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Everyone knows eating healthy is important. Nutritious foods keep our bodies in tip-top shape, give us energy, and have a positive effect on our mood. We all know there are many benefits to healthy eating, and still so many of us fill our plates with the wrong foods.

Sometimes it is hard to know where to begin. If you want to learn to eat better, but are not sure how, nutrition counseling is the perfect place to start. Summit Health offers nutrition services for a variety of diseases and conditions, weight management, or if you just want to improve your overall health.

Nutrition services are led by a dietitian or nutritionist who is an expert in selecting and balancing foods for healthy living. These specialists partner with you to identify your needs and develop a program that will help you achieve your personal goals. They can help you control weight, prevent, or manage disease, and promote general wellness.

Alexa Bacino“Nutrition counseling is not just important for weight management. Most people would greatly benefit from furthering their understanding of nutrition and how their food choices impact their overall health,” says Alexa Bacino, registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at Summit Health. “Registered dietitians personally tailor nutritional advice to help patients manage chronic diseases. They offer guidance to navigate food allergies or sensitivities, control weight gain, and improve self-image.”

Good nutrition is a crucial part of health and development throughout the lifespan, explains Ms. Bacino. Research shows that eating the right nutrients and having enough fiber in your diet can reduce your risk of developing certain diseases such as cancer and heart disease. Healthy eating also promotes a stronger immune system and improves mental health.

There is a lot of misinformation about nutrition and dieting that you may read on the Internet or hear from a friend. A registered dietitian nutritionist can help you sift through this information overload, she adds. Together, you can devise a program that is ideal for you and based on years of research.

Nutrition for Medical Needs

Many patients who come to Ms. Bacino are trying to either prevent developing a chronic condition or manage a disease they are already diagnosed with. A healthy diet can protect the human body against conditions such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and certain types of cancer.

“Medical nutrition therapy is a type of counseling that helps prevent and treat disease. It is customized based on the patient’s personal goals as well as their comorbidities and medical needs,” says Ms. Bacino. “We counsel patients on general nutrition, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, oncology, gastrointestinal conditions, and more. For people with chronic diseases, dietary changes can help manage these conditions and prevent complications.”

Ms. Bacino counsels many patients who have diabetes. Others have been diagnosed with pre-diabetes, meaning their blood sugar is higher than normal.

Many dietitians like Ms. Bacino are also certified diabetes educators. These healthcare professionals receive additional training to teach diabetic patients skills to control their blood sugar and better manage their condition. Oftentimes, patients who have made dietary changes can either prevent type 2 diabetes or reverse the condition entirely.

Anyone with a chronic disease could benefit from nutrition services. Here are some of the most common conditions that Ms. Bacino helps to manage and how she says healthy eating can improve their disease progression. 

  • Diabetes – Nutrition is crucial for the prevention and management of type 2 diabetes. Registered dietitians allow people with diabetes to make healthy food choices that meet their individual needs and optimize their overall health. 
  • Cardiovascular disease (high blood pressure and high cholesterol) – Balanced nutrition and physical activity are essential for reducing your risk of cardiovascular disease. Diets that are high in saturated fat and sodium, as well as a lack of physical activity, have a direct effect on your risk for these diseases.
  • Gastrointestinal conditions – Good nutrition is essential to reducing inflammation and avoiding flare-ups in a variety of conditions that affect the stomach and intestines including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s, and gastroparesis. Patients with immune conditions like Celiac disease need to follow a gluten-free diet. 
  • Cancer – Healthy eating can help patients manage the side effects of treatments like chemotherapy and radiation. Nutritious foods also ensure they receive enough protein to meet their energy needs.

Weight Control Services

Patients who are overweight often come to a registered dietitian to learn new tips and strategies. Keeping your weight in check will reduce your risk of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and certain cancers. As part of Summit Health’s multidisciplinary weight management program, nutritionists work closely with primary care physicians and mental health specialists to give patients a well-rounded approach to care.

“Regardless of weight, it is important for everyone to follow a well-balanced diet incorporating nutrient-dense foods including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and low-fat dairy,” Ms. Bacino says. “Opting for a balanced diet is an important step towards a happy and healthy lifestyle. Vitamins and minerals in the diet are vital to boost immunity and healthy development.”

Here are two of Ms. Bacino’s most important nutrition tips:

  • Focus on nutrient-dense, whole foods. Try to limit your consumption of processed foods that are often high in added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium.
  • Rethink your drink: Hydrate primarily with water and limit beverages with added sugar, including juice, soda, and sweetened iced teas. Excess calories from foods and drinks that are high in sugar contribute to unhealthy weight gain.

What You Can Expect at the Appointment

At Summit Health, nutritionists develop an individualized program that works for you. During your visit, they will spend some time getting to know your medical history and personal goals.

Ms. Bacino tries to get a sense of what her patients typically eat and what flavors they enjoy. Based on their preferences, she advises them on changes they can make to improve their health while still enjoying their meals. Sometimes she asks patients to keep a food diary to track what they are eating.

If you feel overwhelmed, remember even small changes can make a big difference. Your nutritionists will work with you to slowly introduce a stepped program you can work up to. Here are some of the ways Ms. Bacino helps her patients.

  • Understand food labels. Nutrition facts can be overwhelming and confusing. A dietitian will help you understand how to read food labels. It is important to know what ingredients you want to add, such as fiber, or reduce like saturated fats and sodium.
  • Portion control. Learn about the right helping size. For example, a serving of meat should equal no more than a deck of cards.
  • Balance meals. Load breakfast, lunch, and dinner with the nutrients you need. Half of your plate should be filled with fruits and vegetables. The other half should be equally divided between grains and proteins. A portion of dairy, such as a cup of milk, can also be incorporated.
  • Explain dietary restrictions. If you have a chronic condition, explain limits and how that applies to the diagnosis. For example, diabetics should make sure their blood sugar does not exceed or fall below a certain number.
  • Lifelong strategies. Everyone cheats now and then. Come up with a plan to stay healthy when you dine out or are tempted with special treats during the holidays and other occasions. 

Alexa Bacino, RD, CDE, is a member of Summit Health's Nutrition Services team. Ms. Bacino specializes in pediatrics nutrition with a focus on diabetes, weight management, and cystic fibrosis. She has worked as a pediatric dietitian for more than 7 years, beginning her career as an inpatient dietitian at a large medical center, working with children who suffered acute illnesses, as well as the pediatric renal transplant team. She later transitioned to a registered dietitian/certified diabetes educator at a pediatric specialty center where she primarily worked with diabetic children.