Happy National Nutrition Month! March is the month for nutrition professionals and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. In the weeks ahead, efforts will be focused on promoting the same sound, evidence-based nutrition advice to you and others across the nation

This year, our mantra is “Bite into a Healthy Lifestyle.” What does this mean? It’s time to get back to the basics and make informed nutrition and exercise decisions built on sound advice. Focus on improving your overall well-being, while maintaining a healthy weight and reducing the risk for disease.  Here’s how to get started:

1. Consume Fewer Calories. Although certain nutrients, such as carbohydrates, protein and fat, may function differently in your body, the puzzle of weight management comes down to calories. If you eat less energy than your body burns, you will lose weight. Do I recommend counting calories? Not necessarily. Rather, pay attention to what your meals and snacks look like. How many Food Groups do you see? Are you eating carbohydrates, protein and a little bit of fat? Or is your snack all carbohydrates and your lunch all protein?

I’ve found the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate (choosemyplate.gov) to be the most helpful guide to keeping calories in check. MyPlate reminds us that half our plates should be rich in colors from vegetables and fruit. What happens when you load up half your meal with low-calorie, nutrient-rich vegetables and fruits? You displace more calorie-rich items like meat and grains while also filling up.

Are you eating enough colors throughout the day? It is recommended the average adult consume 2 ½ to 3 cups vegetables and 1 ½ to 2 cups fruit. To learn what counts toward a ½-cup serving of vegetables or fruit, visit ChooseMyPlate.gov for visual examples.

2. Make Informed Food Choices. All too often, individuals are ready to “go on” a diet and follow a listing of good and bad foods just to find this new way of eating fails them and they return to their old eating behaviors. The kicker to this scenario is that most people don’t look at diets as failing them. Instead, they erroneously believe they failed, yet again, at trying to eat healthy. Not true.

Any eating pattern touting itself as the secret to weight loss is simply a diet bypassing sound nutrition recommendations. For example, why not just give up carbs? Your brain would not be very happy with you nor would it be able to function effectively. By drastically reducing the amount of carbohydrates in your meals, your brain will start screaming for help by way of headaches, body shakes, anger, fuzzy vision, cravings and lack of concentration.

Rather than swearing off carbohydrates, the better choice is to be mindful of serving sizes while spreading your carbohydrate consumption over the course of the day. For example, consume a tuna sandwich on whole wheat bread, with a side of baby carrots dipped in hummus and an apple for lunch vs skipping lunch altogether and eating half a box of pasta for dinner because you are ravenous.

Here are a few more tips for getting the most out of your food:

• Eat breakfast. Even if you don’t have much of an appetite, eat something. Whether it’s a bowl of oatmeal with raisins and pecans or an apple with a handful of almonds, eat!

• If you find you’re hungry in between meals, grab a snack (not a treat). Look at which Food Groups you may have missed at a previous meal and work toward those. Forget a vegetable at breakfast? Snack on celery dipped in peanut butter. Forget a fruit at lunch? Grab a bunch of grapes with a slice of lowfat cheddar cheese for an afternoon snack.

• Make half your grains whole. Simply put, choose the whole grain options of grain foods often. Cooking rice? Opt for brown rice. Reaching for a box of cereal? Pick a whole grain variety. Making a wrap? Go with a whole grain option.

• Go lean with protein foods. If you traditionally choose meat as your source of protein, begin varying your selections. Enjoy “Meatless Mondays” by cooking meals with legumes (beans and lentils) or whipping up a breakfast smoothie with silken tofu instead of yogurt.

• Make your fats liquid. Let nuts, cooking oils, avocados, olives and fatty fish serve as your primary source of fat. These foods offer liquid fats like omega-3s and monounsaturated fats shown to promote health.

3. Get Exercising. Probably the very best thing you can do for managing weight and reducing your risk for chronic diseases like heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and cancer is to get moving. Exercise also maintains mental acuity and health, builds confidence and lets off steam from a stressful day.

Researcher after researcher keeps coming to the same conclusion — one’s quality of life is greatly improved and maintained if we exercise on a daily basis. Every day? Yes, this is the goal. If you can only carve out three days to exercise this week, great! The goal is to start the momentum so daily exercise becomes part of your normal routine.

Whether you have a history of trying to follow a healthy lifestyle, or you’ve finally come to terms with the fact that it is time, every day (and every meal) is an opportunity to start anew. Leave the guilt, food rules and excuses behind and remember what motivational speaker Jim Rohn said: “Take care of your body. It’s the only place you have to live.”

Carrie Taylor is the lead registered dietitian nutritionist for the Living Well Eating Smart program at Big Y Foods. Have a nutrition question? E-mail livingwell@bigy.com or write Living Well at 2145 Roosevelt Ave, PO Box 7840, Springfield, MA 01102.

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