By Patricia Deal

Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center public affairs

With nearly 73 million adults and 12.5 million children and teens in America affected by obesity, nutrition has become a national concern.

It's not just a concern for the civilian population either, because the number of troops diagnosed as overweight or obese has more than doubled since the start of the Iraq war, according to a recent Pentagon study.

Poor nutrition leads to being overweight or obese which can then lead to a multitude of health issues such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and certain cancers, warn the nutrition experts at Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center.

"The good thing is, that it is possible to improve your situation simply by striving to make good nutrition choices and adopt a healthier lifestyle," said Maj. Nicole Charbonneau, chief of the medical center's Nutrition Services. "The food you eat really does make a difference in your overall health. Changing or modifying your diet is one sure way to help you lose weight or help to improve medical issues you may be having."

There is so much information out there about what not to eat, what to eat, when to eat it that it's hard to determine just what those "right choices" are. The registered dietitians at the hospital can help you navigate through the information overload and guide you in doing the right things, Charbonneau said.

"We are well-versed in the latest data and trends and have a wealth of information. The clinic offers many classes on a variety of nutrition topics such as weight loss for soldiers, dealing with diabetes and healthy heart," she said. "We see all eligible beneficiaries - active duty soldiers, retirees, family members - from infants to geriatrics. You can self-refer to our clinics."

An added benefit the clinic offers is individualized nutrition counseling, Charbonneau said.

"Nutrition is not one-size-fits-all. It has to be individualized to meet your specific needs and lifestyle. What may work for your buddy may not work for you," Charbonneau said.

The nutrition guidance and advice given by the dietitians at the clinic follow the federal government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which promotes using improved nutrition and physical activity to reduce overweight and obesity rates.

The recently issued 2010 guidelines and the updated MyPyramid visual guide stress the importance of eating more healthy foods to maximize the nutritional value of meals.

To further promote good nutrition, the American Dietetic Association celebrates March as National Nutrition Month. This year's theme, "Eat Right with Color," encourages everyone to include a colorful variety of healthy foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains and fat-free/low-fat dairy products in their diets.

"People really do underestimate the power of fruits and vegetables. When I ask patients what they had for dinner, they usually say 'chicken' or 'steak.' No one ever says broccoli," said Charbonneau. "Fruits and vegetables have tremendous health value that can help reduce cancer risks and provide many health benefits. It is absolutely vital to get those five servings of vegetables and three to four pieces of fruit a day."

Special dietary concerns

While following the guidelines and food pyramid is good practice for otherwise healthy patients, Charbonneau said those patients who have medical issues such as diabetes or hypertension need medical nutrition therapy and the clinic can help those patients with their special dietary needs.

"I have been diagnosed with type II diabetes and am on low-dose medication to treat it. I have to follow a specific diet, paying strict attention to amount of carbohydrates and calories I eat," said Chris Strauss, a retired sergeant first class. "The professional advice I got at Nutrition Services really has helped me. They refined my eating plan and offered more tips on how I can best meet my goals.

"My weight has been up and down ever since I retired. I admit that the choices I made in the past weren't always the best. I keep thinking that if I had stuck with a good diet plan before, I wouldn't be in this situation now."

Healthy eating habits

Charbonneau said that if patients educate themselves on nutrition and follow just a few basic healthy eating habits, they can make an impact on their health and well-being.

"First off, control your portion sizes. Portion sizes today are astronomical, and need to be downsized. Eat off of a child's plate and fill half with vegetables and a fourth each with meat and grains," she said, "Don't forget to consider the amount of beverage calories you consume in a day, too. People usually think that juice or vitamin water is healthy and okay to drink. But those beverages, along with sugary soda and energy drinks, have lots of sugar and calories and need to be consumed in moderation or not at all. Water is always the preferred choice for drinks.

"Do not skip meals; rather, eat three meals a day with two snacks. Eat something every four to five hours," she added. "Snacks could be an apple dipped in a little bit of peanut butter, homemade trail mix with raisins and almonds or a cup of yogurt."

It's also important to add exercise to your plan, Charbonneau said, because moderate activity most days of the week can help you lose weight and improve your heart health.

The Army Wellness Center on Fort Hood's Resiliency Campus is yet another resource on post that is open to everyone to help with nutrition education and weight management.

The Resiliency Campus has a registered dietitian on staff, along with certified health educators, and offers two nutrition programs: Performance Nutrition to optimize performance and Weigh to Live weight loss classes.

In addition to the group classes, they also provide individual screening and counseling sessions. They provide resting metabolic rate testing to determine each patient's calorie needs and develop individualized meal plans for patients.

"Many people seem to fall prey to quick, fast weight-loss schemes, which just end up causing more problems. Extreme and fad diets are just not sustainable," said Brian Lehmann, the Wellness Center's registered dietitian and certified specialist in Sports Dietetics and Certified Strength and Conditioning. "Our program works, because we're an education-based program. We offer individualized programs and all the tools you need to be successful.

"If you're looking for quick fix, this is not the program for you."

Erma Medina said she is pleased with the steady progress she has made after beginning the Weigh to Live program. Medina has lost 25 pounds since beginning the program in September. She plans to stick with her newly developed healthy eating habits for life.

"The program has been wonderful. I have learned so much about nutrition, and how what you put in your body really does make a difference," she said. "I feel so much better now. I have more energy, and overall just feel so much better.

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