RD nutritionist recommend you eat a little bit of naughty and a lot of nice

What do RD nutritionists recommend you eat?


“A little bit of naughty and a lot of nice”

Rachel Berman, RD used this saying to explain what RD nutritionists recommend you eat. It encapsulates the dietary guidelines and also the principles of the Mediterranean diet.

I heard that motto at the annual Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo (FNCE) this year. Even with tons of information and new research on nutrition this quote and the evidence for a Mediterranean eating style were the biggest takeaways. Do the principles behind the saying sound familiar? My mother was enforcing those ideas when she insisted I eat my peas and put limits on the candy.


RD Nutritionist’s Conference

FNCE is the annual national meeting of dietitians and credentialed nutritionists. At this conference we discussed nutrition as it relates to health. This year it was in Boston, at the big conference center. The weather was beautiful for October—yet the conference made staying indoors worthwhile. There were so many experts in the field of nutrition, great lectures and networking opportunities.  I couldn’t attend even a tenth of the events I wanted to see!

At FNCE we’re focused on big concepts and the latest scientific research. We only make glancing references to topics like the Paleo diet and juice cleanses or the merits of foods like kale, coconut, and acacia berries. And what discussion we have on specific foods and diets is devoted to how we can counter the spin in the popular press and provide reputable information that can be heard.

Dietitians look at big concepts, we don’t focus on a particular food because variety is important to a healthy diet. We also know that all foods in a food group provide similar nutritional benefits. Kale, Collards, Spinach, Chard and dark green salads are all dark leafy greens and they all have a similar nutrition profiles. We RD nutritionists recommend you eat more of these “nice” foods but don’t ask that you focus on one to the exclusion of the others. Just aim for four servings a week of dark green vegetables

We try not to focus on diets and instead like to focus on improving peoples’ lifestyles. RD nutritionists don’t recommend a single eating plan because an eating plan should be individualized to your lifestyle. When you push a square peg through a round hole it does not work and similarly if a set diet doesn’t work with your lifestyle it will be quickly abandoned. What can be recommended are small changes—everyone can cut back on the naughty and add in more nice to their meals and snacks.

The Naughty and the Nice

Here is a table that clarifies what is meant by naughty and nice. If you want further details click on MyPlate Checklist and you can design an individualized plan with the appropriate number of servings of each “nice” food group and be given a “naughty” allowance.

A little bit of Naughty And a Lot of Nice
Sweetened foods Vegetables (lots of colors)
Refined grains Fruit (lots of colors)
Red meat Nuts
Fried foods Legumes
Highly processed foods Fish

If you’ve been reading my column, you know these categories are nothing new (see my post on Healthy eating plan). These healthy eating recommendations come from studies of areas that have been labelled blue zones. There are five such areas in the world and the people who live there are extremely healthy in their old age; they frequently make it to 100. These people have low levels of heart disease, diabetes, cancer and dementia and are active even late in life. This good health is associated with their eating lifestyle. Both the Mediterranean diet and the MyPlate recommendations are based on the findings of studies about these healthy people.

Health Benefits

The focus of healthy eating is traditionally prevention of heart disease, diabetes and to a lesser extent cancer, but rarely on how healthy eating effects Alzheimer’s disease.

One of the lectures I attended, “Nutrition’s Potency to Help or Hurt Brain Health,” was given by Nancy Emerson Lombardo, PhD. She talked about how diet can prevent dementia. The inflammation that hurts our hearts also hurts our brains. Studies suggest that what people eat in the 20 years before signs of dementia appear is a determining factor in whether and at what age they develop this horrible disease. This credentialed Nutritionist recommended eating a diet associated with dementia prevention. Then she described the diet, and what do you know, it was the familiar “a little bit of naughty and a lot of nice,” but with an extra heaping of colorful foods and spices rich in antioxidants.

Health Studies

A traditional Japanese diet is rich in fish, vegetables, seaweed and fiber. It’s low in sugar, red meat and fried foods. It’s a diet with a lot of nice and only a little naughty. The western or standard American diet (SAD) is the opposite.

In Japan doctors noticed that people who switched to a western diet were more likely to develop dementia. A doctor who encouraged a return to a traditional Japanese diet saw that further development of dementia in his patients slowed.

Researchers in Italy tried to test this hypothesis further. They encouraged people at high risk for Alzheimer’s to return to a Mediterranean diet by educating them and offering them healthy foods like olive oil and nuts. This was effective: people changed their diets and they developed less dementia than the comparison group that did not get the diet advice or the healthy foods. Eating style appears to have a profound effect on brain health as well as heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

What Can be Done

Some nursing homes (and a convent of nuns!) have started asking for this diet for themselves. Dietitians and nutrition professionals, in conjunction with cooks, have now revamped the diet of these homes. They are turning a SAD (Standard American Diet) into an eating style that is a little naughty and a lot of nice. It’s being done by adding more vegetables, fruit, fish, legumes, colorful plant foods and spices while cutting back on processed foods, baked desserts, sugar, refined grains and red meats. The residents like the diet and I can’t wait to see what the long term results will be.

This is a real nutrition experiment with people willingly chosing healthy foods on a regular basis. In ten years their health can be compared to residents of other nursing homes that stuck to the Standard American Diet. We will know how the diets differed and then we can see if and what benefits show up.

Of course instead of waiting for the results I’ll try to make small changes to improve my diet right now.

Try adding “nice” foods to your diet, it feels much better than avoiding the naughty foods and with time the nice foods will crowd out the naughty!

Let me know what you tried to add to your diet and how it worked out for you!