Behind the Plate


October 10, 2016


Andy Bellatti, MS, RD, is a dietitian and health coach who focuses on whole-food-based, plant-centric nutrition. With a background in journalism, Andy’s interests in nutrition go beyond our daily practices into food politics, policy, and issues surrounding the way the food industry has shaped our relationship with food.

Please tell us about what you do.
My full-time job is in corporate wellness/corporate health coaching. Additionally, I am the strategic director of Dietitians For Professional Integrity, and I do freelance writing on various food system and nutrition topics.

How did you become interested in good eating?
My current interest in food developed slowly over time. The first significant event happened in 2004 when I watched Morgan Spurlock’s documentary, Super Size Me. I walked out of the theater wanting to learn more; so much more. Super Size Me went beyond the unhealthiness of fast food. It was also my first exposure to issues of food politics and the industry’s massive power and influence in shaping policy and the food environment.

I watched that documentary just days after graduating from New York University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. That movie lit the initial spark that eventually led me to get a master’s degree in nutrition and become a registered dietitian.

If you could get the general population to change one aspect of their eating habits, what would it be?
Eat more plants. The average American falls woefully short of the daily recommended intake of fiber. That paints a very picture clear: we aren’t eating enough whole, plant-based foods (the only ones that contain fiber).

Talk a little bit about Dietitians for Professional Integrity.
Dietitians For Professional Integrity was founded in February of 2013. A few weeks prior, public health attorney Michele Simon published a report on the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ food industry ties that garnered national attention. As a vocal critic of these ties, I saw an important opportunity to mobilize like-minded dietitians and create an organized movement calling for sponsorship reform.

Since our inception, the topic of corporate sponsorships within the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics went from being relegated to the back of the closet to taking center stage as a “Mega Topic” at last year’s House of Delegates meeting. Additionally, the Academy created a sponsorship advisory task force. It’s progress.

How do you define good food?
There are many different definitions depending on the context. Above all else, good food promotes health and nourishes. While that relates to a food’s nutritional profile, it has nothing to do with one specific nutrient. Avocados, high in fat, promote health. So do pears, which are 96 percent carbohydrate. “Low-fat” and “low-carb” miss the point. “Low-processed” is more important.

Good food should also promote the health of our planet and the health of workers. A nutritious salad made with tomatoes picked by laborers who are not paid fairly is not “good food”.  Neither is a decadent and delicious chocolate bar made from beans picked by child slaves.

Countries across the world are taking action on their nation’s food systems—for example, Brazil recently added the right to food to its constitution, and introduced enviable and comprehensive good eating guidelines that include everything from nutrition to sustainability. What is one policy effort you would you like to see the US take to help the American people eat better?
Get corporate money out of politics. Many of the policy decisions that influence what we eat are voted on by politicians that receive financial contributions from powerful food industry lobbies. It’s a tangled web, and I can’t say that I have a step-by-step plan of how to do that. Voting for politicians who do not have a record of being in the pocket of industries is a good start.

What’s always in your fridge?
A variety of plant-based milks (the differences in flavors and textures make some a better fit for coffee, and others perfect for cooking oatmeal), broccoli, hemp seeds, chia seeds, and ground flax seeds.

Is there any aspect of your diet that you’ve been trying to improve? If so, how have you been trying to improve it?
I have become more mindful of my omega-3 intake. I realized that I ate almonds and pistachios on a daily basis. Of course, they are healthful, but I noticed that they displaced plant-based omega-3 fats. So, I now have two to three tablespoons of hemp, chia, and/or ground flax several times a week. They are so easy to sprinkle over a variety of dishes.

How do you incorporate a variety of vegetables into your diet?
The key, as I tell my coachees, is to make vegetables taste good so you crave them. So many people equate vegetables with mushy peas and carrots or bland salads. Blegh. I love lightly steamed broccoli with a drizzle of hemp oil and a few shakes of nutritional yeast and cayenne pepper, roasted root vegetables (the caramelization brings out their flavors, and a pinch of salt adds the perfect contrast), dipping cucumbers in hummus, adding arugula to homemade pesto, and sautéeing lacinato kale in olive oil and garlic (goes great with whole wheat pasta).

Good eating habits need to be developed from an early age, not only to set the foundation for the habits one maintains as an adult, but also to stop childhood-onset type 2 diabetes in its tracks. What do you think is the best way to educate our children about food?
Lead by example. I recently had a coachee who was in awe that, once she made it a point to serve vegetables with family meals, her toddlers started eating vegetables. She told me she didn’t think much of it before because she didn’t think her children would want to eat them. By simply offering vegetables with meals—and never requiring her children eat them or bribing them with dessert—she normalized the behavior.

Good eating is more than what you eat, it’s also being mindful about how you eat it. What is your favorite way to enjoy a good meal?
Of course a meal with a few close friends (I don’t like large group meals) is always fun. That said, I live by myself, so I’m totally guilty of eating dinner while catching up on vacuous reality television (sometimes it’s Rachel Maddow though, so cut me some slack).

How do you manage to eat well when traveling or on-the-go?
I usually travel to large cities where healthful food is widely and easily available, so I can’t say I have to put forth a lot of effort in that sense. If anything, the part that requires some forethought is airports, but I bring snacks with me. My go-to travel snacks include roasted chickpeas, low-sugar snack bars, and dark chocolate.

What’s your favorite part about what you do?
Seeing the tangible results of improving one’s diet. I have been a health coach for almost five years and can think of many people who, as a result of simply eating better, improved all sorts of biomarkers: triglycerides, blood pressure, blood sugar, etc. Many of them even halved their medication dosages or gotten completely off of them.

What’s one piece of advice you can give to someone trying to develop better, longterm eating habits?
Identify one particular habit that you think currently gets in the way of your health goals, and focus exclusively on that goal—on a daily basis—for at least 60 days. Then, and only then, should you even begin to entertain adding another goal. One very common mistake many people make is simultaneously trying to eat more fiber, cut back on sodium, cut back on added sugar, and go from a sedentary lifestyle to working out six days a week. It’s a recipe for frustration.

Good eating isn’t about perfection, it’s about habits and progress. From time to time we all eat something we don’t feel so great about later. What is your advice for those oops moments?
I always tell my coachees to keep the 80/20 or 90/10 rule in mind. What ultimately determines your health is what you do 80-90 percent of the time. That leaves the remaining 10-20 percent for special occasions, celebrations, indulgences, and times when your life gets turned a little upside down (consider how much your eating gets disrupted when you move, for example). If you want to eat well 99% of the time, more power to you. But that isn’t the only way. When you think of the big picture, you realize that enjoying a cupcake at a baby shower is a non-issue. Of course, I also think it is important to differentiate between savoring and truly enjoying treats, as opposed to turning to those foods to fill emotional voids.

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