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Do normal nutrition guidelines apply to smaller people?

Asked by Lisa, Wisconsin

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My co-workers and I are small women (5 feet and under) in our 40s and want to make sure we get the correct nutrition. If we followed the guidelines about how many servings of each food group, we'd be well on our way to gaining weight, since they're based on "normal" sized people. Are our nutritional needs different from those who require 2,000 calories a day? Do we cut how many servings or do we cut the size of each serving?

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Diet and Fitness Expert Dr. Melina Jampolis Physician Nutrition Specialist

Expert answer

Hi Lisa,

This is an important question and while I can't give you specific recommendations without knowing more about you and your co-workers, I can help point you in the right direction. First of all, I assume that you are talking about the USDA Food pyramid guidelines when you refer to the recommended number of servings of each food group per day.

While the pyramid shows a range of servings based on approximately 2,000 calories per day, if you visit the official USDA Web site, the first sentence on the page is "There is no one size fits all," which speaks directly to your question. If you click on "My Pyramid Plan," under "subjects" on the left side of the page, you can type in your age, height, weight, sex and daily activity level and receive customized recommendations for total calories and number of servings per food group per day for achieving optimal health and maintaining a healthy weight. In addition, there are tips for optimizing food choices within each category, such as making sure you consume at least three servings of whole grain per day and making sure that you get a variety of vegetables on a weekly basis, especially deep green and orange-colored veggies, which are particularly nutrient rich.

Because you are a smaller person, it is very important for you to choose nutrient-dense foods since you need less food overall. The most nutrient-dense foods are generally whole foods that have been minimally processed so they retain their natural vitamins, mineral, phytonutrients, and fiber. Try to limit sugary, processed foods and drinks, fast food and refined grains as much as possible since these foods often have a low nutrient density but high calorie density.

If your goal is weight loss, or if you find that you are gaining weight following your customized guidelines, I would recommend cutting back on the number of grain servings per day, especially if you are only moderately physically active or if any of you are pre-menopausal. As I discussed on "House Call with Dr. Sanjay Gupta" a few weeks ago, pre-, peri- and post-menopausal women seem to have a lower tolerance for carbohydrates as they enter these stages of life. This is the result of an increase in insulin resistance, which some researches believe is associated with decreases in estrogen, but is also due to changes in body composition. (Decreased muscle mass results in increased fat mass, especially around the belly.)

Hope this helps!

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