Gut Check: Leading a Healthy Lifestyle
Could stress and environmental factors be derailing our desire to lead a healthy life? On this episode, we invite Sheri Stinson, registered dietician, to discuss societal influences on our health and how nutritional needs ebb and flow based on outside stressors we face on a day-to-day basis. She also explores common errors made when setting weight loss goals, dieting fads, tips for success and how a healthy diet is only part of the puzzle when constructing a healthy lifestyle.
Scott Sturgeon: Welcome to another episode of Your Life, Simplified. I’m Scott Sturgeon, and on today’s episode, we’re going to be taking an interesting kind of conversation about not only where we are from a societal perspective, but how does that directly influence our health? And I think on top of that, how does our diet, our lifestyle and our nutritional needs ebb and flow and change with outside stressors that we’re experiencing, or what’s going on in the world around us. How does that impact your diet and that sort of thing? So, our guest today to help us unpack this — I’m excited to have her on — is Sheri Stinson. Sheri’s a registered dietician. Sheri, I think probably the best way to start would be maybe, if you wouldn’t mind, just giving a brief introduction about yourself and your background.
Sheri Stinson: Thank you for having me. Well, guess I will start with my career. I started off at the University of Oklahoma, not really knowing much about nutrition. Took my first nutrition class and was like, “Oh, so there’s actually a profession that you learn the science of nutrition, and you can help people and work in hospitals.” Thirty years ago, that really wasn’t front-and-center like in today’s world. A lot of college-aged kids are wanting to be a PA or they’re wanting to study nutrition. And it’s just amazing that everywhere I look, people come up to me and say, “Well, how do I get into it?” But I would go back to myself. After graduating from the University of Oklahoma, I attended Massachusetts General, a Harvard teaching hospital, and did an internship for a year. And that allowed me to be eligible to take the national boards to become a registered dietician. My career, I have worked in the food service industry. I’ve worked as a clinical dietician. I’ve also worked in long-term care as a consulting dietician. And recently, I’ve been involved with sports nutrition and children’s weight maintenance. I’ve also helped with professional ballet dancers.
Scott: So, the full spectrum of individuals and stages of life. That’s really cool. Do you think in dealing with those different patient populations or individuals, how do you think that’s influenced your views on nutrition and diets and that sort of thing?
Sheri: I sometimes think people know more than they do now. And when you sit down and talk to them and start peeling back the layers, it’s really giving them the tools and the education that they need to make smarter choices in their daily lives. In fact, some of the changes that you’re recommending to the individual, based on sports or based on weight maintenance, they’re pretty simple things that people could start doing in their diets.
Scott: That makes total sense. That’s a good segue. So, in your experience over several years, just in general, what do you think are some of the most common errors you see people making when it comes to their overall health and nutrition?
Sheri: I think one of the most prominent and biggest errors I experience is people set unrealistic goals. They want to lose say 40 pounds, but they have a two-month window for whatever reason — they’re going to a wedding, they’re going to a high school reunion. Basically, that is not a realistic goal. Two months is really not going to get someone that great of a weight loss. It’s very unhealthy. So, people usually tend to start off on a good trajectory with eating right and exercising, but when they’re not seeing those rapid changes, they start to falter. Next thing you know, they’re back to the way they were and maybe what weight they did lose, they’ve starting to gain it all back, and some more. The other things I’m seeing are people are wanting the latest and the greatest. And they’re just jumping on the bandwagon to say the newest, greatest diet, not really knowing the science behind it and down the road, for example the high fat, low carb diet, we’re finding that we’ve changed our cardio laboratory values. Instead of being on a good trajectory of our cholesterol and our HDL — good cholesterol and bad cholesterol — those numbers are actually flipping and they’re setting themselves up for future risks for heart disease.
Scott: Wow. I think at the end of the day, it seems like as opposed to necessarily following a certain trend or whatever the diet of the day is, it’s much more of a lifestyle approach. Would that be accurate? I mean, those you find success in changing things in their life. It’s an overall change to really just how they live their life.
Sheri: Exactly. A lifestyle change, meaning when you make the lifestyle change, you’re learning all the tools, you’re educating yourself, and it’s an easier thing to own. There are no restrictions. There are no cravings. Because you’re learning if I eat this, then this will happen. If I eat this thing that maybe isn’t the greatest, “Hey, you know what, tomorrow’s a new day and I’m back to the same pattern of eating.” I’m allowing for myself to recognize I have those cravings, maybe succumb to them, but know that it’s not the end all be all, and I haven’t ruined everything I’m working towards. You should be looking at what is your future longevity versus a number on a scale or appearance. Those are great things to have, but at the end of the day, what’s going to get you into longer life where you’re healthy and vibrant and not having major illnesses or chronic diseases that are debilitating.
Scott: Certainly, I have to imagine harder to do than you might think, but that has to be the value. I think one of the huge value-adds of working with a dietician is just, in general, is tracking that over time again, with keeping that end goal in mind. Is that probably accurate?
Sheri: Yes. When my children were growing up, they would always ask me questions, and I never talked about weight. I have daughters, so I was always very cautious of not setting up that whole vicious cycle of eating and potentially eating disorders and disordered eating. So, I’d always bring it back to what you eat today will predict how long the body that you are given will last and how healthy. Similar to a car. If you had a very nice sports performance car, you’re not going to put in the wrong type of fuel. You’re not going to put in the most economic oil, and you’re going to maintain it because you want that sports car to maintain its value and its performance. Just like your body, what you put in your body is basically what you’re going to get out in regard to energy and everything.
Scott: That makes total sense. To switch gears just a little bit, one of the things I wanted to make sure we touched on was obviously we’re in a weird time. I think right now in our society’s history, it’s been many, many decades since we’ve had a pandemic situation like we’re dealing with right now. I think there’s a lot of discussion, not only on obviously the health concerns that people have in potentially contracting the virus, but also just about the mental toll and then maybe like a physical challenge of being stuck at home, or eating at home a lot more than we used to. And so maybe the challenges that kind of come with that. So, what do you think are some best practices you’ve maybe witnessed or experienced or suggest that people be considerate of as we navigate this time?
Sheri: You know, staying healthy and making sure we have a robust immune system in this day and age is critical, and there are many ways. When you eat at home, basically, you’re going to be more cautious of your food choices. So, ways to avoid that would be to have things in your home from the grocery store. And once you get them home, pre prep your food so that it’s readily available. Say you need vegetables. On Sunday, you cut the vegetables and put them in the freezer. Then they’re ready to go to throw into whatever you’re making. You can do the same thing with protein. You can cook meat and dried beans ahead of time, and then individually portion them and put them in the refrigerator. And then you have those ready at hand, just to toss in.
You can buy convenience items like canned beans. You can do frozen vegetables. They’re just as nutritious as fresh. You can also get groceries for convenience, for example, pre-cut vegetables, butternut squash. Those are all things that help you to put together a meal that is more nutritionally sound and meets your needs for nutrients that your body needs during this time of watching our immune system and making sure we have everything we need to help fight off a virus or the flu.
If you’re making, say stir fry or chili, you could double your recipe and then take some of that and freeze it and have it for later. It’s interesting. I take for granted because of my background, we learned to cook, you learn the principles of food. A lot of people don’t know how to cook. They’re not comfortable. You can ask for help. Look into getting some instructions. And there are studies that say that the more instructions that a person has, they’re more confident in their food preparation. Therefore, they’re making better choices and they’re eating better. And one study I read, which is really interesting, if you have children that are involved in meal preparation, they ate one more serving of vegetables and fruits compared to children that never helped. They become more aware of the foods in their environment. It’s a good learning tool to know about the different fruits and different vegetables and what they taste like. I do know there’s an organization here. It’s a nonprofit, Little Gardens. When you watch their promotional videos, you see children are growing vegetables in a garden and then they go inside, and they cook the vegetables that they’ve never tasted, and they’re so proud and it just inspires them to want more and to want to learn more about healthy food choices.
Scott: That’s really cool. And obviously a better understanding of what the things they’re putting into their body, which is so important. I’ll show my ignorance here in putting together a meal plan or preparing for meals in general. My wife and I, for example, have found there’s really good blogs on the internet that have healthy options for a lot of maybe the classic dishes that you’re familiar with, which I feel like has been good for us. But in general, if you’re just an individual trying to put together a meal for a family, or for yourself or what have you, you hear the term balanced diet or the phrase balanced diet mentioned a lot, but what does that actually mean? Are there certain goals that we’re looking for, whether it’s a portion of carbs and fiber and protein? Is there a breakdown or a rule on that? Any kind of best practices you have?
Sheri: The U.S. dietary guidelines right now recommend eating a healthy pattern of combining healthy choices that’s from across all food groups and paying attention to calorie limit. So basically, you might have, your needs are definitely higher than your wife’s will be. So, you want to pay some particular attention to portion sizes. The meal should have carbohydrates or starches and grains, 50-60% of carbohydrates, about 20-25% protein. And I would say, I’m just kind of out of my head, 15% or 10% fat. Those guidelines help you understand where you’re at, but there’s really an easy way to go about putting a meal together. Take a protein source and, probably for your wife she would take like the size of a fist, and you would maybe take two sizes and then the size of the palm for some type of grain, like quinoa, rice. And for men, typically, you would want to probably increase those portion sizes compared to a woman who’s probably going to do just a single protein, single vegetable and single starch. It’s an easy way to throw them together. If you have them, like frozen rice, can of black beans, pre-washed salad, tomatoes, oil and vinegar, put those altogether, and that’s a complete meal. Same with, three ounces of chicken for a woman, five ounces for man, quinoa or brown rice and some type of vegetables.
Scott: And all relatively straightforward and simple. I like the fist and the palm. It’s something that’s readily discernible, and you can somewhat eyeball it if you will. That’s a great point.
Sheri: Try to avoid ultra-processed foods, which are foods that are not in their natural state, meaning they’ve had things added to them like salts, sugars, artificial flavors, and stay more to the source of your food. Just staying closer to how it comes out of the ground has shown to be a lot healthier choice than having something that your body’s not really sure exactly what all those additives and things are.
Scott: We had talked about this earlier. I think this was your phrasing, not mine, and I really liked it. It was, “how not to diet”. So, when we think about the lifestyle changes, that can be really helpful to making sure that you’re living a really healthy lifestyle, when you think about how not to diet, is it a continuation around just making those overall choices we talked about? Or are there specific things on top of that, that maybe people should be mindful of? Whether it’s sleep or, like you mentioned, eating things out of the ground is better than something that’s ultra-processed? So, eating closer to the source, if you will. Do you have thoughts around that at all?
Sheri: There’s a lot of press right now around the Mediterranean diet or plant-based, plant-forward diet. A study out of the New England Journal of Medicine, says that the Mediterranean diet has shown to reduce the risk of heart attacks, stroke and deaths related to heart problems by 30%. The Mediterranean diet, which has been around for a long time since the 1950s, and typically is the way in the Mediterranean areas, Southern Italy, Greece, people were eating for years. They noticed there was no heart disease. We have this pattern of eating that incorporates vegetables, fruits, grains, minimum olive oil, and minimal nuts and seeds. And then meat, fish and then minimal amounts of chicken and minimal amounts of red meat. We have incorporated that and every year the Mediterranean diet has stood the test of time. It’s been the number one diet for the U.S. News and World Report for many years. Every five years in the United States of America, the dietary guidelines change, and the panel of experts have suggested a Mediterranean based plant-based diet as one of their recommendations for being implemented into the dietary guidelines.
Scott: So, definitely short of moving to the South of France or Italy, which I think would be fantastic —incorporating fish, lots of vegetables and, like we talked about, fruits and vegetables.
Sheri: And really picking colors, picking a range, picking a rainbow so that you’re getting all the nutrients that in protective antioxidant, phytonutrients plants and veggies and fruits offer. Mediterranean or total plant-based, there’s many ways you can go, but I think the focus is getting away from our heavily processed, manipulated foods and eating more how our ancestors ate, from the land. As for other healthy things, sleep is a huge, huge, huge part of our health and wellness. There’s this rule: Less than seven, more than nine and across the board. If you’re less than seven hours of sleep or more than nine hours of sleep, mortality from anything is greater. I mean, there’s so many things that lack of sleep has caused learning new information to be hard. It’s hard for us to regulate our emotions. We make poor food choices, and we tend to eat high fat, high processed calories. Therefore, we’re at risk of becoming overweight and obese. Some researchers even suggest that not getting enough sleep makes your brain more sensitive to food stimuli, like seeing it or smelling it. Then when you finally have it, it’s so much more rewarding. So of course, you’re going to overeat and gravitate towards those types of foods and set yourself up for risk.
There’s research that it affects their metabolic rate. Then you know, how many calories we need to maintain. So therefore, for lowering our metabolic rate, we’re not going to actually burn calories like we were before, which subset for weight gain and other issues. And one study showed that deficient sleep is connected to a decreased HDL, which is the good cholesterol and an increase in your bad cholesterol. And of course, you were talking about stress. And so, we’re seeing that lack of sleep can also increase stress for people. And some studies even show the stress of the people, they have less empathy for other people. That’s interesting.
But another component which goes with health and wellness and maintaining a healthy lifestyle is exercise. What type of exercise we should be doing? Aerobic, strength training, stretching and balance exercises and trying to aim for 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity, not all out, hard type of aerobic exercise. There are studies that show, especially for women, strength training two to three times a week helps with our muscles. Of course, we all lose muscle mass as we age, but it helps with your bones and maintaining strong bones as we go into later life.
Scott: So about 30 minutes a day, give or take, is the goal for that.
Sheri: Yes, for the strength training. You can do cardio, which actually at some point we start to see where cardio starts to tear down our muscle mass. So, by doing the strength training, you’re preventing that accelerated rate of muscle. You’re utilizing your muscles for other energy production.
Scott: So again, that balance, if you will, not necessarily focusing on one type or the other, but finding a good middle ground for both types. Yeah. It makes total sense.
Sheri: A component that really had a lot of press lately is fiber. Typically we don’t eat the recommendations for fiber, basically, for women 25 grams and for a man 38. As Americans, we’re not having half that. And they’re seeing that fiber, aside from helping with cholesterol, because basically you eat fiber and your body can absorb it, so it goes right through. It helps the whole process with eliminating things from your diet that are circulating in the blood. We’re seeing that the microbiome, which is the bacteria in your gut, there’s a lot of studies right now, and it’s in its infancy, but it’s a growing field, and they’re learning so much more than I think we’ve known in the past about how our gut health is very important for the health of our whole entire body. But if you don’t have adequate fiber, which we’re talking above that 25 grams threshold, the healthy bacteria in your gut doesn’t have its food source. So therefore, this bad bacterium will take over, or we can trigger an immune response because our body is thinking that it’s the good bacteria, but it’s not producing a component that it needs to help quiet our immune system. Our immune system comes in and starts eating our good bacteria as well and causing inflammation. So, it’s very important that we even focus on fiber.
Scott: It’s so crazy that all of these things can be so inter-related to one another…that sleep influences exercise and empathy. The foods that we crave, fiber consumption can then influence what our cholesterol is like, which is going to impact maybe what medications we’re on or the dietary changes we need to make. So, thank you so much for sharing all of that. It’s so interesting to hear the different relationships between all those different elements and, I guess, levers we can pull in our quest, if you will, for really good health.
Sheri: And, you know, nutritional science is like any science. It’s ever changing, ever evolving. For a while, cooking in oil was bad, then it’s good. No, no, no, no, it’s not good. It’s changing. People that are using heavily focused coconut oil. When they’re going into their doctor visit, they’re seeing changes in their cholesterol levels and their LDL, the bad cholesterol is creeping up. So, we’re starting to see what was good was bad, was good with bad. Insights just evolve that way. We have to keep up with educating ourselves and staying in the know of what’s coming down the pipeline and what we’re discovering, and maybe what we thought we were doing was good. Well maybe now we need to reevaluate that and make some changes.
Scott: Actually, that’s a good transition to our last topic in just speaking of things on the rise, food sensitivities. This is one that in our initial discussions came up, and I think it’s a good one to touch on. But we see people with, whether it’s digestive issues with certain types of foods or even allergic reactions to certain foods, and really that all seems to be increasing. I’m curious, do you think it is indeed an increase in patient populations? Are there external factors? Is it just better tracking and better awareness of these things that are going on and you think maybe there’s things that we should be doing proactively to avoid those kinds of those sensitivities?
Sheri: So, after eating a certain food, there’s a large population that are experiencing symptoms, and they’re not food tolerances or food allergies, they’re food sensitivities. And it’s basically they’re being exposed to some kind of food that might be creating an immune response. And some of the symptoms, they’re not life-threatening like a food allergy, but you might experience joint pain, stomach pain, fatigue, rashes, or even brain fog. Gluten has probably been the best-known trigger of a food sensitivity. So, the best way, really to know about a food sensitivity is if you’re having some of these symptoms. Do some observation and to identify what certain foods are causing these symptoms and then eliminate those foods from your diet for two to four weeks. I don’t think two weeks is enough. I usually would think four weeks and then start reintroducing one item at a time. Say you think maybe you have a gluten sensitivity. Don’t use it for a month. Try really hard. And then re-introduce it and see if your symptoms come back. And so then, yes, I have a food sensitivity to gluten and what is causing that immune response? Is it the way the food is being processed in this day and age, the way it’s grown? There’s also a body of evidence that the gut microbiome, again, it’s constantly changing and there’s things in our diet that can wipe out our good bacteria that’s protective. For example, antibiotics, over the counter pain meds, certain non-nutritional sweeteners tend to wipe out the good bacteria. And so, some of these things be causing some of the immune response that we’re seeing with certain foods. But as I said, our gut environment is constantly changing. With a focus on that sensitivity, maybe not possibly having you putting it in your diet and letting it kind of fester and keep continually causing these symptoms, eliminate it, and then work on getting in, once again, healthy food choices, lots of fiber, and then try and reintroduce.
Scott: It makes total sense with a food journal or something like that. Is that kind of the best way to go?
Sheri: Yeah, I think so. I think it depends on how mindful you are of your daily process and your body. For some people writing down the triggers. Some people do the bullets or journaling where you could on your calendar just write, “stomach pain” or various things. Maybe mark when “I think that was XYZ that I had last night. I’m going to try and eliminate that.” And then, if you really think you have a problem to say gluten, seek out an allergist or a doctor and see if maybe there is a blood test or even a skin test that you need to be doing to see if maybe there’s a little bit more than just a sensitivity.
Scott: That makes total sense. Well, Sheri again, thank you so much, really informative. And for all of our listeners, I feel like they’ve got to feel the same way. All of this is really, really helpful. So, at the end of our podcasts, historically, we ask our guests, what’s the biggest financial mistake they’ve ever made or the biggest financial lesson they’ve ever learned. But for you, I actually feel like I might be more applicable to ask what, in your opinion, is the best dietary lesson you’ve ever learned or nutritional lesson?
Sheri: You know, I think I would have to say it kind of goes back to what we are talking about. You mentioned it earlier, a lifestyle change, being nutritionally aware and cautious of what I’m eating today affects me tomorrow, affects me in 20 years. Be more mindful of when I’m out and about, and I’m really hungry and I’m with friends, are these bad choices going to derail me? Are they going set me back? No, probably not. If I did it every day? Yeah. Probably. But I think it’s more about I’m taking on the mindset of eating healthy for longevity. So, what are the components for that, that I need to implement, learn about and they become who I am and what I’m about — own it. And so, you don’t even really think anymore. I’m able to make my own choices because I know enough, and I know the science and I know the information of why I’m doing the things I’m doing, because you can do any diet in the world, but really you’re just spinning your wheels wasting time. And if you just adapt a lifestyle, you really don’t have to worry about restrictions and calorie levels and all these things. You know you’re getting adequate nutrients. Maybe you don’t feel up to par, you might do some extra vitamin C or zinc, but it’s not like you’re going to have these debilitating outcomes if you’re conscious of what you’re doing.
Scott: Oh, absolutely. And hearing you speak through that; we are wealth advisors. That’s what we do for our clients. We’re helping them diagnose things that are going on in their lives today from more of a financial perspective. But what can we be doing in the short-term to really impact the long-term goal we’re trying to reach or to ensure success for whatever they’re trying to do? So that’s certainly an analogy there’s yeah.
Sheri: It’s the same with the diet. It’s like you’re investing today for tomorrow.
Scott: Well, Sheri, thank you so much for taking the time today. This has been super informative and really, we really appreciated having you on the show.
Sheri: Well, thank you for having me again. Thank you so much.
Scott: And thank you so much to our listeners as well for taking the time out of your day to listen to our show. If you have feedback or thoughts or questions or suggestions by all means, we really encourage you to reach out to us [email protected]. Thank you so much again for tuning in.
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