We’ve all heard the old adage, you are what you eat. It’s true; what we put in our mouths, whether food, beverage or supplement, literally determines what our bodies are made of. “Nutrition is the bedrock of health,” said nutrition counselor John Fawkes. “Next to sleep, it’s the most important lifestyle factor and determinant of your health and well-being.”
There are many reasons why it’s important right now to take a long look at our nutrition. Chief among them is that many Americans live with such diseases as obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer that can potentially be reduced or reversed with dietary changes. If you have the good fortune, or good genes, to live without any health conditions or diseases, you can still make dietary changes that give you a key to maintaining vibrant health as you age. (However, you should check with your physician before changing your diet or supplements, and this article is not a replacement for medical advice.)
We read the federal government’s new “Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025” and spoke with nutrition professionals around the nation to find out what food best fuels a body, learn which dietary supplements to consider—and address the myth that eating healthy means spending more at the supermarket.
Choosing natural, plant-based foods—an apple instead of an apple toaster pastry, for example—goes a long way toward improving nutrition. Breakfast, lunch or dinner can easily contain 50% fruits and/or vegetables. The “Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025” recommends a plate that reflects half fruits and vegetables; one-quarter grains, with half of those whole grains; and one-quarter protein, with protein sources varied. (More information about building a healthier plate can be explored at myplate.gov.)
“Start your journey by beginning in the produce section when you shop instead of the protein section,” said dietitian Shena Jaramillo, RD. Buying relatively long-lasting plant-based foods—beans, whole grains, carrots, apples, citrus fruit—in bulk will significantly reduce the cost per unit, she said. Produce doesn’t have to be relegated to a side dish; you can choose plant-based proteins like beans, lentils, quinoa and tofu, or use produce to bulk up animal proteins.
“Try switching out half of your hamburger meat for lentils or beans to make your dollars go further and reduce the caloric and fat intake,” Jaramillosaid. “While you don’t need to replace all your animal protein, having a variety will reduce your grocery bill and can improve the nutrient density in food choices.”
According to the “Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025,” nutrient-dense foods and beverages provide vitamins, minerals and other health-promoting components and have little added sugars, saturated fat or sodium. “Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, seafood, eggs, beans, peas and lentils, unsalted nuts and seeds, fat-free and low-fat dairy products, and lean meats and poultry—when prepared with no or little added sugars, saturated fat and sodium—are nutrient-dense foods.”
Increasing your plant-based food intake can easily help you boost your fiber intake, another key component of a healthy diet. Fiber is found in foods such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains and legumes.
“Most people do not get enough fiber, and it can help you feel fuller, decrease cholesterol and manage blood sugars,” explained Amanda Sobhani, RDN, CDN, a dietitian, nutritionist and education coordinator for the Diabetes Association of Atlanta. (According to “Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025,” more than 90% of women and 97% of men do not meet recommended intakes for dietary fiber.)
Adequate fiber intake, along with sufficient water, helps keep bowel movements regular, as it increases the transit time of material in the digestive tract and keeps everything moving smoothly, said Jinan Banna, PhD, RD, who is an associate professor of nutrition at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. Water, she said, helps your body eliminate waste, can help decrease high blood sugar, and prevent such symptoms of dehydration as headache.
In addition to their plant-based goodness, whole grains have been shown to have a prebiotic effect on the gut, meaning they stimulate the growth of healthy bacteria, added Banna. “Prebiotics have been shown to have beneficial effects on immune and metabolic function in the gut.”
Saving money at the supermarket while eating healthy really comes down to making healthy—and smart—choices, said nutritionist Paul Claybrook, CN. He feeds his family of eight on about $700 per month. How? By choosing produce that’s consistently less expensive, like bananas, apples, tomatoes and broccoli, and eating poultry, pork and eggs rather than steak.
“If you don’t insist on eating like a one-percenter, you can be healthy without breaking the bank,” Claybrook said.
Added sugars are empty calories, meaning they pack on calories without adding nutritional value, said dietitian Megan Wong, RD. “Consuming more than you need as an energy source results in that sugar being stored as fat,” she said. “Not only can sugar weaken the immune system, it can also contribute to weight gain.”
Reducing sugar in one’s diet doesn’t mean just skipping that cookie or doughnut; you need to read package labels to determine how much sugar has been added to any processed foods.
According to “Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025,” when added sugars in beverages and foods exceed 10% of calories, “a healthy dietary pattern within calorie limits is very difficult to achieve”—yet added sugars account on average for more than 13% of Americans’ total calories per day.
Diets high in sugar have also been shown to have the potential to decrease microbial diversity in the gut after just one week’s time, said Banna, “and a loss of microbial diversity in the gut microbiota has been shown to be associated with most of the human diseases affecting Westernized countries.” The authors of one recent study on this subject noted that “high dietary sugar can, through the modulation of microbiota, promote metabolic endotoxemia, systemic (low grade) inflammation and the development of metabolic dysregulation and thereby, high dietary sugar may have many-fold deleterious health effects …”
One way to reduce sugar intake is to cut out sugar-sweetened beverages, which pose particular health risks. A study published in PLOS Medicine in December 2020 found that consumption of both sugar-sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages (with one exception: orange juice) increased the risk of frailty in older women, with frailty defined as having at least three of the following five criteria: fatigue, poor strength, reduced aerobic capacity, having chronic illnesses and weight loss.
A manageable way to shift away from sugar is to make small changes that add up over time, said Sobhani. “Maybe you eat ice cream or cookies for dessert every day,” she said. “A small change that you may be able to make is to eat a piece of fruit instead of ice cream or cookies three days a week. If that goes well you can try to increase that habit to five days [a] week.”
According to “Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025,” nutritional needs should be met with food—but the nutrition experts we spoke with agreed that even the best diet could be augmented with supplementation.
Most women and men can ensure they are getting adequate micronutrients with a simple multi-vitamin daily, said Jaramillo. “An iron supplement might be a good insurance policy for women as many women are deficient in this nutrient, and vitamin D and fish oil supplements can also be beneficial for both men and women.”
Wong agreed that vitamin D supplementation might be helpful, and said trying to get enough of this vitamin from food alone simply won’t cut it. “Vitamin D plays a crucial role in making sure the immune system works properly, and some studies suggest that vitamin D levels drop with stress,” she said. “There aren’t too many foods that provide vitamin D … and taking a D3 supplement will help ensure you meet your vitamin D needs.”
Certified nutrition specialist Chrissy Hayden, CNS, LMT, believes a food-first approach is paramount but that supplementation complements food to ensure you get essential nutrients.
“Foundational supplements I tend to recommend are a good multivitamin, a high quality fish oil with approximately two grams total of EPA and DHA, and Vitamin D3, at least 2000 IUs,” Hayden said. “Always check with your doctor or a qualified health practitioner as fish oil is a natural anti-coagulant and is not indicated if you’re on blood thinning meds. In addition, have your serum Vitamin D levels checked periodically to ensure you’re supplementing with the correct amount.”
Along with vitamin D and calcium for bone health in both men and women, nutrient needs mostly depend on age, said Sobhani, and it’s also important to remember that one multivitamin a day or several supplements a day will not make up for poor eating habits.
“Foods contain so many nutrients, and they all interact in a positive way when they are eaten, and no supplement can match that to date,” she said. “Supplements should be just that—supplements.”
Since most Americans have as easy access to healthy food as they do to junk food, it really comes down to choosing to make good decisions, one meal at a time. A person’s quality of life can be greatly affected by what they put in their mouths. According to “Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025,” by simply limiting alcohol as well as foods and beverages higher in added sugars, saturated fat and sodium—while still enjoying personal preferences and cultural traditions—we can be on the road to better health.
“It’s so important to focus on the essentials right now, especially after all the turbulence 2020 brought,” said Fawkes. “Bring it back to basics, keep it simple and sensible, and be gentle with yourself.”
There’s another old adage, none of us is getting out of here alive. But the time we have on Earth can reflect a higher quality of life, with healthy food, supplementation and beverage choices.
Karen Menehan is MASSAGE Magazine’s editor in chief, print and digital. Her recent articles include “Connect with the Benefits of Nature for Self-Care” and “Improve Your Sleep by Syncing Up with Circadian Rhythm.”
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