest choices are located.

Cook and Plan and Plan and Cook
Cooking is, by consensus, the best way to improve one’s nutritional state. “Plan your weekly menu around sales,” says Jennifer, “and then batch cook larger proteins, a pot of grains or beans and a big base salad for the week,” Jeanette agrees. Imagine batches of simple basics that take on bold flavors throughout the week. “Roast chicken and beans on Sunday for miso chicken soup on Monday, curried chicken salad on Tuesday and even bean burgers on Wednesday,” Jeanette recommends.

Eat Mindfully and Slowly
Studies show that mindful eating is associated with a more healthy body weight, and our Registered Dietitian agrees. “Rely on your internal cues to allow hunger to ensue naturally and, when it does, limit distractions that may cause you to unintentionally overeat,” says Jennifer. This means cell phones, televisions and even wandering thoughts.

Ditch the Restaurant Mentality
Although cooking at home ensures a healthier plate, dining out doesn’t have to be a foodie free-for-all. “Ask for grilled instead of fried, and substitute potatoes and starches with a side of veggies,” offers Susanna. Save calories by requesting salad dressing on the side or, better yet, avoid common condiment additives, including soybean oil, high-fructose corn syrup and xanthan gum, by requesting oil and vinegar instead. And, when it comes to restaurant-sized portions, don’t feel pressured to wipe your plate clean. “Ask for a to-go box and immediately pack half for the next day,” offers Kelly.

Do What Works For You
Eating is a dynamic and bio-individual concept and it’s almost impossible to craft the perfect diet for everyone. “Your eating needs change at different ages, different times of the year and even different times of the day,” Jeannette reminds us. The best thing anyone can do is to listen to their internal cues, which may need a bit of “reset” before they can be trusted. “Proper nutrition is a major form of health investing,” Susanna states, and the more energy one puts into creating a healthy lifestyle, the easier it will be to stick to his or her unique food needs.

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