Many of us don’t have a full understanding of what it entails to lead an authentically healthy lifestyle, which is why experts like Julie Garden-Robinson are working hard to spread accurate information regarding food and nutrition.
If the past year has taught us anything, it’s that living and leading a healthy lifestyle can make all the difference in terms of our overall wellness. But what does a healthy lifestyle actually entail? Many of us immediately think of getting daily exercise and going on restrictive diets when it comes to being healthy, however, it doesn’t have to be so complex.
Access to accurate information regarding health, food, and nutrition is crucial when it comes to living a healthy life. Everyone is different, so what one person needs to do to better improve their overall diet and health could be drastically different for someone else, and that’s why the information you’re consuming is so important.
Julie Garden-Robinson has been a food nutrition specialist and Professor in Health, Nutrition, and Exercise Sciences (HNES) at North Dakota State University (NDSU) for 25 years now. She’s always had a passion for food, nutrition, and helping improve her community, which has led to a career full of finding new ways to spread accurate information regarding living a healthy lifestyle to her community and beyond.
“I want everyone to understand the importance of following the latest research-based guidance for health, food safety, and food preservation. Knowing what resources are legitimate is crucial. We want people to do things that will help them maintain their health in the long run.”
Garden-Robinson explained how growing up, her family always had a huge appreciation for home-grown food, and her passion for nutrition and wellness blossomed naturally from there.
“Growing up in a rural small town in Minnesota, food was always a huge part of our family life. We had our own garden, preserved our own home-grown food, and this taught me a lot about self-sustainability. My parents taught us how to grow our own food and prepare it from ground to table, which created that initial passion. I didn’t realize at the time how influential those moments growing up were but it’s definitely carried into my writing and what I do.”
Her work at NDSU began at a time where the departments regarding nutrition and exercise were separated, making it difficult to fit all of the information she wanted into one smaller curriculum:
“When I first started at NDSU, food and nutrition were completely separate from the exercise and science departments. Several years ago we integrated, which was crucial because you can’t separate all of these lifestyle decisions in terms of one’s health and nutrition.” Beyond her work as a professor, Garden-Robinson is concentrated on giving community members access to her extensive resources.
“Back in the time of President Lincoln, every state received a land grant to open up a University. Every Land Grant University is responsible for providing some level of community outreach, which in most states is known as Cooperative Extension. For NDSU it’s simply known as NDSU Extension.”
According to their website, at NDSU Extension, they work hard to “empower North Dakotans to improve their lives and communities through science-based education.”
“In North Dakota we’re set up on a county-by-county basis in terms of education, assistance and research regarding nutrition and health, so we work hard to do that local outreach and provide accurate research throughout our Extension program and website. I’ve also been writing a weekly column, Prairie Fare, for over two decades now that is distributed to reach a wide range of people throughout the region.”
“There’s so much about nutrition, food safety, and health in general on the internet. Social media makes it difficult to know what’s accurate, so our main goal is to remove that complicated layer by literally handing our community members scientifically-backed information.”
Garden-Robinson explained that through Extension, NDSU is “trying to create learning partnerships at a local level. Agriculture is one of the biggest things we’re known for in the program, but we work on a wide range of topics. We work with local farmers, families, schools, gardeners, 4-H programs and community-based agencies in outreach purposes and also spread information regarding science, nutrition, health, community leadership, and so much more. The Extension network has been around for almost 100 years, but a lot of people are unaware of what we do.”
“We work with other similar organizations that have the same goal of providing accurate information to communities that have limited access.”
“I’m a part of a North Central Region group which involves 12 states. We all work on common missions in food safety outreach. We meet about once a month to create common messages that we can share in our own communities that will hopefully lead to a much larger change.”
“For example, recently we’ve been discussing the issue of canning, and how a lot of communities don’t have access to lids so they can properly jar and preserve their food. So we’ve been working with manufacturers directly on ways to correct this issue, which speaks to our overall goal of just helping people improve their lifestyles anyway they can, even if it’s just getting them the resources they need to better prepare meals.”
“Extension often is viewed as one of the best kept secrets. We want people to be aware of the work we do and our mission of spreading accurate information in regards to food, nutrition, and health and a variety of other topics.”
The Extension program provides a lot of lectures, hands-on workshops, and other community-based transformational activities that help Garden-Robinson and her colleagues get all the information out there, but there’s plenty of ways one could also do the research themselves at home, it’s just about knowing where to look.
“Access to the internet is helpful in spreading information through our Extension network. We work hard to make sure our websites are up to date with the latest science-based and educational programs available that will provide the most accurate and researched information possible.”
“For example, the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans came out in December 2020, and if you take a look at these science-based guidelines you’ll find that consuming a variety of foods from every food group is one of the keys to leading a healthy life. We take it a step further by concentrating on the actual food and food groups to make it more easily understandable. Variety is key, especially among fruits and vegetables, and about 90% of adults don’t meet the requirement for the recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables.”
Garden-Robinson also believes that “eating certain foods in moderation is important. It’s easy to place blame on certain foods when you’re not feeling the healthiest, but the reality is there’s no such thing as ‘bad food.’ Good nutrition is about moderation and balancing those unhealthier options with the more nutritious ones. Don’t just focus on one food group. You need the nutrition of all of them, which is why variety is so important.”
“The dietary guidelines recently released also have specific guidance for infants, pregnant women and senior citizens, which is why I direct a lot of professionals there, that specificity can be really helpful for families in different situations.”
Garden-Robinson also explained that these guidelines are a great source because “the committee members behind the dietary guidelines are chosen based on their background in science, and all the information is researched very closely to ensure accuracy.” Federal nutrition programs, including school lunch requirements, are based on the guidelines.
While the guidelines were written for professionals, Garden-Robinson recommends Choosemyplate.gov for consumers. “The website is a great resource that we recommend to consumers for information regarding nutrition.”
For those more inclined to do their own research, Garden-Robinson recommends doing what she does, and going straight to the scientific source of all the information.
“I personally dig very deeply into published literature in scientific journals. We typically include sources to back up any information written, so consumers can trust what they receive from Extension sources.”
“We have a robust collection of nutrition, food safety and health publications, newsletters and columns readily available to explore on our NDSU Extension food and nutrition website.”
“I encourage consumers to also read and compare the recently updated Nutrition Facts labels when they’re shopping for food. Those are the most accurate source of information for what’s in their food. Once we can help consumers better understand what nutrients and vitamins are lacking in their diets, we can then work with them to think of what products they should pick up to fill in those gaps.”
When discussing the specific food groups, she mentioned that we have been “encouraging consumers to eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Most adults fail to meet the current recommendation for fruits and vegetables, which is about 4 ½ to 5 cups daily for most adults.
Plant or animal based sources are both great protein sources, but it’s important that those on a vegetarian or vegan diet pay close attention to the diets they plan and the nutrients they may be lacking from whatever they remove from their diet. The best thing one can do is work with a professional nutritionist or dietitian so they can plan out how to consume every food group in a balanced and healthy way.”
“During the pandemic, many individuals have gained weight and taken on some unhealthy lifestyle practices. It’s been a tough year so it makes sense, but now there’s more of a desire to get out of the house and focus on living a healthy and happy life. Lifestyle changes often involve diet and exercise. More people are doing a major reset on their lifestyle now. Making more food at home and choosing healthier options is on the rise as more individuals want to lead a happy healthy life after the pandemic.”
“Leading consumers down the right path in terms of food choices, nutrition, and exercise is a part of what we in Extension do. We really want consumers to know that living a healthy lifestyle is possible and made easier with the resources we can provide.”
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