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Staying Healthy At Home

Nutrition 101

Interview By Jack Hastings

NDSU professor and extension food and nutrition specialist Julie Garden-Robinson gives you some insight into dieting and nutrition.

Could you tell me a bit about your position?

I have two titles. I’m an extension food and nutrition specialist for the state, and then I’m a professor on campus at NDSU. My area is nutrition food safety and health. And what do I do? Depends on the day. I coordinate education for all ages across the state. I work with our extension faculty. Literally, every county has some type of extension presence. In any of those disciplines, whether we’re talking about food entrepreneurs, food safety and food pantries to nutrition education for people.

If someone is wanting to eat healthier, where would you recommend they start?

I would say that you should work with a professional. Maybe a registered dietician would be your best bet, somebody who has studied nutrition and can truly assess your diet, and where you are. There’s a lot of nutrition information all around us, you can get any answer you want, but it’s really best to go to a professional if you’re really looking at your diet because they will be able to assess it. Then figure out where you are, what are your issues.

I came upon a system several years ago that I thought was really valuable. The first thing is to set a specific goal. Then three reasons why you want to meet that goal, whether it’s eating more vegetables or whatever it happens to be. Then five ways to make it happen. That can work for almost any kind of goal, fitness goal, nutrition goal, life goal. Let’s say, the goal is weight loss, that’s often what people are thinking now post-pandemic. Thinking about your portion sizes and knowing how to read a nutrition label are two important things. We have resources on both of those pieces. One thing that’s neat about the new nutrition label is the serving size font is quite large. The font is big so you can’t miss it. If it’s a cup then everything on the label relates to that.

In just getting started to eat healthfully start small, just one goal at a time, one step at a time. Around the new year’s resolutions, for example, people are going to change everything. That just doesn’t work because it becomes overwhelming. So pick out the most important goal. If it’s about weight-loss, learning about portion size is really important, but also thinking about the variety in your diet. Most people tend to eat very similar things because that’s what they know how to cook. But trying to get more variety, especially in terms of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

Is there anything that’s commonly missing from people’s diets?

This is true of any age, from little kids through adults, people are really short on their vegetable and fruit intake. Some of the reasons in our part of the world are sometimes those foods are less available depending on where you live, or maybe they’re cost-prohibitive. We all should be aiming for a total of at least four and a half cups of fruits and vegetables a day, and that often is surprising to people. A very small percent of kids and adults meet that goal. The reason that we in nutrition promote eating fruits and vegetables so much is because of the health benefits. Eating more plant-based foods fruits, vegetables, whole grains can decrease our risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, those diseases we might think of when we’re older but those have roots when you’re young. We should make at least half of our grain choices whole grain. We’re low in fiber. That’s very much an issue. I did see a stat that only five percent meet their fiber needs. Men need about 38 grams of fiber a day and women about 25. It’s all on that nutrition label so that’s a key to knowing what you’re eating. I would certainly advise that people start using those tools that we have and working with a professional to assess their diet to see just where they miss things.

We just finished a program we’re releasing next week all about vitamin D. Vitamin D, we can get from the action of sunlight on our skin. Of course, not many of us are standing outside in the winter. In those cold winter times, we’re not making that vitamin D in our body so we have to get it either from food, and there aren’t a lot of foods that have vitamin D, or supplements, like vitamin D3. Vitamin D is an issue all across this upper part of the United States with cold temperatures. Vitamin D plays a role in a lot of diseases. It’s known because it helps keep our bones strong but it also is linked to mental health issues, depression or long-term chronic diseases such as heart disease. There was some research that came out during this whole pandemic that people who were low in vitamin D status, as measured in their blood, had more risk of more severe outcomes because they didn’t have enough vitamin D. I write a column called Prairie Fare and I did a whole column on vitamin D. You have to be kind of careful with that because the other thing we were running into in our world of extension was people were taking huge amounts of it. Vitamin D doesn’t prevent it, just if you get it it might not be as severe.

Fruits, vegetables and fiber. That would include more whole grains, beans, edible beans, Vitamin D. Overall, there’s a lack of variety in people’s diets. What we’re getting too much of is probably sodium, some of these things that are detrimental. That’s where the nutrition label can really help you. It has all of these components and now vitamin D is brand new to the label because of all the new research, it was never on labels prior to the last couple of years.

Are there healthier methods of preparing food? What methods should you avoid?

We encourage people to use methods such as roasting, baking, steaming, grilling, those methods that don’t add a lot of calories through fat. For example, anytime you drop things in oil, you’re going to have more fat content, more calories. We used to be really focused on fat in nutrition and we’re not so much focused anymore. We’re more looking at the type of fat. Some fats are certainly healthier than others. You can trim down on calories with methods like baking and grilling and sauteeing.

Any tips for smart, healthy grocery shopping? What are some solutions to eating healthy on a budget?

Probably the best advice, and sometimes my husband and I fail on this one, you should never go grocery shopping when you’re hungry and create a list.
Creating a shopping list and even keeping a little piece of paper on your fridge for when you run short of things. We have five weeks of menus and recipes if you go to the website under food preparation. We have a whole series that was developed for young adults, it’s called Cooking 101. There are probably a dozen in that series. Grocery shopping and food preparation really change throughout your life. You grew up in a family so the recipes were larger. Through time you go out on your own and suddenly you’re cooking for one or two.

Nutrition educators will tell you to shop the perimeter of the store. That’s more of your fruits and vegetables, bread and meat. Once you get in those inner aisles that’s often where your more processed foods are. You just have to think about the layout of your store and try to stick with your grocery list and with your healthier food plan.

You can really save a lot of money if you make your own food. My son likes to eat a lot of rice and beans and that’s certainly a healthy option, those dry goods that you can use in a variety of ways. Frozen fruits and vegetables are basically just as healthy as fresh options. Don’t think that if you’re not buying fresh that frozen doesn’t count. Canned are nutritious as well, and they do count as fruits and vegetables toward that four and a half cup goal. But sometimes our canned goods, like kidney beans and canned corn, can have a significant amount of sodium so we suggest draining out the liquid and rinsing them off. That will take off some of the sodium.

What I often hear from people, depending on their household size, is that a loaf of bread is too much. They’ll get sick of eating bread, so we also have how to freeze almost anything on our website. We do have these freezer guides. So, if your family unit is not large, you can still buy in bulk but you might have to do a little bit more work so that you can keep that food fresh and able to be used.

We have a whole series called pinching pennies in the kitchen, and that is about how you can use what you already have to make recipes like casseroles, soups. Like what can you do with that leftover bread? You can freeze it, but you can make it into croutons. There’s a lot of different ways you can use it. Our agency also tries to reach out to people with fewer financial resources. We have a lot of budget-minded information. And certainly, with the pandemic, we’ve certainly seen a need to provide that sort of information for everybody. Stretch your dollars.

Is it beneficial to adhere to a diet or are there other healthier methods to guide your eating habits?

I think it’s important to personalize what you eat to your needs. We don’t advocate fad diets or quick weight loss because those usually fail. A diet that’s really restrictive is basically impossible to keep following and it’s not good for your body. Another excellent tool, and it’s free, is You can go in there and it will help you determine what your needs are based on your age and activity level and it will actually print out a guide for you to look at. Stay away from fad diets, they’re pretty tempting. There’s a lot of advertising on TV and all these infomercials and stuff coming at us from everywhere, but the best diet is a healthy eating plan, one that you can sustain and is tailor-made for you. If you had a health condition like high blood pressure or diabetes or prediabetes, certainly our tools can help you and you don’t have to follow something that might be impossible.

How can physical activity best tie into healthy eating?

I’m not a specialist in physical activity but I’m in a department that has specialists in physical activity so I’ve certainly heard about it. A lot of my students actually are athletes. What’s important for those of us who are not athletes, is to find some kind of regular physical activity that you can keep doing that’s sustainable. Walking is probably one of the easiest ones for anyone with the capability to walk. We suggest aiming for at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity on five or more days of the week. That can be walking. It even counts if I have a 15-minute break and I go walking around the Student Union here. That counts toward that 30-minute goal.

Regular physical activity can be anything. It can be yoga, walking your dog if you want to pay for a gym membership, or whatever. It should be something that you can sustain and keep doing because nutrition and physical activity go hand in hand. You can’t just do one and not the other. It’s really important to do both because the combination of these two things can really make a difference in helping prevent all these chronic diseases, cancer, diabetes, heart disease. We can’t change our genetics, but we can change our lifestyle.

Is there anything else that I didn’t ask about that you’d want to share?

To go back to weight loss, some people think that if they skip meals that’s a healthy way to do it. And what we do suggest is regular meals and snacks and maybe lesser portions throughout the day. There are all kinds of philosophies on weight loss, there are 100 different diets that you could follow, but they should be personalized to your needs. What we typically tell people is to evenly space their food throughout the day. Have some protein in the morning because that’ll help sustain you as you’re going about your work and have a little snack at about 10 a.m. or mid-morning and have your lunch. But don’t eat huge amounts, it’s portion sizes that are very important.

One thing we didn’t talk about is how important it is to maintain your hydration, drinking water and fluids throughout the day. I always have a cup of coffee or water with me. Regardless of if it’s cold outside or hot outside, hydration is really important and it’s something that as we get older we don’t have as strong an ability to know when we’re thirsty anymore. So, just that regular consumption of fluid.

Think about what kind of beverages you are consuming. Those can add a lot of calories. So if somebody loves to drink pop, the easiest thing for them if they wanted to lose weight would be to just switch from pop to water. That can be 200 or 500 calories a day that you’re cutting out. You could actually lose a pound a week technically, I’d have to do the calculation, but that simple change could lead to weight loss and improved health. Fluids are also very important, especially if you eat a lot more fiber, you need more fluid.

To learn more about Julie’s work and diet/nutrition trends visit the NDSU Extension: website at or find Julie’s columns at

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