According to the National Institutes of Health, at least 31% of all Americans have at least one key nutrient deficiency. This number could be upwards of 90%, based on the demographic and the nutrient. At the same time, almost 40% of Americans are obese. Furthermore, almost 45% of Americans have at least one preventable chronic disease. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services states that, healthy weight or not, poor diet plays a direct role in causing many risk factors associated with chronic disease. Health organizations agree that eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables is associated with a lowered risk of many chronic diseases – including heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, and some cancers. The sooner we commit to healthy eating for ourselves and our families, the lower our risk for disease and we can more vibrantly live our daily lives.
“But it’s hard to eat healthy all the time! It’s expensive. It’s not convenient. There is conflicting information out there on what I’m supposed to eat.” Yes, it can be confusing. Yes, we as Americans want a quick fix. There are a lot of diet approaches out there, all promising miraculous results in days. All this information can be very overwhelming. Sooner or later, we go back to our learned habits, and we are right back where we started. We also tend to use food as stress relief, entertainment, reward, and pleasure. These attitudes toward food only complicate how we choose to eat day to day and affects our willingness to change our eating patterns. The key is to make small positive changes, build upon those changes, and pass them down. Healthy eating is one of the most powerful tools to prevent or delay disease. Healthy eating helps us stay active as we age, the perfect one-two punch to remaining healthy and energetic throughout our lives.
Healthy eating shouldn’t be thought of as all or nothing. People can learn simple ways to improve nutrient density while eating foods they love. While considering family traditions, preferences, culture, budget and time, little changes are always possible. Less than 10% of Americans eat enough fruits and veggies, making this the simplest and most impactful way to improve our nutrient intake. Fruits and vegetables don’t need to be expensive additions to your meals. Eating produce in season is often cheaper than opting for foods that are out of season. Another way to add produce to your diet is to consider frozen or canned. It has been argued that frozen or canned vegetables are not as nutritious as fresh, but typically the differences are negligible, and sometimes preserved produce is more nutritious than fresh. Adding frozen or canned vegetables to soups, stir fries, casseroles, and cultural or traditional dishes can be done without much change to the taste and overall feel of the dish. (Your family won’t notice that they’re eating more vegetables!)
Pre-planning meals has several benefits. Pre-planning keeps you from just grabbing something on the way home from work because you would have packed a snack or had a dinner cooking in the crock pot at home. Planning your shopping list keeps you from purchasing foods that you may not get around to cooking before they expire, reducing waste. Pre-planning gives you an opportunity to aim for more fruits and vegetables to eat at each meal. Eventually, the goal is to have half your meal consist of vegetables and fruit. Pre-planning encourages you to cook more meals at home, which has been shown to increase mental and physical health. Use your pre-planning as an opportunity to make double batches for lunch leftovers or freezing for quick dinners later.
Another strategy for increasing health through our diet is to check labels for added sugars, sodium and saturated fat. Adults should aim to stay below 2300 mg of sodium per day. The daily limits for added sugars are 25 grams for women and 36 grams for men. Aim for less than 7% of your calories from saturated fat, approximately 10-22 grams per day. Checking labels can be eye-opening as to what food
companies are willing to add to our food to make it more palatable and addictive. Becoming more educated about what is in your food can be empowering to cook more at home and make better choices when shopping and dining out.
-Ruth Homan, Community Health Worker Telluride