March is National Nutrition Month, which is a great time to remind ourselves about healthy eating habits for ourselves and our families. Designated by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the goal of the campaign is to celebrate smart eating and physical activity to encourage a healthy body weight and lowered risk of chronic disease. March couldn’t be a better time to ensure each of us is staying on track towards the healthy goals we set for ourselves earlier in the year.
This year’s theme of National Nutrition Month is “Bite into a Healthy Lifestyle,” which reminds us that healthy eating isn’t about restricting food, but more about making healthful choices. That includes consuming fewer calories, eating nutrient-dense foods, reducing intake of non-nutritional foods, balancing diet with exercise and sustaining a healthy eating pattern. National Nutrition Month advocates the MyPlate campaign set forth by the United States Department of Agriculture and supported by First Lady Michelle Obama.
There have been many evolutionary steps in what is considered a “balanced diet” throughout the years. You probably remember them from health class. Once we were taught the four food groups. Then it evolved into the food pyramid. Now, MyPlate provides a visual representation of how a balanced meal should look. The ideal plate includes 1) varied vegetables, 2) lots of fruit, 3) protein with each meal, 4) grains, preferably whole grains, and 5) dairy. All of these should be achieved during every meal within a healthy caloric allotment.
As most of us know, even within these healthy categories, not all foods are created equal, which is why diversity is essential. For instance, carrots are a vegetable with more sugar but contain beta-carotene and additional nutrients hard to find in other vegetables. Green leafy vegetables, or cruciferous vegetables, such as spinach, collard greens, Brussels sprouts, broccoli and cabbage, are especially rich in nutrients and fiber, giving you a bigger bang for your buck. The same is true of fruits. Berries have vital antioxidants but are more sugary than apples and melons. Both are important in a balanced diet in moderation.
When it comes to protein, the key is to go lean. Chicken, fish, turkey and beans are examples of terrific lean proteins. Preparation also matters. Baking, grilling and sautéing food is always more healthful than drowning it in oil for frying. Pork and beef can be consumed in moderation, and cuts that are “rounds” or are marked “choice” or “select” are considerably healthier than other parts of pigs and cows.
Good choices are also crucial for the last two categories, grains and dairy. Whole grains such as whole wheat pasta, whole wheat bread, brown rice and quinoa pack in a ton of nutrients and will help satiate the body for longer than white breads, pastas and rice, which contains a lot of sugar. Lean dairy includes low-fat milk, cottage cheese, yogurt and cheeses. Diary can become a major source of unhealthy fats and calories if over-consumed, however a balanced quantity helps boost the metabolism and promotes healthy bacteria in the gut.
Healthful eating is all about having the right mindset. Consuming a balanced diet isn’t about dieting and certainly is no longer for the sole purpose of weight loss. Maintaining a healthy diet and exercise regimen will strengthen the body in many ways, including boosting the immune system to keep chronic, life-threatening diseases at bay for a healthier future. We hope you join us in celebrating National Nutrition Month and literally bite into a healthy lifestyle.