February is American Heart Month; March is National Nutrition Month. What better time than the February-to-March transition week to talk about eating habits, an acknowledged major contributor to the state of heart (and other) health? Groceries and nutritional counseling are even approved as Medicaid benefits in some states.
Perhaps the first rule of nutrition is not to make it a system of “no exceptions” commandments. Aside from arguments over vegan vs. paleo vs. abstinence from alcohol/sugar/chocolate chip cookies, one person’s healthy food can be someone else’s poison. Ask anyone with peanut allergy or celiac disease.
If there are points that experts universally agree on, these include:
- Eating too much or too fast, or in a high-stress state, is less healthy than eating smaller portions slowly and mindfully.
- Protein, fiber, and fresh produce are key ingredients in a healthy diet.
- The less processed a food, the better it is for you.
- There’s no need for most people to give up all fat, sugar, and processed foods forever. The secret is enjoying “treats” in limited amounts, preferably not every day.
- Planning menus in advance helps most people eat healthier.
- Since everyone and their digestive system is unique, it pays to get a doctor’s or dietician’s help making a plan that works for you.
Advice from a Dietician
For this article’s “ask the expert” section, we turned to Thien Vu, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (MPH, RDN/LD) with the Early Childhood Intervention program at Easter Seals Greater Houston.
What are your best basic tips on how people should eat?
- Stay aware of how much you eat, to avoid overeating. Watch the size of your servings.
- If you have trouble judging serving sizes, use “portion control” visual aids. You can buy dishes that are pre-divided and labeled for proteins, vegetables, etc. [Author’s note: Be careful not to let servings sneak over the edges or grow into awkwardly balanced piles!]
- Select nutrient-dense foods that are healthy, filling, and limited in calories.
- Eat mindfully.
What are some other favorite tips on improving nutrition habits, for individuals and families?
Meal planning, meal prep, and family mealtime are all important factors. They make it easy to implement mindful eating, select nutrient-dense foods, and portion servings appropriately.
Would you agree that “It’s not just the things you eat that ruin your health, it’s the things that are eating you”?
Things that are commonly “eating you”—stress, worries, anxieties, insecurities, etc.—do affect your health. Partly because they influence your food selection and the amounts you consume, and that influence is typically unhealthy.
Would you advise against making “go on a diet” a primary goal?
Technically, “diet” is defined as the kinds of food a person, animal, or community habitually eats—not a negative word in itself. However, some people automatically think “weight loss, restrictions, body image,” and it puts them in a negative mindset. It depends on perspective, but it’s best just to focus on daily intake.