An interview with no-bullshit dietitian Kerri Hawkins

Kerri Hawkins, RD. Photo courtesy of Kerri Hawkins.

No topic has more bullshit than people writing about diets and nutrition. I learned that from my favorite food expert, Kerri Hawkins. I interviewed her about the way diet companies, food companies, restaurants, and media bullshit us about food.

Kerri is the the past president of the Massachusetts Dietetic Association and has helped people to lose thousands of pounds. She’s my partner in the non-profit wellnesscampaign.org, a site and program based on commonsense nutrition principles, not diets. Kerri combines an infectious, positive energy with no-bullshit principles. Here’s a condensed interview:

What is a dietitian?

A registered dietitian with a degree in nutrition helps people live their life better through food, whether that’s in a hospital, a doctor’s office, or even in the food industry.

Nutrition is a hot topic in media, but where people stumble is in applying it. I develop solutions for people around food and health. I’m their coach, cheerleader, and accountability person.

I keep hearing about new research in nutrition — usually research that contradicts what I read just last week. What’s up with that?

I have this conversation four or five times a day with clients. Look, if there is no work involved, it is too good to be true.

Nutrition is popular and with the popularity has come a lot of bullshit. You will get bloggers and people who are not trained in nutrition that share their opinions. That’s not real research.

We are still learning and understanding all the mechanisms. It’s going to take a long time to completely understand how your food choices impact health. There are long-term studies, but it takes months or years to see results, and it’s very hard from a nutrition standpoint to study something for years. That’s one reason why there is a lot of misinformation.

Take eggs. Years ago, research said that cholesterol in eggs raised cholesterol in the bloodstream. But eventually we realized, it’s not eggs that are evil, it’s total saturated fat. Eggs have only one gram of saturated fat, that’s not the reason that people have high cholesterol.

I’m confused about what food is bad. Are fats bad? Carbs? Sugar? Salt? Trans-fat?

Food in itself isn’t bad. What is bad is the amounts and way we consume it. Having an ice cream cone every once in a while is not a bad thing. Eating ice cream every day for a month, you shouldn’t be shocked that your blood sugar goes up.

Sugar, carbohydrates, and fats are natural and not inherently evil. The quantities that we consume are what makes a food bad or evil. Take sugar. When my parents were growing up, there was sugar, but not at the volume we’re eating now. It’s not the sugar itself, it’s the volume of sugar that makes the food evil.

As for trans fats, they are not natural, we made them. And they are evil.

Why are there so many charlatans selling crash diets and exercise programs? Do they work?

They make money. They get us into our quick fix mode. They make promises that they have no idea if they can keep. That doesn’t matter to them. It is about the volume of people coming through. It’s human nature that we want things to happen fast, we want them to be easy, we want people to like our program.

The American way is not to do the hard work. These programs work for most people in the short term, but it’s a very low percentage of people where they work in the long term.

Why are Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig and Nutrisystem still in business if they don’t work?

They are very good at taking those certain people and marketing them with the before/after picture, the celebrity. People are hopeful since they make it simple, but it’s a crapshoot for most people.

People who buy into this and fail think “It wasn’t the diet program, there’s something wrong with me. I’m not disciplined enough, I’m not fit enough.” But obesity is a disease state. There are genetics that drive it, more than a lack of discipline or a lack of will power.

Tell me about the bullshit that food companies pull on people.

There are thousands of health foods that are just junk food in disguise. Take oatmeal. You can buy traditional steel cut oats, which are great. Or you can buy oatmeal that has more sugar than a pop tart. Those flavored packet oatmeals have tons of added extra sugar. Oatmeal is healthy, but oatmeal loaded with sugar is junk food disguised as health food.

Then there’s the drinkable yogurt smoothie. Most of them have about 40 grams of sugar per serving. That is a Coke. You know a Coke is a sugary beverage. But if I give my kid this yogurt smoothie, I think I’m providing them with a high protein breakfast, but really I just gave my kid a Coke.

How about restaurants? What are they bullshitting us about?

In restaurants, the biggest challenge is portion size. I went to the Cheesecake Factory for lunch and ordered a chicken and asparagus dish with mashed potatoes. I got four chicken cutlets, three fist-sized helpings of mashed potatoes, and three spears of asparagus. That for me is four dinners. That was shocking. I would rather spend my food dollars on quality and get a little bit less.

The salt is the thing that shocks me the most. When people order what they think are healthy meals, the salt can be outrageous, 2000 mg or more, and that’s your daily amount in one meal. That’s not coincidental. Sugar, fat, and salt trigger us to come back, and salt and alcohol trigger us to drink more.

Can you give us one piece of advice that actually works and won’t change based on next week’s news?

Eat whole food. That way you know where it came from.

If you’re interested in more about this, here’s Kerri, talking about the evil triad of sugar, fat, and salt.

Originally posted at Without Bullshit.