One day eggs are bad, the next they are good. Some oils are bad, some are essential. First we're told we should cut the fat in our diets and then we learn that many manufacturers have replaced the fat in our low-fat and fat-free foods with more sugar and that's not good either. Doesn't it seem like there are just too many conflicting messages these days in the media and on food packaging telling us what we should and shouldn't eat? Talk about information overload!
Making it even harder, how do you know who is really a food expert and who is making unsubstantiated claims? How can you ever hope to sort through all this information to make the best choices for you and those you love?
Let's start by talking about what good nutrition truly means. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, nutrition is simply the act or process of nourishing or being nourished. Another way to look at nutrition is to think of it as the sum of all of the ways you take in and use food substances, including what you drink.
The USDA’s new, easy-to-understand and -use MyPlate has replaced the older, more complicated MyPyramid. By dividing MyPlate into four sections — vegetables, fruits, grains and proteins, with a glass on the side representing dairy — MyPlate helps people easily visualize what they should be eating each day and in what proportions.
So what makes what you eat or drink good or bad? How well are you nourishing yourself and your loved ones? Our federal government thinks the answers to these questions are so important that they have been publishing dietary guidelines since the beginning of the 1900s. Experts review and revise this nutritional guidance every five years to be sure it is based on the most current research and includes evidence-based nutritional information to help all of us make better choices. The government's goal is to promote health, reduce the risk of chronic diseases, and reduce the prevalence of overweight and obesity, because more than one-third of children and more than two-thirds of adults in the United States are overweight or obese. For those of us living in Chautauqua County, improving our nutritional status is even more urgent because recent statistics show we hold the dubious distinction of being at the very top of obesity rankings in New York state.
The newest Dietary Guidelines for Americans are much simpler and easier to understand than previous versions. The main message? We should reduce our calorie consumption and increase our physical activity levels or, simply put, we need to eat less and move more.
The guidelines also encourage us to make more thoughtful choices, selecting healthier foods in the right portions. We should be consuming more healthy foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fat-free and low-fat dairy products, and seafood, while consuming less sodium, saturated and trans fats, added sugars, and refined grains. This means returning to the basics of healthy eating. We can do that by making simple changes to our daily eating patterns. Take a look at the USDA's new, easy-to-understand and -use MyPlate, which has replaced the older, more complicated MyPyramid. By dividing MyPlate into four sections - vegetables, fruits, grains and proteins, with a glass on the side representing dairy - MyPlate helps people easily visualize what they should be eating each day and in what proportions.
It is important to note that MyPlate focuses on protein sources in one section of the plate, rather than calling this category the ''meat group.'' This is to help us remember there are plenty of protein sources in addition to meat, such as plant-based proteins, nuts and beans.
MyPlate can help people be more mindful of what they're eating and help them think about how much should be on their plate, while still enjoying their meals. Just make sure your day includes foods from all of the recommended food groups, in portions appropriate for your individual needs.
One very important thing to keep in mind is to make sure half your plate is full of fruit and vegetables. It's easier if you include at least one vegetable or fruit or both at every meal and snack. When choosing your vegetables, make sure you're eating a mixture that includes dark-green, red and orange varieties. When fresh fruit and vegetables aren't available, or are of poor quality, choose frozen, dried or canned. However, select reduced sodium or no salt added canned vegetables and rinse canned beans, corn and peas to reduce their sodium levels. When using canned fruit, choose fruits canned in water or their own juice, not in syrups. And remember, it's best to eat your fruit, not drink it. A small glass of fruit juice now and then is fine, but you'll get a much greater health benefit if you eat whole fruit instead.
When selecting grains, make sure at least half of the grains you eat are whole grains. Choose grains like brown rice, rather than white rice, barley, oats and other whole grains for main dish ingredients and for sides. Switch to 100 percent whole-grain cereal, bread and crackers, and to be certain they really contain whole grain, check the food ingredient labels on the food packaging before you buy.
When making your dairy selections, switch to fat-free or low-fat milk, cheese, sour cream, yogurt, and other dairy products. They have the same amount of calcium and other essential nutrients as whole milk products, but contain less fat and calories. For those suffering from lactose intolerance, try lactose-free milk or a calcium fortified soy beverage.
There are many great protein options in a healthy diet. Eat a variety, and don't forget to include nuts and beans in this category and consider consuming more plant-based proteins in your diet, such as whole grains and whole soy foods like tofu and edamame. Other good protein choices include lean meat, poultry and eggs. However, limit your meat and poultry portion to three ounces and, when buying things like ground beef, choose extra lean. The latest recommendations regarding protein in our diets stress that we can reap many benefits by putting fish and seafood rich in omega 3 fatty acids on our plates at least two or three times each week.
In terms of beverages, don't forget, when you do drink fruit juice, make sure it's 100 percent fruit juice. Better yet, drink water. It's a great replacement for sugary sodas, fruit-flavored drinks, sweetened teas and fancy coffee drinks. If you don't like plain water, flavor it with a slice of citrus.
Help yourself by cutting back on the empty calories you've been consuming and reducing your sodium intake. The Dietary Guidelines recommend most of us consume only 2,300 milligrams of sodium each day. That's only one teaspoon of salt. Most of us consume much more than that because much of the sodium we eat comes from canned goods, convenience foods, and in restaurant meals. So start seasoning more of your foods with spices and herbs instead of by adding more salt.
This is all easier to do if you eat, or simply prepare, more of your meals at home because most restaurant and convenience foods contain a lot of solid fats, added sugars and high levels of sodium. When you cook at home you have more control over what is in your food, if you've done a good job selecting ingredients and preparing them. So, when you are preparing your own meals, replace butter and shortening with heart healthy oils, like olive and canola, and grill, broil bake, or steam foods rather than frying them.
Finally, don't eat calories you don't need. You don't have to totally give up the foods you love, like cookies and pastries, which are often high in added sugars, or things like cream and sausages, which are high in solid fats. Just eat them less frequently and in much smaller portions.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association) has made this year's theme for National Nutrition Month in March ''Get Your Plate in Shape,'' so the next time you sit down to eat take a long hard look at your plate. Does it look like the USDA's MyPlate? Does it follow the recommendations in the Dietary Guidelines? If it does, you're more likely to live a healthier life and face lower health-care costs. If everyone followed these guidelines, we'd all be helping not only ourselves, but also America's overall productivity and long-term economic competitiveness in the world.