According to several polls, most of us think of ourselves as healthy, despite the fact that the obesity crisis keeps growing and multiple diet- and lifestyle-related diseases continue to rise. While the exact causes for this ongoing epidemic are still in dispute, there is general consensus that they are best counteracted by health-promoting measures like diet, exercise and positive lifestyle changes.
But regardless of the information available to all, a great deal of confusion persists about how to implement even the most basic recommendations for healthy living. What many still fail to see is how to apply this knowledge in their daily lives, and how to maximize the benefits for their health and well-being.
Why is diet so important?
For example, understanding and following dietary guidelines. Most people consider dieting, particularly for weight loss, as something restrictive, if not punitive. Having to divide one’s food preferences into dos and don’ts is not especially pleasant. Because most diet programs don’t work in the long run, they usually end up in disappointment and frustration. Including or excluding certain foods or food groups in itself can be problematic. As serious nutrition experts will tell you, a better way is to adhere to a diet that is balanced. (It doesn’t matter whether it has a fancy name or someone famous swears by it.)
A balanced diet is one that has all the important nutrients the body needs to function properly. It helps prevent diseases and infections, and supports healing and recovery when injury or illness strikes. It is at the core of all successful weight management. It is essential for healthy growth and development during childhood and adolescence, lasting physical and mental health throughout adulthood, and healthy aging in later years. It is an instrumental part of reaching a person’s health potential at all times and in every way.
A balanced diet includes a great variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, and healthy fats. These offer invaluable benefits in form of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants – all of which are necessary for the body to perform at its best. An optimal diet also requires good sources of protein from lean meats and seafood for growth, maintenance and repair of muscles, bones and organs. Carbohydrates provide energy, dairy products support bone health, and dietary fiber helps with the metabolic process. All of these must be supplied and replenished regularly because prolonged depletion can lead to detrimental consequences for the entire system.
Why is exercise so important?
Like healthy eating, if you are not into it, regular exercise can seem like a nuisance. But it matters just as much. Still, there can be countless reasons (or excuses) for not exercising enough. It’s too time-consuming, too painful, doesn’t produce the desired results, and so on. But the fact is that a sedentary lifestyle does not only increase the likelihood of unwanted weight gain, it is downright unhealthy and can even lead to premature death. As a recent study showed, being unfit due to lack to physical activity is as dangerous to people’s health as smoking and similarly harmful habits.
In addition, exercise has been proven as the best antidote to stress that there is. It helps to protect the body from multiple diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer. It strengthens muscles and bones, which becomes ever more important with age. And it benefits the mind as well by preventing or slowing age-related decline in memory and other cognitive functions.
Why are lifestyle improvements so important?
We all have our dear habits and routines, some of which serve us well, but also others that can do us harm. Smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, and drug use are the obvious culprits. But tastes for overly sweet, fatty or salty foods should also be examined. My clients often hear me say when we address diet and lifestyle changes: “Nothing is forbidden, but everything counts.”
Small, incremental steps are a good approach when it comes to making improvements. Stopping ‘cold turkey’ is not for everyone. All ingrained habits, good or bad, serve (or have served at one point) a purpose, which must be taken into account and replaced with something that fills the void.
Aiming to reach one’s full health potential – that is consciously trying to stay or become as healthy as possible at any given time in life – is foremost a choice, a commitment that must be renewed again and again through successes and failures alike. It is an open-ended, never fully completed project. But it is the best thing anyone can ever set out to do.
TIMI GUSTAFSON, a registered dietitian and health counselor, is the author of “The Healthy Diner — How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun.