What are the basics of healthy nutrition? That question is harder to answer than it might, at first, appear. Food isn’t what it used to be and the effects are taking their toll. Overweight and obesity are the rule rather than the exception in many parts of the world while, at the same time, people elsewhere are starving in abject poverty. What’s a person to do? The key is to get educated and interested in sustainable, healthy nutrition. It’s not beyond our ability to turn things around.
When I was growing up, good nutrition came down to eating three square meals a day. We really didn’t think much about it. The basic idea was to avoid snacking and to eat a mix of foods from every food group. That’s still pretty good advice, although we now know a lot more about the reasons as well as about the caveats and cautions. It’s taken a concerted effort which is far from over, but science has made real strides in understanding how diet impacts health and nutrition.
Here, for example, is a summary of the key nutritional recommendations made by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2005:
- Meet recommended intakes within energy needs by adopting a balanced eating pattern.
- Consume a variety of nutrient-dense foods within and among the basic food groups.
- Choose foods that limit the intake of saturated and trans fats, cholesterol, added sugars, salt, and alcohol.
- Choose a variety of fruits and vegetables each day. In particular, select from all five vegetable subgroups (dark green, orange, legumes, starchy vegetables, and other vegetables) several times a week. Choose fiber-rich fruits and vegetables often.
- Consume whole-grain products every day, making sure that at least half of all grains come from whole grains.
- Consume fat-free, low-fat, or equivalent milk products.
- Consume less than 2,300 mg (approximately 1 tsp of salt) of sodium per day. Choose and prepare foods with little salt.
- Those who choose to drink alcoholic beverages should consume no more than one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men.
The complete report along with other resources and the ability to get personalized recommendations can be reviewed at www.mypyramid.gov. Unfortunately, for all it’s research and explanations, the report does not tell people everything they need to know about healthy nutrition. Why, for example, are there separate chapters on carbohydrates and fats but no chapter on protein? And why does the report ignore the nutritional differences between conventional and organic foodstuffs? (Neither the word “organic” nor the word “artificial” ever appear in the report at all.) And how can we make a healthy diet easier, rather than harder, to follow? Inquiring minds and bodies want to go beyond Nutrition 101.
Today, and in weeks to come, I intend to answer these questions and a whole lot more. In the process, I hope to take you from Nutrition 101 all the way up to Nutrition 401. Given our society’s increasing problems with overweight and obesity, it behooves us to learn all we can about healthy human nutrition. Few will end up with advanced degrees in nutritional science, but we can all do better when it comes to the basics of how and what we eat.
There’s no doubt that “balanced eating” is the key to health and wellness. We need to balance energy consumption with energy expenditures in order to reach and to maintain optimal weight; we also need to balance our consumption of different food types in order to reach and to maintain optimal wellness. One of many illustrations: the human body needs but cannot manufacture either its own Vitamin C, found in fruits and vegetables, or its own Vitamin B12, found in meat and fish. Human beings evolved as omnivores, and omnivores we remain.
Unfortunately, being able to eat just about anything makes it harder, rather than easier, to know what’s good to eat. As Michael Pollan points out in his excellent book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, there is no dilemma for koala bears. If it looks, smells, and tastes like eucalyptus leaves, then it’s good to eat. Otherwise, it’s off the radar screen. Not so for human beings! Human beings can eat just about anything and survive, at least for a time. But what’s good to eat if we want to thrive? The 2005 Dietary Recommendations are a good place to start.
Apart from Atkins and other low-carbohydrate aficionados, no one supports the unlimited intake of saturated fats (primarily from animals, but also from some plants such as coconut and palm) and trans fats (manufactured since the early 20th century from vegetable oils). As the links between saturated fats and chronic disease became better known, people shifted from butter to margarine, for example, as a heart-healthy alternative. Today we know that trans fats, generated largely through the chemical hydrogenation of vegetable oils, are as bad or even worse for our health and wellness as saturated fats.
The 2005 Dietary Recommendations are right: we need to limit the intake of both saturated fats and trans fats. Do you know what that means? That means avoiding or limiting our intake of fatty meats and dairy products as well as all foods containing or cooked in hydrogenated vegetable oils. Examples of these foods include: cheese, milk, ice cream, yogurt, beef, lamb, poultry, bacon, sausage, ribs, butter, margarine, oils, shortening, salad dressings, fried potatoes, and most processed foods including crackers, cakes, cookies, quick breads, doughnuts, pies, and bread. If the label reads “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil,” the food product (if we can call it that) should not be eaten.
The 2005 Dietary Recommendations are also right that we need to avoid or limit our intake of added sugars, salt, and alcohol. No one sees it otherwise. The problem is that added sugars and salt are everywhere. They are the key ingredients that make processed food taste good, from junky snacks to fine restaurant entrees. They are also disguised under many names, with high fructose corn syrup being the most ubiquitous.
High fructose corn syrup or HFCS is made, as the name suggests, from corn. The process for making HFCS was developed by Japanese researchers in the 1970s and the product, like the hydrogenated vegetable oils of the early 20th century, quickly took over the North American market because it was both cheap and shelf stable. In less than two decades, it had all but replaced sugar in processed foods and soft drinks. Today it’s hard to find a food product that does not contain HFCS. It is so cheap and abundant (due, in part, to US farm subsidies) that HFCS has played a major role in the super sizing of both portions and waistlines. Who knows what else this newly engineered food may be doing to our long-term health.
Salt, on the other hand, has been in the human diet since the beginning of time. It is one of a very few rocks commonly eaten by humans. In addition to improving taste, salt has been used for millennia as a natural preservative. It is essential for the survival of all living creatures, including humans, but too much salt can lead to as many problems as too little salt. As with many things in life, when the balance is wrong, disease and death can follow. Because salt is used in so many processed and prepared foods, most people today consume way too much salt (a complicating factor for asthma, fluid retention, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and gastric cancer). Less than one teaspoon per days leaves most people with little to no room for added salt at the table.
Alcoholic drinks, which contain ethanol, have also been in the human diet for millennia. Fermentation occurs naturally when certain species of yeast consume carbohydrates in the absence of oxygen. As in the case of salt, however, too much alcohol causes a wide variety of health problems not to mention intoxication. The health benefits of consuming up to one alcoholic drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men, while documented, are not reason enough to start drinking.
By now I can hear you saying, “Whoa! That’s a lot of my favorite foods, drinks, and seasonings to limit or avoid. What’s left to eat?” Here, too, the 2005 Dietary Recommendations are right on target: fresh fruits and vegetables are the key to healthy nutrition. There’s no way to eat too many fresh, fiber-rich fruits and vegetables such as artichokes, pears, peas, berries, prunes, spinach, apples, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, okra, and greens. The next time you’re looking for a snack, reach for a handful of those. The next time you fill your plate, make sure three-quarters of it is filled with fresh or steamed fruit and vegetables. The next time you go back for seconds, stay away from the meat and go for the veggies.
All that sounds well and good, of course, but most people are not following these recommendations. For one reason or another • including cost, convenience, culture, awareness, and habits • people are not developing the resolve, resources, and routines that make for health and wellness. If that sounds familiar, then the next few weeks of Provisions will be for you. We will take the mystery out of healthy carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, we explore practical strategies for better eating, we will specifically address the issues of dairy and grain, we will give you more complete lists of healthy foods, we will steer you away from foods that provoke hunger pangs, and we will even point you in the direction of healthy comfort foods.
So come along for the journey. We’ll make Nutrition 401 an interesting and rewarding course indeed.
Coaching Inquiries: Which of the 2005 Dietary Recommendations do you follow on a regular basis? Which ones could you start to follow more regularly? What changes would you like to make in your nutritional routine? Who could you recruit to share the journey with you?
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Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.
I really appreciate your Provisions and glean even more now that I have begun reading them in their entirety. You are a wonderful example of someone who is living your purpose, sharing your faithful love in action. You have found a wonderful way to share with all socioeconomic groups and that is another thing I really appreciate! Thanks so much for your work and witness.
May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers
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