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Answering those curly nutrition questions

By Matt O'Neill, MSc(Nut&Diet), APD

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With the increased awareness of diet and fitness, clients can fire some really curly nutrition questions at you. Whether you know the answer or not, how you answer client questions about food and nutrition can set you apart from your competition.

This article provides useful tips for answering even the toughest client nutrition queries so you can feel confident, reduce confusion and build client trust.



Are fish oils good for my heart?

Here's an example of a question where the answer gets a bit tricky. The most correct answer is YES, but let's fish a little deeper. According to an editorial in the July issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, not everyone may directly benefit from fish oils. The evidence is only really clear for people who have a high risk of heart disease or have already had a heart attack. Here it appears omega-3 fish oils, including docosahexanoic acid (DHA) and ecisopentanoic acid (EPA) help keep heartbeat regular and prevent arrhythmias, reducing the chances of a repeat attack.

And it's fish, but not fish oil capsules hat are the way to go for a healthy heart, at least for some. According to the editorial, fish consumption may be more beneficial than pill popping for a number of reasons:

  1. Fish contain other nutritional goodies like selenium and natural antioxidants that you won't find in fish oil.
  2. Fish makes a healthy meal, especially when complimented by colourful vegetables.
  3. Fish add balance to a diet rather than add fat in oil capsules.
While the jury is still out on the direct heart-health benefits of fish oils for everyone, keep enjoying your fish meals, eat and lots of greens and consult your doctor if you have a heart condition.

Does red meat cause cancer?

The late 1990's there was considerable controversy whether eating red meat increased the risk of developing various cancers, particularly bowel cancer. A lot of people turned vegetarian, which upset meat producers, so there was intense examination of the data linking meat and cancer. In 1997, the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research reviewed all the evidence and concluded…

“If eating meat, use as a condiment. If eaten at all, red meat should be limited to less than 80 grams a day…. it is not exactly known why a high meat diet is linked with an increased risk of cancer. It may be that meat does not cause cancer per se, but that meat rich diets simply don't provide as much protective plant foods.”

The bottom line here appears that red meat by itself is not harmful and you don't have to become a vegetarian to reduce your risk of cancer -- just eat like one!

You can see with these questions about the role of fish and meat in a healthy diet, how the science of nutrition is highly complex.

Tips for answering nutrition questions

Ask for more information
If a question doesn't make sense at first, ask your client for more information. Where did they hear about the topic? Why are they are asking? If they read about a fad diet in a popular magazine, chances are you'll be able to put them straight more easily.

Follow conventional wisdom
In scientific terms conventional wisdom is advice that fits in with the bulk of evidence available from quality research studies. National dietary guidelines and eating plans that include all the food groups are examples of conventional wisdom in action. Making sure your clients include all the food groups (breads and cereals, fruits, vegetables, meat or meat alternatives, and dairy foods) is your surest path to nutritional health.

Prioritise for results
For many clients, the biggest nutritional challenge will be breaking poor eating habits that result in excessive consumption of fat, sugar and salt. Helping clients set these bigger issues as a priority may get them faster results in terms of weight loss, energy levels and fitness. Concerns about vitamin levels in foods, organic produce and pesticides may more appropriately take a back seat.

Separate facts from opinion
Always let your clients know when you are giving them facts from a reputable source versus offering your opinion.

Refer for specialist advice
Nutrition-related issues like iron deficiency anaemia, food allergies or intolerances are better handled firstly by a medical advice. Even dietitians often refer to specialist dietitians for food allergies.

Stick to what you know
Tell clients what you do know and what you don't know. “I don't know the answer to that question, but I can tell you where you to find out, or I can find out and get back to you.” It's better to say you don't know than attempt an answer that you may get wrong. Your client will respect you for this.

Short answers to quick questions

After answering thousands of nutrition questions over a decade of talking food and fitness, I've developed some standard responses to common questions. These responses almost never offer a simple Yes or No alternative, but require the client consider a number of factors first for their individual situation. Here are three examples:

Q: Should I take protein supplement?
A: Before you consider a supplement, you should check how much protein you are getting from your diet. Use a protein counter* to add up the total protein in your diet and if you reach around 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight, and most people do reach this figure, you shouldn't need a supplement. The most you could need would be 2 grams per kilo. If you can't reach this amount because you are busy, can't cook or don't have a big appetite then a protein supplement can help meet your needs.

Q: Should I avoid soft drinks?
A: You don't need to cut soft drinks out of your diet, but you may wish to limit them if you are drinking them instead of having healthy snacks. Choosing diet soft drinks will help you cut back on sugar. If you don't get enough calcium or are at risk of osteoporosis, drinking a lot of soft drinks is not good due to the negative effects of phosphoric acid found in soft drinks.

Q: Do I need to eat dairy products?
A: You don't have to eat dairy products, but most dairy foods are a rich source of calcium, which makes it easier to meet your calcium needs. If you don't like dairy, have a medically diagnosed allergy to milk protein or intolerance to lactose (milk sugar) getting calcium form non-dairy products like soy drinks is important. If you still find it a challenge to meet your needs, talk to your doctor about taking a calcium supplement.

* Nutrient counter books are popular, especially for fat and fibre. Some now also list carbohydrate, protein and other nutrients like calcium. Check your local bookstore or newsagent.

Useful links:

nhmrc.gov.au - Download the Dietary Guidelines for Australian Adults.


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