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Your world… and welcome to it

Posted by on Friday, March 4, 2011 in Features, March 2011.

Jamie Pope notes that the average size of a dinner plate has grown in the last 20 years. Eating off a smaller plate may help you eat a more healthy portion size.

by Jessica Pasley

When it comes to losing weight or making healthy challenges, the world at large is not your friend.

Jamie Pope, M.S., R.D., L.D.N., instructor of Nutrition at the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing, knows this all too well.

“Most people are very aware of what they should do, or even what they need to do,” she said. “Their ‘buts’ just get in the way. It’s a matter of identifying what their buts or obstacles to change are and coming up with strategies that help overcome them.

“To be successful at changing eating or exercise habits you have to set up your world in such a way that it is easier to accomplish your goals. When you look at people who have successfully lost weight and kept it off or made long-term changes, they set up mini environments.

“We are so strongly influenced by what is around us. So surrounding yourself with foods that are conducive to achieving your goals is imperative.”

Pope said it’s not just a matter of stocking the pantry or refrigerator with good food options, rather a person has to surround themselves with healthy options so that they are not busy fighting their environment, which includes where we live, work, learn and play.

Know your world

One of the first steps to creating a successful environment is documentation, Pope said. Self monitoring is the key to developing an awareness of what you’re doing, what you’re eating and how you’re moving.

Keeping a record of these activities is much easier with so many free, online tools available. During the first weeks of her nutrition course, she asks her students to keep a three-day record of their intake. It provides them a small but informative picture of their own habits. She then uses a simple assessment tool called Rate Your Plate to score their overall eating patterns and food choices. Based on their ratings, students establish two to three goals they want to implement over the next week.

“They find it is much harder than they think to implement their goals,” said Pope. “I find that it is very important for them to understand what they will be asking their patients or clients to do.  Knowing what you need to do and doing it are two very different things.”

Pope said that only 12 percent of people have a sense of how many calories they need a day to maintain a healthy weight. is an excellent resource that allows a user to plug in vital information in return for an estimate of what their daily caloric intake necessities are. It also provides the number of servings from each food group a person would need in order to adhere to a specific caloric regime.

Knowing what is considered a balanced diet for healthy nutrition is very individualized. Pope said that almost any meal can be adapted to create a healthy diet, but it requires that people get honest about what they are really eating. Ideal versus realistic is a hard transition, but making perception a reality is necessary to make long-term changes.

Don’t setup for a setback

But don’t make radical changes, cautioned Pope. A complete overhaul can be too overwhelming, which can be a setup for a setback.

”Soon after people develop accountability, they are more able to identify some concrete changes that can make

a difference in their environments—  whether that’s trimming certain foods out of their diet, reducing portion sizes, incorporating more of a particular food group into the diet or becoming more active.”

One of the biggest obstacles in establishing a positive environment for healthy food choices is portion sizes. The typical serving size has doubled or even tripled over the last two decades.

”We’ve gotten warped in what we view as a portion size,” said Pope. ”What we need and what we see and expect are so different and that is part of the dilemma. We move less, we eat more and of course we are going to gain weight. Calorically, it’s mathematical.”

Pope admits that she too, as a dietitian, has problems limiting her intake.

”Something as simple as reaching into a carton of ice cream and getting just a half a cup is ridiculous. That’s really hard for me. Honestly, it’s next to impossible,” she laughed. ”Instead I buy individual treats like Fudgesicles. It is much easier on many levels, especially portioning size.”

Pope suggests looking at plate size to aid in decreasing portions. She said the average size of a dinner plate has increased from 20 years ago. Today’s plate ranges from 11 inches to 12 inches. Compare that to seven to nine inches a few decades ago.

“Changing the size of your dinner plate when you eat at home is an example of an environmental strategy to reduce portion sizes and change perceptions,” she said. “Your meal will look more adequate because it fills the plate and that can translate to eating 25 to 50 percent less food.”

Guidelines offer help

Pope admits that healthy eating habits are not the sole responsibility of an individual. Broader societal changes, with assistance from the food industry, need to occur to help Americans in their plight to fight obesity.

Recently the USDA released its latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the federal government’s nutritional recommendations to promote healthy lifestyles, reduce the risk of chronic diseases and the prevalence of an overweight society.

Although the overall suggestions for following a balanced diet and incorporating physical activity into daily routines were generally the same, there were some startling changes.

”Because two-thirds of Americans are classified as overweight or obese,” said Pope, ”this is the first set of guidelines written to an overweight population. The main message is probably that we all need to eat less and move more to slow down this obesity epidemic.”

Pope said the newest guidelines are more food specific, while in the past

the suggestions leaned more toward concepts.

One recommendation that stood out to Pope concerned sodium intake.  According to the new guidelines, the USDA suggests a daily sodium intake of less than 2,300 milligrams, but broadens a recommendation of less than 1,500 milligrams for people age 51 and older as well as those of any age who are African-American, have hypertension, diabetes or chronic kidney disease.

“Without the cooperation and action of the food industry it is going to be next to impossible for this to work,” said Pope. “The food industry must lower the sodium in their food products—a major source of our sodium comes from processed or convenience foods.”

On average, Americans use 3,400-3,500 milligrams of sodium daily. The newest guidelines are calling for that amount to be cut in half. There has been great success in developing sugar and fat substitutes over the years, but finding an acceptable sodium replacement will be a bit trickier, Pope believes.

“It will be hard to find a substitute for sodium that tastes the same,” she said. “Stepping back from adding additional salt to your food and using herbs and spices can help as well as begin to retrain your taste buds.”

Overall, Pope said everyone can benefit from creating an environment that facilitates achieving calorie balance, nutritional needs and physical activity. These are all key strategies to developing long-term behaviors for a successful, healthy lifestyle.

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