The snowy landscapes of today aren’t fooling me. Spring is on its way, and I’m preparing to trade treadmills for trail runs and garden work as I begin my education coordinator position at Wright-Locke Farm. In doing so, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be healthy, and how so many, regardless of food or exercise knowledge, can become derailed in their journey towards a more healthy lifestyle. Everyone’s circumstance and needs are different, and no one’s body reacts exactly the same way to any eating or exercise regime. With so many diet “solutions” marketed today, distinguishing the healthiest AND most effective course of action from unsafe or failure-bound diet plans is a difficult task for most. Though I am not a registered dietician*, people often ask me nutrition-related questions, especially broad questions like “how do I lose weight?” or “what kinds of food should I eat?” and I do feel inclined to help them out. Even if I can’t answer their inquiry at length, it’s my hope that that person can consciously take some useful morsel of information away from our discussion (and I, too, can learn something from the interaction).
Omitting metabolic issues and other chronic or acute diseases that can greatly affect nutritional health, when talking about weight management I always stress the importance of caloric balance, or the difference between what you eat (calories gained) and what you burn through fitness and non-fitness physical activity (calories expended). Though this basic tenet is obvious to most, the real issue Americans seem to face when it comes to actively working towards this balance is their fixation on subtractive dieting (i.e. “I can’t eat this or that”) coupled with a lack of understanding concerning the positive and negative impacts of specific foods consumed and activities executed. Luckily, there are now free online tools that can help ordinary people better understand how their food and activity choices affect their nutritional and overall health status without the added stress of strict dietary or exercise guidelines.
REDEFINE YOUR DIET
Merriam-Webster gives four definitions of the noun “diet,” the first two of which I typically identify with the term: “food or drink regularly provided or consumed” and even more simply, “habitual nourishment.” Let those two definitions seep in, especially the phrase “habitual nourishment.” I am in LOVE with that phrase.
From my experience discussing healthy eating and weight management, I sense people are more inclined to associate the term “diet” with what NOT to eat rather than the foods they SHOULD be adding to their meals and snacks. But who can blame them? Not only has the quick-fix diet and supplement industry taught us otherwise, but when we try to make drastic or perhaps (initially) unappealing changes to our habits, it is terribly difficult to not focus on what we’re missing. It’s also tempting to think that the choices leading to proper nutrition are clear cut, black and white, right or wrong, as the outcome is, or at least should be, defined by scientific evidence. But you’ll still hear nutrition science students lament how this body of evidence concerning what and what not to eat is constantly evolving, therefore making even the most educated populations confused about a rational course of action (this blog post
might will hopefully make you laugh- and cringe- at what I would deem unrealistic and unhealthy thinking and behavior). For better or worse, there are no set foods or standardized diets that will always lead to proper nutrition because there are too many variables (soil health, agrochemical use, crop variety, food transportation, storage, and preparation methods, human immunology, digestive function… I could go on but I won’t) at play.
A “good” or proper diet doesn’t necessarily lead to weight loss; a truly good diet should lead you to a healthy weight (at this point in time, best indicated by calculating your BMI) and a properly-fed and fueled body and mind.
TAKE ACTION AND ACCOUNTABILITY
Those who are serious about achieving a healthy weight and nutritional status need not spend money on expensive and often unsafe product-based diet or exercise routines. Save your money to buy all those fresh, whole foods your body needs and instead focus on heightening your self-awareness when it comes to eating and activity. An easy way to start is with a short-term food and physical activity journal. The premise is simple: record EVERY. SINGLE. THING. you eat, drink, and do over a three or five day period, then tally the results, in terms of nutrients consumed and calories burned throughout your day (don’t be fooled- you burn calories while you sleep, too). Longer-term tracking can be completed if desired, but the idea here is NOT to become obsessive about what goes in your body. Taking the time to record what you eat and do over a designated period of time is simply a means of becoming more aware of the “value,” in terms of macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, fat, fiber, and water) and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients or phytochemicals), of what you eat and how many calories you burn throughout a typical day and week.
I’ve posted links to a handful of nutrient database resources already on Little Miss Cruciferous, but I have just recently discovered what I consider to be the most useful of them all: the USDA SuperTracker, a free online diet analysis tool that allows for personalized food and activity tracking and optional goal setting. So put down the pencil, paper, and calculator and let the USDA do the number-crunching for you!
There are two ways you can go about using the SuperTracker. You can start using it right away, without altering your current lifestyle, giving you as true a portrait of your consumption and activities as possible. Or you could start by playing around with your account, inputting theoretical meals, snacks, and activities to see how things stack up based on your profile information, and then set forth a loose and realistic plan of foods and activities to include in your day-to-day as you begin tracking.
THE NEXT STEP
I’ve probably said it here before, but I’ll say it again: small changes are often best when seeking out big and long-lasting impacts. Periodic food and activity journaling with the SuperTracker online tool should be used to see changes in your dietary nutrition and fitness habits while you continue to make adjustments to your routine based off of the new knowledge you have regarding your diet and activity level. Perhaps most helpful is continued use of the SuperTracker’s Food-A-Pedia or the National Agricultural Library’s food nutrient database for specific nutrient quality information as you add new foods into your meals and snacks (ongoing research seems to work best for me when it comes to remembering food “values,” or approximated macro-, micro-, and phytonutrient values). If and when you can’t find information on a specific food or activity, try finding a substitute to get an idea of the macro- and micronutrient content of that food or the calorie expenditure of that activity.
The SuperTracker and most other diet analysis tools do not (yet) provide quantitative or qualitative data concerning phytonutrient (also called phytochemical) values of specific foods. This is mainly because these nutrients are considered non-essential while also still being discovered and researched. But if you’re anything like me, you still want to know what types of food carry these powerful, disease and free radical-fighting chemicals. The USDA’s National Agricultural Library provides a wealth of knowledge concerning specific foods and the phytonutrients they contain on this webpage.
Another important aspect of a food’s nutritive value is its farm-to-plate time frame (which is impossible to know if you’re getting it from a conventional grocery store) and the ways in which your food is prepared. Any farmer or whole foods advocate will tell you: the fresher the produce, the better, as whole foods lose vitamins, water, and flavor through exposure to heat, air, and light. Those same factors are also at play in cooking; depending on how you prepare dishes, you change the bioavailability of nutrients within that food or even create carcinogenic compounds like heterocyclic amines. The following resources can help you better understand the different ways in which you can healthfully prepare and serve meals and snacks:
FURTHER PROFESSIONAL ASSISTANCE
If you have existing medical conditions or specific concerns about dramatically changing your diet and activity level, schedule an appointment with your physician or an R.D. (registered dietician), but NOT a nutritionist! I say this as someone with a Master of Science in Applied Nutrition who had the opportunity to pursue a dietetic internship but did not due to cost and my current career aspirations. Any medically-based service, including nutritional counseling, should be completed through a trusted establishment with certified medical or public health staff. Technically speaking, anyone can call themselves a nutritionist, meaning standards of knowledge and field training differ dramatically across their practices. The name of the game here is YOUR health; be safe and see a professional.
*DISCLOSURE: I am NOT a medical professional. Those with specific dietary or health issues and concerns should follow the recommendations of their physician or dietician, and consult with him/her prior to making changes to their eating and exercise habits.