Better Nutrition Month: What Makes It Better?
By: Tori Schmitt, MS, RDN, LD founder of YES! Nutrition
March marks National Nutrition Month and, for years, Ashley Koff RD felt that the themes for National Nutrition Month fell short at recommending what’s better. For example, the motto this year to “put your best fork forward” seems to forget the better nutrition that can be delivered by a spoon or by a straw.
Ashley knew that the month deserved something, well, better. Because of this, she’s renamed the month Better Nutrition Month to help share with you what makes nutrition better. So when it comes to our food, beverage, and supplement choices, what makes Better Nutrition Month “better”? I interviewed Ashley to get you answers.
Tori Schmitt (TS): With all this talk about “Better” Nutrition, I’m wondering: what puts the “better” in better nutrition?
Ashley Koff (AK): YOU do! That’s right, better nutrition choices are the ones that are better for you. Better because you find them delicious, better because its what you and your body need. Better because they are doable – which also means affordable – for you in your life right now. Beyond that, better means better quality (your body should recognize it easily), better quantities (don’t overfill your gas tank), better balance (a better blend of the key nutrients – carbs, proteins, fats – and don’t forget non-starchy vegetables), and better frequency (your body is like a race car; pit stop for better nutrition more often). Remember, while your better is perfect for you, there really is no “perfect” nutrition, better health comes from making better not perfect choices more often.
TS: As a Registered Dietitian and founder of The AKA List, how do you choose what is “better” when evaluating food, beverage, and dietary supplement brands?
AK: Well first, The AKA List is a non-profit project. AKA (Ashley Koff Approved) can’t be bought, it’s earned. So, I actually don’t work with brands to choose what is better – but rather I openly evaluate products and services to see if they are better quality, and as such part of enabling a better, healthier life. Today there are a lot of evaluations, and I am clear that mine is very biased – it’s my (Ashley Koff RD) approval, it couldn’t be more biased – but that said, it is also unique. Before becoming a dietitian, I worked in advertising so I learned a lot about marketing claims. Today, I evaluate products and services – not just ingredients, sourcing, nutrition blends, etc. – but also their marketing claims. Are they better too?
TS: Got it! So when you take a food, for example an energy bar, what do you look for to determine whether or not it’s a “better” option?
AK: The bar category is so big – and trust me, not all bars are created equal. One of the first things I look at when evaluating bars is: will our bodies know and recognize the ingredients present? If the bar contains too much added sugar, hard to digest proteins, or artificial sweeteners, colors, or flavors, I know that it’s probably not the better nutrition option. If the bar is intended to act as a meal replacement, I also look at the nutrient balance of the bar. Does it offer 6-20 grams of protein per bar, around 15 grams of carbohydrates, and around 15 grams (or less) of good-for-you fats? These are the quantity barriers I use for nutrient balanced pit stops, so a meal replacement bar should fall close within those guidelines too. One of my long-time favorite bars is Perfect Bar. Here’s why: they contain organic ingredients your body knows and recognizes, there are at least 8 grams of whole food protein per bar, and with flavors like Coconut Peanut Butter and Carob Chip, they sure are delicious. Better Nutrition better be delicious, after all!
TS: Are the ways food is produced important to you? For example, to make The AKA List, does something have to be organic?
AK: Because organic means that products are free of synthetic additives like pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and free from GMOs, often times, organic foods do deliver a “better” option. However, it’s important to note that there are no official organic standards for some foods – like fish in the United States. So, when I evaluate fish choices, I look to see if the fish was caught in a sustainable fashion and if the fish is packaged with quality ingredients. BELA seafood, which offers canned sardines, mackerel, and jarred skipjack tuna, are sustainably pole & line caught and they are hand packed fresh with organic ingredients like organic extra virgin olive oil.
TS: Earlier you said that “YOU” put the “better” in better nutrition, meaning that each person can select “better” dependent upon who they are. But for children who may not select their meal or snack choices, what do you recommend?
AK: Good point. From school lunches to away-from-home play dates, parents may not know if, what, or how much their child is eating. I always recommend that the parent serve nutrient-rich foods at each eating occasion and reduce the total amount of foods with added sugars and artificial ingredients. For a parent, that might mean swapping the sugary breakfast cereal into a whole grain cereal or nixing the candy at the movie theater and bringing along grapes instead. But I do understand that a parent just can’t see everything their child eats – and even if the parent did see everything, the child still may fall short on some nutrients. That’s why I recommend a dietary supplement like Kids Complete from Smartypants to help deliver vitamins, some minerals, and omega-3s in a kid-friendly, tasty gummy. It’s free from artificial sweeteners, colors, and flavors, which means the kids are getting the nutrition they need and none of the ingredients they don’t.
TS: You talk a lot about liquid nutrition on your blog. What is it, why is it important, and what makes better liquid nutrition?
AK: Liquid nutrition is what you get after you blend, puree, cook down, juice, or squeeze food to get liquids – and it comes in many forms…from milks and non-dairy beverages to smoothies, shakes, soups, and beyond. What’s so helpful about liquid nutrition is the fact that part of the digestive process (i.e. chewing) is already done. The result is nutrients ready for the body to absorb. Because of its absorptive effectiveness, liquid nutrition is helpful during times of stress, when the body’s work needs to be focused elsewhere. REBBL beverages, for example, are on The AKA List for offering better liquid nutrition. All their options feature organic, recognizable ingredients, plus these beverages also offer adaptogens – substances that help the body adapt better to stress (both physical and mental).
TS: What makes a better dietary supplement choice?
AK: I’m sure you’re seeing a common theme here…just like better food and beverage choices deliver ingredients your body knows and recognizes, better dietary supplements should do the same. You see, some forms of certain vitamins and minerals are better absorbed than others. For example, when looking at folate and vitamin B12, I like to see the methylated forms (methylfolate and methylcobalamin). I also check to make sure that a supplement does not contain any synthetic colors, artificial flavors, or artificial sweeteners. One of my favorite supplement brands is MegaFood. They source their vitamins and mineral capsules and powders from whole food ingredients like carrots, oranges, brown rice, and broccoli. Plus, they have relationships with their farm partners who use sustainable farming practices.
TS: It sounds like “better” is a win for both the environment and us! How can we all celebrate better nutrition this March and beyond?
AK: Yes! Whether you make products or consume them, grow food or serve it, or make policies about food and health or present them in the media or prescribe them to patients, we all can and we all should be a part of enabling better health fueled by better nutrition all year around. Today, true health experts agree – we know what better nutrition is and is not. So that’s what we need to work to produce more of, to share tools (not just more info) on how to get it, and to make better nutrition purchases more often. We are at an exciting time, we have opportunities to get lots of new data, to make new things in labs, to grow new foods, and we should embrace that excitement. More importantly, however, we should focus on getting everyone access to better food, to better nutrition, more often because new may be exciting, but too often it turns out it is not actually better.
I suggest we all use this March to kickoff an investment in our own better nutrition as well as enabling access to it for others – whether that’s bringing better snacks to after-school or work events, or looking at product portfolios to assess what’s already better and what needs attention, or choosing not to cover the latest super-food pitch and instead focusing on what has proven super already – better nutrition and daily laughs. Yup, that’s my recipe for better health!
TS: I agree Ashley…better nutrition, daily laughs, and an occasional piece of dark chocolate with almond butter! LOL. Where do you suggest people turn to if they need more help getting better nutrition?
AK: My Better Nutrition Membership of course! This membership gives you exclusive access to helpful tools, delicious recipes, better menus, and better nutrition evaluations. Plus, now you get access to my new workbook, The “Road Trip to Better Health” so you can better assess and improve your health. As always, you can also follow me on Facebook @AshleyKoffApp , Twitter @AshleyKoff, and Instagram @AshleyKoffApproved, for daily better nutrition inspiration and tips!
TS: Thank you, Ashley, for helping make nutrition better for us all!
AK: You bet! Nutrition doesn’t have to be perfect…it just has to be better!