What does a dietitian – nutritionist eat? The truth.

“so what do you eat?”

I get asked this question as a dietitian often enough that I figured I would write out the answer. But I want to start out by saying that as real humans, we have different bodies, needs, preferences, beliefs and values about food. So consider this more of a post to satisfy curiosity than any recommendation.

And not to sound like a broken record (but this is important) this is not a prescription or a recommendation. This is a description. This is just what I eat.

The good news of nutrition is there are lots of ways to eat healthy. So while this is how I eat, (and I consider it healthy) it will not be the right solution for everyone. You might have different dietary needs due to a medical condition, or a family member’s medical condition. You might have different dietary preferences – or a different lifestyle that make these choices impractical. That’s ok.

That’s the beauty of Nutrition for Real Humans, and that’s why I work with each client to design a plan that will make healthy eating work for them.

Now, onto what you clicked on this title for: What does a dietitian eat? (Or more accurately, what does this dietitian eat?)

I thought about it and wrote down some patterns that I tend to follow when I’m deciding what to eat. I don’t really have strict rules; in the words of Captain Barbosa:

A fruit or vegetable with each meal.

At least one, sometimes more. This could look like a banana with breakfast, eating a carrot alongside my sandwich, or adding a bunch of vegetables to the soup I’ve made for dinner.

Benefits of fruits and vegetables

  • High water content (good for hydration)
  • Generally high in fiber
  • Source of a wide variety of vitamins and minerals, including vitamin C
  • Source of phytonutrients and antioxidants that we don’t even fully comprehend the benefits of yet
  • Often add beautiful color, flavor, and texture to the meal!

Most grains whole grains.

I try to make whole grains the default grain that I eat. If I make rice, it’s brown rice. When I make bread or muffins or waffles, I make sure at least half the flour I use (if not more) is whole wheat flour. When I buy grain products (tortillas, cereals, pasta), I usually choose products where the first ingredient listed is whole grain or whole wheat.

Benefits of whole grains

  • Higher fiber content (more filling, digest more slowly)
  • Slightly higher protein content
  • Naturally contain more vitamins and minerals than refined grains (although most products made with refined grains have vitamins and minerals added back to make up for this loss)

This doesn’t mean I don’t eat refined grains. When I bake, usually at least part of the recipe is made with white flour because the texture is better, and if I’m making a dessert, I just use white flour.

It’s hard to pass up a good sourdough if it’s white bread, and our favorite instant mac and cheese is made with white pasta.

Protein source with each meal.

Benefits of protein with each meal

  • Personally, I feel full longer and have better energy between meals if I eat some protein.
  • Helps ensure I get enough protein during the day.
  • Spreading protein through the day has been shown to be helpful in building and maintaining muscle mass
  • Many foods that are sources of protein are also important sources of other essential nutrients, like iron, calcium, or B-vitamins.

Vary sources of protein, and include plant-based proteins frequently.

Learn more about protein , and specifically plant-based protein

Benefits of varying protein

  • Gain the different benefits of different types of protein (e.g. omega-3 fatty acids in fish)
  • Spreads out the drawbacks of different types of protein (e.g. high sodium content of cheese)
  • Keep it interesting
  • Eating more plant proteins generally reduces cost of meals and environmental impact

Keep nutrient-dense snacks around.

So when I’m hungry between meals I have something available to eat that will help provide me with more nutrients and energy as well as satisfy my hunger.

Learn more about what I think about snacks.

Some snacks that I like to have around:

  • Roasted salted almonds
  • Roasted salted mixed nuts
  • Yogurt
  • Dark chocolate
  • Cheese
  • Apples
  • Grapes
  • Hummus
  • Carrots
  • Popcorn
  • Mandarin oranges/tangerines
  • Whole grain muffins
  • Dried fruit
  • Lara Bars (snack bar made with dried fruit and nuts)
  • Cottage cheese
  • Sugar snap peas
  • Peanut butter
  • Seaweed snacks

I don’t always have all of these around, but these are examples of what might be laying around our house.

Use healthy fats when cooking

I embrace fats in general when cooking, especially olive oil, avocado, nuts, seeds, to help make a meal more satisfying and tasty. I also really like dairy fats: cheese, butter, full fat yogurt. There is evidence showing that intake of fats from dairy, especially from yogurt and cheese is not associated with increased heart disease or diabetes risk or death. We also personally don’t have any health conditions that would make it especially risky for us to eat saturated fat.

Benefits of fats

  • Take longer to digest, and help promote satiety (satisfaction)
  • Help your body absorb certain vitamins
  • Important carriers of flavor

Drink mostly water, milk, coffee and tea (unsweetened or lightly sweetened)

These are the drinks I have at home. It doesn’t mean we never have soda or juice or alcohol, but we mostly only buy these if we are hosting guests, or if we are out to dinner or as a special treat

(No pictures because I don’t often take pictures of just glasses of water or milk haha).

Mostly cook and eat at home

This is mainly because of how I grew up and how I ate when I was first on my own and didn’t have lots of money. But it also lets me be in charge of what’s in my food.

Probably more sweets than you expect

We both have sweet tooths (sweet teeth?). We probably have dessert at least half of the nights of the week (more if I’ve baked something). This could be ice cream, a handful of chocolate chips, kettlecorn, or a microwave brownie.

This is one thing that I am tempted to feel guilty about. But most of the time I don’t, and my husband really helps me be a balanced, reasonable human here. Dessert is something we both enjoy (and often a way to share celebration or just spend time with other people), and the way we eat it does not cause us health problems.

Benefits of sweets/desserts

  • Delicious
  • Often a way to spend time with people
  • I like baking
  • Sometimes an opportunity to get extra nutrients in: dark chocolate contains iron, kettlecorn is a whole grain, milk-based desserts contain calcium, fruit-based desserts provide extra fruit! Don’t think something is immediately of no value just because it has sugar!

Just in cased you missed that excellent GIF in the beginning, these are general descriptions of what I eat. I don’t follow them like strict rules. Sometimes I just don’t have a vegetable or fruit with a meal, or don’t have a protein with a meal. And again, this is not THE RIGHT way to eat. There is no one right way.

If you really want to know what I eat, just follow @nutritionforrealhumans on Instagram, or Facebook. That’s where all of these pictures are from 🙂

If you feel you must take a recommendation away from this post:

Make most of your guidelines and nutrition goals positive or additive

Notice, that most of these guidelines are things I DO, not things I don’t.

There is some evidence that adding foods, or having positive goals (vs. don’t eat that or eat less this) are easier to maintain. Positive goals are awesome. You get to feel accomplished when you do them!

What small thing can you start doing?

How to Lentils: Low-effort & low-cost plant protein

Before I tell you how I cook lentils, if you need reasons why you should eat lentils, here’s a list:

  1. Really nutritious*
  2. Really cheap
  3. As they are usually sold canned or dry, they keep for a long time
  4. Pretty environmentally friendly*
  5. Pretty easy to cook (and faster than beans)

*Read til after the recipe if you want more of an explanation for this list.

The super easy method to cook lentils:

Buy canned lentils and season them with whatever sauce or seasoning you like. Warm them up or eat them cold. Done. Easy.

The slightly more work but still pretty easy way to cook lentils is:

  1. Measure out the dry lentils you want to cook. They don’t expand that much pasta or beans do, so don’t worry about that.
  2. Give em a good rinse. They don’t need to soak like beans do, although it won’t hurt them if you do. I like to put them in a colander and run water through.
  3. While you’re rinsing, take out any small rocks you find. I haven’t found rocks often, but a few times I have found them with my teeth :/
  4. Find a pot that will fit the lentils you have measured, plus twice that amount of water (so 2 cups of water for 1 cup lentils) and a little extra. It will help if it has a lid that fits.
  5. Put the lentils and water in that pot along with a little salt.
  6. Put the pot on a stove burner or hotplate and cover with a lid.
  7. Turn the stove or hotplate to high heat and wait until the lentils are boiling. Once they are boiling, turn the stove down to low (keep the lid on).
  8. Let it continue to cook on low until most of the water is absorbed or until they are the softness you like (anywhere from 15-45 minutes.) Drain any extra water out.
  9. Taste, add more salt and other seasonings as needed.

Done.

To add more flavor, use broth instead of water, add other spices with the salt. Or, before putting the lentils in the pot, cook some onions, garlic, spices, or other aromatic veggies in some oil, then add the lentils.

in case you prefer a video

If you’ve tried lentils before and were put off by the mushy texture, I suggest trying French lentils, as they tend to hold their shape better. Eating them in a salad vs. by themselves or as a soup may also help them be more appealing. Here’s a great French lentil salad recipe from Once Upon a Chef.

Cookie and Kate has a great and very detailed guide if you want specific cooking times for specific kinds of lentils.

The good nutrition news about lentils:

1 cup of cooked lentils has:

  • 17.9g of protein! About the same as 1 and 1/2 eggs! (Just make sure you also eat a whole grain to get all your amino acids in. If you want to learn more, read this)
  • over 6mg of iron, which is 33-75% of your recommended daily intake, depending on your needs
  • Over 15g of fiber, which is 40-60% of your recommended daily intake!
  • over 350 micrograms of folate, which is about 90% of your recommended daily intake!

Generally, plant-foods use fewer resources, including water and energy, than animal foods. This is also true for lentils. Lentils also have the added bonus of being nitrogen-fixing, which means that if farmers use lentils as part of crop rotation, less fertilizer is required. (Source)

Of course, there are a lot of great lentil recipes out there from around the world! Do you have any favorites?

Plant-Based Protein (Protein for vegans, vegetarians, or just people who like to eat a lot of plants)

If you don’t eat meat, but do eat dairy products and/or eggs, know that dairy products and eggs are also very good sources of protein. However, you likely will also get some of your protein from plant-sources, so read on.

If you eat no animal products, you will obviously need to gain your protein from plant-based protein sources like beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds. There is a longer list of plant-based proteins (and also non-meat but animal-derived proteins) here.

Protein foods from animal sources (meats, fish, eggs, dairy products, etc.) have all the types of amino acids (protein components) we need. Most protein foods from plant sources have most but not all of the types of amino acids we need. (Learn more about amino acids here).

However, the amino acids missing from one plant food can be filled in by eating a plant food that does have those amino acids. If you are eating a variety of plant-foods you will get enough variety of amino acids to fill your needs. That’s why it is so important as a vegan, or someone who doesn’t eat many animal products to make sure you are eating your protein foods and also whole grains and vegetables.

Whole grains and vegetables have a small amount of protein that will help you meet your protein needs, both the amount and types of amino acids you need. You don’t need to keep track of which amino acids you are eating, just make sure you are eating a variety of plant-proteins, whole grains, and vegetables. This also helps makes sure you get enough of other nutrients, like calcium and iron, that are less abundant in plant foods than animal foods.

As far as the amount of plant-based protein you need to eat, the amounts of protein to eat are the same, (read this post about how much protein to eat) but the volume may be higher. This is because the plant foods that provide protein also contain more carbohydrates, fiber, and water than most animal proteins.

For example, to get the same amount of protein as 1 oz of meat, you would need to eat about 1/2 cup cooked beans, 1/2 cup cooked lentils, 1/4 cup nuts, or about 2 oz tofu. The protein needs are the same, but the physical portion size is larger. However, along with the protein, you will usually be getting carbohydrates, protein, water, and other nutrients.

In addition, some of the nutrients that are a concern for eating too many animal proteins (like saturated fat and sodium) are naturally low in plant-based protein, so you rarely need to worry about eating too much plant-based protein. The exception would be meat substitutes, or other substitute products, which are often high in sodium or less healthy fats- always check the package.

The main takeaway: your protein needs are the same regardless of where your protein comes from, but if you eat only plants make sure you are eating a variety of plant-proteins, whole grains, and vegetables.

If you want more ideas for plant-based meals and recipes, check out Marisa Moore, RDN, a fellow dietitian who posts mostly vegetarian (and often vegan) recipes or Kate of Cookie and Kate, a resource I have used many times for plant-based recipes. I also have a NEW vegan/vegetarian meal plan you can purchase as an instant download here.

There are many many great resources out there, these are just a few I’ve been enjoying lately.

I also often post plant-based meal and snack ideas on my instagram @nutritionforrealhumans – feel free to follow 🙂

What other questions do you have about plant-based proteins? Or a plant-based diet? Or protein in general?

How much protein should you eat?

Read about which foods are considered protein foods here. Read about protein and amino acids here.

As always, this post is meant to be informative and educational and is not a prescription or recommendation for you as I cannot know your individual situation and needs. If you have concerns about your protein intake and want a specific recommendation, speak with a dietitian!

My goal in writing these blogs is to give you practical, easy to understand, not overwhelming nutrition information. Breaking down how to eat protein has been more difficult than I expected because there are so many different opinions about what the best amount of protein to eat is.

While this can be confusing and overwhelming, my takeaway for you is this: there is a wide range of protein intake that can be healthy. The amount of protein you eat can be flexible and for the most part can be adjusted to your preferences. (It is harder to get it wrong than a lot of people would like you to think it is.)

Two fast and easy ways to know how much protein to eat:

MyPlate is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recommended eating pattern. It isn’t perfect, but if about 1/4 of what you eat is protein food, you will most likely get enough protein – pretty easy to visualize if most of your meals are eaten on a plate.

If you only eat plant protein (vegans, and maybe some vegetarians), this still applies, but it is especially important for you to make sure you eat plenty of whole grains and vegetables as well. Keep reading here, but check out this post next.

Another super quick and easy method is to aim for about a palm-sized serving of protein foods with each meal. I like this method because it scales to the size of each person. A large person (who will need more protein) generally has a larger hand size. A tiny toddler (who needs less protein) has a tiny palm.

Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

These two illustrations are also helpful because there is some research showing that eating your protein throughout the day (with each meal) is more beneficial than eating it all at once. (As your body uses protein throughout the day for many many purposes)

Now, as I said above, the amount of protein in a healthy diet can be very flexible, so you can eat more protein than this and totally still be healthy, as long as you aren’t excluding other necessary foods.

Do you like to do math and want to calculate the amount of protein you need? This section is for you.

(If you don’t like math, just skip to the next section 🙂 )

The minimum amount of protein required to prevent loss of lean body mass (muscle) in adults with no physical activity is generally calculated by dietitians as 0.8 grams of protein for every kilogram of body weight. (0.8g protein x kg of body weight). Factoring in a minimal amount of physical activity raises needs to about 1 gram per kilogram of body weight. In case you don’t feel like converting kilos to pounds, this works out to about 0.45g of protein per pound of body weight. If someone is critically ill, more active, or pregnant, this amount could increase, up to 2.0g/kg.

In terms of actual food, 1g per kg works out to about 1 oz of “meat equivalents” per 15 lbs of body weight. This is a rough estimate best suited to finding the base amount of protein you should eat. If you are concerned about your protein intake, or have questions, consult a dietitian! (I know I said it before – but it’s important! Also that’s what dietitians are here for!)

1 oz “meat equivalent = 1 oz meat, poultry or fish – about matchbox-sized
About 7g protein=1 egg
1 8-oz glass of cow milk or soy milk*
1 oz cheese – about thumb sized
1/2 cup beans or lentils
1/4 cup or 1 oz nuts or seeds
2 Tbsp peanut butter or other nut butter
1/4 cup Greek yogurt or 1 cup regular yogurt (check the label)
2 oz tofu
*almond milk, rice milk, and other alternative milks generally have less protein, check the label.

Whole grains and vegetables also contribute a small amount of protein (2-3g per serving)

There are some people who believe that everyone should eat more than this amount, and there are studies showing benefits of higher protein intake – such as improved muscle maintenance and function in older adults (1-1.2 g per kg body weight), improved satiety, and improved blood glucose control, among other things. Most people can eat up to 2g protein per kilogram of body weight without problems (those with chronic kidney disease would be an exception).

For some perspective, The Institute of Medicine recommends 10-35% of calories come from protein. For a 2000 calorie diet (which is the one used to calculate Nutrition Facts on labels), that is between 50 and 175 g of protein, or between 7 and 25 1-oz “meat equivalents”. Quite a large window. If 10-35% of your calories come from protein foods and you are above the 1g per kg minimum, you will probably be fine. Of course, (yes I’m going to say it again) if you have concerns, speak with a registered dietitian.

Question time!

What happens if you don’t eat enough protein?

Too little protein intake results in a loss of lean body mass (muscle) because your body will break down the protein it is already carrying (muscle) to maintain its function. That’s why it is important that you are eating at least the minimum that your body needs. See this post for more information about how protein is used in your body.

Can you eat too much protein?

Yes. But if you don’t have a specific condition that would make it directly harmful, harm from eating too much protein is much more likely to be from two other causes:

1. Not eating enough from other food groups, like fruits, vegetables, and grains because of eating so much protein. This might mean missing out on important nutrients like vitamin C or fiber that come from those other food groups. This is especially likely when eating only animal protein foods.

2. Getting too much of the other nutrients that are often present in protein-rich foods. For example, cheese is high in saturated fat and sodium, which can be harmful for blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Many processed meats are very high in sodium and saturated fat as well. Again, this is more likely to be a concern with animal protein foods.

Extremely high protein intake can be harmful to the kidneys, however this is usually only in extremely high intake (like more than 2.0g/kg) over a long period of time. If you are getting most of your protein from foods, incorporating your other food groups, not taking excessive protein supplements, and don’t have any medical conditions, you are unlikely to be harmed by eating too much protein. Again, if you are concerned that you may be eating too much protein, consult a dietitian.

If you eat a lot of protein, will it make your muscles grow automatically?. No

If you aren’t exercising (or growing, or using steroids) to stimulate muscle growth, that extra protein will just be used for energy or stored as fat. See this post if you want more information about how this works.

Can you eat as much protein as you want without gaining weight? No

If you eat more protein than your body needs for its building and energy needs, it will still be converted to fat, just like any other food. See this post if you have more questions.

However, diets that allow unlimited protein (and limit carbohydrates or fats) have been shown to be helpful for weight loss. So why is this?

Protein tends to be more satisfying than carbohydrates or fats, so the thought is that eating more protein than other food groups makes you “full” faster and so limits the total amount you end up eating, resulting in weight loss.

So protein isn’t a magical weight loss food. But if it helps you eat less and still be satisfied, then it may help you lose weight (and as long as you are getting all the other nutrients you need, that’s fine).

What if I don’t eat meat? What about plant-based proteins?

Plant-based protein post coming next week! (I tried to fit it all in one post but it was too long!)

What other questions do you have about protein? Leave me a comment!

Resources if you would like to learn more:

What is protein?

Plate full of protein foods: tofu, beans, nuts, shrimp, chicken, eggs

When dietitians speak about eating protein, or “proteins”, they usually mean eating foods like these, that have a lot of protein in them.

Image used with permission by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

But what is protein actually? Proteins are large and complex molecules made out of different combinations of amino acids. Amino acids are like the LEGO blocks that make up proteins.

Amino acids combine in nearly endless ways to create nearly endless different types of protein. These proteins are the building blocks that make up animals, plants, bacteria, viruses, and humans.

Amino Acids

Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

Proteins

When we eat foods with protein, our bodies take apart the protein into the amino acids it’s made from (like you might take apart a LEGO structure) and use those amino acids to build new proteins in our bodies that become hair, skin, muscle, hormones, mitochondria, etc.

Our bodies use 20 different amino acids to build the proteins it needs. Nine of these amino acids we must get from the food we eat. The other eleven our bodies can manufacture, but we can also get them from food.

That’s why its so important to eat enough foods with protein in them, so our body has all the materials it needs to grow, maintain bones and muscles, make hormones and neurotransmitters, and heal itself, among many many other things.

Our bodies can also burn protein for energy. If we have enough protein for our building needs, our bodies take the extra protein and either burn it for energy or, if it already has enough energy, will store it as fat for future energy.

On the other hand, if we are not eating enough to meet our energy needs, (and especially if we are also not eating enough protein) our bodies will begin to break down the protein in our muscles to use for energy. Of course, it will also begin to break down stored fat, but most weight loss involves some muscle loss.

Now you know what protein is, but how should you eat it? How much should you eat? What are “lean” proteins? What are plant-based proteins?

Check back next week for the answers! Do you have other questions about protein? Leave it in the comments and I’ll try and incorporate it into next week’s post.

(Sorry, this wasn’t an intentional cliff hanger, it just seemed better to break it up rather than doing a super long post!)

If you want to see a list of foods that have protein, click here.

Need protein? Here’s a list of foods that provide a good amount of protein

This post is a list of foods that provide protein. This list is for you if:

  • you’re not sure which foods have protein,
  • you are tired of the protein foods you are eating and want to find different ones,
  • you’re looking to add more protein to your diet and need ideas

Keep reading to find some new protein foods to try!

Poultry

  • Chicken breast
  • Chicken thighs
  • Chicken drumstick
  • Chicken wings
  • Chopped or shredded chicken
  • Ground chicken
  • Canned chicken
  • Chicken feet
  • Turkey, white and dark meat
  • Shredded or chopped turkey
  • Sliced deli turkey
  • Ground turkey
  • Turkey jerky
  • Turkey bacon
  • Duck
  • Pheasant
  • Liver and organ meats (pretty much any kind)

Eggs and Dairy

  • Eggs
  • Milk
  • Soy milk
  • Goat milk
  • Sheep milk
  • Cheese (pretty much any kind except cream cheese)
  • Cottage cheese
  • Goat cheese
  • Sheep cheese
  • Yogurt
  • Kefir

Beans/Lentils/Pulses

  • Black beans
  • Pinto beans
  • Kidney beans
  • Lentils
  • French lentils
  • Split peas
  • White beans
  • Lima beans
  • Garbanzo beans/chickpeas
  • Hummus
  • Tofu
  • Tempeh

Meat

  • Pork chops
  • Pork loin
  • Pork shoulder
  • Ground pork
  • Ham
  • Bacon
  • Canadian bacon
  • Sausage
  • Bologna
  • Salami
  • Ground beef
  • Roast beef
  • Corned beef
  • Hot dog
  • Hamburger
  • Steak
  • Beef roast
  • Beef jerky
  • Bison
  • Elk
  • Venison
  • Lamb
  • Mutton

Various Plant Proteins

  • Almonds
  • Walnuts
  • Peanuts
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Cashews
  • Pistachios
  • Pecans
  • Nut butters
  • Soy milk
  • Quinoa (at least 1 cup)
  • Seitan
  • Meat substitutes like veggie burgers or vegetarian sausage (always check the label for protein content)
  • Edamame
  • Sprouted peas
  • Green peas (1 cup)
  • Grilled Portobello mushroom (1 cup)

A word about protein powders: Many people find protein powders helpful, however I haven’t included them separately because most of them are made from one of the foods listed above like milk, eggs, soy, or peas.

These foods, in a typical serving size, provide at least 10% of the recommended daily amount of protein (%DV). Note that many of them provide much more than 10% and that the the %DV is based on a very general figure. This post does not give serving sizes or recommend amounts of protein to eat. Protein needs vary widely, and there is a wide amount of protein intake that can be healthy! If you have questions about how much protein you need, speak with a registered dietitian or your doctor!