March is National Nutrition Month: Eat Real Food!

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March 2016

Health Matters
A bi-weekly health column/blog by Carole Press

Michael Pollan, best selling author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, sums up all his dietary advice in seven words: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” If we all took this advice, America would be a much healthier place. During March, National Nutrition Month, I thought it would be a good time to focus on the food we eat and how to make good choices.

Several years ago, Pollan addressed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and recommended that we only eat food our grandmothers would recognize as food; this one recommendation actually removes much of what you’d find in the center aisles of grocery stores where packaged snack foods include long lists of preservatives. Pollan went on to suggest that we only eat food with a few ingredients (all of which we should be able to pronounce), and that we stick to the outside of grocery stores where fresh food is sold in departments like produce, deli, and dairy. In explaining how to figure out the difference between real food and unnatural food, he quipped, “If the milk in your cereal turns pink, the cereal’s probably not real food.”

Fresh food can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. Local farmers’ markets have teamed up with Mendocino County Social Services to allow people to use their EBT cards (formerly known as food stamps) at participating markets. The program is called Market Match and, according to the Mendocino County Farmers’ Market Association (MCFARM), it is “the single most effective way to support local farms and make local food more affordable for low-income community members.”

The MCFARM website explains that each market has an EBT machine, like a debit or credit card processor, and EBT/CalFresh recipients may use their benefits by simply swiping their card, indicating how much they want to take out, and receiving tokens to spend at the market. The great thing about Market Match is that it doubles the amount of tokens a customer can spend at the market. For example, if a customer spends $15 in EBT funds, they're given $30 in market tokens to spend on fruits and vegetables.

If you want to be even healthier, consider growing your own fruits and vegetables. North Coast Opportunities’ Gardens Project helps local people start and maintain community gardens. (Learn more at gardensproject.org.) In recent years, awareness about the importance of locally sourced food has grown tremendously, so much so that local schools and even Howard Memorial Hospital have begun growing some of their own food.

If you’re not sure how to cook with fresh fruits and vegetables, the Ukiah Natural Food Co-op offers low-cost classes, and others may as well. The Internet is also a great resource. I did a Google search on “easy to make fresh meals” and found a link to healthy meals with five ingredients or less: soups, salads, vegetarian dishes, seafood and more (www.cookinglight.com/food/quick-healthy/5-ingredient-healthy-recipes). You don’t have to be a chef to cook healthy, tasty meals.

The bottom line is this: we are what we eat. In Lake and Mendocino Counties, we see so much obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol and other diet-related conditions that can lead to even more serious health problems. If you want to change your diet, start small and allow yourself a few mistakes. Don’t be afraid to experiment with unfamiliar vegetables.

Hillside Health Center family pratitioner Dr. Mario Espindola recently spoke to a group of parents, encouraging them to focus on one change at a time to improve their families’ diets. For example, do not allow soda with dinner. Then, make yourself drink a bottle of water before you allow yourself to buy a soda. Once you’ve reduced your soda intake, see if you can add an extra piece of fruit each day, and so on. Over time, you’ll be amazed at how far these small steps can take you.

Carole Press is the Chief Executive Officer of MCHC Health Centers, a local, non-profit, federally qualified health center offering medical, dental and behavioral health care to people in Lake and Mendocino Counties.

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