The arrival of a new year invites a fresh start—a great thing, even in years that proceeded 2020. But for better or worse, the month of January also often means being abruptly inundated with endless nutrition advice, fitness resolutions, and self-proclaimed superfoods we never knew we needed. But before you start stocking up on camu camu, ube, guayusa tea, adaptogens, and decide that a Peloton bike will change your life (it will), we’re here to cut through the facts and the fiction.
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We’ve already ranted and raved about the rising food and dining movements you can expect to see this year—now it’s time to comb through the buzziest healthy eating trends. To help us understand which are actually good for you and which you’re better off skipping, we tapped Margie Saidel, RD, LDN, MPH, vice president of nutrition and sustainability for Chartwells K12.
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Trends to Try
Eating for Physical and Mental Well-Being
“Our collective experience with COVID-19 reminds us that both physical and mental health can be transient,” says Saidel. Mental health is something that hasn’t always been connected to food, but there’s an early indication that foods—and the nutrients they carry—play an important role in nourishing the brain, and consequentially, our mental well-being. “While food alone cannot reverse mental health disorders, there are antioxidants, phytochemicals, vitamins, and minerals in fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, and healthy fats that can have a positive impact on anxiety, depression, stress— and just plain happiness.” We could all use a little bit of that.
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We’ve all been spending plenty of time at home with our family, pod, or bubble for safety. And as a result, families are more routinely eating meals together. According to Saidel, this trend that came about as a result out of our current circumstances is actually one of the best routines you can continue that will benefit your entire family, especially your children. Eating at home is typically less expensive than eating out, but the advantages don’t end there. “By seeing parents eat healthy foods and a greater variety, children often model their behavior, and eat more fruits and vegetables which provides the nourishment they need to support their physical and mental health,” she explains. “Other nutritional benefits of home-cooked meals are lower sodium, fat, sugar, and calories, as well as higher fiber. Kids who grow up eating family meals tend to eat healthier when they are on their own and exhibit better weight management. There are additional benefits to family time over a meal for children, including lower rates of depression and anxiety, higher self-esteem, and academic performance with lower rates of risky behavior.”
Eating for the Planet
Climate change and the sustainability of our planet seems to be on everyone’s mind these days, and there is no shortage of good advice for anyone wanting to do their part to save the earth. “Committing to one specific plan to move the planet in the right direction, such as veganism, is laudable,” says Saidel. “Making small behavior changes, however, seems to be the trend, with the term ‘Climatarian’ rising as the new buzzword for an agent of small change.” Instead of eliminating animal products completely, Saidel says that a Climatarian may try a plant-based meal a few times a week and generally follow a planet-friendly eating style. “This includes more local foods and humanely raised meat products that also have a lower environmental footprint.”
We can expect to find plenty of new meat substitutes and plant-based products this year in the grocery store and restaurants—even fast food restaurants are making it easier for anyone trying to make a slight change to their diet. “It’s interesting to note that Yale University reports that over half (54 percent) of Americans say they are willing to try more plant-based food,” Saidel adds. “Shopping more mindfully for products that use less packaging and reducing our reliance on plastic wrap and single-use plastics will continue to be a goal of Climatarians.” If small change techniques are more approachable, perhaps we can all call ourselves Climatarians.
Trends to Skip
Processed Plant-Based Meats
“Plant-based meats are more popular and accessible than ever, which is great news because a reduction in industrial meat production is a win for the environment,” says Saidel. “But these processed meat alternatives may not, however, always be a healthier alternative.” When choosing a plant-based option, she recommends taking the time to compare available products and select options that have the least amount of sodium, fat, and sugar that may be added to enhance the taste.
“Healthy” Coffee Flavorings and Creamers That Are Junk Food in Disguise
Since our typical commute is going from one room to another at home, we’re not frequenting our favorite coffee shops on our way to work every day. Instead, many of us are trying our hand at replicating our favorite coffee drinks at home. “This can be great fun and less expensive, but remember to carefully review your ingredients before you craft a daily drink,” Saidel suggests. “While we’re seeing an uptick in the variety of grocery store non-dairy liquid coffee flavorings, these can add a ton of sugar, unhealthy fat, and calories to your drink in an attempt to make it a tasty treat.”