K-State nutritionist urges people to consider food as fuel for the body

By Pat Melgares, K-State Research and Extension news service

MANHATTAN, Kan. – Many consumers may not routinely think about it, but their bodies are like the engines in a motor vehicle.

“So,” asks Priscilla Brenes, a K-State Research and Extension specialist in the Department of Food, Nutrition, Dietetics and Health, “we should be asking ourselves, ‘What type of fuel are we putting in our bodies to make them healthy?’”

Brenes, just two months on the job, is on a trail to spread good health messages, particularly during National Nutrition Month, recognized since 1973 in March by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

The month-long campaign is designed to spread awareness about making informed food choices and developing healthful eating and physical activity habits. This year’s theme is Fuel for the Future, which advocates for eating with sustainability in mind.

“One way to lower our carbon footprint is to buy locally, but we can also focus on having a clear path of what we’re going to cook for a given week,” Brenes said. “By doing that, we can reduce food waste. If we plan our meals and think about what we’re going to eat next week and what we’re going to feed our family, we can reduce waste in the home.”

Eating locally grown foods – either buying them at farmer’s markets or by growing your own – also helps preserve ‘Fuel for the Future,’ Brenes said.

“Eating local foods requires less energy and transportation to get from the farm to the grocery store or to the end consumer,” she said. “So that’s fuel we have saved for the future.”

Some additional nutrition tips from Brenes for National Nutrition Month include:

Eat more fruits and vegetables

“Fruits and vegetables boost our immune system because they can help to reduce inflammation,” she said. Fruits and vegetables provide nutrients to decrease inflammation, which can help decrease the risk of colds and flu and even such chronic diseases as diabetes, hypertension, cancer, neurodegenerative disease and more.

Shop local

Farmer’s Markets are a great resources for fresh foods in many communities. “When we buy at farmer’s markets, we can also see where our food is coming from…and we can actually meet the people that are involved in growing these foods,” Brenes said.

“I was at the farmer’s market the other day and I bought eggs and the lady was really nice. She told me that she picked those eggs just a few days earlier.”

Grow your own

Gardening is one of the fastest-growing hobbies in the United States currently. “Even if you don’t have a big backyard, you can grow herbs on a window sill to help increase the nutrition of foods you eat,” Brenes said. “Herbs and spices provide flavor to food so that you use less salt, again decreasing inflammation. Herbs and spices also contain antioxidants, which decrease inflammation.”

Brenes said many fruits and vegetables can be grown in indoor containers, as well. One resource for learning how to grow fruits and vegetables is the 2023 Kansas Garden Guide.

Avoid ‘Portion Distortion’

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Information publishes guidelines to help Americans eat a variety of foods in proper proportions. The campaign is called MyPlate.

“MyPlate focuses on having half of your plate being fruits and vegetables, one-fourth grains – hopefully whole grains – and the other one-fourth being a protein,” Brenes said. “The protein might be beef or chicken or other meat, but if the person is vegetarian or vegan, that protein source could be tofu, beans, peas or other plant proteins.”

Slow your roll

Brenes urges people to be mindful when eating. In other words, slow down.

“Sometimes we just eat and we don’t think about what we’re tasting,” she said. “But if we chew and try to think about how this carrot tastes, or how the pork and the beans mix together…that mindfulness will help our bodies realize that we’re eating real food, and it gives the brain time to tell us when we’re full.”

More information about healthy eating is available online from the K-State Department of Food, Nutrition, Dietetics and Health.