What is Nutrition, and Why is it a Fundamental Pillar of Our Health?
By Silvia Carli-Reese MS, RD, CSCS
You’ve probably heard the saying that you are what you eat — and as a registered dietitian, I’m here to tell you that, at least in some ways, it’s true. What you put into your body has a significant impact on your health and overall well-being. That’s why March is National Nutrition Month, an initiative aimed at raising awareness of how a well-balanced diet can increase your longevity and improve your quality of life. But just what is nutrition, and why do health professionals consider it one of the pillars of health and wellness? Let’s learn a little about what constitutes a healthy diet and why it’s a key part of living to the fullest.
What is Nutrition?
Nutrition is the science of what (and how much) we eat. As a registered dietitian, I use a wealth of evidence-based information to help people make their best eating choices. Dietitians work in a variety of settings, from doctors’ offices and hospitals to college and professional sports organizations and public health facilities. We all need to eat well to live well, so anyone can benefit from consulting with an expert. Sometimes a few quick nutrition tips from a professional can make a significant difference in your well-being. A diabetic patient who is having trouble controlling their blood sugar, for example, may see almost immediate improvement upon adjusting their portion sizes. We also help people who are having trouble losing weight, as well as patients who are recovering from eating disorders.
You may be wondering: so what should I be eating for maximum health? The truth is that a healthy diet can look a little different for each of us. What works for one person may not be exactly right for another. Whole-grain bread, cereal, and pasta, for example, are great dietary choices — unless you have Celiac disease, of course. Likewise, health professionals are quick to praise the Mediterranean diet, but if garlic, tomatoes, and citrus fruit give you heartburn, it may not be for you. A dietitian’s job is to help you figure out what works for your unique needs.
That said, one thing all healthy diets have in common is that they’re well balanced. Let’s learn a little more about what that means.
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Why is a Balanced Diet Important?
A balanced diet is one that meets all of your body’s nutritional needs. That means you’re consuming the right number of calories, healthy fats, and other nutrients in your meals every day. For the majority of people, a balanced diet means veggies and fruit, lean protein, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products. You’ll notice that what it doesn’t include is junk food. That’s not to say you can never enjoy a burger and fries or a sweet dessert, but those things shouldn’t make up the bulk of your diet.
Not sure what your portion sizes should look like? Check out the MyPlate widget from the USDA, which customizes your servings based on your age, sex, height, weight, and physical activity level.
As a nutrition professional, I don’t think it’s possible to overemphasize the importance of eating a healthy and balanced diet. Eating well can help you to decrease your risk of serious medical complications, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and some cancers. It can also promote a strong immune system and improve your brain function. It can even help you to sleep better, and when you’re well rested, it’s easier to make healthy eating choices. Eating well and functioning well are a positive cycle — one that can help you to live a better and longer life.
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Developing Healthy Eating Habits
There’s so much information about what we should (and shouldn’t) be eating that it’s easy to become overwhelmed. It’s impossible to keep up with the latest diet trends, as it seems like they change every day. Here are a few common-sense tips for making good choices at meals and snack time.
Keep Your Protein Lean
Choose lean protein foods like fish, seafood, chicken, and beans as your primary sources of protein. While it’s okay to enjoy red meat on occasion, it shouldn’t be one of your everyday foods. If you dine out frequently, swap your burger for a grilled chicken sandwich and your steak for salmon or tuna.
Reach for Whole Grains
Whole grains are more nutritious than refined grains, and since they contain more fiber, they can be more filling too. When you’re shopping for bread, cereal, and pasta, scan the packages and nutrition labels for “whole wheat” or “whole grain” for the healthiest choices.
Go for the Green
Leafy green vegetables, like spinach, kale, and romaine lettuce, are an excellent source of fiber and important vitamins. Don’t worry — they don’t have to be boring. Try homemade baked kale chips with salt, pepper, and extra virgin olive oil. You can even add red pepper flakes or a little parmesan.
Snacks Are Your Friends!
Snacking is not a bad habit, as long as you make good choices. Having a snack can help you maintain your energy level and prevent you from overeating at your next meal. Reach for snacks that are healthy and filling, like mixed nuts, low-fat cheese, raw veggies and hummus, or a piece of fresh fruit.
Take a Shortcut
If you find you don’t have a ton of time and energy to cook (or if you just hate it!), you might enjoy subscribing to a meal delivery kit. Splendid Spoon brings delicious plant-based meals like smoothies and grain bowls right to your doorstep. It’s an excellent way to work tons of nutritious fruits, veggies, and grains into your diet without hours of meal planning and grocery shopping.
I hope I’ve helped you understand a little more about the importance of eating a nutritious and balanced diet. It’s one of the fundamental parts of taking good care of yourself not only during National Nutrition Month, but all year long. Making good dietary choices is one of the best things you can do for your body and mind. So the next time you’re at the supermarket, remember to reach for the good stuff. You’re worth it!
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