Esther Denise Hernandez, MS, RD, LD: Finding Your Nutritional Balance

By Tonya Kerr

When it comes to nutrition in Houston, there’s one go-to place in town. Local Houstonians and worldwide travelers alike have flocked to The Houstonian Hotel, Club and Spa for almost 40 years. This month is National Nutrition Month, so we checked in with registered and licensed dietician, Denise Hernandez, who specializes in health and wellness for some of the biggest names in the Bayou City.


You can’t name names, but your client list reads like a who’s who of Houston. Do you find that Houstonians face any unique nutrition challenges compared to people in other cities?

Yes, I do. We have over 10,000 restaurants and Houstonians dine out more than people in other cities, at a rate of 4.1 times per week. The temptation is real! Because of this, it’s important to make a commitment to eat sensibly when dining out and to cook more at home. Don’t get me wrong, we can enjoy the many restaurants available to us, proud Houstonians, but try not to make it the norm.

Another issue is that even though Houston has a total park space of 56,405 acres and offers 228.8 miles of hike and bike trails, some Houstonians still find it difficult to move around our city without using their vehicle. A gym setting may not be as motivating as the great outdoors, but that’s what I love about The Houstonian Club; it offers a motivating environment and a beautiful campus.


Families are busier than ever these days and eating out is a way of life for most of us.  What’s your tip for making better choices?

I get it. You’ve worked all day, you must take kids to their extracurricular activities, and somewhere in there make time for some weekly exercise, all the while having the responsibility of providing a meal that your family will not only eat but approve of. Good decisions are still possible even when going through a drive-thru. It’s important to make sound decisions when ordering meals, so know the menu. Make your selections ahead of time and stick to them. If you leave it to the last minute when you’re in a crunch and hungry, good decisions go out the window.


Silly question, but why did the food pyramid change?  My kids have no idea what I’m talking about when I mention the four food groups.

The USDA food pyramid was criticized for being outdated. The pyramid was revamped in 2005 and then changed in 2011 to the MyPlate image. I personally like the new MyPlate image because it emphasizes that a balanced meal includes vegetables and fruits (half of your plate to be exact). Nine out of ten clients tell me that they struggle with understanding portion sizes. It’s not as difficult as they make it out to be and the MyPlate image helps with that. It’s a great tool to help people understand that fruits and vegetables should be the focus of every meal.


What’s your best trick to get kids to eat their vegetables?

Bribery! Just kidding that never works. I have first-hand experience with a picky eater by way of my 7-year old daughter, Eva. She used to enjoy a variety of vegetables as a toddler and then one day decided that they were the enemy. A practice that I started implementing at home is using a MyPlate serving dish, which has compartments for protein, carbohydrates, fruits, and vegetables. I discussed the importance of eating fruits and vegetables at her level and now serve her meals in the dish. I let her choose from 2 vegetable options and fruit options. This practice empowered her in making the decision for herself.

Parents can also use a Taste Plate to introduce a new vegetable on a weekly basis. The taste plate is on the side and should only have a bite-sized portion of the new food. It’s a non-threatening way to get your child to try new foods.


Our staff has been affected by thyroid issues and are convinced there is a growing problem.  Any nutrition tie-ins with this topic?

Hypothyroidism is a growing problem affecting about 4-6% of Americans, with women being 5 to 8 times more likely than men to suffer from it. An individual diagnosed with hypothyroidism must address any deficiencies especially in iodine, selenium, and iron, which are essential for thyroid hormone production. I usually help clients determine any deficiencies by analyzing their diet through a detailed food record. If a deficiency is identified, then dietary suggestions can be made to correct the deficiency. Goitrogens (substances that interfere with thyroid hormone production) must also be addressed only if a client has an iodine deficiency. Goitrogens can be found in foods like cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, Brussel’s sprouts, mustard seed, turnip, radish, bamboo shoot, and cassava. These minerals are essential for thyroid hormone production and metabolism. Individuals should also pay attention to their carbohydrate intake and portions, as high blood insulin can interfere with thyroid hormone production.


You’ve been a big proponent of nutritional genomics in helping clients determine the most effective dietary approach to reach their goals. Tell us how that’s changed your world of nutrition.

I counsel many clients who have tried every diet under the sun, but still struggle with weight management (yo-yo dieting). This is because they try one extreme after another not knowing what will work for them. Clients cannot maintain the lost weight, and they come to me at the end of their rope. Nutritional genomics takes the guesswork out of dieting.

We swab their cheek. It’s an effortless way to collect cells using a buccal swab, and we send it to a lab to get a genetic profile. The information allows me to look at how a client’s genetic make-up affects their body’s use of different nutrients like carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Knowing your genetic make-up can be a game-changer, and my clients at The Houstonian Club are loving it.


Eating Right

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, building a healthy plate is easy when you make half your plate fruits and vegetables, as Denise suggests. It’s also a fantastic way to add color, flavor and texture plus vitamins, minerals and fiber. Here are some creative ways to make 2 cups of fruit and 2 ½ cups of vegetables your daily goal:

  • You can disguise almost any vegetable in a smoothie of low-fat milk and frozen fruit.
  • Veggie wraps with roasted vegetables and low-fat cheese rolled in a whole-wheat tortilla.
  • Crunchy vegetables instead of chips with your favorite low-fat salad dressing for dipping.
  • Grill colorful vegetable or fruit kabobs or set out colorful salad fixings and let your family build their own.
  • Place colorful fruit where everyone can easily see and grab it on the go.
  • Fruit sauces are great if you puree apples, berries, peaches or pears in a blender -put them on seafood, breakfast waffles, you name it!
  • Grate, shred or chop vegetables such as zucchini, spinach and carrots into lasagna, meat loaf, mashed potatoes, pasta sauce and rice dishes.
  • Create a fruit dessert by slicing a banana lengthwise and topping it with a scoop of low-fat frozen yogurt and toppings like dried cranberries or nuts.

Here’s a link to these tips and more: