Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center
Eating Well to Live Better
March is National Nutrition Month in the United States, which makes it a great time for Veterans to explore news ways to incorporate healthy eating habits into their daily lives.
When some people think of eating healthy, they may also think that means going on a diet or eating bland food. But healthier eating doesn't have to mean boring, tasteless meals. It can be as simple as making different choices about what goes into the body. It's true that committing to a healthier eating pattern may require more planning, take more prep time, and, in some cases, be more expensive. However, the benefits gained from making better mealtime choices can have effects that go beyond slimming one's waistline.
People who changed to practicing healthy eating have reported higher energy levels, stronger immune systems, better sleep and clearer thinking. Healthy diets also have protective benefits, including helping to prevent and manage chronic health problems, like diabetes and heart disease. Balanced diets have also been shown to be protective against certain types of cancers, such as colorectal and postmenopausal breast cancers.
Kathleen Oswalt, RDN, is a clinical in-patient dietitian at Charleston VA and understands how important diet is to managing chronic disease. Oswalt works regularly with nurses, social workers and case managers to ensure that hospitalized patients at Charleston VA are getting the right nutrients based on their medical condition and health status. She regularly confers with the Chief and Assistant Chief of Medicine at the medical center to create meal plans that are tailored to each Veteran's specific condition(s). Nutrition plays a vital part in helping getting patients well.
"I see a lot of patients who are just out of surgery or in an advanced disease state," Oswalt explains. "Some of them don't even want to eat. But in my role, nutrition is key to getting the healing process started, and my main objective is to help get the patient well."
VA dietitians don't just care for hospitalized patients and serve in a range of roles throughout the medical center. They're also committed to helping educate patients about making healthier food choices in their life after service. Currently, nearly 80 percent of Veterans are overweight or obese, compared to 35 percent among all adults in the U.S. Several factors may explain why these rates are so much higher in former Servicemembers.
In focus groups, some Veterans have indicated the high-carbohydrate, high-fat style of eating they practiced during active duty, especially in combat zones, followed them into their life after service. And since most Veterans engage in far less physical activity once they leave the military, these eating habits can be especially problematic. Researchers are also exploring whether there is an association between the incidence of posttraumatic stress disorder and the high rate of overweight and obesity among Veterans.
Dianne Bozzelli, RDN, is also a dietitian at Charleston VA. She helps educate patients about making healthier food choices and teaching them ways to incorporate healthy eating plans. Bozzelli is involved in is VA's MOVE! Program, where she teaches nutrition classes. Bozzelli uses a goal-oriented, patient-centered approach when working with Veterans.
"Essentially, we want to help guide the patients to making better decisions. Once we explore all the factors that can contribute to why someone is engaging in unhealthy eating habits, then we can work together to find healthier alternatives," Bozzelli explains. "When the Veteran is motivated from within, they tend to stick to their goals to achieve a healthier lifestyle."
VA dietitians like Oswalt and Bozzelli work daily with Veterans to help them live healthier and helping them make nutritional changes that will impact their overall health and well-being. Resources like the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 provide recommendations for developing healthy eating patterns, which help everyone achieve and maintain a healthy body weight, support nutrient adequacy, and reduce the risk of chronic disease. For most people, a healthy eating pattern incorporates a variety of vegetables and fruits, whole grains, and a variety of proteins (like seafood, lean meats and poultry, and nuts), while limiting saturated fats and trans fats, added sugars, and sodium.
Trying to drastically change everything you eat can seem overwhelming, so start small. Replace solid fats like butter with a healthier option like olive oil. Instead of eating fruit products that contain added sugars, choose whole fruits. Try whole grains instead of refined grains. Trade sugary beverages for drinks with no added sugars. These seemingly minor shifts can make a big difference in overall caloric and sugar intake.
Healthier living also means incorporating physical activity. While Veterans certainly don't have to recreate their PT regimen, it's important to engage in some degree of physical activity daily. Physical activity is anything that gets the body moving and burns calories. The American Heart Association recommends 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity at least five times a week. Add moderate- to high-intensity muscle-strengthening activity at least two days per week for additional health benefits. Talk to your health care provider if you have concerns about starting a new fitness plan.
Oswalt has a few suggestions: "Physical activity is anything that makes you move your body and burn calories. Consider gardening, riding your bike, or taking a walk after dinner. It could be as simple as spending some much needed time playing with your grandkids."
Finding ways to live healthy should be fun and adaptable. The VA offers several resources for improving your nutrition and increasing physical activity. With a little creativity and patience, a healthy lifestyle is attainable for every Veteran.