March is National Nutrition Month and this year’s theme is “Personalize Your Plate”. The goal is for people to customize their diet based on their individual needs, rather than following a program in a book or one that is trending on the internet. These personal needs include your health history, culture and heritage, and financial situation. Like most things, one size does NOT fit all in the world of health and nutrition.
Your health history plays a huge factor in how and what you eat. An obvious example would be a gluten or dairy intolerance, which would prohibit you from eating certain flours or Greek yogurt. If you have high cholesterol, a diet high in animal protein, and low in plants would be an unhealthy choice (such as the Paleo diet which is too high in saturated fat and low in fiber). It is always essential to consult a doctor you trust or a nutritionist before trying a new “diet” for this reason–and why the idea of a “personalized” plan is so popular and practical.
Your nationality and culture also tie into the food choices you make, and you should not ignore them. Telling someone who grew up in a house eating rice and beans or noodles that “carbs are evil” is not a practical suggestion–or sustainable. (Not to mention, who would ever want to live without carbs!?). The foods we ate as children might not have all been the healthiest choices (Frosted Flakes!) but if you grew up in a culture where meat and potatoes were prevalent, deciding to become a vegan at age 40 may not be sustainable long term. But a plant based diet with some animal products could be a viable solution.
Finances also play a huge role in how we feed our families. It is hard to buy organic produce or grass fed beef if you are paying with food stamps or have a limited food budget. However, staples like grains, beans, rice, eggs, frozen fruits and vegetables are quite healthy and much more affordable choices. Fast food chains like MacDonald’s prey on busy, low income, working families who don’t have the luxury of ordering healthier more expensive takeout options, like sushi. Understandably families living in low income brackets have a higher percentage of children who are obese, diabetic, asthmatic, and battling high cholesterol. We need to offer affordable, healthy alternative meal plans for lower income families. Healthy meals should not be a “splurge”, but rather a necessity.
A final key component to “Personalize Your Plate” is the emphasis to focus on a person’s entire life span. Clearly your nutrition needs change dramatically during your lifetime, and so should your food choices and portions. A toddler’s calorie and nutrient intake is quite different from a teenager, which is also very different from an adult or senior. Universally the Mediterranean diet meets our nutrition needs–regardless of age, culture or activity level, but the amount of food varies of course. None of the newer diets like Atkins, Keto, Paleo or South Beach have the approval for the New Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), making the Mediterranean diet the big winner yet again. Bring on the nuts, fish, vegetables and olive oil please!