The month of March is full of opportunity. Wintery weather starts to ease up, Daylight Saving Time promises more sunlight, and many people find themselves spring cleaning and decluttering their homes. It’s also a month to “spring clean” your diet and reset any poor eating habits that may have set in during the cold, dark winter months.
March is National Nutrition Month, established by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to help individuals “learn about making informed food choices and developing healthful eating and physical activity habits.” While National Nutrition Month offers a great reminder to stop and think about your nutrition and physical activity needs, it’s important to eat well year-round. Consider this your jumping off point, rather than a one-month challenge.
Why Nutrition Matters
Consistently following a well-balanced diet, made up of key nutrients and spanning a variety of healthy foods, helps ensure your body works effectively. Failing to do so can put you at greater risk for disease, infection, fatigue, and lower general physical performance.
At the most extreme end, the Center for Science in the Public Interest found that dietary risks are the number one risk factor for death in the U.S., and poor diet contributes to four of the top 10 leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, stroke, and diabetes mellitus (type 2 diabetes).
At a more – digestible – level, good nutrition can impact your everyday quality of life and overall health. Nutrition has been tied to mood, memory, and sleep, as well as gut health, weight loss, and bone and dental strength.
Quality of Life
What you eat can affect more than just your long-term health. One study found that diets high in refined carbohydrates (think pop, cake, white bread, etc.) might trigger depression and fatigue in some people.
Another study found a connection between nutrition and cognitive decline. It found that certain nutrients can protect your cognitive abilities and may even guard against dementia in the long-term. In short, adding vitamins D, C, and E, omega-3 fatty acids, flavonoids & polyphenols, and fish can help improve your memory over time.
Finally, your diet can contribute to the quality of sleep you get, but the relationship works both ways. What and when you eat can determine how well you sleep, and how well you sleep can alter your hunger cues. Depressants, such as alcohol, and stimulants, such as caffeine, can interfere with your sleep. You can still enjoy these substances in moderation, but it’s best to avoid them too soon before going to bed. It also helps to avoid large meals too close to bedtime, as digestion slows down when you sleep. A heavy late dinner or midnight snack might mess with your body’s natural processes or at least leave you with some unpleasant indigestion.
Eating well benefits your stomach beyond avoiding the occasional stomach-ache. It turns out that maintaining a diet that regularly incorporates fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains can promote strong gut health. One benefit: the fiber in these foods can help keep your bowels regular, which can prevent bigger health complications down the road.
Another factor in preventing health complications is maintaining a healthy weight. Most people are aware that there are recommendations for how many calories you should consume each day. The key, however, is to fill those calories with healthy, unprocessed food. The nutrients found in natural, healthy foods contribute to your body’s processes, so filling up on “empty” calories puts you at risk of gaining unhealthy weight with no nutritional payoff.
One example of a “payoff” that comes from taking in nutrient-dense foods is improved bone health. Bones provide structure and protect your organs while anchoring your muscles in place, so they deserve plenty of attention. Although bones gain most of their strength during childhood (most people’s bone mass peaks around 30 years old), it’s still important to protect bone health well into adulthood. The best way to do this is by making sure you get enough calcium and magnesium. Some cereals and milks are fortified with additional calcium, but natural sources include dairy products, cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower, cabbage, and legumes.
So what exactly do you need to eat to consider your diet healthy? There’s a lot of conflicting information available, and it can be overwhelming to keep track of everything you’re “supposed” to eat when it’s challenging enough just to get dinner on the table. There are enough health benefits – in both the short and long term – to make it worth figuring it out, but that doesn’t mean it has to be a time-consuming process. At its simplest, good nutrition comes down to macronutrients and micronutrients. Beyond that, portion control and a little bit of planning can keep your calories in check.
Macronutrients are the nutrients that provide your body the most energy (or calories). These should make up the bulk of your diet.
- Carbohydrates are your body’s number one energy source, supplying the fuel needed for exercise and for your brain! Typically, 45-65% of your daily calories should come from natural carbohydrate sources like whole grains, fruit, and dairy. Look for naturally occurring carbohydrates over complex carbohydrates like pastas and white breads.
- Proteins are important to tissue structure and metabolism, among other functions. Your daily protein requirements depend on both your activity level and your weight. The Dietary Reference Intake recommends 36 grams of protein per pound. Protein is found in meat, legumes, nuts, seeds, soy products, and whole grains.
- Fats provide your body’s energy reserve and serve as insulation to protect your organs. These should account for about 20-35% of your daily calories and can be found in oils, nuts, seeds, meat, fish, and dairy.
Micronutrients are important for your body to function properly, but they aren’t needed in as high of quantities as macronutrients. They’re more commonly referred to as vitamins and minerals, and they play a role in boosting energy, immune health, blood clotting, growth, and bone health.
Although you don’t need a lot of each micronutrient, it’s still important to incorporate them into your diet. The only micronutrient your body produces naturally is vitamin D, so the rest must come from outside sources.
Some of the most important micronutrients to prioritize, according to the CDC, are:
- Iron is key for motor and cognitive development and to prevent anemia. Most flour has been fortified with iron as a global measure to increase iron consumption.
- Vitamin A is important for eye health and to help promote immune system functions. You can find vitamin A in liver, fish oils, milk, and eggs.
- Vitamin D helps build strong bones and further supports your bones by helping the body absorb calcium. While this is the one micronutrient your body produces naturally, it does so through sunlight, so people in certain geographies may have a hard time producing enough to meet their bodies’ needs. You can boost your body’s vitamin D stores by eating more salmon, herring, sardines, egg yolks, mushrooms, or foods fortified with vitamin D.
- Zinc is helpful in preventing diseases such as diarrhea, pneumonia, and malaria and supports general immune function. It also plays a role in healing external wounds and may help shorten the common cold. You can find zinc in oysters, crab, beef, pork, lobster, chickpeas, and cashews.
Portion Control and Calories
You may have heard of the importance of portion control in weight management. It stands to reason that if you’re supposed to stick to a certain number of calories each day, then you should limit how much food you eat. There are a number of tools on the market, like the Ezy Dose Meal Measure Portion Control Plates, to help measure out how much you’re eating to help maintain a reasonable caloric intake. What’s particularly important to keep in mind is that controlling how much you eat is a part of controlling what you eat. Prioritize macro and micronutrients first to ensure your calories are serving your body well and promoting a healthy lifestyle.
While the nutrients you consume are core to your health, physical activity plays a key role as well. Nutrition and physical activity are both necessary to maintain a healthy body weight and promote overall health. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that adults get at least 150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity 75-150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity each week, preferably done over the course of the week rather than in one or two extra-long workouts.
This may be a challenge if you suffer from mobility issues but finding products that increase your agility and general ability to move freely and with reduced pain, like Strive mobility wraps, can help you enjoy the many benefits of regular exercise.
Your body does a lot for you. You owe it to yourself to practice good nutrition and physical activity everyday – not just during National Nutrition Month. You’ve got this!
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: National Nutrition Month
Healthline: Why a Balanced Diet is Important
Center for Science in the Public Interest: Why Good Nutrition is Important
Medical News Today: What Are the Benefits of Eating Healthy?
Science Direct: Subjective mood and energy levels of healthy weight and overweight/obese healthy adults on high-and low-glycemic load experimental diets
Science Direct: Role of physical activity and diet on mood, behavior, and cognition
Duke Integrative Medicine: Understanding the Connections between Sleep and Nutrition
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines
Mayo Clinic: Bone health: Tips to keep your bones healthy
Washington State University: Nutrition Basics
Healthline: Protein Intake — How Much Protein Should You Eat per Day?
Healthline: Micronutrients: Types, Functions, Benefits and More
CDC: Micronutrient Facts
National Institutes of Health: Vitamin A
Healthline: 7 Healthy Foods That Are High in Vitamin D
WebMD: Foods High in Zinc
U.S. National Journal of Medicine: What is the role of portion control in weight management?
Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion: Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition