Nutrition – Celebrating National Nutrition Month at the Y

Celebrating National Nutrition Month at the Y

According to a 2016 study using data from the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Survey, less than 3% of Americans live a healthy lifestyle. A healthy lifestyle constitutes eating well, exercising regularly, managing body fat, and not smoking. This means that the other 97% of American adults get a failing grade on healthy habits. 

There are many of the latter group who would like to change their lifestyle and become healthier. However, they usually fail and have a hard time sustaining the lifestyle they are trying to gain. This is usually because they do not set sustainable and realistic goals for themselves. 

If you are one of these people, the YMCA Center for Healthy Living’s Nutrition Counseling Program can help. In honor of National Nutrition Month, we discussed the program with Mattie Lefever, the Harrisburg Area Y’s registered dietitian.

How does the Nutrition Counseling Program help set sustainable nutrition goals?

The Nutrition Counseling Program at the Y helps individuals create SMART goals and provides education on nutrients that will sustain and lead to long-term health. At the beginning of the program, participants are asked to set one or two SMART food and nutrition-related goals. A SMART goal is one that is Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time Based. People often struggle with achieving their health goals when they set goals that are too big, too broad, or lack a solid plan. This undermines their efforts and leads to feelings of defeat and they struggle with their relationship with food. A SMART goal results in an action plan that the participant can complete each week, which leads to some type of behavior change.

“If a participant has a general goal of weight loss (which is very common), I dive deeper and ask why they want to lose weight. This leads to answers like ‘I want to fit in my clothes’ or ‘I want to be able to walk up and down flights of stairs without breathing heavily.’ This opens up the conversation for me to listen further and see what they might like to better focus on in terms of being more physically active. They could also want to increase their vegetable intake because they do not think they are eating enough vegetables. From there, we can go deeper and build a smart goal such as ‘I will eat a different leafy green vegetable 5 days this week for dinner.’

Oftentimes, we have a general idea of what we need to do, but we do not always figure out how best to do that the first time around. This is where modification comes into play, and I can tell you, they happen often in this program! I have observed being flexible and open to modifying/trying new ways or methods or ingredients plays a big part in the success of participants in reaching their goals.”

How does the program allow you to discover your relationship with food?

“I’ve had a lot of people tell me that they’ve been blown away by their eating habits after meeting for two hours in the JumpStart program. Over the course of one month, participants are able to observe and reflect on the way they interact with food through tracking their food and beverage intake. Participants are asked to track everything they eat and drink because self-monitoring has proven to be very beneficial in producing mindfulness, and for some, accountability with how food is viewed and integrated into their lives.

I have had many participants tell me they have found freedom in eating like they have never had before. Everyone has different backgrounds and beliefs surrounding food, and sometimes we are not aware of them!  This program allows people to confront some of those unknown attitudes and beliefs about food. It empowers them to decide how they want to move forward with those thoughts.”

How does the Nutrition Counseling Program create an individualized plan?

“I work either 1-on-1 with participants or in small groups with couples to better individualize plans. And the main thing I focus on is the intake. This takes place at our first hour-long consultation. Taking the time to sit down and get to know a participant is key to creating an individualized plan. When I sit down with participants at the intake, I get to know someone through conversation. This helps determine their willingness to change along with their habits, attitudes, and beliefs surrounding food and nutrition. I can then assess all of those attitudes, beliefs, and habits and take the nutrition knowledge I have to integrate that into a personalized plan.”

There is no one correct way to eat. Not everyone likes to eat three meals a day! People have different foods that they like, dislike, and prefer. Everyone has preferred eating times, cuisines they enjoy, and ways of preparing foods. Some people prefer convenience items over whole foods because of their schedule. These are a few of the factors that are addressed in order to join a participant and create a plan they will want to follow. 

How does it reduce symptoms of disease and increase energy?

“First, let’s talk about common symptoms I see. Pain is one of the biggest symptoms, whether it is due to arthritis or inflammation from an auto-immune disorder, or limited movement from sore joints. High blood pressure and uncontrolled blood sugars are the other common conditions I see. Symptoms from these conditions include fatigue, irregular heartbeat, and difficulty moving and/or breathing while climbing stairs.” The Nutrition Counseling Program addresses these symptoms by helping participants to identify and choose most often whole foods. This could include lean protein, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, healthy oils, and dairy if tolerated.

“A big focus of the program is education and showing participants how to build well-balanced meals with quality proteins, carbohydrates, and fats to control blood sugars and increase energy. Fiber is another nutrient that we talk about a lot. Many American adults are still not getting enough of their daily fiber intake (recommended 25-30 grams).  I like to encourage people to add fiber to meals by either adding a whole grain, vegetable, or whole fruit. Symptoms of disease will decrease as participants start to incorporate these quality macronutrients, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals.”

The theme this year is celebrating world flavors. How can a registered dietitian introduce you to new flavors?

“The type of foods that are grown, the processing and preparation, and the seasoning all vary across the world; each culture has its own plate and flavors. I am always researching, and one of the main research topics is food and culture because it is so dynamic and diverse. Part of my role as a dietitian is to be able to translate the research into practical knowledge for my participants. I can provide them with resources so they feel empowered to shop for different foods or prepare recipes with their favorite cultural foods and traditions or try new flavors from around the world.” 

How would the registered dietitian suggest healthful variations with cultural foods and traditions?

“Take a classic favorite… the burrito, which originated in Mexico.  Authentic Mexican burritos are usually small and thin. They have flour tortillas that have only one or two of several ingredients: either some form of meat or fish, potato, rice, beans, cheese, and fried chiles. To make a healthy variation, with less fatty meat and handfuls of cheese or sauce, maybe try a vegetarian burrito. Opt for brown rice over white, fresh black beans instead of refried, and salsa instead of sour cream. Be sure your burrito includes lots of high-fiber vegetables like spinach, collard greens, and peppers. After eating this, you can feel satiated, full, and satisfied. You can continue on with your day without feeling heavy or zapped of your energy!”

Any advice for people becoming healthier right now?

“Yes, I always tell my participants to focus on the next healthy decision they can make… I find that very freeing. If you do this, your mind is only able to focus on that one thing in front of you. This way you’re not having to think about tomorrow and all of the things that come later. You’re not just thinking about having a whole different diet, body, and mindset next week. It’s what you can do in the next moment. Being present, being mindful that you are still able to have some control over the next moment.”  

Ready for more nutrition tips and lifestyle recommendations? The YMCA Nutrition Counseling Program helps adults find a healthier way of eating that’s right for them with the help of our Registered Dietitian. Learn more »



Mack Schmitz, Program Aid

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