March is National Nutrition Month and this year’s theme is “Put Your Best Fork Forward”. The campaign strives to help people make small changes in eating habits over time rather than a complete change overnight that may be more difficult to maintain.
A variety of foods is important to diet, because no one food or food group provides all of the nutrients our bodies need to grow and stay healthy. There are 6 nutrients: water, protein, carbohydrate, fat, vitamins and minerals. Most foods and drinks provide some or all of those, only in different amounts.
For example, bell peppers are a good source of vitamin C, whereas yogurt and cheese provide higher amounts of calcium. Nuts and seeds are good sources of minerals, like magnesium and zinc, but they also contribute protein and healthy fats. Bananas are known for being a good source of potassium, a mineral many Americans don’t get enough of. Asparagus is too, but it also provides a good amount of a B vitamin, called folate, which is important for women of childbearing age.
There is some overlap, too. For instance, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are all great sources of dietary fiber. And foods, like fish and chicken, provide protein, but fish are also good sources of heart healthy fats called omega-3s. Fatty types of fish are one of the few food sources of vitamin D – another nutrient many people are lacking. (Eggs are also a good source of protein and vitamin D.)
All vegetables are important, and it is recommended that we eat some every day. Children have smaller requirements, 1 to 1-1 /2 cups per day, girls and boys up to the age of 18 should eat 2 to 3 cups daily and the amount for most adults is the same (2 to 3 cups every day).
Surveys in the U.S. indicate that most people, no matter their age, fall short, and the most commonly eaten vegetables are potatoes and tomatoes. These 2 vegetables aren’t bad, but a lot of times they are made with added sugars, salt, and fat.
Plus, if those are the only 2 vegetables eaten regularly, then we’re missing out on the nutrients the other subgroups of vegetables provide.
Dark green vegetables, for example, are a great source of vitamin K, which is important for blood clotting and bone health. (Some people need to monitor their vitamin K intake when taking certain medications, like blood thinners.)
Red and orange veggies provide nutrients that help keep our eyes healthy.
Beans and peas are not only considered vegetables, but they can also be good sources of plant-based protein. This is especially important for people who follow vegetarian or vegan diets.
We don’t need to eat all of these sub-groups each and every day, instead it’s recommended that we include several servings every week.
Here are some tips to getting a variety of foods into your diet each week:
- Plan meals to include different colored vegetables throughout the week.
- Remember to choose vegetables from each of those subgroups (i.e., dark green, red and orange, beans and peas, starchy, and other)
- Experiment with different vegetables when preparing healthy soups and salads.
- Make a point to buy different vegetables, depending on what is in season. Chances are they will be more affordable, too.
- Pack a variety of different colored fruits as snacks.
- Whole fruits, such as apples, bananas, and oranges are really convenient, but individually packaged and already cut up fruit works, too. Just be sure to look for ones with 100% fruit juice and no added sugars.
- Try new recipes that call for fruits, such as a mixed salad with sliced apples or pears. You can also add fruit, like berries and bananas, to oatmeal, muffins and even pancake batter.
- Enjoy fruit in place of sweets for dessert more often.
Increase Whole Grain use in your diet:
- Try preparing a whole grain that is new to you, such as brown rice instead of white.
- You can also experiment with other grains, like wild rice or quinoa.
- Switch to a whole grain bread or wrap for sandwiches – there are so many different varieties available today to choose from. Just be sure to look for a whole grain flour of some type listed as the first ingredient (as opposed to an enriched one).
- Another option is to look for ready-to-eat cereals, and even snacks, that are made with whole grain flours.
- You can also add whole grain flour to muffins, quick breads, and batters to make pancakes or waffles. (Up to half of the amount of flour that is called for in a recipe can be substituted with a whole grain flour. The amount of leavening may need to be adjusted, though.)
Vary your Proteins:
- Substitute plant-based proteins in recipes, such as a mixture of beans in chili.
- You can make the recipes without any meat or substitute some of the beans in place of some of the meat, if you’d like.
- Another option is to try meatless dishes when you eat out.
- Many different cuisines offer foods made with beans and lentils.
- Sweeten plain low-fat yogurt with different types of fruits or whole grain cereals.
- This combination makes for a tasty treat, and if you portion it out in advance, then it becomes a convenient breakfast on-the-go or a healthy snack.
- You can also make smoothies with fruit and fat-free milk or yogurt on other days.
We don’t like to talk about fat, but it’s actually an important nutrient that is required for various body processes and helps us absorb certain vitamins. However, some fats are considered to be healthier than others.
Plant-based fats that are liquid at room temperature, like vegetable oils, are the sources of fat that we want to include more often. These types of fats are called unsaturated fats.
Saturated fats are solid at room temperature and are found in fatty meats and higher fat dairy products.
Trans fats may be found in snacks, already prepared foods, baked goods, and some margarines. You can check the label for grams of trans fat or check the ingredients list for “partially hydrogenated oils”.
We should limit saturated fats and trans fat by:
- Choosing low-fat and fat-free milk and dairy products.
- Eating lean sources of protein foods.
- Including more plant-based oils in place of solid fats.
- Limiting sweet desserts and snacks.
The changes you decide to make can focus on one food group or even one meal at a time.
It’s important to remember that everything you eat and drink matters. Starting with small changes can help you develop healthier habits that last.
To help you get started, try making 1 or 2 small goals at first.
The more specific they are, the better. For example, rather than saying, “I’m going to start eating more fruit”. It’s better to set a goal such as “I will eat fruit 3 days this week as a snack in the afternoon”.
Other examples include: “I will try one new recipe this week that uses a whole grain” or “I will drink low-fat milk or water with dinner every day this week”.
Remember, eating right doesn’t have to be complicated. Just take some simple steps and plan ahead. Little changes will go a long way in how you look and feel.
Source: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics