March is a landmark month in a lot of ways - it's the beginning of spring, it's got March Madness, and it's a time when many of us begin to come out of our winter hibernation. It's also a big month for food and nutrition. Why? It's National Nutrition Month®! (That's what you were going to say, right?)
So What's National Nutrition Month®?
National Nutrition Month® is a month-long celebration led by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) in honor of healthy eating and lifestyle habits. As AND puts it this year, it's a time to put your best fork forward. So, as we round out the month, let's take a look at how we all can embrace eating patterns that are just a little healthier.
Sound reasonable? Ok, you’re on board. So what are we supposed to be eating? And who makes the rules? The world of nutrition science is constantly evolving, and we learn more every day about what foods, beverages, nutrients and ingredients are best for our health and longevity. That’s why every five years, the U.S. Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and the Health and Human Services (HHS) revamp and republish the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) – federal guidance that tells us what’s best for our health, according to decades of nutrition science research.
If you’re thinking, “Decades of nutrition research described and summarized in a 144-page document?? Awesome!” then get cozy, and dive into the 2015 DGA here. If the quick and dirty version sounds a little more appealing, keep reading.
The basic tenets of the DGA will not surprise you. You likely have a pretty good general sense of what’s good for you and what’s not. Here are the most recent DGA’s five key guidelines:
- Follow a healthy eating pattern across the lifespan.
- Focus on variety, nutrient density and amount.
- Limit calories from added sugars and saturated fats, and reduce sodium intake.
- Shift to healthier food and beverage choices.
- Support healthy eating patterns for all.
Not totally earth-shattering, right? There are, however, a couple of important and unique aspects of this latest iteration of the DGA that deserve special call-outs.
Focus On Flexibility
First is their focus on flexibility in healthy eating (see guideline #5). That’s right – a healthy diet is flexible and can (should!) absolutely account for individual dietary needs, as well as cultural, religious and other preferences. We all have different backgrounds, traditions and tastes, and our bodies frequently react differently to the same inputs. So instead of putting together strict requirements or regimens, the DGA – with scientific evidence to back it up – support that a variety of eating patterns can healthfully meet human nutrient needs.
Healthy Eating Patterns
That’s good news for, well, everyone. The DGA have outlined three healthy eating patterns as models, but they encourage variation and choosing a combination of foods and beverages that work for each individual. Whatever the specifics of your pattern may be, in general, it should include:
- A variety of vegetables
- Fruits (especially whole fruits)
- Grains, at least half of which are whole grains
- Fat-free or low-fat dairy (or fortified soy alternatives)
- A variety of proteins (think seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, legumes, nuts, seeds and soy products)
Your healthy eating pattern generally should limit:
- Saturated fats and trans fats
- Added sugars
Sometimes it seems easy, and sometimes the best of plans to eat healthy are derailed. This is when it’s critical to remember flexibility. Health eating patterns are flexible in that it is the sum of dietary choices over time that impact health. Did you completely throw off your healthy diet by tackling the ice cream in your freezer the other night? No. What about when you went to a sports bar to watch the game and opted for the burger and fries?
Don’t worry – those choices alone will not get you voted off Nutrition Island. Your body is resilient, and you can choose to enjoy all kinds of foods on occasion, as long as they’re part of an overall healthy eating pattern.
Putting Your Best Fork Forward
This concept is right in line with the second unique aspect of the DGA that’s worth calling out. Inspired by guideline #4, this year’s National Nutrition Month® theme reminds us to “put our best forks forward.” This means that every time we take a bite or a sip, we’re making a decision that impacts our health. We should feel empowered by this, knowing that any past consumption is in the past, and with each new bite, we can make ourselves better. It's all about making small shifts in our food choices now that can help create better long-lasting habits that have big, positive effects over time.
Starting this month, strive for a healthy eating pattern that allows you to enjoy your food choices and accommodates for your personal dietary preferences and needs. Take strides toward your best you – one forkful at a time.
Kristen Wilk, MS, RDN
Kristen Wilk, MS, RDN Hi! My name is Kristen, and I’m a registered dietitian nutritionist. I’m a contributor to Womensforum, and I also work for Pre Brands. In this and former roles, I’ve worked with a variety of food and beverage companies. Thoughts and opinions presented here are my own.