Boosting Your Health Through ‘Good’ Nutrition

Nutrition is the crux of healthy living. Discover some tips on how to fine-tune your eating habits.

Eating “healthy” can be difficult for many reasons. It takes time, money and effort to really focus on your nutrition. And yet, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the prevalence of obesity was 39.8% and affected about 93.3 million U.S. adults in 2015-2016. Obesity-related conditions include heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer that are some of the leading causes of preventable, premature death. 

So, despite all of the excuses in the world, healthy nutrition is important – for both your physical and mental health. 

Nutrition & Pediatrics

Many parents find it challenging to consistently make “healthy plates” for their children. We need food for fuel every day, but do we have time to prioritize healthy eating every day?

“It’s difficult to be a parent because there’s so much going on,” says Christine Gillette, clinical dietitian with a pediatric sub-specialty at Mercyhealth, in Rockford. “Families are so busy – I see single parents having to pick up three children at three different schools that get out at three different times. Dinner and set meal times can be non-existent for that reason.”

And yet, all parents want to do the best they can. Gillette encourages families to take advantage of online resources, particularly The site breaks down the correct amount of servings children need for whole grains, dairy, meats/proteins, fruits and vegetables.

Another pediatric site she directs parents to explore is for healthy, age-appropriate recipes.

These days, Gillette sees more and more frequently that children aren’t getting the micronutrients they need. Vitamin A may be low in children who don’t like orange vegetables such as carrots or sweet potatoes. Iron and fiber may be low in children who aren’t consuming enough whole grains, fruits or vegetables.

Calcium and vitamin D are particularly important for children, since their bones are still developing, but these nutrients are often lacking in a child’s diet since milk is typically replaced with soda or fruit juices (which are still sugary and unhealthy, Gillette says, even if they’re made with 100 percent juice).

With that in mind, Gillette abides by the statements from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Physicians, which advocate for the daily consumption of a multivitamin to bridge the missing nutrients a child may have.

“I realize there’s a small population doing everything perfectly – they’re getting all their micronutrients every day – but typically, that’s not the case,” Gillette says. “We’re really lacking in these micronutrients that are key in biological processes that happen throughout the body. So yes, I’m an advocate for vitamins.”

Of course, if a child has certain health problems, such as irritable bowel syndrome or another specific disease, vitamin supplements may interfere with that child’s medical treatment. A pediatrician should always be consulted. But in general, most children could benefit from a daily multivitamin, Gillette says.

“We’re actually seeing an uptick of rickets because of the lack of calcium and vitamin D in children’s diets,” she adds. “I cannot even remember how long ago it was that we had a rickets problem. And this isn’t a Third World country, this is the United States.”

It’s not difficult to find a chewable multivitamin for children – you can find them over-the-counter at WalMart, CVS, Walgreens and other pharmacies.

For parents of picky eaters, Gillette has a few tips.

“The first thing is you have to lead by example,” she says. “I can’t tell you how many times I have parents slipping, and their kids call them out, which is really funny. Especially with the sugary drinks. I’ll be talking about that and I’ll show my families just how much sugar is in a 20-ounce soda, and the parent will say, ‘Well, I just can’t give up my regular soda!’ And I’ll say, ‘Well, here’s the thing, we’re here to learn about family lifestyle changes.’ I realize it’s hard to do, but parents have to set an example.”

Gillette also recommends parents serve healthy foods that they themselves like to eat, because if parents don’t like a vegetable and refuse to eat it, so will their children. Manipulating or “playing” with food can also help, since oftentimes children have a texture aversion. For example, cook the broccoli instead of eating it raw, or serve it in a soup.

Remember, canned and/or frozen fruits and vegetables are perfectly fine.

“A couple of other important things I tell my families – always put one food on the plate that you know your child isn’t going to eat,” Gillette says. “They don’t have to eat it, but just seeing it on the plate is going to stimulate the brain. That’s the other thing – you have to be patient. It will take up to 30 times before a child will even try it. It’s exhausting to think about – 30 times – but it’s well worth it. It really is.”

Despite how busy people are, Gillette encourages families to prioritize eating meals at a table. Not on the couch. Not in the car. But ideally at the kitchen table, with all electronics put away.

“First of all, that’s your time to reconnect with your family,” she says. “But the other thing is, your body will recognize when it’s time to eat. Eating strictly at the table will help stimulate your hunger cues. It’s not an easy goal, but it’s a big goal for many families.”

In addition, parents should educate themselves on what a child-sized portion looks like, Gillette adds. Adult-sized portions are oftentimes excessive anyway, but they’re even more so for children. Resources like and can help with education.

Finally, physical activity and nutrition go hand-in-hand. When Gillette asks her families about play time, she has to be specific.

“We’re so programmed into the electronic arena that kids think ‘play time’ means video games,” she says. “But children need to have structured play where they’re running around and moving. If we’re working on healthy meal planning, we also need to work on the healthy play aspect.”

In both of those areas, most families have something they can strive to improve.

“And our society will be better for it,” Gillette says.

Nutrition & Mental Health

There are multiple ways in which nutrition plays a role in mental health. If you’re not getting adequate or consistent nutrition, it could affect your energy levels, mood, or sometimes even your ability to sleep.

Lately, researchers have been learning more about the connection between a person’s gut bacteria and their mood, says Melissa Pociask, director of nutrition services for AMITA Health Alexian Brothers Behavioral Hospital, in Hoffman Estates.

“Your gastro-intestinal system, and really your whole body, has billions of bacteria that can be very helpful to you,” she explains. “These bacteria play a role in your overall mental and physical functioning.”

Your gut’s microbiota, or the microorganisms in your gut, help with both nutrient metabolism and immune function. So, even though it sounds like a misnomer, bacteria are actually very important for your overall health.

“One interesting thing we sometimes forget is that 70 to 80 percent of your body’s immune cells are in your gut,” Pociask says. “That’s quite a bit. That’s what protects you against disease and infection.”

Stress can actually alter your gut’s microbiota, Pociask adds. In addition, microbiota play a role in neurotransmitter production. Ninety-five percent of your body’s serotonin, which is the neurotransmitter that makes you “feel good,” is found in your gut. Healthy levels of serotonin influence your sleep, appetite, pain sensitivity and mood.

“So, you can see where nutrition and mental health ultimately coexist. It’s a cycle of one helping the other,” Pociask says. “If someone has an imbalance of their microbiota, the result is called dysbiosis. This means there’s a microbial imbalance, which has been linked to depression, obesity, diabetes, allergies, Alzheimer’s disease and autoimmune conditions.”

So how can you boost your “good” gut bacteria? Pociask has three components to keep in mind. First, avoid a heavy meat-based diet.

“I’m not saying you shouldn’t eat meat, it’s definitely a great protein source, but look at how often you’re eating meat,” Pociask says. “If you’re having meat seven days a week, maybe bring that down to four days a week.”

Second, be mindful of non-nutritive sweeteners and other food additives.

“They really upset the balance of your healthy gut bacteria,” Pociask says.

Finally, consume an adequate amount of fruits, veggies and whole grains, since plant-based fibers stimulate the growth of healthy bacteria. Probiotics, or foods that can boost your healthy gut bacteria, include yogurt, kombucha, sauerkraut, pickles, miso, tempeh, sourdough bread, and even some cheeses.

Prebiotics, or food ingredients that promote the growth of probiotics, include bananas, onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus, artichokes, soybeans and whole-wheat foods. Probiotic and prebiotic supplements are available, as well.

Pociask urges people to exercise caution when it comes to taking a supplement. Since the FDA doesn’t regulate them, you’re not necessarily getting the amount the label says.

Other vitamin supplements may be beneficial. Specifically for behavioral and mental health, a few supplements are being further researched for their potential to alleviate the symptoms of depression and anxiety, Pociask says. These include Omega 3 fatty acids and vitamin D supplements.

“But again, always contact your physician and discuss if there would be any interaction with your other medications,” Pociask says.

When she gives nutrition advice to her mental health patients, she doesn’t necessarily recommend anything different than what she’d tell the general population. This includes a consistent eating pattern, so “fueling” your body with food every two to five hours, and obviously, consuming a variety of food groups to ensure you’re getting a balance of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals.

She also advises her clients to work toward adequate hydration. Even low-grade dehydration will affect your energy levels.

So, if you’re hydrating properly, you’ll have an edge in terms of energy. Proper hydration is a two-fold accomplishment.

“First, start with your water intake,” Pociask advises. “Second, limit your caffeine.”

Whether you consume coffee, tea or soda, caffeine is a nervous system stimulant that revs up your heart rate, making you feel like you have energy, even though it’s not a true source. And, since caffeine is a diuretic, your body actually loses fluid.

“The other thing with caffeine and mental health is that if an individual struggles with an anxiety disorder, caffeine can actually aggravate the symptoms of anxiety,” Pociask explains. “I like to educate our patients and clients about that. We want to make sure they’re aware of how the things they consume are either helping or hindering their recovery and treatment.”

Obesity and Weight Loss

By now, everyone knows that obesity is an epidemic in America. But what can people do about it?

“There are a lot of misconceptions about obesity, and there can also be prejudice against patients with obesity, as well,” says Betsy Felde, registered and licensed dietitian at Northwestern Medicine Huntley Hospital. “This comes from society and can even come from those in health care. Obese patients tend to get labeled a lot of times incorrectly that they’re ‘lazy,’ ‘inactive,’ or ‘overindulgent,’ or they have a lack of willpower. These things oftentimes aren’t actually true, but they are simply labels that come from a lack of information.”

Obesity is a multi-factorial chronic disease stemming from three different areas, Felde explains. A person’s genetics is one piece, their environment is the second, and their behavior rounds out the third factor. 

So, when combating obesity, it’s important to focus on the only factor you can control.

“We really can’t control our genes, or even the socioeconomic status we have,” Felde says. “If we live in a low-income area, in a food desert, those are things we can’t change immediately. 

“But what we can change is our behavior.”

In addition to being a dietitian, Felde is also the practice manager of the medical and surgical weight-loss program at Huntley Hospital, where she spends a lot of time educating patients about what they can control, especially in regards to nutrition. 

Her lessons are all about lifestyle changes that positively affect weight loss and overall health. She teaches patients to change their lifestyle by practicing moderation, portion control, eating out less, exercising more, and eating more fruits and vegetables and less packaged foods and sweetened beverages.

“What we really try to do is start with a couple of goals and make them specific – how can we measure those goals? Are they obtainable? Are they relevant? And of course make them timelined,” Felde says. “That way, we can look in one month and see – what impact have we made on that goal? So, you’ll start to see forward progress.”

But sometimes, patients put in the effort – they try multiple diets, they exercise – and yet their weight still doesn’t improve. 

For those patients, weight-loss surgery may be the answer. 

“In our comprehensive weight-loss program, we meet patients where they’re at. So, we make small lifestyle changes, we do a lot of education so patients understand why the changes are necessary, and we keep them accountable through follow-up visits and support groups that we do online and in person,” Felde explains. “We educate about portion control, reading food labels, emotional eating and how to combat that, as well as pre- and post- surgery recommendations. 

“So, with the follow-up we have, we keep patients accountable and on track, and support them through the entire process. They will have ups and downs, and we walk them through it.”

The first step toward weight-loss surgery at Huntley Hospital is attending a free informational session held twice a month to understand options for surgery, as well as obesity risks and complications. Anyone interested can call (847) 802-7230 to get specific dates and times. 

Huntley Hospital’s weight-loss program offers a vertical sleeve gastrectomy procedure – the most common weight-loss procedure in the U.S. – as well as the Roux-en-Y gastric bypass, adjustable gastric band, and various other procedures. In order to qualify for weight-loss surgery, patients must have a body mass index (BMI) between 35 and 39.9 and concurrent health conditions such as diabetes or hyperdegenerative sleep apnea, or, they must have a BMI above 40.

“This is typically not your first step,” Felde explains. “Patients who come to weight-loss surgery have tried diets in the past, maybe have been successful in losing weight, but have been unsuccessful in the weight maintenance.”

Felde encourages anyone interested in weight loss, even if they’re not interested in surgery, to call (847) 802-7230 to find direction to appropriate resources. 

“We just know that when your BMI is that high, your life expectancy is so much less,” Felde says. “So, we really do partner with people to help them lose that weight and improve their health, since it really does improve their lifespan.”