The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has deemed March National Nutrition Month. Keeping with this year’s theme to “personalize your plate,” we’re offering tips on individualizing your meals and getting the most enjoyment out of them. Read on; you might be surprised by the unique ways to nutritiously satisfy any palate.
Befriend the food groups
First step: get well acquainted with the food groups (fruits, vegetables, grains, protein foods, and dairy). There are a number of delicious options in each category aimed at satisfying nutrient needs and staving off food boredom. If the notion of too many options or figuring this out on your own overwhelms you, don’t fret. Try USDA’s MyPlate Plan. Input a few pieces of information (age, weight, height, etc.) into the site, and it gives you food group targets and ideas for meeting those targets based on your individual needs. For example, if your daily recommendation is two cups of fruit, the MyPlate Plan tells you that one cup of raw, frozen, cooked, or canned fruit; one-half cup of dried fruit; or one cup of 100 percent fruit juice serves as one of your two servings.
Shop smart: Know how to read food labels
General guidance listed in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans encourages limiting sodium, saturated fat, and added sugars. The Nutrition Facts panel listed on food packaging went through some fairly recent changes, making it easier to identify these and other amounts. Compare labels and try purchasing products lower in these nutrients and more in line with your calorie needs. The Percent Daily Values (%DV) on the label indicate how much of a specific nutrient you’ll get from that food, based on a 2,000-calorie diet. For instance, if the %DV for vitamin C on the label states 50 percent, eating one serving of that food supplies 50 percent of the recommended daily vitamin C intake.
Use the percentages on the label as a guide and follow the 5/20 rule. Try and aim for foods with %DV five percent or lower in saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars. Select foods with %DV 20 percent or higher in vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber. Labels must include amounts for vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium—nutrients Americans tend to lack consistently—so aim for foods rich in these nutrients.
Lastly, keep serving sizes in mind. Labels typically list the nutritional overview for one serving. If you’re eating triple the servings, you’ll get triple the calories. Portion out food based on serving sizes before consuming to ensure you’re not unintentionally getting those added calories. Keep that in mind if you’re eating directly from a bag of snacks while binge-watching your favorite show.
Food for thought: Practice mindful eating
Studies have shown that distractions while eating—such as TV watching, driving, or scrolling through your never-ending social media feed—can lead to overeating or weight gain, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Avoiding these distractions and being more aware of a food’s sights, tastes, and sounds can help develop a higher-quality dietary pattern and a more enjoyable food experience.
Mindful eating helps focus on the thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations during the experience. Some ways to keep mindfulness front and center is to savor small bites and notice all of the textures, flavors, sounds, and thoughts as you eat. Eating slowly also helps to avoid overeating and helps you notice more quickly when you’re full. Understanding and appreciating where the food came from and how it is prepared can also heighten the experience. (Check out these other mindful eating tips from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.)
Visit this blog throughout National Nutrition Month for additional tips on fine-tuning your eating habits.
—Fred Durso, Jr., is a Nutrition On Demand intern currently pursuing a master’s degree in food and nutrition and the necessary requirements to become a registered dietitian. Prior to heading back to school, he spent more than a decade as a journalist/communications specialist.