March is here and it’s every Canadian Registered Dietitian’s (RD) favourite month. Why? Well, because it’s Nutrition Month, of course! To be honest, every month is nutrition month in my world but March is the time of year that us dietitians get together and with a collective effort promote a message about food and nutrition. This year’s theme is a good one, it’s Unlock the Potential of Food.
Unlock the Potential of Food - it’s a message that means a lot of different things. Food is so important to us, all of us. Sometimes, however, it feels as though the importance of food gets overlooked in a world focused on diet fads and food trends. Food is so much more than something to be manipulated to lose weight. In this post, I’m going to delve into what this theme - unlocking the potential of food - means to me.
FOOD HAS THE POTENTIAL TO CONNECT US
Beyond its power to nourish us, food is involved in so many of our social gatherings. We celebrate with food. We sit around a table and learn about each other over food. We stay connected as a family unit by prioritizing eating meals together. We help each other out by gifting foods in times of sadness and joy. Food is involved in so many of our social interactions, it is a common factor in our lives.
FOOD HAS THE POTENTIAL TO TEACH US ABOUT OUR TRADITIONS
We learn about our heritage and traditions from food. Many of our traditions are passed down from generation to generation, in the kitchen. We also learn about each other’s traditions through food. Have you ever heard the old saying of “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach”? Well, I think this can be expanded to all people, in general. The way to our hearts is through our stomachs. Understanding and tolerance for each other can begin with something as simple as being exposed to elements of one another’s culture, including its cuisine.
FOOD HAS THE POTENTIAL TO FUEL US
Just ask any professional level athlete and they’ll tell you how important choosing the right foods is to their performance. While most of aren’t professional athletes, the food we eat is what fuels our bodies, whether it’s for light physical activity or just activities of daily life. The right food will give us the energy we need to maximize our body’s potential.
FOOD HAS THE POTENTIAL TO PREVENT DISEASE
The right diet can provide us with the nutrients we need to reduce our disease risk. While not a perfect science, we know that certain eating patterns are associated with a reduced risk of certain diseases. Can we totally prevent getting sick by a good diet? Probably not, as there are likely other factors involved with disease (like genetics and environment) but we can fuel our body’s to give ourselves the best chance at staying healthy.
At this time, we know a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, fiber, plant-based proteins, healthy oils, unprocessed animal proteins (and unprocessed food, in general) will give us the best chance to avoid disease.
FOOD HAS THE POTENTIAL TO PROMOTE A HEALTHY MICROBIOME
While we are still in the early stages of knowing exactly what the bacteria living in our gut (or microbiome) does, scientists do have a preliminary understanding that certain types and amounts bacteria in our large intestine confer health benefits. What’s more, is that the foods we eat can influence the growth of these healthy bacteria in our microbiome.
Probiotics foods, or foods with helpful bacteria, include yogurt (with “live bacterial cultures”), kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, miso, tempeh and fermented vegetables. Foods with prebiotics, or foods that feed those healthy bacteria, include foods like onion, garlic, whole grains, legumes, and many fruits and vegetables.
FOOD HAS THE POTENTIAL TO HEAL
Food not only has the potential to prevent diseases from occurring, it also has the power to help heal our body or manage certain disease states.
If you break a bone, have a wound, or have had a recent surgery, the body ramps up its need for energy and certain nutrients to begin the healing process. Certain diseases, as well, require specific diets to help manage the disease process or symptoms. For example:
- Diabetes requires alteration and reduction of carbohydrate intake to best manage blood sugars.
- Kidney disease can require the restriction sodium, potassium and/or phosphorus to prevent fluid overload, heart problems and metabolic bone disease, respectively.
- Food allergies require restriction of allergens to prevent sometimes life threatening reactions.
- Irritable bowel disease (IBS) often requires the restriction of certain short-chain carbohydrates (called FODMAPs) to manage symptoms.
- Congestive heart disease requires the restriction of sodium and fluids to prevent serious fluid retention that can impact breathing.
- Seizure frequency in epilepsy can be reduced by changing to a fat-based, ketogenic diet.
FOOD HAS THE POTENTIAL TO INFLUENCE MOOD
What we eat affects not only our physical health, but our mental health, too. This makes sense as the food we eat influences the production of many of our neurotransmitters. There is also some evidence that the bacteria in our large intestine (the microbiome) can influence our mental health. While still in the early stages, nutritional psychiatry, or the study of how diet influences mental health, is a growing area of research.
A randomized controlled trial published in 2017 found that a Mediterranean diet, rich in plant food, lean meats, fish, nuts, seeds and healthy fats, reduced depression scores. In addition, a 2013 meta-analysis found an association between a Mediterranean diet and reduced risk of depression and cognitive impairment. Observational studies have also found an inverse relationship between depression and diets rich in plant-based foods, fish (perhaps due to omega-3 fats), magnesium, iron and zinc.
Food is so much more than a tasty meal. Food connects us. It reveals a piece of our heritage and helps up pass on our traditions. It can prevent disease, heal our bodies and help control disease-related symptoms. Food can alter our mood. There is so much potential that can be unlocked with a healthy diet.
If you are are curious about what diet is best for you and your unique health needs, consult with a Registered Dietitian (RD) for individualized recommendations.