To Brock University Professor of Kinesiology Wendy Ward, healthy eating habits are about more than just the foods we eat.
A nutritional scientist by training, Ward says Nutrition Month in March is a great opportunity for Canadians to re-familiarize themselves with Canada’s food guide, which was updated in 2019.
The food guide resonates with most Canadians, she says, because it takes into consideration people’s busy lifestyles and emphasizes the circumstances around eating: the where, when, why and how we all eat.
“It’s about making better choices more of the time, not all of the time,” Ward says. “For example, being mindful of when we feel hungry and not eating just because the food is available or it’s a specific time of day.”
Better food choices include limiting foods that are highly processed or high in added sugars, sodium and saturated fats, and modelling meals after the Eat Well Plate in Canada’s food guide, which changed from four main food groups to three.
According to the food guide, fruits and vegetables should make up half of a meal, while whole grains and protein should each make up a quarter of a meal. Plant-based proteins are emphasized, such as beans, soy, flax seeds, legumes and pulses.
“What I really like about the food guide is that everybody can create their own plate within that paradigm,” Ward says. “You can take into consideration foods you’re actually going to eat, including traditional food from your family’s culture. You don’t have to force yourself to eat things you don’t like because there are lots of options you can fit within those three food groups.”
Although dairy does not have its own group, the bone researcher in Ward knows the importance of dairy products to get enough nutrients needed to have strong and healthy bones.
“Dairy is part of the protein group and is a great source of calcium, vitamin D and protein,” she says. “Products like yogurt are very nutritious and may include probiotics, a type of good bacteria. We’re hearing a lot of talk about our gut microbiome and eating for our microbes, and I think yogurt fits in here.”
The food guide also suggests cooking more often, which Ward says may take more planning and grocery shopping, but is worth the extra effort.
“Find a time when it makes sense for you to get groceries so you’re not rushing and go in with a strategy to plan meals for the next two to three days,” she says. “Many of us have heard of the recommendation of going to the outside aisles of the grocery store and limiting how often we shop the centre aisles. The point is to buy more fruits, vegetables and whole foods.”
Involving children in food preparation is beneficial. It can give them a sense of control over their food choices and may help curb selective eaters.
“Have children slice a banana or apple with a kid-safe knife or let them select the fruits and vegetables for a smoothie,” says Ward. “If they only like three types of fruits and vegetables, that’s OK. Keep introducing new food options: sometimes they’ll go for it and sometimes they won’t.”
Soups and chilis are also easy ways to incorporate more vegetables and plant-based proteins into meals.
“It’s about slow and achievable change,” Ward says. “There are moments in our lives when we’re not able to always make healthy food choices and that’s OK. People shouldn’t feel guilty about it. Focus on the positives and make small changes when you can.”
10 tips for healthy eating:
- Be mindful of when you feel hungry.
- Cook more often.
- Eat plenty of vegetables and fruit.
- Choose foods high in whole grains and protein and choose plant-based proteins.
- Limit highly processed foods.
- Replace sugary drinks with water.
- Choose foods with healthy fats instead of saturated fats.
- Shop the outside aisles of the grocery store.
- Involve children in food preparation and offer them options.
- Be kind to yourself — it’s OK to choose unhealthy food options sometimes.