Good eats: Optimal nutrition at any age

Forget South Beach, ignore Atkins, and stop loading your shopping cart with "healthy foods" like fat-free pretzels and rice cakes. It's time to follow the Kris Clark diet.

"The media does us no benefit by promoting fad diet books," Clark said as she kicked off the spring season of Research Unplugged on Wednesday. "My mission is to get you thinking about how you're eating, and what to change to improve your diet."

Controlling portion size, counting calories, balancing food groups, and participating in physical activity are all part of optimal nutrition, said Clark. As director of sports nutrition at Penn State, she should know.

professor speaks in front of crowds
Emily Wiley

Kris Clark reminds the Research Unplugged crowd that calories count.

Clark counsels university athletes on how to eat for peak performance, but Wednesday's conversation focused on eating for health and quality of life at any age. Clark polled the crowd on who could use more energy and was answered by a multitude of nods and affirmations. Her solution: calories. "I call them energy dollar bills," she smiled, suggesting that people should "spend" their calories wisely. Clark advised that 50 percent of calories should come from carbohydrates, while the other half should be split evenly between fats and proteins. "I can't tell you how wrong no carb diets are," she said. "Nutrients aren't the bad guys." Clark reinforced that portion size matters. "If you're drinking your juice from a 32 oz. cup, it's not really a cup," she said as the crowd laughed. "Too much 'healthy food' also brings too many calories."

Clark encouraged those present to know how many calories they're consuming, as well as how many they need, which differs based on age and activity level. Per day, sedentary people need about 12 to 13 calories per pound to stay at their current weight. But according to Clark, losing weight is a different story.

woman in gray blazer holds yellow blob
Emily Rowlands

Representation of five pounds of body fat.

Holding up a model representing five pounds of body fat, Clark announced that one pound of fat equals 3,500 calories, a fact that caused audience members to gasp and grab their tummies. "If you want to lose one pound (in one week), cut 500 calories from your daily diet," she suggested, still displaying the fat blob, which looked and felt like congealed butter. "It could be the wine you drink before bed or the snack you have in the middle of the day."

When Clark opened the discussion to audience members, they expressed concerns about newsworthy health issues. For example, new research has indicated that low fat diets do not decrease the cancer risk for women and calcium supplements alone do not prevent osteoporosis. Clark's fail-proof answer: moderation, diet, and exercise. "I believe in butter and sugar and real ingredients, as long as you don't eat too much of any one thing. And I believe in physical activity," she said. For Clark, food is the best source of nutrients and walking—even a mile a day—is the best way to fight obesity.

Clark closed by reminding listeners that calories come from choices. "I love chocolate!" she exclaimed. "But only in moderation." As the crowd filtered from the Downtown Theatre, audience members thought twice before grabbing that second helping of bagel and cream cheese from the enticing snack tray.

Kris Clark, Ph.D., is the director of sports nutrition at Penn State. She can be reached at klc5@psu.edu. Katie Feeney is an undergraduate communications student and intern for Research Unplugged. She can be reached at kaf254@psu.edu.

Last Updated March 15, 2006