What? Didn’t hear about it? Well, it’s here, everybody. Wake up and smell the green tea. I can hear many of you saying, “I know, I know. Eat your fruits and vegetables.” You’re somewhat right. Sometimes, nutrition really is simple. As Michael Pollan says: Eat food, mostly plants, not too much. But, unfortunately, many of us have gotten very far away from the simple food traditions and ways of eating that sustained us for generations, if not eons. We’ve lost our ability to eat intuitively, to instinctively know what we need, when, and how much. Some of us don’t cook, some of our parents don’t cook, and some of us can’t remember what Grandma or Great-Grandma used to cook. Of course I’m not speaking for everyone here, especially considering that we live in midcoast Maine, where the local-food movement is strong and dedicated farmers are well represented. But the reality is that the majority of Americans are on the aptly named SAD diet, or Standard American Diet, confused about what to eat, surrounded by fast-food chains and boxes of processed junk foods screaming health claims.

National Nutrition Month is about bringing our attention back to what we eat. There is mounting evidence that lifestyle, including nutrition and physical activity, has profound effects on health promotion and disease prevention. Prevention is key. It is never too early to start eating healthfully. For example, risk factors like BMI (body mass index) and high blood pressure seen in children as young as 9 have been linked to subclinical “hardening of the arteries” (atherosclerosis) later in adulthood. About 17 percent of children and adolescents are obese. One in three adults in the U.S. is obese. Earlier interventions can add immensely to quality of life, not to mention save lives. The financial burden on our health care system is likewise big: an estimated $147 billion per year is spent in the U.S. on the medical treatment of obesity alone.

Nutrition is essential in preventing and managing more than just obesity. Cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, osteoporosis, neurological diseases, autoimmune diseases, food allergies and intolerances, and gastrointestinal diseases are examples of just some of the conditions that can be managed to varying degrees with nutrition. The list goes on and on. Healthy food is integral to a healthy life. If you are a healthy person, keep eating well and your chances of getting a chronic illness are lowered. If you are dealing with a health condition, take to heart that food and nutrition can be your ally. There is no need to be a victim. Be empowered with the knowledge that eating the right foods will have a positive impact on your health.

Health care professionals like dietitians and nutritionists can be helpful to those who are unsure of where to start. They can help clients wade through often confusing and contradictory nutrition misinformation. Books and articles on the Internet abound; it can be hard to know whom to trust. Likewise, health claims on packaged foods are not the best way to get one’s nutrition information. Dietitians use evidence-based practices to help clients put together healthy eating plans specific to their goals, personal needs, tastes, and lifestyles. For someone who is generally healthy, they can offer preventive nutrition counseling, helping you make informed food choices that go way beyond “eating your fruits and vegetables.” For those dealing with an illness or chronic health condition, they can offer more targeted medical nutrition therapy. If you have received a recent medical diagnosis from your doctor, for example, a dietitian can help you figure out goals and guide you in setting up a plan of action. Reviewing labs, helping with understanding your condition, and guiding choice of foods that are right for you are all a part of a dietitian’s scope of practice. A tailored approach to each individual is best because, literally, every body is different.

Lastly, here are two concepts to get you started in thinking about nutrition.

Eat real food. Real food, as opposed to processed food products. Real food doesn’t come in a package, while processed food does. Think fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts/seeds, legumes, fish/meats, eggs, dairy and whole grains (as tolerated). To eat more real food, think about shopping at the farmers’ market or around the perimeter of the supermarket. Do not be fooled by health claims on packages.

Avoid the rut. We all have our favorite foods that we tend to eat week after week. This is great, but every once in a while, stop and reassess. Variety is essential to a healthy diet. Look down at your plate. Do you see a variety of colors? If your plate is monochromatic, try adding other colorful foods until you have at least two or three different colors. If it’s always green, for example, try to incorporate more purples, reds, oranges or whites. Don’t forget colorful spices. In terms of grains and meats, most of them are similar color-wise, but they all have different nutritional profiles. Vary them, too. Happy eating.

The information provided in this article is intended for general use only and is not to be used in place of medical advice from a licensed health professional.