Eating your way to good health

By Jennifer Allford

Getting the right advice about food

Cheryl Aitkens was trying to choose healthy foods and leave less healthy foods on the grocery store shelf. But it was tougher than she expected—what to do about fat-free yogurt that’s loaded with sugar? And some advice she read was confusing.

“You read so much and everybody has an opinion,” she says. “I want to take better care of myself and I wanted the truth and I wanted someone to point me in an unbiased direction.” So, Aitkens signed up for Ask a Dietitian, a group workshop at the Calgary Foothills Primary Care Network, where she could ask questions and learn how to make good choices around food.

“Dietitians focus on teaching practical tips that are easy to incorporate into day-to-day life,” says Carmen Prion-Frank, a registered dietitian with Calgary Foothills PCN. “We talk about what to look for on food labels, how to plan healthy meals and modify family favourites to make them flavourful and healthy.” Dietitians also help people learn how to get the best value at supermarkets so they can eat within their budgets.

Everyone can benefit from knowing how to shop for and prepare healthy meals.

In fact, family doctors spend a lot of time talking with their patients about food.

“I’d say at least 50 per cent of our patients have some chronic disease or illness that could either be caused by or benefit from a change in eating habits,” says Dr. Linda Slocombe, the medical director at Calgary Foothills PCN. “Lifestyle counselling is a big part of family practice; it is something that is talked about a lot.”

But often people need more than a conversation with their doctor. “They need a class or course or group support to change their lifestyle habits,” says Slocombe.

And that’s why doctors refer their patients to programs such as Ask a Dietitian. Whether you have cardiovascular disease and need to cut back on saturated fat or have prediabetes and are reducing sugar, programs can help you learn how to change your eating habits.

“I have a family history of heart disease and diabetes and I have struggled with weight my entire life,” says Aitkens, 60. “I have changed the way I buy and the way I cook. I am not perfect—but I am more aware and I pay closer attention.”

At work, she packs hummus with her vegetables for lunch rather than a high-fat dip. At home she cooks from scratch more often and poaches food in chicken broth instead of frying it in butter. And she leaves high-sugar yogurt at the store and brings home plain yogurt to eat with fresh fruit instead.

“I am going to continue to be good to myself,” says Aitkens.

“I feel better about my food choices and it makes you feel better when you know you’re doing something good for yourself.”

This story appears in the latest issue of Health Matters magazine. Read the full issue.