By Susan Kasik-Miller, registered dietitian with HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital
When people learn that I am a registered dietitian for HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital, the questions come fast and furious: What should I be eating? How can I be healthier? What the heck is quinoa? Is chocolate really that bad for you?
Choosing the right foods for a healthy lifestyle can be a daunting task, but it’s worth the time and effort. “Healthy” food does share a direct correlation to good health. Study after study shows that a good diet does lead to better health. Eating a balanced diet has proven to diminish complications from chronic diseases like heart disease, cancer, and a whole host of others.
But what is healthy food, and what constitutes a good diet? The quick answer is fruits, vegetables, lean meats, low-fat dairy, and whole grains.
Some might recall the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) food pyramid from decades ago. The pyramid got a face lift in the form of a dinner plate. Visit ChooseMyPlate.gov to view the updated dietary guidelines now recommended by the USDA. Building a healthy plate not only requires edibles from the major food groups, but also portion mindfulness. The USDA gives tips and techniques to keep portions under control, which keeps calories within the suggested range for maintaining a healthy lifestyle. To build a healthy plate, make half of your plate fruits and vegetables, switch to a low-fat milk, and vary protein choices. Cut back on foods that are high in fats and added sugars and salt. We all know that fat and sugar aren’t good, but what’s with the salt? Sodium is not so great. Many things change in the body when an influx of sodium is consume —fluid retention, an increase inblood pressure, and the kidneys have to work overtime, just to name a few. We’re not talking about table salt, here. Well, we are, but the few shakes you put on your green beans isn’t the problem. It’s the sodium found in the can of green beans.
“But wait,” you say. “You just told me to eat more vegetables.”
Yes, but be aware of the sodium that comes with canned or processed foods. If you are only able to purchase canned vegetables, then canned vegetables are better than no vegetables at all. However, if you are able to visit the local farmers markets in Eau Claire, Chippewa Falls, and Menomonie to purchase fresh vegetables, you will be able to avoid added sodium.
The key is to buy fresh if possible, and if not, look at the package. Think about what’s in there. Avoid salty snacks and processed food like chips, sausage, and ready-to-eat frozen meals (I like to call them “heat and eats.”). Stay away if possible.
In my profession, I work with people who are sick with heart disease or cancer. They’re looking for any way to feel a little better physically and mentally. I think one of the things about a healthy diet is that people who are battling a disease feel more in control when they make good food choices. Some patients have said that fueling their bodies with better food makes them feel that they are able to control a portion of their well-being—that they are able to control what’s next in life.
When we think of good health, we think of the body, but some patients have found that eating well also helps one’s mental state. The mental aspect is important in any kind of treatment the patient endures.
And when healing from surgery, eating healthy helps the body heal.
Getting adequate amounts of calories and nutrients fuels the body to heal. Low-fat meats and dairy products are imperative to the healing process. A wide variety of foods coupled with fruits and vegetables that are at their peak of ripeness is important. I always suggest vegetables, beans, eggs, dairy, fish, chicken, beef,and pork as well as wild game and venison if available.
Those are excellent sources of low-fat protein filled with iron. I’ve heard all of the excuses in the book as to why people do not follow a healthy diet. The number one excuse is that people can’t afford it, and for some people that is legitimate. But many people buy foods that aren’t cheap—they drink a six to twelve-pack of soda daily. That $3 or $4 could be spent on vegetables at the grocery store, or a sack of potatoes at the farmers market. Again, if buying fresh isn’t an option, canned or frozen vegetables are inexpensive and better than other options.
It sounds silly, but remaining healthy is the best way to stay healthy. Share a healthy eating mindset with your friends and family. Make it a continued goal from day to day, week to week. Eat bad-for-you foods in moderation, but always keep healthy eating at the forefront of the mind, and your body will thank you for life.