By Jill Fleming, MS, RD/LD, Veterans Memorial Hospital Dietitian
Each year, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics celebrates the month of March as National Nutrition Month. The focus of this campaign is to help you make informed food choices and encourage healthy lifestyle habits. Ideally, you will be reducing your risk of chronic disease and enjoying optimal health.
Since there are so many different diets being talked about in the media, knowing which one is the best can be confusing. Should you avoid all carbohydrates? Do you need to count calories? Should you eat 6 small meals daily or eat only once per day?
Here are some simple guidelines for healthy eating and lifestyle choices to improve your health and give you more natural energy:
- Start with a good night’s sleep. Research shows that healthy individuals, with normal levels of hunger hormones will get at least 6 ½ hours of sleep per night, with the optimal level being 7-8 hours nightly. If you are getting less than this, you may want to be sure to stop looking at screens (TV or cell phones) during the hour before going to bed.
- Next prioritize exercise. Plan to move your body for a minimum of 30 minutes daily. If you have excess weight to lose, increase this to 60 minutes per day. It can be as simple as taking a walk, marching in place in your living room or riding your stationary bike. Exercise will release feel-good hormones to improve your mood and will help you sleep better.
- Plan what you will eat the day before. This helps prevent impulse eating or just throwing in a frozen pizza because you “don’t know what to eat for supper”. Sketch out a simple meal plan for your main meal of the day, as most of us are eating the same 5-7 meals on repeat.
- Eat 2 or 3 planned meals per day and cut out the snacking. When you are only eating at mealtime, you will be less tempted to nibble on crackers or cookies. Every time you eat something, your blood sugar will go up, causing a surge of insulin. Insulin is a fat-storage hormone which can contribute to weight gain.
- Focus on eating real food, not just calories or grams. Real food is food that either does not have a food label or contains just 1-3 ingredients and is minimally processed. Try to aim for at least 75% unprocessed foods in your daily diet.
- Eat more vegetables and fruit. Most Americans are not consuming the minimum 5 servings per day of vegetables or fruit. If your goal is to lose weight, increase your intake of produce to 8-10 servings/day. These foods are great sources of fiber and loaded with phytonutrients to keep you healthy.
- Make water your beverage of choice for hydration. Aim to drink enough water to produce pale yellow, non-cloudy urine midday. This will be approximately 80-100oz for most people of average height. Water is essential to move the fiber through and out of your body.
- Avoid fried foods and animal fats. Since heart disease is the leading cause of death, these saturated fats and damaged oils should be avoided. You can “oven-fry” all of your favorite foods at home in the oven or air-fryer for a healthier choice.
These are the foundational principals of good health and optimal choices to prevent chronic diseases. Of course, not smoking and keeping your stress to a minimum will be important as well. If you do already have a chronic disease or special dietary restrictions, please schedule an appointment with your local registered dietitian for an individualized nutrition plan.