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March is the 50th anniversary of National Nutrition Month. This year’s theme is “Fuel for the Future.”
While portion size and moderation are still the foundation, nutrition experts today are adding some key ingredients to their recipe for living healthfully — namely, doing so in a way that helps the environment, too.
The best way to make big changes to your health is to start small.
One of the first books ever written about nutrition and diet, “The Art of Living Long” by 16th-century Italian nobleman Luigi Cornaro, credits moderation as the key to longevity. Before Cornaro, the ancient Greeks lived by the creed that a strong mind-body connection is essential to well-being.
Today, nutrition experts are marking the 50th anniversary of National Nutrition Month — themed “Fuel for the Future” — by taking what worked in the past and adding ways to ensure a healthy, sustainable tomorrow.
“Portion size and moderation are still key to everything,” says Dietitian Madison Hilgendorf, MS, RD, CD, CCTD. “It’s avoiding fad diets, fostering a healthy relationship with food and doing it in a way that reduces waste and supports the Earth.”
Madison spoke with us about how making small changes can yield big results, nutrition trends to watch and adjustments to your diet and lifestyle that can benefit your health and the environment at the same time.
Small changes, big results
It can be hard to think small when you’re dreaming big, but if you want to make long-lasting changes to your health, it’s the right way to go.
For example, many people struggle with getting enough fruits and vegetables into their meals, but these nutrient-packed foods are critical for helping us feel and perform our best. Simply adding an extra serving of a vegetables each day, or adding a new kind of vegetable to your diet can make a big difference in overall health.
You also can skip that high-sugar coffee, reduce the number of days you get takeout or eat at your favorite neighborhood café, and limit how much processed food you’re eating.
“As a dietitian, I try to teach more mindful eating,” Hilgendorf says. “I like to focus on healthy habits and incorporating healthy foods into the day so we’re not thinking of how we’re eating as a diet, but rather as a lifestyle.”
Once you have your nutrition dialed in, look at your activity level and incorporate small changes to get your body moving.
If you’re not currently engaging in regular physical activity, again, start small: Park a little farther away from the grocery store, take the stairs instead of the elevator, or just get up a few times during the workday to move around and stretch. Once those behaviors start to get easier, you can add in more structured physical activities, like going for a walk, riding a bike, playing with your kids or grandkids, or going to the gym.
“Anything that gets you up and moving and puts you on the path toward 30 minutes a day or 150 minutes a week of exercise is the goal,” Hilgendorf says. And don’t forget about strength training — make sure you’re not only doing cardio (heart-healthy) exercises but are incorporating strength exercises, as well. “Strength exercises bump up your metabolism, so you burn more calories throughout the day, and they help prevent muscle loss and bone loss over time, especially as we age,” she says.
A few other small changes you can implement are limiting how much alcohol you drink (“Stick to the recommended amount,” Hilgendorf advises) and avoiding foods with high added sugar, fat and salt. “I don’t tell anyone there’s a food they can’t have,” says Hilgendorf, who works with liver and kidney transplant patients. “It’s just a matter of how often we have those foods and how much of them we have. Foods with high sugar, fat and salt content are the ones we really want to watch and eat in moderation because they’re high in calories. They’re also linked to chronic illnesses, like obesity, diabetes and hypertension [high blood pressure].”
3 nutrition trends to watch
More than ever before, people are embracing an approach to health and wellness that’s holistic, understanding that the way we look, feel and perform is connected to our diet.
Here are three nutrition trends making headlines this year:
A major theme in 2023 is personalization. From medicine to fitness to how we shop, we hear it everywhere, and nutrition is no different. More and more, people are moving toward personalized (or precision) nutrition, which tailors the diet to the individual.
It’s a departure from a one-size-fits-all diet mentality and a move instead toward meeting people where they are — taking into account their overall health, age, activity level and health goals.
It also accounts for cultural preferences. For example, people in some cultures don’t eat whole grains, others follow a more plant-based diet, and still others eat diets heavy in meats. “It’s trying to find that middle ground of incorporating healthful foods but still eating foods that are culturally important to you,” Hilgendorf says.
2) Plant-based eating
Eating a diet that’s mostly plant-based (think the Mediterranean diet and Michael Pollan’s famous line from his bestselling “In Defense of Food” book: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”) certainly isn’t a new trend, but it is one that’s here to stay. The good news is that more and more products are becoming mainstream to appeal to people who not only value the benefits of plant-based diets, but also the value they can bring to the environment.
Foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains are not only good sources of vitamins and minerals, but fiber, too, which helps improve gut health and reduce inflammation. And studies have found that eating plant-based foods produces fewer gas emissions than eating animal-based foods.
Plus, with more people turning to diets that are mostly plant-based, it can significantly reduce deforestation and soil degradation.
If you’re not already eating a diet that’s mostly plant-based, you can start small by simply swapping a few meaty meals each week for those that, instead, feature beans, lentils or tofu as the main protein source.
3) Gut health
Another trend right now is gut-friendly diets, which are growing in popularity because of the effects a healthy microbiome has on overall brain health. Studies have found that when the microbiome interacts with the central nervous system, it regulates brain chemistry and influences our neuroendocrine systems. These systems are linked to stress response and anxiety.
This “superhighway” between our brains and our guts can also change our mental perceptions, suggesting that the better we eat, the better our mental state.
Diets rich in both prebiotics and probiotics help fuel a healthy gut microbiome. Prebiotics come from types of carbohydrates — mostly fiber — that we can’t digest. They help promote the growth of good bacteria in the digestive tract and support a balanced microbiome. Probiotics are found in certain foods — like yogurt, miso, sauerkraut, kombucha and pickles — and provide numerous health benefits.
In addition to plant-based eating, one of the best ways to do your part for a sustainable future is reducing food waste. At home, meal planning is a good way to prevent waste.
“Plan what you’re going to cook for the week, look at what’s in your cabinet, fridge and freezer so you use what you have before buying more,” Hilgendorf says. “Also, plan to cook food before it goes bad, or freeze it so you can come back to it and eat it later.”
You also can buy local, by frequenting your neighborhood farmer’s market or signing up for a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) box, which is a way to buy local, seasonal food directly from a farmer.
In addition, you can try a sustainable grocery delivery service that helps reduce waste by letting you buy “ugly” foods (foods that don’t meet market standards in terms of appearance) at discounted prices.
Hilgendorf also advises taking companies’ sustainability claims with a grain of salt and avoiding greenwashing traps.
“Food preparation companies are trying to sell you food,” she says, “so they may market toward that by saying something is healthier or better for the environment, but in reality they’ve just cut the portion size in half or the product still comes with a ton of packaging and plastic. Do your own research before you buy.”
Making long-lasting changes
Remember that you’re more likely to stick with lifestyle changes when you start small, and that adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet is one of the best ways to begin.
“Focus more on adding healthier items in, rather than eliminating everything that’s bad,” Hilgendorf says. “That’s the best way to make a change that will last.”
“Instead of overhauling your whole diet overnight, ask yourself what small thing you could do every day to be a little bit healthier.” – Dietitian Madison Hilgendorf, MS, RD, CD, CCTD
Learn more and find a provider
If you have questions about healthy eating or nutrition, contact one of our specialists in the Swedish Digestive Health Institute. We can accommodate both in-person and virtual appointments. To get started, contact our digestive health nurse navigator to talk about your condition and learn how we can help you.
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