Ask an Expert: Brian McFarlin, UNT

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Brian McFarlin, UNTUNT System HR brings you UNT World experts with this periodic and always timely installation called "Ask An Expert." So, let's ask...

EXPERT: Brian McFarlin, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies & Research in UNT's College of Education. It's the start of the new year and that means many of us are making resolutions to do things that will improve our lives. And yes, that means many of us will try to commit (again) to eating healthier and smarter in hopes of dropping a few pounds, which can help you manage stress better, sleep better and work better. By being healthy, you'll also help to reduce health insurance costs for all members of the State of Texas ERS System. But, too often in the quest to eat better, we sabotage ourselves with hard-to-stick-to-diets or, pun intended, bite off more than we can chew, get frustrated and give up. That's why we've enlisted nutrition expert Dr. McFarlin, who provides simple steps and advice that can provide big results as we seek an improved nutritional outlook for ourselves and our families. If you're looking to make smarter choices when it comes to your diet in 2022, read on.

Q: I want to commit to eating healthier and dropping a few pounds, but I really don’t even know where to start. What are some basic guidelines to help me get started?
Dr. McFarlin: The first place I normally start is by looking at what types of beverages people drink. It is fairly common for people to "drink excess calories" throughout the day. Often times, people can lose weight simply by choosing low-calorie options and/or drinking more water. The next thing is to ensure that you eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. A western diet normally includes large volumes of animal-based proteins; however, limiting these can be associated with health improvements. Think of them as a weekly treat rather than a core part of the daily diet. I would highly recommended eating a plant-based diet a couple times a week. If you have not tried it before, the UNT Denton campus has a nationally recognized, 100% plant-based dining hall. The facility is run by head chef Cris Williams. I would highly recommend giving Mean Greens Dining Hall a try to learn how fun it can be to eat plant-based.

Q: To be smarter about the foods I buy In other words, when I look at food labels, should I be looking at calories, total fat, ingredients, all of it?
Dr. McFarlin: 
I always refer people to this USDA website as they have good reference material that explains how to read and use labels. It's important to remember that percentages on diet labels are based on a 2,000 kcal diet. This amount of calories will allow most people to remain weight stable. You can estimate the amount of calories you would need to be weight stable using the Harris-Benedict equation (find more info using a basic web search). The next thing I would suggest is using an app to track how much you are eating. You can also look at the ERS Wellness site for additional resources. PRO TIP: When you start to feel hungry, you should drink 16 ounces of water and wait 20 minutes. if you are still hungry, then eat. Many times we confuse hunger for thirst.  

Q: When it comes to ingredients, how do I know what I’m buying is made with healthier ingredients?
Dr. McFarlin:
The best thing to do is avoid purchasing prepared products (prepared food would include products that are made at the store or even some that you take home and cook (like frozen entrees). In some cases, organic products may be healthy, but just because it is organic does not mean it is automatically healthy. Eating lots of fresh fruits and vegetables is always a good option as well. PRO TIP: Buy items with less than seven ingredients. Also, it is wise to avoid added sugar, which can appear as many different names.

Q: What are some tips to determine proper portion size? And, along those lines, are restaurant portions usually bigger than a "normal" serving size?
Dr. McFarlin: 
If you are at home, you can weigh your food to ensure you have the correct serving. If you are eating out, you can look at the nutritional facts for most places online. You can also initially only eat half the food since you will normally be served two to three times a typical serving amount. PRO TIP: Use a food recording app and/or food scale to get very accurate measurements of food intake.

Q: Any tips for eating healthier in restaurants?
Dr. McFarlin: 
Most restaurants list the calories on the menu or you can quickly look them up on your phone. An immediate good option is to only eat half of what is brought to you (if you are easily tempted, you could also ask the server to box half your meal initially). When choosing an entrée, think about if it fits into your total calorie goals for the day. Pick lower calorie options when possible and don’t be afraid to ask for ingredients to be left off if they are high-calorie.

Q: Is it true that eating at night is counterproductive? Is breakfast really the most important meal of the day?
Dr. McFarlin: 
There are many different ways to eat. Some people tolerate intermittent fasting well (only eating in small windows of time), others do not. You have to try different things to figure out what works for you. Time of day is important, but not in the sense that everyone needs to eat the exact same way.

Q: It's difficult to plan out healthy family dinners. Any tips on how to consistently prepare a nutritional family dinner that's also a crowd-pleaser on a crunched schedule?
Dr. McFarlin: 
Look at trying a meal delivery service where they provide the ingredients and recipe and you just need to cook it. After a few months, you will have a large list of recipes that just require you to buy more ingredients. PRO TIP: As an ERS member, there are several meal delivery services you can get at a significant discount. Check out the ERS Wellness website for more details.

Q: People always lists "drink more water" as a healthy goal, but what about beverages that have some flavor? Are diet drinks the way to go?
Dr. McFarlin:
 Everything in moderation is fine. In moderation, diet drinks are not bad, but drinking water should be your go-to. You can add crystallized lime or lemon to work for flavor and it adds no calories. Just something you have to get used to drinking regularly.