Proper nutrition helps improve quality of life

It’s just like the ancient proverb, “Let food be the medicine and medicine be the food.” That’s what still stands true today.

Proper nutrition helps people live healthier lives. That’s what science shows.

Nutrition researcher Heewon Lee Gray, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Community and Family Health at the USF College of Public Health, said healthy eating habits help prevent heart disease, strokes, diabetes and obesity.

“We can’t undermine the importance of nutrition,” Dr. Gray said. “What goes into your body, becomes part of your body. So, proper nutrition is key to a happier and healthier lifestyle.”

Unhealthy eating habits are a problem in the United States. Most Americans’ daily eating patterns are low on vegetables, fruits, dairy and oils, and high on sugars, saturated fats and sodium, according to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Statistics show more than 78 million Americans are obese or overweight. Children are also getting heavier.

Dr. Gray said this is a public health problem. That’s why her research focuses on preventive nutrition – studying eating habits and dietary behaviors in elementary and middle schools in low-income and minority communities.

Changing eating habits or behaviors is complicated. Those patterns are often affected by psychological, social and environmental challenges, Dr. Gray said.

“Lack of access to healthy foods, fresh vegetables and fruit, and persuasive advertisements in low-income and minority communities create challenges for families and their children,” Dr. Gray said. “Even if they understand the importance of healthy eating, they can’t access or afford to buy fresh produce.”

Despite these challenges, taking small steps every day helps people live healthier. Setting a specific and attainable goal, following through with the goal and monitoring progress are key.

“I suggest replacing fast-food meals with home-cooked meals,” Dr. Gray said. “I also recommend switching from soda to water or seltzer water with a splash of fruit juice. Instead of chips and candy, go for mixed nuts and seeds. If you can’t take those options completely out of your diet, lower the quantity. It can make a huge difference in children and adults in the long run.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has created a Choose My Plate website to help people find their healthy eating style and build one throughout their lifetime. USDA has developed another tool called SupperTracker to help people stay on track.

Dr. Gray’s research shows that those ideas could work. She recently helped study 1,400 school-aged children from 20 local schools in New York. She worked with children, ages 11 to 13, focusing on their eating habits and behavior for an entire school-year.

“We encouraged students to eat vegetables, drink more water, decrease fast food intake, packaged snacks and sugary beverages and increase physical activity,” Dr. Gray says. “At the end of the school year, we saw improvements in body mass index and weight in many children.”

As Dr. Gray pointed out, this is not a quick fix. But, if everyone in communities, schools, colleges, health care, government and other areas works together, people can live healthier lives.

Story and photos by Vjollca Hysenlika