March is National Nutrition Month and this year the focus is on “eating right, every day, your way.” Often, when we make a resolution to be healthier, we mostly think about eating differently. However, changing our habits is hard and avoiding the foods we like is usually a failing strategy. This year, instead of focusing on all the things you need to stop eating, try getting creative with the dishes you already love. Taking baby steps towards a health plan that acknowledges your unique lifestyle and heritage is the best way to ensure you keep eating right, your way, every day.
Each of us has a personal food culture that has been forming throughout our life and that has a strong impact on what we choose to eat. The food we grew up with often evokes strong memories of safety and comfort. The food we set out to teach ourselves when we first lived on our own forms a strong part of our identity. Finally, the food we discover when we travel or the food introduced to us by friends and significant others also has a special place in our hearts. All of these foods have stories attached to them, and though they may not always be the healthiest options, turning our backs on these foods can feel like turning our back on our personality, our family and friends or our history. Instead of rejecting our personal food culture and lifestyle, we should appreciate it and take time to adjust our health goals to more easily fit in with the foods we’re naturally inclined to eat.
For example, if you have a busy, full time schedule, it’s likely that you’re used to buying fast food or grabbing “on the go” foods from supermarkets or convenience stores. These foods often have low nutritional content and may contain lots of sugar, salt, fat and artificial preservatives. Instead of making more time by giving up things you need or want to do, try designing strategies that help you fit more healthy food into your day using the same amount of time. For instance, on the days that you can cook, make extra portions on purpose and take them for lunch or freeze them for later. Instead of fast food, keep an eye out for local delis or lunch counters that have ready-made sandwiches or bentos with fresh ingredients (try Down to Earth’s hot bar, salad bar, or grab-and-go for fast and healthy choices). Finally, take another look around your local corner store to scope out healthier options. Yogurt, fruit and granola bars might be just as easy, cheap and satisfying as the malasadas next to the cash register.
Our family heritage is another strong factor in the foods we choose to eat. Especially in Hawaii, the blend of Polynesian, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino and Micronesian cultures, among many others, has given us a rich legacy of ingredients and dishes that may form a link to the past. Many of the traditional foods of Polynesian and Asian cultures are based on whole fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes like soybeans and sea vegetables like kelp and nori. While many of these dishes originally featured vegetables as the main portion, over time, some have become less healthy as the meat portion increased. Instead of turning our back on the foods our ancestors ate, reclaiming our health often means digging deeper into those traditions and discovering the staple meals made from root vegetables, local fruits, leafy greens, tofu and seitan. For example, check out the baked banana lumpia, vegetarian arroz caldo, agedashi tofu and kalbi seitan in this month’s health tip and recipe section! I’m sure you can come up with a wide range of other delicious, traditional plant-based dishes.
Finally, always remember to take into account your family’s health history when considering changes to your diet. Obesity and diabetes are huge epidemics affecting our island communities, and both of these conditions are influenced by genetic factors. If you or members of your family struggle with chronic conditions such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease, there are many steps you can take to address them through diet and lifestyle changes. A balanced diet consisting of proper carbohydrate portions, adequate fiber and healthy fats can help balance blood sugar. Seeking out lower fat, lower calorie foods from wholesome, plant-based sources can help address heart disease. And doing both of these things in combination with staying physically active and drinking lots of water rather than sweetened beverages can help maintain a healthy weight. Consult your physician to find the best diet for your needs, taking into account your family history, your culture and what’s realistic for your lifestyle.
As you navigate the wide array of information on nutrition and diet, the most important thing to remember is that health comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. Your path to health is unique to you. It is influenced by your culture, your preferences and your history. If you take time to acknowledge and incorporate your values and priorities into your health plan, it will be that much easier to maintain it over the long run and you can really say you are eating right, your way, everyday!