My name is Emily Jokisch and I am a registered dietitian and certified strength and conditioning coach. I’m here to answer your nutrition-related questions.
This month, I decided to answer several submitted questions with one answer. (We have a few remaining questions that we’ll address in December!)
1. Is there a certain part of the diet that is the most important? For instance, what is more important to watch out for, sugar or sodium? I do not have blood pressure issues or diabetes, but I am trying to be healthier and try to stay under 21 milligrams (mg) of sodium and 45 grams (g) of sugar per day. I also consume about 800 to 1,000 calories a day. Is all of this healthy?
2. Do you eat/drink products containing aspartame? Why or why not?
3. What about a cup of coke with the meal?
The most important thing when it comes to healthy eating is BALANCE. There is not one absolute thing you must always avoid or a certain thing you must eat in order to be healthy. You also want to make sure you are getting in enough calories to ensure you can consume a balanced diet. Unless advised by a doctor or dietitian, your daily calorie intake should be at least 1,200 calories. When looking at sodium and sugar, both are things you can have, but want to focus on having them in moderation. However, some science shows that consuming too much sugar is worse because it can make the negative effects of sodium even more harmful.
Excess sodium in your diet can lead to elevated blood pressure, also known as hypertension. High blood pressure is what they call a “silent killer” because there are very few signs and symptoms before it becomes dangerously high. Your daily sodium intake should be less than 2,400mg per day, which equals ONLY ONE teaspoon of salt per day. Most people consume much more than that, so it is something we want to watch out for. To cut back on sodium, take the salt shaker off the table, limit the amount of added salt in cooking, and watch out for processed foods and pre-packaged foods.
While too much salt has a direct consequence on your blood pressure, excess sugar has a wider range of negative effects on the body. Too much sugar can cause weight gain and potentially diabetes and other chronic diseases. It can also cause accelerated cellular aging and excessive inflammation, and can also decrease neuronal growth factors such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a compound produced in your brain that is responsible for enhancing learning memory, higher-level thinking, and even long-term memory.
Excess sugar can also hurt healthy blood pressure when it interacts with your body to influence sodium levels. When you eat sugar in excess, your body releases more of the hormone insulin, which removes sugar from your bloodstream. Insulin also causes your kidneys to retain sodium. So if you consume a diet high in sugar, the increased level of insulin will repeatedly coax your kidneys to hold onto sodium, while you’re simultaneously pumping more and more sodium in your body via your diet.
As with salt, you do not need to cut sugar out of your diet completely to have a healthy diet. Again, try cutting back on the processed and pre-packaged foods, which are usually high in salt or sugar or both.
Also try limiting the amount of added sugars in your diet and focus on natural sugars instead, such as some fresh fruit! The key is to try to have at least 80% of your diet come from whole foods (fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, dairy, lean meats) and the other 20% can come from those special items you enjoy.