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Catholic Health dietitian looks to lead by example

Candi Possinger, left, a registered dietitian who heads the Catholic Medical Partners nutrition program, pictured here with fellow dietitian Kendra Hennessey, says the old "Food Pyramid" way of eating has been replaced by "The Plate," which recommends a protein, whole grain and plenty of fruits and vegetables. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

By Scott Scanlon – Refresh Editor

What’s the best way to lose weight and keep it off?

“Number one is to make sure you’re eating healthy, balanced meals. As hard as people make it sound, it’s really not,” Candi Possinger, a registered dietitian with Catholic Medical Partners, told me during an interview earlier this week for today’s “In the Field” feature in WNY Refresh.

Possinger leads an 11-member staff that has made a dent in obesity since the doctor group launched a nutrition education program about three years ago – but there is still lots of work to do.

The Buffalo-Niagara region falls higher than the national average when it comes to obesity and diabetes rates, and routinely sits at or near the top when it comes to the rate of cardiovascular disease, Possinger said.

When it comes to advice she and the staff dispenses, “We have to hold ourselves to the suggestions we’re making as well,” the staff leader said. “I can say I’ve lost 20 pounds in the last nine months.”

Her personal weight loss journey isn’t always easy.

“I’m a sweet eater, no doubt about it,” she told me. “My name’s Candi. I love sweets, cakes and cookies, things like that. I try not to bring them into my house.

“I do tell people, ‘Life is life,’ and moderation is what we tend preach, so if I go out to dinner I’ll have dessert every once in a while so I’m not bringing it home with me. If it’s in the house, I know I’m going to eat it, so knowing myself, I try not to set myself up with those issues.”

Nationally, she said, “We’ve switched from the food pyramid to the plate. If you can make that plate a little bit of healthy protein, a little bit of whole-grain carbohydrates and half your plate as vegetables, you have a nice, balanced plate.

“We have to make sure our plate is healthy and our plate is not huge, and that we eat every four to five hours at a maximum, to keep that metabolism going, and make sure we get some sort of activity every single day. That’s the answer.

“All of us, we as dietitians, sit at our desks as well. I wear my Fitbit every single day and make sure at the end of the day I have X number of steps, I’ve burned X number of calories.”

Here’s what else Possinger had to tell me about her eating habits, and obesity in the region.

What are the staples of your diet?

I’m very proud when I leave the grocery store because I rarely have items that need to go in my pantry. I emphasize buying most of my foods in the perimeter of the store, so I buy a lot of fruits and vegetables. I work a lot of hours, my husband works long hours, so sometimes I’m buying frozen vegetables, but they’re just as healthy. Every meal, I try to have at least a fruit or vegetable. Breakfast time, it’s usually fruit; lunch and dinner I always have vegetables. I emphasize protein. I always make sure at every single meal I have some kind of protein, because that is going to make me feel full for that four to five hours. Whether it’s nuts or chicken, turkey, whatever the case might be. I am a milk drinker. I eat Greek yogurt every day. I try to make my plate have a little bit of carbohydrate, a little bit of protein, and the vegetable. I try to have people think of their carbohyrdate or their startch as a side dish, not, ‘We’re having pasta tonight, what are we going to put with our pasta?’ ... If you look at the food trends, carbohydrates and startch is definitely what people tend to overconsume.

I always pack snacks. Mondays, I work 12 hours, so I always need to make sure I have things ready to go. The snacks have a little protein, as well. I’ve fallen in love with some of these great protein granola bars. They’re great go-tos. Nuts. Greek yogurt is another common snack. Sometimes, whole grain crackers and cheese.

How does obestity among Catholic Medical Partners patients break down geographically by age, race, sex and income? Do any of those things matter?

We definitely see a higher rate of obesity in lower-income populations. Age, unfortuately, doesn’t seem to matter. We’re starting as young as 2-year-olds and we’re seeing it in our 90-year-olds. Where we used to be able to say obesity is much more prevalent in adults and Type 2 diabetes is much more prevalent in adults, we’re seeing it so much earlier on in adolescents and children.

One thing to highlight, research has spoken that if somene is obese as a child, the liklihood of them being obese as an adult is astronomical.

Race, we definitely see African-American, Hispanics and Natives with higher levels of obesity. As disparate as it was in the past, it’s not enough to really talk about now. It’s a problem that’s across the spectrum. Even gender-wise, it’s very much 50-50.

Programs like yours are still a relatively new phenomenon. You were in the first dietetics class at UB 14 years ago. So this is something more and more people in the medical field seem to recognize as an issue?

Absolutely. The partnership between doctors and dietitians, especially over the last 3½ years as I’ve been able to witness it, has been unbelieveable. You wouldn’t have seen it 10 years ago. Now you see it everywhere. You go to the grocery store, you see it. You go to the doctor’s office, you see it. You see it in the school system. There’s so many things that are fusing nutrition and health into our population. I think we’re finally seeing the payback on it.

Who shares the credit for the 40 percent drop in obesity rates for children aged 2 to 5 over the last decade?

A lot of people. The credit first and foremost has to go to the parents and the family. Whoever’s giving them the information, they’ve taken and run with it. They’ve instilled new habits and information in that household. Where that information has come from, I want to give credit to dietitians. I think we have to give credit to pediatricians. I think we have to give credit to grocery stores for their health promotion. We have to give credit to community action. There’s some meetings and committees that I’ve sat with in Erie County where we’ve said, ‘How can we look at community centers, How can we make our communities more walkable?’ There’s so many things going on behind the scenes that people don’t even realize that have an impact.

Who shares the blame for the troubling rates in all these other age groups?

Everyone always attacks the food industry. I don’t want to attack them, but I want to say they’ve listened to supply and demand. We’ve asked for more convenient items because we don’t have a lot of time in our lives. We’ve asked for bigger portion sizes because we’ve started to get used to it. We’ve asked for longer storage time in our households because we don’t want to throw anything out, so that means let’s add more sugar and salt to items.

I think we definitely need to have some work in that area. I think the proposed new food labeling will help (See a related story next Saturday in WNY Refresh). If we can get the food industry behind this and have healthier options that are different and fun, that can continue the trend.

Where does personal responsibility come in here?

Without a doubt, there is personal responsibility. Patients come in with a lot of excuses. ‘I can’t make changes because of this.’ ‘I didn’t eat well because of that.’ ‘My husband doesn’t eat healthy so I don’t eat healthy.’ It comes to a point where you have to take personal responsibility and say, ‘You know what, my health is most important to me. I want to be healthier for myself, I want to eat healthier myself because I want to live longer.’

We spend a lot of time with motivational interviewing, getting people to understand the ‘why’ behind the food. People need to understand the why behind their food choices. ... It takes them a session or two before they come to the realization, ‘You know what, I’m an emotional eater.’ They need to have that self-awareness because that’s when the personal responsibility can come into play.


Twitter: @BNrefresh

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About The Refresh Buffalo Blog

Scott Scanlon

Scott Scanlon

Scott Scanlon is an award-winning reporter and editor who has covered various topics in his quarter-century as a journalist in South Florida, Syracuse and Buffalo. He is aiming to pass along what he is learning these days about health, fitness, nutrition and family life.

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