March is National Nutrition Month, so we sat down with Judy Simon, a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified health educator at UW Medicine, to learn more about small changes people can make that have a big impact on their overall health. Being more mindful here and there about the food choices we make can set the groundwork for other wellness goals in the longterm while helping us feel energized and ready to take on the day.
For Simon, the real secret to a healthy balanced meal is finding what works for you and understanding your body’s needs. In advance of her March 21 “Eating on the Run” seminar, she shared 10 of her top tips for healthy, mindful eating.
1. Get excited about nutrition
Healthy foods are often assumed to be boring and flavorless. With this assumption, it can be hard to be inspired to eat healthy. “Healthy eating is not about being on your best behavior,” Simon says. “It’s about finding delicious alternatives that you will crave. Nutrition is always an easier sell if you link it to food and how wonderfully tasty it can be and how good it makes us feel.”
2. Look to eat plant-based foods.
Plant-based foods are perfect for providing energy. Simon champions certain carbohydrates for providing energy, such as grains, whole wheat, quinoa, and beans. Additionally, fruits, vegetables, seeds, and nuts are going to provide energy as well. It is important to note that energy needs will differ depending on the person.
3. Know the difference between being hungry and thirsty.
Water is great for helping with digestion, slowing down fast eaters, and providing our bodies with energy. Unfortunately, Judy warns us that, “a lot of times people mix up their signals for whether they’re hungry or thirsty. If this is true, eating food typically isn’t going to satiate that hunger.”
The real trick to knowing whether you’re hungry or thirsty is reading your body. Take a second and ask yourself when is the last time you drank a cup of water? With a meal, Simon recommends having at least 8-12 ounces of some type of fluid—ideally water-based—then continue to sip throughout the day.
4. Keep a meal log for a few days to see your trends.
“For someone who is curious about how they’re doing, eating logs are a really good starting point,” Simon explains. “When you start to enter things in, you become more aware of your habits and notice eating trends you otherwise wouldn’t.”
For example, a lot of us overestimate how many fruits and vegetables we really eat, until we look at our typical day. Phone apps can be helpful for this, but it is important how we interpret the information they give us. Sometimes eating logs can do more harm than good if we are too hard on ourselves. It’s all about finding balance.
5. It’s all about the greens and beans.
Not sure what exactly to eat? Go for the greens and beans! Greens and beans such as lentils, legumes, and beans, are a great source of protein and fiber. Thirty percent of a bean or lentil is protein! Soy, edamame, and lentils are also more affordable sources of protein if you’re looking to eat healthy on a budget.
“Beans have iron, fiber, magnesium, and so many other good nutrients! Greens as well have great amounts of folic acid, iron, potassium, and Vitamin K. Greens and beans are perfect for whipping up a variety of meals with many different combination options!”
6. Incorporate healthy fats.
Healthy fats are a great addition to every meal because we need the fat to absorb some of the vitamins from our greens and beans. “Adding in a little fat like a small bit of olive oil, seeds, nuts, or avocado is a great source of fat and energy,” Simon says. “Obviously, we don’t want too much, but it’s a great source of energy!”
7. Front-load your energy with breakfast.
For those of us who have a busy day where we need to be alert and on our toes, frontloading our energy by having a fulfilling breakfast is the perfect way to fuel. If you swear you can’t eat anything before noon, try and see the difference in how you feel. There are so many options for a filling breakfast, whether you eat the minute you wake up, take it on the go, or wait until you’re sitting at your desk.
“It doesn’t have to be a traditional breakfast! It can be leftover dinner for breakfast, a little wrap with veggies, hardboiled eggs, or a power bowl,” Simon says, cautioning that, “skipping breakfast can be bad if you don’t eat for several hours after waking up. You’re putting your body into starvation mode after a long fast and then it wants to hang onto fat. This makes you want to eat more later.”
8. Read your labels.
Food labels not only tell us the nutrients in our food, but also each individual component. Simon recommends comparing the nutrition label with the ingredients and really thinking about what is added and what is from a whole food. For example, sometimes you’ll read a label and it has sugar hidden behind five different ingredients. With sugar, really look to see if the sugar is added versus part of a key ingredient such as fruit.
A common misconception with labels is that frozen foods are all bad. When things are out of season, Simon says it is okay to eat frozen. Most frozen fruits and vegetables are picked at the time of freshness and immediately frozen so they’re not processed. Watch out for the sauces, and don’t forget to look at the label for sneaky additives!
9. Pack and plan ahead.
Packing ahead saves you time and money. We all have those moments where it’s the afternoon and we’ve already eaten our lunch but need a little something to tide us over so we buy a bag of chips and dig in. This won’t give us energy or help us last until dinner.
Instead, pack ahead stable foods that provide energy and don’t need refrigeration. Whether it’s an energy-packed granola bar or a peanut butter sandwich, these snacks require less effort to maintain, but give us that much needed boost.
10. Know your environment.
Sometimes we don’t have a choice where we eat, but when we do, make the decision to not eat distracted. The worst place we can eat a meal is on the couch with the television on. Challenge yourself to clear off a counter and eat with purpose. Focus on how the food tastes and whether it’s meeting your nutrition needs.
“You don’t need a traditional dining room,” Simon says. “Turn off the devices and make eating a fun, sit-down experience. If you’re by yourself, put on some music. Do something that creates a space to focus on your eating. You’ll feel more satisfied and improve your digestion.” With spring just around the corner, it’s even better to get outside if you can!
Health is all integrated. Simon says simply asking ourselves, “what am I doing for self-care?” can go a long way in helping us recognize our food patterns: “Have confidence and build on the skills that you have when it comes to eating healthy. Don’t feel like you have to be an amazing chef to cook a good meal. Start simple and experiment”
Judy Simon, MS, RDN, CD, CHES is a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified health educator specializing in Women’s reproductive health, eating disorders, pediatrics, gastrointestinal disorders, and management of chronic disease.
To learn more about optimizing your health and eating delicious food options when life is hectic and time feels scarce, don’t miss Simon’s upcoming Eating on the Run seminar where you’ll learn even more tips and tricks for a balanced diet full of nutrients and flavor.