2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans is a set of nutritional recommendations for the general public living in the United States that focuses on health promotion and disease prevention. It is a joint effort of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The Guidelines are revised and updated every five years; the last one was published in 2010. Policymakers, healthcare providers and nutritionists use these recommendations to design educational materials and nutrition-related programs.

There is a concern that poor nutrition and sedentary lifestyle can contribute to the development of several diseases such as cardiovascular disease, hypertension, dyslipidemia[1], type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, constipation, malnutrition and some cancers. Poor dietary habits and lack of physical activity can also result in an energy imbalance (more calories consumed than expended) which leads to weight gain over the years.

The energy requirement for women is somewhere between 1600 and 2400 Kcal[2] a day, depending on age and physical activity levels. When you consume more calories than your body needs, the extra energy is stored as fat. This is a primitive defense mechanism the human body developed in order to survive times of famine. Even though it is very unlikely that we’ll face food shortages nowadays, our body doesn’t know that yet; so overconsumption will  lead to weight gain.

Not only the quantity of food consumed is a concern; quality is also at stake. People generally favor frozen meals, canned goods, pre-packaged snacks and other convenience foods. The problem is that all of them are processed, usually caloric-dense and nutrient-poor, containing whopping amounts of salt, fat (saturated and trans fats), sugar, and other chemicals that we don’t even know what they are for. Americans also consume a great amount of refined grains in the form of breads, pasta, white rice and baked goods. Refined grains are manipulated to enhance texture and flavor, but important nutrients are lost in the process. What remains is basically starch, a form of carbohydrate that is quickly absorbed by the body, causing a spike in blood sugar. The main concern is that the constant exposure to these high-glycemic[3] carbohydrates may lead to insulin resistance, which is a red flag for type 2 diabetes.

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) calls attention to the need of consuming nutrient-dense[4]foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low fat milk and dairy, lean meats, eggs and nuts (in their natural state). However, many Americans are not consuming adequate amounts of certain foods. The intake of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, milk and milk products, and oils is alarmingly low. The under-consumption of certain food groups and the lack of variety at the table could cause nutritional deficiencies. In fact, some nutrients are a public health concern (vitamin D, calcium, potassium, and dietary fiber). But popping a multi-vitamin pill is not the solution. The DGAC points out that nutrients should come from food sources, meaning that improving your dietary habits should be a top priority. To learn more, visit http://www.choosemyplate.gov/.

[1] Abnormal amount of cholesterol (HDL and LDL) and/or fat (triglycerides) in the blood.

[2] Same as calories.

[3] High-glycemic carbohydrates are the ones that are broken down very quickly by the human body, releasing glucose rapidly into the bloodstream, which is immediately counteracted by the release of insulin. However, chronic insulin spikes have deleterious effects on the body.

[4] According to the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, nutrient-dense foods are those that provide substantial amounts of vitamins and minerals, and relatively few calories.

I Want You to Take Over Control

How many times have you started (and given up) an exercise program? Don’t be ashamed; you are not alone. According to ACE (American Council on Exercise) data, 50% to 65% of persons beginning or returning to a standard exercise program will drop out during the first six months. Even though the statistics are not encouraging, don’t give up just yet. You are not set up for failure unless you believe so. Your mind is a powerful tool; it can work for or against you. All you need to learn is how to use it in your favor.

For many people, every year begins the same way: a lot of promises to get rid of bad habits and many expectations about the “new you” that is going to emerge from this transformation. But, unfortunately, all this excitement dissipates as time goes by, and soon enough you go back to your old comfortable not-so-healthy habits.

From my point of view, the problem lies in a simple fact: people try to obtain different results by doing exactly the same things over and over again. Come on, if it didn’t work the first time, why would it work on the tenth? This is not being persistent; it is being stubborn! It doesn’t matter how hard you try the next time. If you don’t change your approach, you won’t get a different outcome. For instance, you start the year with another crash diet to “detox” your body from the abuses of the holidays. The problem is that you can’t live on arugula and water for too long, so you ditch it at the first opportunity. Or you decide to join a health club, one more time. Even though you don’t feel very comfortable there, you promise yourself that you won’t miss one workout. Well, as your days start to get busier, guess what will happen…

Can you see where the root of the problem is? We tend to make promises that we can’t sustain for too long just because we want to get results right now. Well, it is more than proven that this way doesn’t work. So it is time to start doing something different.

First of all, you have to stop thinking that exercise and diet are shortcuts to solve immediate weight issues (for example, fit in a killer dress for your high school reunion party). Oh, I know it is not your fault. Most fitness, health and beauty magazines are crowded with articles like “Flat Abs Fast” or “Drop Two Sizes in Four Weeks.” But what I think is sad, is that most programs featured are hard core, meaning that if you are a sedentary person, chances are you won’t be able to follow them. If you are already fit, you probably don’t need to drop two sizes. I just don’t get it!

Anyway, exercising regularly and eating healthfully must be part of your daily routine just as showering or brushing your teeth. They have to become habits so you can enjoy long-term results. What is the point of shedding a few pounds in a month just to gain them back the next one?

In fact, what I am proposing is a lifestyle transformation, not a quick fix to your vanity issues. Have in mind that this is going to be a slow process. It is not easy and does not happen in a straight line. You will experience ups and downs, and it will require effort to stay on track. Consider it as a challenge where the reward is achieving lifelong fitness.

There are three fundamental components in this process: proper nutrition, regular physical activity and behavior management. Together, they form the tripod that will sustain your new lifestyle.

Proper nutrition is the base for a healthy lifestyle. The mouth is the entrance door of the body, and your body is your temple. You should honor and respect it by choosing wisely what you allow in. Food provides energy and building blocks that our body needs to function well. If you eat mainly nutrient-dense whole foods[1], your body will be able to work smoothly, and the benefits will reflect on your mood, body composition and overall health. On the other hand, when you eat mainly junk food (super processed foods, poor in nutrients and high in calories), your body gets lost and starts to malfunction.

The second component is regular physical activity. Exercise is one of the major contributors to weight loss and maintenance. It helps us to burn extra energy (calories) in order to keep the weight equation balanced (calories in versus calories out).  However, it should be considered more than just a way to shed a few pounds so you can get into your favorite jeans. Look at the big picture. An active lifestyle can help you live longer and better. Moving your body regularly will keep the integrity of muscles as you grow older, meaning that it is more likely you’ll age gracefully and pain-free. And the list of benefits continues: reducing the risk of developing heart or metabolic diseases, improving blood pressure and cholesterol levels, decreasing anxiety, tension, and depression, among others.

Even though all those benefits are well known, many people still consider exercise as a temporary fix, something that you use just to lose weight. And, sadly, many magazines and reality-shows still paint the image that losing a lot of weight is super easy; you just need to push yourself into extreme exercise routines and fad diets. But these measures are impractical to maintain for the long run. So once you go back to your normal (aka sedentary) lifestyle and eating habits, all achievements will be reversed in a few months if not weeks.

This brings us to the last component of the process: behavior management. This is the part where you will start to take charge of your life. First, you have to identify unproductive behaviors and situations that trigger each one of them. Once you know exactly what you are fighting, it will be easier to apply strategies to keep you on track. But don’t fool yourself; this is a slow process. All new behaviors have to be incorporated little by little into your life. Too many changes at once will make you feel overwhelmed until you will eventually give up.

It is not that you don’t know what is wrong; you probably do. If you ask around, your friends and family mostly will tell you exactly what they should be doing; they just don’t do it. And I’m sure they will have a handful of excuses: “My doctor told me to exercise regularly, but I don’t have enough time” or “I know I should avoid fried stuff, but it tastes soooo good, and I think I deserve it.” See, information is not the problem; management is.

The truth is that we behave the way we do because it works for us, at least somewhat. And everything we do is influenced by our family, culture, financial constraints, work, and health beliefs. It is a matter of what is important to each one of us and how we prioritize things in our lives.

So, you’ll have to review your priorities, and maybe put you and your health on top of your list. The bottom line is: you have to be aware of your regular behaviors, so you can turn the good ones into habits and ditch the bad ones.

A habit is “a recurrent, often unconscious pattern of behavior that is acquired through frequent repetition[2].” You’ve probably heard that it is hard to break a habit. The good news is that this is true both for bad and good ones. Practicing healthier behaviors will turn them into habits, so you won’t have to think about them anymore. They will occur without your even noticing. But I’ll talk more about habits later. For now, just have in mind that you are responsible for choosing a healthier lifestyle, and you are the only one who can actually change your life.

[1] According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a healthy diet should be composed mainly of fruits, vegetables, low fat milk and dairy, lean meats and whole grains. These are considered nutrient-dense foods because they are packed with vitamins and minerals and have relatively fewer calories than highly processed goods.

[2] See www.thefreedictionary.com/habit


Creating Healthy Habits

Every time we try to improve something in our lives, we end up facing a common challenge: we need to create a new habit. Even though at first it sounds easy to incorporate changes in our lifestyles, it can be trickier than we predicted. People say that it is a matter of discipline or will-power, and all we need to do to change is to start and keep going. This is easier said than done.

How many times have you started the year with a sound list of resolutions that was forgotten as time passed? Well, you are not alone. A poll by the Opinion Corporation of Princeton showed that only 8% of people interviewed were successful in achieving their resolutions. So what is the problem? Is it a generalized lack of will power? Certainly not. In my opinion, the problem lies in lack of planning. When we REALLY want to do something, we have put enough effort into it until we achieve our goal. But the truth is that most people don’t even know exactly what they want. Their goals are extremely vague and unstructured (something like, “I want to feel healthier” or “I want to eat better”). Sometimes the goal is not even theirs. They are just trying to please a spouse or a doctor who seems to be more concerned than they are. So in order to clarify several misconceptions, I’m diving into the behavior world.

First of all, what is a habit? By definition, a habit is a recurrent pattern of behavior acquired by frequent repetition[1]. Experts in the field point out that you need to maintain a behavior for around 21 days in order to form a habit. So all you need to do is keep behaving in a certain way until it becomes part of your lifestyle, right? I wish it were that simple! The problem is that there are several variables that can influence our behaviors.

So you want to change, but are you ready to make the move? According to the transtheoretical change model[2], there are five stages in the change process: pre-contemplation (1), contemplation(2), preparation(3), action(4), and maintenance(5). The first is the pre-contemplation (1) stage in which the individual is not even considering the adaptation of a specific behavior. Common situations are, “my doctor told me to quit smoking” or “my wife wants me to lose weight.” In these cases, someone is trying to push you into a behavior that you are not ready to adopt, which sets you up for premature failure. Face it. If you don’t consider something as important enough to even think about, it won’t matter if you fail. So you will, period. The next stage is contemplation (2), meaning that you’ve been thinking about a change, but you are not exactly doing anything to move towards it. At this point, you are probably considering the pros and cons of the new behavior. To move forward, you must feel that you will benefit from the change. If you do move on to the next step, you will find yourself in the preparation (3) phase in which you start planning the change process. That’s when you set up a date to start your new behavior (new diet on Monday, anyone?). Once the “D” day arrives and you engage in the new behavior, you step into the action (4) stage.  Here you will have the opportunity to repeat the chosen behavior until it becomes part of your life. And when this happens, you’ve achieved the final stage – maintenance (5). Now, the new behavior finally becomes a habit, and it is part of your daily routine. You succeeded!

However, there is a catch – the path is never that smooth. During the process, it is common to face obstacles that can undo your progress even when you were already in the maintenance stage. That’s why motivation is so important. You have to surround yourself with positive thoughts that can comfort you when you face a setback and are powerful enough to put you back on track. Motivation is very personal, meaning that you’ll have to know what matters to you. It can be a significant other, a quote, a song, a reward, or just the feeling of accomplishment.

It is also vital to plan ahead. Do your homework and discover what possible setbacks you could face. If you know what to expect, you’ll be more likely to come up with solutions to overcome them. For example, someone who is trying to quit smoking could have nicotine gum at hand when she/he feels the need for a cigarette.

A smart way to plan your path is to set up goals. Many people have just a vague idea of what they want, which makes it quite difficult to accomplish it. You have to know exactly what you want to achieve in order to act on it. A good example is “I want to start exercising.” Ok, but what kind of activity, how many times a week, and for how long? When you are setting up goals, you have to consider all their variables in order to make them achievable. Make them specific enough in order to create a clear path towards your goal. It also should be measurable and time-framed so you’ll know when you get there. And please be realistic; if you are new to exercise, working out five days a week for two hours is not something you will be able to do.

So, instead of “I want to exercise,” you can say something like “I will participate in yoga classes at the club 2 days a week for a month.” Now you have something you can act upon, and you will know if you accomplished it or not. Have in mind that goals are not set in stone; you can and should change them according to your needs. If you see that your goal was too easy, make it a bit more challenging next time; and if it was too hard, make it doable. Remember: your goal, your rules. And if you need a little extra motivation, you can set up rewards for when you accomplish major goals.

But don’t feel defeated if something gets in your way and sidetracks you. Just be sure to resume your activities as soon as possible, and pick up where you left off. Don’t abandon all you’ve achieved because of a minor lapse. I mean, if you are trying to create the habit of eating healthier foods, an occasional burger won’t undo all your good work. Instead of freaking out and feeling like a failure, enjoy your meal and start fresh the next day.

Because a habit is formed by repetition, you have to be able to sustain the new behavior. That’s where discipline and will-power enter. Once you set up your goal and have planned how you are going to get there, it is up to you to make it work. There are several tools you can use, such as making a contract with yourself and placing it somewhere you can see it every day. You can also tell friends and family about your goals and ask them for support. Or create a vision of you achieving your goal. What you choose to use is up to you, but it is important to keep an optimistic attitude. Avoid using excuses to make exceptions, and be persistent. Don’t forget that you are in charge.

At the end, forming good habits is more than repeating a desired behavior over and over. You have to know what you want and plan how to get there. Yes, you are going to need discipline to keep you on track, but you’ll also need motivation to makes things a little easier. And be kind to yourself, because you are just at the beginning of a change process which is challenging enough.

Now, if you think you are ready to make some improvements in your lifestyle, go ahead and choose one behavior you would like to change. Yes, only ONE thing at a time. After all, the last thing you need is to be overwhelmed by too many changes too soon.

[1] See www.thefreedictionary.com/habit.

[2] Morgan, G. Basics of Behavior Change and Health Psychology. In: ACE Personal Trainer Manual. San Diego: American Council on Exercise.

Welcome to Body Pep Talk, Where Information Meets Motivation!

Hello, girlfriends! My name is Carla, and I’m a fitness trainer. I’ve gotten so tired of seeing misleading information about exercise and diet out there that I’ve decided to take the matter into my own hands. Here you’ll find information about fitness, healthy eating, stress management strategies and more. My goal is to give you the tools for building a healthier body. This is an interactive page, so feel free to post any questions, comments, or concerns, and I promise to get back to you as soon as I can.

Have a fit day!