If you're like me then you were probably taught about healthy eating in high school health class and if you're like me you probably slept through most of it. I remember something about a pyramid, I think, and maybe some anecdotal information about what a calorie is, but it's ok because like every healthy, normal American I supplemented my education with Things I Learned On The Internet which, so far as I know, has never steered anyone wrong. Right?
If you're like me then you probably tend to think of nutritionists as belonging to a class of people that work with the wealthy and vain telling them how to live and what to eat in order to maintain their fabulousness. This isn't really the case, (the part about the wealthy and vain, that is, not the part about the fabulousness) though I didn't really realize that my assumptions were wrong until I began working on "Something Sweet" and sought out the help of Jennifer Vimbor of Chicago Nutritionists.
It turns out that having an expert to tell you about food can be a mighty useful resource; and Jennifer Vimbor MS, RD, LDN, CDN certainly counts as an expert. (That's a Masters in Nutrition Education, Registered Dietitian, Licensed Dietitian-Nutritionist, and Certified Dietitian-Nutritionist respectively). When I asked her about getting involved in "Something Sweet" she was keen to get onboard and give me some guidelines about what to expect and advice on how to keep the process up.
We met in the office of Nutrition Counseling Services, Jennifer's organization that promotes optimal nutrition, health and well-being. Nestled in the back of the Fine Arts building on Michigan Ave the location came as a surprise to me, and it wouldn't be the first. Here are some of the other surprises:
Not All Sugars Are Created Equal
By far the most relevant thing that I learned from Jennifer was that sugar isn't just sugar. Our first conversation went something like this (and I'm paraphrasing):
- Me: I'm doing a project where I'm giving up sugar for a few months. Are there any down sides I should know about?
- Jennifer: What are you planning to eat, then? You need to make sure you're getting enough sources of energy or else your body's going to start to break itself down to get the energy it needs.
- Me: No, no, I'm just giving up added sugar- like corn syrup or sugar or whatever.
- Jennifer: Oh, in that case there is no down side.
It turns out that "sugar" is what makes a body go. But there's sugar and then there's sugar; the sugar that our body uses for fuel is glucose- a teeny tiny sugar that cells burn in order to do their job. By contrast the sugar that we add to food to make it sweet is usually something like sucrose or fructose which are large and complex chains of sugar molecules that provide our bodies with more fuel than we really need.
Imagine having a wood burning fireplace in your living room. It's really designed for firewood, but you decide to fill it with coal instead. Sure you get a lot more heat out of it, but it's really more heat than you need for one little living room. By giving up added sugar I haven't given up on having a nice toasty living room fire, I've just opted to limit myself to firewood.
It's Not A Diet
The problem with a project like this, in which one gives up a certain food, is that it quickly becomes defined as a "diet" even though it isn't. The point isn't to lose weight, after all, or even to "eat more healthily" but to just observe the role that sweeteners play in American foods. So when Jennifer recommended that I keep a food journal AND start keeping track of the amounts of each thing that I ate I was initially wary, I mean, if you read a cereal box and it defines a "serving" of milk as 1/2 cup of skim milk I don't know who they're fooling with that nonsense. I use three times that! But thanks to Jennifer's recommendation to keep track of amounts I realized that that was OK. So I use a cup and a half of milk for breakfast. Big deal. The point is to observe how we eat, not to change it.
This may seem like an "Oh, Duh" moment, but it did take me by surprise.
Ok to be completely honest Jennifer's advice actually goes more like "Be sure to eat more protein and fiber during each meal so that your blood sugar levels don't drop too much between meals" but it came as a complete surprise that I would ever hear a nutritionist recommend eating "more" of anything. My immediate thought was: "This is something I can handle". It is nice working an expert who is concerned that I'm getting enough to eat rather than critiquing every food choice I make. I think that this was the point that made me realize that the role of a nutritionist is not to act as a food-referee but rather to reveal new ways to experience how food works.
Anyway, the long and short of it is that if you're like me and you've always had a rather dim view of nutritionists and dietitians then I recommend giving them a second chance. You might just meet someone like Jennifer who is both a font of knowledge and a great food enthusiast. I mean, really who can dislike someone who loves to talk about food? It's one of my favorite topics after all.
Nutrition Counseling Services
The Fine Arts Building
410 South Michigan Avenue, Suite #631
Chicago, IL 60605