The Medical Minute: National Nutrition Month -- eat well to feel well

By John Messmer, M.D.

It’s hard to believe what Americans are eating these days. With all the cooking shows on TV, one would think we are really interested in eating well, but for most of us, that is not the case. In 2005, the Centers for Disease Control examined our eating habits. Among all groups over age 2, the top 25 sources of daily calories did not include any fruits or vegetables other than fried potatoes. Nuts and seeds were number nine. The number one food was baked goods: cookies, cake, pies, pastries, etc. Soda was the fourth most common source of calories, followed by pizza, alcohol and pasta.

Given our diets and lack of exercise, is it any wonder obesity and diabetes are such a big problem for us? In the 1970’s, the prevalence of obesity in children was 5 percent to 7 percent, and in adults, 15 percent. In 2008, 10 percent of 2- to 5-year-olds and 18 percent to 20 percent of 6- to 18-year-olds were obese, plus 34 percent of adults. Thirty-two states had a prevalence of obesity more than 25 percent in 2008, compared to none in the early 1990’s.

One part of the problem is the quantity of food we eat. Portions are bigger at restaurants and there are far more fast food choices than a generation ago. But even at home we are not choosing healthy foods.

When I suggest dietary changes, my patients tell me they can’t bear to change their eating habits because these foods “are so good.” At the same time they are upset because they need medicines for high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes and to combat the pain of their arthritic joints that are carrying an extra 50-100 pounds of body weight. Eating poorly leads to these problems. People with incorrect diets have less energy and feel worse.

There is an easy approach to a good diet. Let’s take vegetables first: choose many different colors. Many vegetables can be added raw or lightly cooked to salads. They also do well quick cooked in a tiny amount of olive or canola oil -- not deep-fried. Seasonings other than salt add some interesting flavors -- experiment. Try not to add salt other than a few grains gently sprinkled on the food after cooking.

Grains are sorely lacking in our diets. Not white flour -- we get way too much of that. The more refined the grain, the less nutritious it is. Whole grains are an important part of good nutrition, but don’t stop with oatmeal and whole wheat bread. Supermarkets now have many different types of rice, quinoa, teff, and other grains. These foods go well in pilafs of one or two grain types with chopped vegetables, dried fruit or nuts. A rice cooker is a very easy way to prepare these foods, and a basic one can be had for about $15.

Beans and lentils add vitamins and fiber. Canned beans should be rinsed to reduce the added salt. Dry beans and lentils take a bit longer to prepare but are very inexpensive. They just have to be soaked overnight to soften them or quick soaked in hot water over about two hours.

Fruit is misunderstood. Fruit juices are number 22 on Americans’ calorie sources, but juices provide only a small amount of nutrients and a lot of calories. Eating whole fruit is a better idea.

Low fat milk provides protein and calcium. Lean poultry, beef and pork and particularly fish, provide high quality protein and other nutrients, but the average person’s serving should be 3-4 ounces or roughly the size of a deck of playing cards. Try to find a restaurant that serves a 4 oz. steak! You won’t, but you can share an entrée or take some home for the next day. Eggs have a bad reputation, but for most people, a few eggs per week is fine.

What about supplements? Supplements that provide essential fatty acids, antioxidants and fiber are called supplements because they can be added to a good diet but not substituted for it.

Changing eating habits is not difficult, but making the decision to change is. Eating better pays great benefits including better weight, more energy, less chance of heart diseases and stroke, cancer, age-related health declines, and it may even save money.

This year during National Nutrition Month, consider making a few changes in your diet. Your improved health may surprise you.

John Messmer, M.D., is associate professor of family and community medicine at Penn State College of Medicine and a staff physician at Penn State Hershey Medical Center.

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Last Updated March 16, 2011