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It is a common misconception that nutritionists frown upon eating what you like or are used to. Lindsay Maurer MS, RDN, CDCES, a registered dietitian at Summit Health, says there is no one-size-fits-all approach to creating a balanced nutritional plan. In fact, personalizing your plate — based on your food preferences and cultural background — to help you achieve your health goals, is what dietitians like her do best.

“The approach we take at Summit Health is very individualized. There is no one diet that works for everyone,” she says. “A big part of how I counsel someone is to first get a sense of who they are, what foods they grew up with, and what dishes are meaningful to them. This helps me identify what changes are going to work and how I can help my patients achieve their best healthy self.”

An important part of personalizing a patient’s plate is understanding their background. Every culture has different food choices, preferences, traditions, and intakes. At times, these traditional foods may not always fit the bill for what people consider “healthy" or what someone "should be eating.” 

“Food is more than just food, particularly in patients from different backgrounds,” says Ms. Maurer, who specializes in working with patients of Hispanic and Asian descent. “There are emotional and memory components that draw people to different meals.”

Her job is to take these cultural preferences and find ways to make nutritious tweaks. “My philosophy is one step at a time. Change is difficult, and it does not come all at once,” she adds. Following one simple tip can make a big impact.

  • Cut portions. Many backgrounds focus heavily on meats or carbs. You do not have to get rid of them entirely. Simply divide the portion in half and save the rest for another meal. Add in plant-based foods to offset the dishes that are higher in sugar.
  • Sneak in veggies. In many cultures white rice is a staple at the dinner table. Try switching to brown rice. If you can’t get used to the flavor, add in some diced cauliflower, chickpeas, or lentils to bump up the protein and fiber on your plate.
  • Add healthy flavor. Replace butter with olive or avocado oil. A lot of traditional dishes use high-fat butter, salt, and sugar in their sauces. Healthy fats, spices, fresh herbs, and lemon or lime juice can be substituted without drastically altering the flavor.

Many individuals who are referred to Ms. Maurer have conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure. Dietitians at SMG work closely with primary care physicians, endocrinologists, and cardiologists to help patients improve their overall health.

“A lot of times people avoid coming to us even if their doctor recommended it. But we aren’t going to turn your plate upside down all at once,” she says. “Even one small adjustment, such as eating more fresh foods and fewer packaged meals, can help people lose weight, lower their blood pressure, and even come off certain medications.”