Guest Writer: Jaclyn White RD, LD, Clinical Dietitian
Over the years when I’ve told people I’m studying nutrition, or now that I’m a Registered Dietitian, I get a variety of responses ranging from, “What is that?” to “Ooh, I need to see you to lose some weight,” including my personal favorite… “Don’t look at my plate right now!” (usually at a social gathering where there is dessert and they think I’m instantly judging them). If you think that is what being a dietitian is, you’re wrong.
I did not choose this career to “food police” my patients, friends, and family, nor do I think that’s an effective method to motivate or help people. Instead, I am passionate about promoting health at any age, weight, life stage, or disease state. After studying nutrition, physiology, and disease, I’m convinced food plays a vital role in promoting health and preventing many chronic diseases (aka diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, some cancers, and cognitive decline). Surprisingly enough, 80% of the time in my clinical job, this means begging patients to eat something, even if they don’t feel like it. The adverse health effects of malnutrition are more clinically severe than the consequences of drinking a chocolate milkshake.
In the last 10-15 years, our culture has placed greater emphasis on health and fitness than ever before through advances in technology and the ever-growing diet industry. You can check social media at any point and find a new way to lose weight or eat “clean” with seemingly legitimate data and before/after pictures to prove that it works (literally, ItWorks is the name of a diet company). The meaning of “getting healthy” has become vague and confusing, despite increasing access to information on nutrition and health (because everything that’s online about nutrition must be true, right?) Does eating healthy have to involve avocado toast, acai bowls, or paleo-friendly meals?
It’s no wonder many college students, working adults, and busy parents find it challenging to make steps to improve their health – “getting healthy” seem to equal expensive, time consuming, and downright difficult. And what are we really pursuing? Below are some thoughts to consider as you navigate cultural messages and move towards truly improving health.
- Our choices have a cumulative effect over time.
What we do day in and day out matters. Your habits (physical, emotional, and spiritual) every day, week, month, and year are setting patterns for the rest of your life. Our lifestyle choices now will affect our health later, even if it’s many years down the road. For example, you begin building plaque in the arteries in your 20s, which expands over time, many times leading to blockage and results in heart disease or a stroke. Will this happen at age 23? Likely not. Is it as urgent as studying for finals, getting to work on time, or taking care of a screaming toddler? Definitely not. It’s understandable that many people don’t prioritize their health until receiving a diagnosis at age 50 that requires them to make a change. Though it may not be evident for many years, you will reap what you’ve sown over many years: the benefits of healthy habits or the consequences of cumulative neglect. Positive lifestyle changes could seem minor, but they are worthwhile because they can cause major benefits later.
- Pursue healthy behaviors, not just a number on a scale.
Our culture equates thinness with health, but non-scale indicators are just as important: energy levels, quality of sleep, blood pressure, blood sugar or cholesterol levels, stress management, physical activity, and the list goes on. When done in a healthy way, weight loss can render positive health benefits, but we can’t pursue weight loss or weight gain for appearance sake alone – “getting healthy” should be centered around increasing behaviors that improve your health, no matter how (or if) your body changes as a result.
- Focus on what you eat, not what you restrict.
Many weight loss programs or fad diets promote cutting out entire food groups or extreme calorie restriction. Sure, if you eat 1,000 calories a day, you will lose weight, but is what you’re eating benefiting your health? Eliminating sweets or following a low fat doesn’t necessarily mean you’re eating healthy. We can get into specifics in a future article, but these broad questions can help determine if what you are eating is benefitting your health:
- Are there plants on your plate?
- The USDA recommends that ½ of every meal (bonus if there are even more than that) should be made up of fruits and vegetables, but many of us fail to consume even one at any meal. Starting by adding a plant on every plate is a good way to ensure you’re enough getting nutrients and fiber from plant-based foods (and yes, it can even be canned or frozen to reap the benefits).
- Is the food close to its natural state?
- Whole, real foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes) pack a powerful punch of when it comes to health benefits. Healthy foods can come in packages as well; but, generally, the less-processed a food is, the more nutrients it contains.
- Are you enjoying this food?
- Eating something purely from guilt or obligation will likely not be a habit you can sustain, and typically only long-term habits will make a big difference in your health. Taste, temperature, sustenance, pleasure, and satisfaction are all important with eating, which is why finding nutritious foods you like is important. Good taste and making our bodies feel better through nutrition – that’s the key to finding motivation to make lifestyle change.
- Nutrition is only a piece of the puzzle when it comes to improving health.
Although nutrition is crucial, managing stress, getting enough sleep, staying active, and having meaningful relationships are all major players in the game as well. Only one or two lifestyle changes in these areas at a time can be sustainable, making the greatest impact long-term on your health.
You might be thinking, “This is all well and good, but how do I get started, and what does this look like at three meals a day?” (Or, if you’re like me, three meals and multiple snacks a day). Here are some links to resources to get started.
Have a question or idea for a future topic? Feel free to comment on this post or message firstname.lastname@example.org.