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Eat Healthier, Feel Better: It’s (Nutritional) Science

Nutrition veggies
Conelly shoonen josphine
Jo Connolly-Schoonen, director of nutrition, Department of Family, Population and Preventive Medicine at the Renaissance School of Medicine

Fueled by an explosion of cooking shows, foodie posts and exercise videos, there is more interest in food and nutrition than ever before — and when it comes to popular New Year’s resolutions, losing weight and eating healthier top virtually every list.

For Jo Connolly-Schoonen, director of nutrition in the Department of Family, Population and Preventive Medicine at the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University, one of the first challenges in preaching new nutritional science to patients is erasing old misconceptions.  

“It’s easy for people who haven’t struggled with weight to simply say ‘it’s just calories in, calories out. Just move more and eat less,’” she said. “That’s true to an extent. But for many people, the struggle goes hand-in-hand with their physiology. It’s biologically harder for them. Their experience is so different because of how their brain chemistry is and how their endocrine system works.”

Connolly-Schoonen maintains a practice in which she sees patients ranging from young children up to geriatrics with a variety of health conditions. She also oversees the dieticians that work with Stony Brook Athletics as well as the Stony Brook Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, a supplemental food and nutrition education and counseling program.

Connolly-Schoonen said dieters tend to fall into three groups: the classic dieter who struggles with weight and chronic illness; weekend warriors, people who are generally in shape and go to gyms and work with trainers; and people who are healthy and just want to stay that way. Each requires a different approach.

“Getting to a healthy weight is one thing, but we also need to decrease inflammation and what we call oxidative stress and damage,” Connolly-Schoonen said. “That is important for all three groups.”

She added that the membrane on each and every cell is made primarily from the fats that we eat, so if you’ve been eating a lot of fast food, you’re going to have unhealthy fats on your cell membranes. If you’ve been eating olive oil and salmon and walnuts, then those are going to be different and healthier.

Connolly-Schoonen said these healthy fatty acids will lead to the production of an anti-inflammatory chemical which decreases inflammation systemically throughout your body.

“The unhealthy fats … [increase] risk for and progression of virtually every chronic illness you can imagine, and also impacts the aging process,” she said. “So, if you want to age more slowly, eat healthier fats and a ton of plant-based food.” 

Connolly-Schoonen said popular branded diets are “traps” that are “concerned with profit rather than your health. They are trying to get you to spend money on their platform.” 

However, she added, you can manage your nutrition goals yourself. A good place to start is by eating minimally processed foods. That means fruits, vegetables, beans and/or lean animal protein that “looks as close to the way it did when the plant was growing or the animal was running around. A chicken as opposed to a chicken nugget, or a potato instead of French fries,” she said.

And then there’s quantity. 

“Most of us just eat too much,” she said. “It’s hard to imagine how little your body needs to be healthy. In fact, as long as you’re meeting your daily nutrient requirements, the less you eat, the healthier you’ll be. This can also slow down the aging process.” 

For grain and starchy carbohydrates like potatoes and brown rice, think of a fist-sized portion. 

“For the protein, think about a-palm sized portion,” she said. “The size of your fists and palms is proportionate to your body size and calorie/nutrient needs. I’m only 5 feet, 1 inch tall, so my small palm is a good estimate of my needs, but not that of my colleague who is 5 feet 7.”

Connolly-Schoonen suggests becoming mindful of your internal “quiet” signals of hunger and fullness — and responding appropriately — and eating more slowly, challenging yourself to consider each bite.

“Ask yourself, ‘am I still hungry, or am I good? Can I stop now?’,” she said. “Most people don’t even pay attention. We’re just shoveling it down. I tell people to put the fork down for a second and take a breath between bites. For your favorite foods, it’s those first few bites that taste the best. After that, it’s the law of diminishing returns. You can put that off for another day.” 

If Connolly-Schoonen sounds like just another thin person who’s never had to deal with a weight issue, guess again.

“I’ve struggled with weight quite a lot,” she offered. “I used to be about 60 pounds heavier than I am now. That was many years ago, but I am not genetically a thin person. I really do pay a lot of attention to the food that I eat and my exercise.”

Nutrition veggies
Jo Connolly-Schoonen says adding more vegetable servings to your daily diet can help you turn your diet around.

Connolly-Schoonen said her breakfast is typically rice cakes and almond butter or Greek yogurt with nuts and berries, while lunch is always some kind of salad. For dinner, she limits red meat to once a week, focusing on chicken, ground turkey, fish, shrimp, scallops and homemade veggie burgers. 

Yet, even the healthiest of eaters splurges.  For Connolly-Schoonen, it’s an occasional chocolate-covered caramel or ice cream with her family. “I’ll try to have us walk or bicycle to a local ice cream parlor so at least we’re offsetting what we’re eating with some exercise,” she said.

She offers two easy suggestions to begin turning your diet around; take out the sugary drinks, and add in several servings of vegetables a day. Connolly also found that involving her children in the food prep process got them invested in their own diet and helped build a healthy respect for nutrition.

“I recommend people choose not to bring in fast food, and not take their kids to fast food restaurants,” she said. “However, when they’re out with friends I try not to be overly strict, because you can’t stop it and creating a battle over it will not lead to good results. When grocery shopping with my kids when they were young, my response to their requests for processed unhealthy foods was always ‘I love you too much, how can I possibly put that in your body?’ My youngest son would sometimes reply, ‘Mom, can you just love me a little less today?’” 

As for the future, advancements in nutrigenomics are making it possible to virtually pinpoint nutritional factors from person-to-person, and adjust nutritional roadmaps accordingly. 

“We’re getting to the point where we can test certain aspects of people’s genetics and genetic mutations,” she says. “Soon we’ll be saying ‘you need this and that person needs that’ because of differences in their physiology. I’d guess that we’re maybe 10 years away from being able to really individualize nutrition information in an affordable way.”

Robert Emproto

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