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A friend of mine recently remarked that she wants her family to eat healthier, but she just doesn't know that much about nutrition. Though I can sympathize with her in some ways (nutritional education is a daunting and never-ending process), I do feel that the overall American attitude toward food is that ignorance is bliss. It reminds me of the preteen character in the movie Son-In-Law, who puts his sister's bra cups over his ears and tells his parents in a taunting voice, "I can't hear you!" Unfortunately, what you don't know CAN hurt you, and not just you, but also your family.
Most people understand nutrition basics: Eat your fruits and veggies, choose lean meats and dairy products, don't eat too much junk food. An apple is better than chips, and eating snack cakes everyday from the office vending machine will pack on the pounds.
But what about the nitty-gritty? The details of carbohydrates and organic foods and cholesterol? The information that fills our minds, from perpetuated myths and old wives' tales to the newest diet guru and nutritional experts, can be confusing. How is a person to separate true information from false? Which experts, if any, can a person trust?
When I learned that I had type 1 diabetes four-and-a-half years ago, I was overwhelmed, to say the least. Not only was I learning how to dose and administer insulin, check my blood sugar, count grams of carbohydrates, navigate high and low blood sugars, and find specialists to help me manage my disease, but I was also having to re-evaluate my dietary choices and navigate what a life with diabetes meant in terms of food. Nutritional education can be confusing and complicated, but my experience has taught me that a person can learn about nutrition one step at a time.
If you are interested in learning more about nutrition, consider the following tips:
1. Channel your motivation. Why do you want to learn more about nutrition? Why is this area of health important to you? Once you focus on one or two clear reasons, you will feel more empowered and motivated to start learning.
2. Visit a trusted professional. If you have the opportunity to meet with a registered dietitian, that would be a great place to start. Not only can the RD give you a personalized meal plan and talk to you about your health goals, but he or she can also provide you with a list of recommended and trusted nutritional resources for you to further investigate on your own. Ask your RD if you may connect with him or her through phone or email as questions arise.
3. Start reading. Visit your local library and checkout (or order for later checkout) nutrition books. Beware of books that promote a certain diet or boast of a cure-all solution to weight management. Read the credentials of the book's author, and seek books that cite various (and reputable) sources throughout. If you question a particular book's integrity, ask your RD for an opinion.
4. Take notes. Copy the book's title, author, and important findings (including the page number in case you need to refer back to the book) into a notebook to keep with you. The act of writing down the information will help you remember it, and you can refer back to your notes as you progress. Take your notebook with you to your next RD appointment to take notes and ask questions based on your readings.
5. Use the Internet, but carefully. Again, review an author's credentials before accepting or following nutritional advice. Beware of any websites that ask you for money or guarantee that a specific food or dietary supplement can provide quick and effective weight loss. When in doubt, take your questions to a trusted professional.
6. Start testing the waters. After checking with your RD, begin to implement changes in your household, and be sure these changes are manageable. It's unrealistic for you to eliminate all junk food from your home, prepare homemade meals six nights a week, and swear off chocolate forever. Try smaller feats like cleaning out your pantry or refrigerator or deciding not to purchase packaged cookies anymore.
7. Be accountable. Enlist a healthy-minded friend or your RD to help keep you accountable. Ask this person to check on you weekly or bi-weekly to see how you are progressing and help you deal with roadblocks. Some personal trainers can help you make good dietary choices while helping you create a successful exercise routine.
8. Keep changing and learning. As you gain confidence as an educated consumer, you can take on new topics and goals. For example, learn to read a nutrition label and ingredients list, or decide that you are going to research the benefits of eating organic foods or the harmful effects of consuming food dyes.
Posted on the bulletin board in my home office is a quote by Duke Ellington that states, "A problem is a chance for you to do your best." Without a doubt, diabetes is a complex disease that demands much, but with this problem comes an opportunity for us to evolve into better, stronger, more educated patients and people.