March is National Nutrition Month. Proper nutrition is the foundation for good health. This article gives a good overview of the role food can play in our health.
You are what you eat is a popular saying that holds much truth. What you eat directly affects your cholesterol, blood sugar, blood pressure, skin, sleep, bone strength, muscle tone, energy levels, and much more. Of course, nutrition isn’t the only thing to influence these, but it can make a large impact.
Good nutrition means you are eating a balanced diet filled with nutrient-dense foods. Examples include lean proteins, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and healthy fats.
Good nutrition means limiting empty calories like sweets, sodas, fast food, packaged chips, cookies, etc.
If one of these 10 signs of good nutrition is not at a healthy level, the good news is you may be able to change it for the better by altering your diet.
#1 – Healthy blood fat levels
Cholesterol and triglycerides are the main fats found in your blood. What you eat, exercise and genetics can all influence your blood fat levels.
High blood triglycerides and LDL cholesterol can both increase the risk for cardiovascular disease. Low levels of HDL cholesterol, which is considered good cholesterol, can also increase the risk for cardiovascular disease.
Eating a diet high in sugar can increase the risk for high triglycerides and can also lower HDL. A 2010 study in the Journal of American Medical Association found people who had the lowest intake of sugar had the lowest triglyceride levels and highest HDL levels.
Eating enough omega 3 fatty acids, not eating too many calories in general, and not overindulging in alcohol can also help keep blood triglyceride and cholesterol levels in a healthy range. Fiber intake also has a role in keeping LDL cholesterol levels down.
Although genetics do play a role, one way to gauge your nutrition is by looking at your blood lipids. If you eat a low sugar, high fiber, high omega 3’s diet, chances are it will show by having your blood fat levels in a healthy range the next time you get your blood drawn.
#2 – Normal blood sugar
Why should you know where your blood sugar levels are? According to the CDC, more than 29 million Americans have diabetes and one in four people don’t know they have it. An alarming one-third of Americans have prediabetes which means they may not have diabetes, but their blood sugar is high. If left untreated, it could lead to diabetes.
Losing weight if overweight, exercising, and eating a healthy diet are some of the ways to help prevent type 2 diabetes and can be used for the management of the disease. Limiting foods that are high in sugar and low in fiber is one dietary way to help control blood sugar levels. Eating meals mixed with fiber, protein, and healthy fats can help avoid large blood sugar fluctuations.
If your diet is low in refined sugars, higher in fiber and you eat a healthy balance of nutrient-dense carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, it will likely show on your blood sugar levels.
Adding in exercise and weight loss if applicable can also help keep blood sugar levels in a healthy zone
#3 – Healthy blood pressure
Having high blood pressure can increase the risk for cardiovascular disease, but you can’t tell if your blood pressure is high or not. What you eat, drink and exercise can all impact blood pressure levels.
The good news is you don’t have to follow a fancy, complicated diet to help keep your blood pressure healthy. Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet was created by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute to help people lower their blood pressure.
The DASH diet is simply a diet high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and low-fat dairy. The diet is low in sugary foods, high-fat foods, and red meats.
The DASH diet is high in potassium and low in sodium which can promote healthy blood pressure levels. Even if you aren’t trying to specifically follow the DASH diet, if you naturally eat a lot of fruits, vegetables, and grains while limiting fatty meats and sweets, you are helping your blood pressure.
Even though the DASH diet is not considered a weight loss diet, it has been voted the best overall diet for 2015 by U.S. News & World Report.
Following a vegetarian-based diet, whether a strict vegan or semi-vegetarian has also been shown to help keep blood pressure levels at a healthy.
#4 – Regular bowel movements
That’s right, regular bowel movements can be a healthy sign your nutrition is in good order.
Eating enough fiber and drinking enough liquids are two ways to help keep things moving through your digestive tract. Eating a diet low in fiber or being dehydrated can increase the risk of constipation.
Having a balanced level of probiotics, healthy bacteria, in the digestive tract can also help with regular bowel movements.
Bacteria are all along the digestive tract, and they can be helpful or harmful. Probiotic food sources include yogurt, some cheeses, kefir, fermented vegetables, miso, kombucha, and other fermented foods.
If you are constipated or wondering if you are having frequent enough bowel movements, speak with your doctor. Constipation can increase the risk for other health complications; a 2009 study concluded constipation increases the risk for hemorrhoids, fissures, incontinence, incontinence, and urologic disorders.
#5 – Healthy skin
What you eat not only affects your body inside but also affects the outside. Your skin needs important nutrients in order to be at its best. Getting adequate antioxidants like vitamins A, C and E can help fight damage to skin cells caused by the sun, pollution, age, etc.
A diet high in deeply colored fruits, vegetables, nuts, herbs, grains, and legumes can offer a wide variety of antioxidants to the diet. Make sure you are eating all the colors of the rainbow for the optimal variety of antioxidants.
Dairy products can also offer a source of vitamin A. Drinking enough water can also impact the way your skin looks.
Of course, skin changes with age, and the way your skin looks can also be influenced by genetics or environmental factors. Getting enough of your skin’s nutrients can help it look the best it can no matter what your age.
#6 – Strong immune system
Even if you eat a really healthy diet you can still get sick. However, if your immune system is strong, you may be able to fight illnesses off easier or faster.
Harvard Health suggests people who are malnourished are at a higher risk of getting infections. If you are not getting proper nutrients, the immune system can be one of the first areas to be compromised.
While diet, lifestyle, and stress may all impact the immune system, there are few studies to suggest strong evidence of specific nutrition practices and immune health.
Scientists do recognize that eating a diet high in nutrients like antioxidants from foods, zinc, and selenium may be beneficial to immune function. Deficiencies in nutrients like zinc, copper, selenium, iron, copper, and vitamins A, C, and E have been shown in animal studies to impact immune health in animals.
The bacteria in your gut is also one of the first lines of defense for your immune system. Having a healthy level of probiotics could also boost immune function.
#7 – Strong bones
Getting enough bone-building nutrients like calcium, magnesium, vitamin D, potassium and vitamin K is important when you are growing. When you are young, you are laying the foundation for your bone health in years to come.
According to the NIH, risk factors for weak bones as an adult include: eating a poor diet, inactivity, smoking, and low body weight.
Some risk factors for bone health you can’t control but getting enough bone-building nutrients through your diet you can control.
Dairy foods are high in calcium and vitamin D, but there are many other foods that can promote bone health. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) recommends eating a diet high in fruits, vegetables, and legumes that are not only high in nutrients but can also help alkalinize the blood which can help keep bones strong.
# 8 – Good muscle tone
You can’t assess someone’s health just on their weight. There are many factors that go into health: diet, exercise, stress, sleep, etc. are all important to take into account.
Someone could be an ideal body weight but still have a higher amount of body fat than recommended, which can be coined “skinny fat”.
People with “healthy” body weight can still have higher than recommended body fat which still increases the risk for many chronic diseases.
A 2008 study concluded about one-fourth of adults that were considered a healthy weight had high cholesterol and/or blood pressure. This and other research suggest instead of focusing on weight alone, take into account muscle tone and body fat levels.
Along with exercise, good nutrition can help promote muscle growth and strength. Getting balanced nutrition can fuel muscles while not piling on excess fat. Getting enough nutrition can actually be a hurdle for some people.
Not eating enough and exercising too much can lead to feeling constant fatigue and lack of being able to build muscle.
#9 – Constant energy
If you’re feeling sluggish throughout the day, it could mean many things. Besides sleep levels, your energy levels may be related to your diet. Not getting enough nutrients, especially iron could increase the risk for low energy levels.
Relying on caffeine to get you through the day may offer some temporary help but may just be a Band-Aid hiding something else affecting your energy.
Keeping blood sugar levels stable through the day by eating a balance of fiber, lean proteins, and healthy fats can also help energy levels stay constant. If you suspect something may be causing you to feel sluggish through the day, speak with your doctor for more testing.
#10 – Mental function
How diet affects mental function is still being understood, as there are many factors that can influence the brain. However, if you feel like you are constantly in a mental fog or can’t think clearly, it may be related to diet.
Credi: Holly Klamer, RD