What's On Your Plate?
March is National Nutrition Month, making it a perfect time to rediscover the joy of cooking, change your eating habits, and make healthy food choices.
It’s the perfect time for a food revolution. March is National Nutrition Month, encouraging us to put the nutrition back into food through our buying, cooking, and eating patterns. Changing what and how we eat can prevent and possibly reverse many health issues, strengthen social ties, and protect the environment.
Problems with processed foods
Whether from grocery stores, fast food restaurants, takeout, or delivery, processed foods have become a fact of life. Given our busy schedules, they seem like a great idea: fast, convenient, and readily available. Too bad they’re so unhealthy.
According to Joy McCarthy, registered nutritional consulting practitioner (RNCP) and holistic nutritionist, “The lack of nourishing vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fibre in processed food puts us at a much greater risk of all kinds of disease from various forms of cancer to heart disease and less serious problems such as digestive disorders, even mental health issues.”
The other side of what’s out of processed food is what’s in it. McCarthy points out that “processed/packaged foods tend to be full of additional chemicals, from preservatives to promote a long shelf life to artificial flavours and colours.”
For too many processed food manufacturers, health isn’t even on the menu. In fact, they use our genetic predisposition to prefer foods with sugar, fat, and salt against us. Sugar gives us a high, fat feeds “mouth feel” that encourages us to overeat, and salt is a taste enhancer that preserves food while masking chemical tastes often found in processed foods. The message is eat; then eat more.
Rediscover the joy of cooking
The way to put nutrition back in our food is as close as our kitchen. By reclaiming food preparation, and using as many unprocessed and organic foods as possible, we can control the amount and type of sugar, fat, and salt and increase nutrition. For McCarthy, home cooking allows us to develop a deeper understanding and connection with our food, an awareness of what we put in our bodies.
That awareness means better health. Researchers have discovered eating home-cooked meals leads to a lower body mass index, while eating fast food is associated with
- reduced diet quality
- increased calorie consumption
- weight gain and obesity
- type 2 diabetes
- coronary heart disease mortality
Cooking doesn’t have to be a chore. Starting with a few simple meals a week, doubling up on recipes, and involving the whole family in food shopping and preparation can turn cooking into a positive experience. When children are involved in the process of making meals, they’re more likely to eat the results.
The family that eats together …
Eating is much more than putting food in our mouths; it’s a chance to come together and connect. Scheduling family mealtimes isn’t always easy, but the efforts are well worth it for both parents and children. Note that mealtime doesn’t have to mean dinner. Many busy families use breakfast as the main family meal.
Family mealtimes allow us to
- model good eating patterns: children who eat family meals have a healthier diet, are more willing to try new foods, eat more fruits and vegetables, drink fewer soft drinks, and consume more calcium, iron, fibre, and vitamins B, C, and E
- talk to our kids and find out what’s going on in their lives
- share family and cultural traditions, while establishing a sense of unity
By using regular family mealtimes to establish positive parent-child relationships, we give our kids the sense we know and care about what’s going on in their world. Helen Papaconstantinos, RNCP, agrees. “Family meals not only let us connect with our loved ones to set great memories, but they allow us to work out solutions together for the little problems of the day … they make us feel supported and listened to.”
According to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, family meals make it easier for children to say no to drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes. They are also associated with better school performance, a greater sense of well-being, and less risk of binge eating or other unhealthy weight-control behaviours.
From farm to table
Unlike small family farms that grew a variety of crops, today’s large industrialized farms are characterized by intensive, continuous cultivation of single crops with greater reliance on chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Productivity increases have come at an environmental cost: erosion of fertile topsoil, chemical contamination of water supplies through runoff and leaking into groundwater, decreased biodiversity, and increased air pollution. Intensive livestock operations are equally ecologically unfriendly, often introducing inhumane living conditions for animals. Agri-food systems such as overproduction also lead to a higher percentage of food waste.
We can become greener consumers by changing our habits:
- Plant vegetables in gardens or containers. No backyard? Some cities make garden plots available.
- Support eco-friendly farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture ventures, organic farmers, and local cooperative grocery and health stores.
- Limit meat and shop at specialty butchers who deal with farmers who follow humane treatment standards.
- Waste less food. Canadians waste 40 percent of the food we produce—51 percent of that in our homes. Instead, buy less, learn to preserve food, and don’t automatically throw out food because it’s not perfect.
Supplements for better nutrition
As Papaconstantinos reminds us, “Vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, and gut bacteria perform literally hundreds of functions in the human body. Every day our body needs at least 30 dietary nutrients that it cannot manufacture on its own in sufficient amounts.”
In a perfect world, we’d fulfill our nutrition needs from food. In reality, aging, being of childbearing years, eating poorly, being a vegetarian or vegan, living in a northern latitude, having certain medical conditions or medications, and stress may mean we’re missing essential nutrients or our bodies can’t absorb them effectively.
According to the Canadian Community Health Survey, we’re most deficient in meeting the estimated average requirement for vitamins A and D, magnesium, and calcium. A daily multivitamin is an inexpensive nutritional insurance policy for meeting many minimum daily requirements.
Because we’re all different, a health care practitioner or holistic nutritionist can determine the best combination of vitamins, minerals, and other supplements for our specific needs.