March kicks off National Nutrition Month – a good time for us to reflect on our diets and physical activity. We all know the importance –and the challenges — of maintaining a healthy weight. A third of Americans are obese and another third are overweight. That means that two thirds of Americans are at increased risk for certain cancers, heart disease, diabetes, and other life threatening illnesses that accompany excessive poundage.
There are a few promising signs that the nation’s health is improving, however. Just this week, a major federal health survey reported that the obesity rate among two-year-old to five-year-old children has dropped 43 percent. Children who are overweight or obese are five times more likely to be overweight or obese as an adult. There is a strong focus nationwide on improving eating habits and being more conscious about what we put into our bodies.
In pursuit of sound eating practices, we recommend watching portion sizes, looking at nutritional labels and moderation above all else. It is easy to overeat when we are surrounded by high calorie, high fat foods, many with surprisingly little nutritional value. Americans’ top sources of calories, according to a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), are cakes, cookies, and sodas sweetened with high fructose corn syrup. These foods are laden with fat and/or sweeteners and easy to consume in large quantities. Surprisingly, some foods like candy contribute only 2.2% of calories to the American diet. First Lady Michelle Obama says it well – it’s not that we can NEVER have certain foods like candy or ice cream, but that we should enjoy them in moderation.
We believe strongly in studying Nutrition Facts labels! They are also being updated for the first time in 20 years. Almost every packaged food item includes them: they provide calories per serving and help consumers monitor and control caloric intake for the recommended 2,000 calorie a day diet. The updated labels will now reflect more accurate caloric information, provide larger font and a listing for added sugars, which is useful to know. Focusing on eating more foods that are nutrient dense and low in fat and calories is a critical step in the right direction if you’re looking to shed a few pounds. As “My Plate” suggests, making half of your meal fruits and vegetables is an easy way to do this. A few other tips to get on track are:
- Increase intake of whole grains, making half of all grains consumed whole grains.
- Reduce consumption of high fructose corn syrup-sweetened beverages like soda.
- Monitor and minimize calorie intake from alcoholic beverages.
- Be aware of how large portion sizes are, especially when dining out.
- Prepare more meals at home where you have control over the amount of added salt, sugar and fat.
A balanced diet is just that, balanced. Eat a variety of foods: it keeps your food choices interesting and satisfying. And of course, partake in the occasional indulgence. A very restrictive diet can backfire. A candy bar, piece of chocolate, or some other reasonably small treat can be helpful in curbing cravings.
Finally, physical activity can play a critical role in maintaining a healthy weight. The Dietary Guidelines recommend that adults do at least 150 minutes, or two and a half hours of moderate intensity physical activity, such as walking at a brisk clip or riding a bike, each week. The idea of fitting this in can be daunting for many of us, but it helps to know that walking to work or taking a quick stroll on your lunch break counts. Any amount of physical activity – however brief – yields rewards and is better than none at all. Taking these steps to better your health may be difficult at first, but with time and practice, they become habit and will surely enhance your quality of life.