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Nutrition Notes: Celebrate a World of Flavors for National Nutrition Month

Karen Lentner, MA, RD, LDNKaren Lentner, MA, RD, LDNMarch is National Nutrition Month, a campaign created by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to focus attention on healthful eating and developing long-term, sound eating and physical activity habits. This year’s theme for National Nutrition Month is “Celebrate a World of Flavors.” It encourages us to celebrate flavors and cultures from around the world and to appreciate our diversity. We can learn to build a healthy plate incorporating our own traditions and heritage, as well as by incorporating cultural foods and traditions from around the world.

Turmeric, a yellow spice used in many Asian cuisines, is known to have many health benefits including decreasing inflammation, improving heart health, and preventing cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.

The foods we eat are often a reflection of our own traditions and culture. The United States has a history of welcoming people from around the world, and our foods, recipes, and ingredients often represent a variety of flavors. You may prefer to eat certain foods because they are familiar to you or they remind you of your childhood and foods you ate growing up. Food may have been the focus or center of family gatherings. Familiarity is important, but perhaps trying new flavors and spices may make healthful foods taste even better!

Many cuisines include foods from each food group, making it possible to plan meals that are well-balanced, nutritious, and flavorful. Choosing a variety of nutritious foods from all the food groups including protein, fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy will help you get all the nutrients you need for good health. When creating healthy meals, try to limit added sugar and salt, saturated fats, and calories. Try to avoid foods that are deep fried, if possible. Lastly, think about portion sizes. Italian culture, for example, may include pasta at both lunch and supper. If you limit your portion size, this can be a healthy choice too. Remember the “My Plate” guidelines by filling half your plate with vegetables and fruit, and the other half with your protein, grains and dairy.

Let’s take a look at a few cultures and cuisines we may be familiar with and build a healthy plate utilizing foods from around the world.

Asian food, including Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Indian, etc., has become increasingly popular. Asian food may symbolize longevity and prosperity, and nutritious food choices are plentiful. Consider miso soup as a starter. Miso, made from soybean paste, is a good protein source and is linked to a variety of health benefits including boosting your immunity and improving digestion. It contains probiotics, the good bacteria that supports a healthy gut. Kimchi, Korean fermented cabbage, is also an excellent source of probiotics.

For your main meal, consider entrees that are stir-fried or steamed. Stir-fried dishes are cooked using a small amount of oil and are often loaded with a variety of healthy vegetables and low fat protein sources including chicken, fish, and tofu. Stir-fried dishes are a much healthier choice than deep-fried chicken fingers, crab rangoon, fried rice, or egg rolls, as the latter are much higher in fat and calories. Stir-fried meals are often seasoned with fresh ginger root, a flavorful ingredient rich in antioxidants that reduces inflammation and nausea. Enjoy it in your meals or add it to your tea.

Thai curries and dishes such as pad thai may contain coconut milk, noodles, or oil, which add calories, however they’re also rich with nutrient-dense vegetables and lean proteins, the building blocks of a healthy plate. Traditional Indian food often features yogurt, lentils or dal for protein, Sambar (a spicy lentil and vegetable stew), and kebabs consisting of chicken and vegetables. Turmeric, a yellow spice used in many Asian cuisines, is known to have many health benefits including decreasing inflammation, improving heart health, and preventing cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.

Turmeric, a yellow spice used in many Asian cuisines, is known to have many health benefits including decreasing inflammation, improving heart health, and preventing cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.
Eastern European cuisine is also familiar to many of us. A healthy plate may include boiled pierogies filled with potato or cheese, cabbage stuffed with lean beef and rice, hearty sourdough breads with seeds, fresh cabbage, lightly seasoned salads, fermented beetroot soups including borscht, and alternative grains such as buckwheat and barley. Traditional foods may include sausage or kielbasa but should be limited due to their processing, fat, and added sodium.

Mediterranean cuisine includes the traditional cooking styles of Italy, Spain, and Greece. The Mediterranean diet is a well-balanced eating plan that incorporates plenty of plant-based foods such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, fish, and healthy fats such as olive oil and avocados. Traditional grains include quinoa, faro, and barley. Pasta, including whole grain pasta, is a way of life in Italy, yet it is often made with a few fresh ingredients, including spices, legumes, and vegetables. Adopting a Mediterranean style diet may reduce your risk of cardiac disease and cancer, and improve overall brain function, which is why it is often encouraged due to its health benefits. To fully benefit from the Mediterranean diet or other cuisines, consider lifestyle modifications including exercise, becoming more active, and cooking and sharing your food with family and friends.

This journey may bring some of the many cultures and flavors of the world to mind. During Nutrition Month, I encourage you to embrace global cultures and try new foods and flavors. Add a new exercise to your day. Experiment with seasonal fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, and add at least one new seasoning to your spice cabinet. May it bring you one step closer to better health!