In a culture that’s always on the go, it can be difficult to make time to focus on nutrition. Occasional indulgent choices sometimes become consistent bad habits, but once in a while, it helps to reevaluate and make an intentional effort to choose healthier food.
National Nutrition Month, which takes place in March, was created in 1973 by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to encourage the public to make informed food choices and develop healthy lifestyle habits.
Kelly Kunkel, a health education specialist with the University of Minnesota Extension, gave a few tips on how to focus more on nutrition this month.
To start, increasing fruits, vegetables and whole grains are all beneficial ways to improve diet.
“Another thing you often forget about is that with sugar-sweetened beverages, those calories really add up over time. You get an endless amount of pop at restaurant, and the beverage you drink is sometimes higher in sugar and calories than the meal you eat,” Kunkel said.
She also recommended eating at home.
“When you know what’s going into the food, it can be a lot healthier,” she said. “We used to really focus on the meat being the centerpiece, but you can have whole grains or plant-based products as a focus instead, and have meat more as an accompaniment.”
Many Minnesotans grew up learning that the food pyramid was the best way to balance your daily foods and nutrients. These days, recommendations look a little different. MyPlate is the name of the new model recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that can help you find the right balance in your meals.
MyPlate recommends making half of your plate fruits and vegetables, making half of your grains whole grains, eating varied proteins, and moving to low-fat or fat-free dairy milk or yogurt.
“We don’t eat off of pyramids, we eat off of plates,” Kunkel said. “It helps to make that visual for the consumer. Oftentimes our meals are combinations of food groups, like if we have a stir fry, it doesn’t fall neatly into those categories.”
Nutrition is more than just what you eat—your whole lifestyle is involved. Physical activity is one important element in staying healthy.
It’s good to be aware of snacks and beverages you might consume outside of regular mealtimes, Kunkel said. Some of the lattes and frappuccinos we enjoy are packed with upwards of 500 calories and tons of sugar.
“Calories eaten while standing in front of the TV still count,” Kunkel said. “We can finish a bag of potato chips without realizing we did so. It helps to put it into a bowl or into a cup, so when you’re done, you’re done. A snack is an extension to your meal day, so try to keep it at three meals and three snacks.”
As spring approaches, many are thinking about losing weight in time for the summer season. Dieting can help, but Kunkel advised that people should use their common sense when choosing a diet to follow.
“If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” she said. “Make sure you research the diets you’re planning. I recommend the MyPlate diet; it’s very manageable. The Mediterranean diet is another choice that is well-researched.”
A diet shouldn’t be prohibitively expensive, Kunkel said, and she recommends talking with a health provider or dietitian when looking for the best fit for your health.
Probiotics, found in fermented foods, are becoming a popular way to nurture the microbiomes in our stomachs. This area of nutrition is still being researched, but probiotics are thought to help with many stomach and immune conditions. Foods that contain probiotics include sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha and yogurt.
“If one type of food is not something you like to eat, try different kinds of fermented foods and serve it with foods that you do like,” Kunkel said. “If you don’t like kombucha by itself, maybe you add mineral water to it. Kimchi might not be something you like on its own, but you do like it in a stir fry. Making a Greek yogurt smoothie with berries and spinach is great way to start the day.”
Eating healthy requires fresh foods, which not every household can afford. There are many community resources, such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, to households that face food insecurity. The Minnesota Food HelpLine (1-888-711-1151) can help connect people with resources available to them.
“It costs more to eat healthy, but it’s also an investment in your health,” Kunkel said. “Not everybody has access to the food they need to eat. Eating well shouldn’t be a luxury, it should be something everybody can afford.”
The HelpLine can direct people to community meals and food shelves that keep fresh produce and lean meats in stock. It can also help get them started on receiving SNAP benefits.
Communities are also combating food insecurity with initiatives such as community gardens that turn empty lots into places where people can grow their own produce.
Find recipes, information, resources and more this March at www.eatright.org, www.reallifegoodfood.umn.edu, www.hungersolutions.org or www.myplate.gov.
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