Eating Patterns for Optimal Health: Small Changes You Can Make Today

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This year Nutrition Month is all about unlocking the potential of food: to fuel, discover, prevent, heal, and bring us together.  This week’s post focuses on small changes you can make for optimal health that may help you reduce your risk of some chronic diseases.

Three Eating Patterns for Optimal Health

While there are many factors involved in disease progression, food has the potential to lower the risk of chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease for some people.  Eating patterns that have been shown to help reduce the risk of chronic disease include the Mediterranean dietary pattern, the DASH eating plan and the MIND diet.  The Mediterranean dietary pattern can help reduce the risk of heart disease and lower blood cholesterol and blood pressure levels as well as improve blood glucose levels for people living with type 2 diabetes.  The DASH eating plan, which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, has been shown to reduce blood pressure and decrease the risk of developing hypertension, and the MIND Diet combines the Mediterranean and DASH eating patterns which may help reduce cognitive decline and decrease the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. 

What do these eating patterns all have in common, besides their potential to reduce disease risk? They are made up of the same foods:  vegetables, fruits, whole grains, healthy fats from nuts and seeds and healthy protein from beans, legumes, fish, poultry, eggs, and meat.  They also focus on a higher intake of whole foods compared to overly processed foods.

Making slow, progressive changes toward a dietary pattern rich in these foods is one way to invest in your health in the long term, for those who want to make changes.  What will have the biggest impact?  Well, that depends on where you are at today and what’s within your capacity to change.  For some, it might be reducing the number of meals per week eaten out or ordered in.  Others may want to look at increasing their overall vegetable and fruit intake or switching to whole grains more often.  Talking to a dietitian is a great way to come up with a plan that is tailored to your individual health goals.  In the meantime, here are a few ideas on adding more health promoting foods into your day.

Small Dietary Changes For Improved Health

For people who don’t like to cook or don’t have very much time to cook, boost the nutrition of ready-to-eat foods by adding vegetables, beans, and whole grains:

  • Make a quick meal out of a salad kit.  Chose one you like best, and add canned beans, nuts and seeds, or some rotisserie chicken for protein. 
  • Add some chopped greens and canned beans to jarred tomato sauce with your pasta dishes.  Canned mushrooms or artichokes are other great options.
  • Add some frozen vegetables with the pasta while it’s cooking.  Frozen peas, green beans, and broccoli work well.
  • Top frozen pizza with extra vegetables or hearty greens like chopped kale, chard, or spinach before cooking or top with fresh herbs or arugula before eating.
  • Grab some pre-chopped vegetables to have on hand for snacks during the week or as a quick side to your main meal.
  • Give canned soups a boost by adding extra beans or vegetables while heating up.

Tip: Rinse canned foods well to reduce the sodium (salt) content of the food or purchase low sodium options when available.

Top pizza with fresh herbs or your favourite greens, like arugula or kale.

If you have more time to cook or bake, consider giving your everyday favourites a nutrition boost:

  • Add some rolled oats or greens to your favourite smoothie recipe.
  • Top yogurt or oatmeal with hemp hearts, chia seeds, or your favourite nuts.
  • Use hummus and avocado in sandwiches, wraps and pitas as a flavour-boosting spread.
  • Try pesto with your egg dishes, tossed in pasta, on roasted vegetables or on sandwiches and wraps.
  • Add chopped up mushrooms or lentils to your burger patties, spaghetti sauce, or meatloaf – you’ll save money by using less meat and add in some additional nutrition at the same time.
  • Try grated zucchini, carrot, or mashed yams, pumpkin, or apple sauce in baked goods to reduce the amount of added sugar or oil and increase nutrition.  Here’s a great resource for these types of substitutions.  I recommend making only one substitution per recipe to keep it close to the original flavour and texture.

Why not get support with your dietary changes and contact a dietitian?  You can find one here, call 8-1-1 (in British Columbia), or check with your local hospital or community health centre to see if they have an outpatient dietitian available.  Additionally, some grocery stores have dietitians that will offer in-store tours with nutrition education tailored to you or a small group.

This post was adapted from the Dietitians of Canada’s Nutrition Month campaign materials. Find more information about Nutrition Month at www.NutritionMonth2019.ca.

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