1. Life & Culture

Healthy diet provides a solid foundation for your body

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Published Jul. 27, 2012

After an hour listening to Cynthia Sass, you'll want to rush to the market to stock up on berries, beans, spinach, yogurt and nuts. The registered dietitian and best-selling author advocates putting only the most natural, nutrient-dense and hunger-satisfying foods in your body, whether your goal is weight loss, running marathons or simply cleaning up your diet.

Sass, a former University of South Florida instructor who has gone on to national fame as a nutritionist, moved to New York a few years ago. But she'll be back in the area as keynote speaker for next weekend's BayCare Sports Medicine Conference in St. Petersburg.

In her latest book, Sass Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches, she tells readers how to build their diets around fresh, colorful produce (especially spinach and bananas), lean protein (such as eggs, beans and ricotta cheese), small amounts of healthy fat (including those found in avocado and nut butters) and fiber-rich whole grains (oats, quinoa, brown rice).

Bonus: Sass recommends a small, daily dose of dark chocolate (look for 70 percent cocoa on the label to make sure you're getting the maximum antioxidants). She savors hers during a moment she calls the "daily chocolate escape."

Sass, whose clients include the Tampa Bay Rays, has taken her nutritional knowledge to TV's Today show, the Early Show, the Rachael Ray Show and the Martha Stewart Show, and has had two books on the New York Times bestsellers list.

In her private practice she counsels individuals, couples, families and "girlfriend groups" on a wide range of nutrition issues, in person, on the phone and via Skype. No matter the venue, her core message is clear.

"It's all about the quality, quantity and timing of foods. When you eat is as important as what you eat," said Sass, who laments that 75 percent of Americans don't eat fruits and vegetables every day; even more don't get enough whole grains. "Even if you're eating fewer calories, but they are all refined and there's no fruits and vegetables in your diet, you're not optimizing your health."

Sass spoke to the Tampa Bay Times recently about her upcoming appearance in St. Petersburg and her food philosophy.

Can you summarize the message you'll be delivering next weekend?

It's all about, you really are what you eat. Food provides the raw materials for how your body performs and recovers. If you don't have the right nutrition to complement your fitness plan, you won't reap the desired benefits and results. It all depends on what you eat.

Would you share one of the seven strategies you'll be talking about?

Don't overdo protein — I meet so many athletes who eat way too much protein. I'll talk about that and why it can have unwanted side effects.

Is your advice for weight loss similar to your advice for athletes?

Yes, the meal timing and the balance of foods is very similar, but the quantity of food is different. For weight loss you want to provide enough fuel to be active, yet still lose weight. Both groups need some readily available carbohydrates before exercise. The right type and amount of carbs, plus what you eat after working out to recover, are key.

What are the right and wrong carbs?

Highly processed and refined carbs and sugars in general are not optimal. And right before exercising you don't want too much fiber which can upset your GI system. I like bananas and high quality whole grains such as brown rice and oats. My philosophy is, whole, all natural foods that are nutrient rich are best. You also need vitamins and antioxidants, so if you just have carbs, you don't get the complete package; you won't get all that your body needs for optimal performance.

Tell us more about timing meals correctly.

You have to make sure the gas tank is full before you hit the road. Eat breakfast within an hour of waking up to fuel the morning hours. Then refuel again so you eat about every three to five hours. If you've been exercising or very active, eat within an hour of stopping, be sure to include protein so you can start to recover and heal.

Protein is needed after working out?

Protein is important for recovery. It provides the raw materials that heal and repair muscle tissue. You have a window of opportunity, within an hour of training, to deliver that raw material. That's where a protein shake might come in handy, so it can get into the muscle fast, within an hour of working out. But watch quantity.

You do nutrition consulting for professional sports teams. Is your advice for them any different?

Again, quantity is the main difference. Professional athletes may exercise several hours a day, so their fuel and recovery needs are going to be different. A lot of the pros might need nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day. But my active friends wouldn't need that quantity.

Is there a nutrition myth that you'd like to correct?

The biggest one for everybody is that it's just about calories in and calories out. We have new research that says the quality of a meal is important because of how food is used by the body. You want whole, all natural foods and a wide variety of them so more nutrients show up for work. Remember, eat to fuel the next activity and to provide the raw materials for recovery. Variety, quality and timing are the most important strategies.

You favor limited amounts of healthy, plant based fats. Many people still think fat is the enemy.

Your body needs a certain amount of fat to function. When I take clients to the grocery store, the first thing we look at is nutrition labels. (Energy) bars made with only almonds and fruit may appear to be high in fat, but that's high quality, nutrient rich fat. You're still getting a good nutritional package.

What's missing from most meals today?

Americans — 75 percent — fall short on fruits and vegetables. Fitting those in, that one change alone, can make a big difference in performance and recovery. It's not possible to take a pill to make up for that loss.

Any foods you consider pure poison? Some experts say white flour and sugar.

While they aren't optimal nutrition, I still think we all have "can't live without'' foods. So it's about frequency and quantity and combining them with complementary foods, like antioxidant rich berries, that help offset the bad. While I don't recommend white flour and white sugar, if a client wants a couple of homemade snickerdoodles, I can help them include those in a less damaging way.