It’s National Nutrition Month, and the American Dietetic Association is encouraging people to consult dieticians and other health professionals about making good food choices. Friends often assume that as a family doctor, I must know a lot about nutrition. And it's true that during my training, I spent countless hours memorizing the complex chemistry that allows the human body to turn sugar into energy; calculating the content of intravenous solutions for dehydrated children; and giving patients who had lost the ability to swallow liquid nutrition via feeding tubes. But this esoteric knowledge doesn't make me an expert on designing healthy meals for families. In fact, a survey published last year in the journal Academic Medicine reported that on average, U.S. medical schools provide fewer than 20 hours of nutrition education, even less than when I graduated in 2001.
So when patients and loved ones ask me for tips on making healthy meals, I usually do what they do: I go online. As I discussed in a previous blog post, the federal government's widely publicized new Dietary Guidelines for Americans, while scientifically sound, unfortunately offer little practical advice. However, several government agencies provide more valuable resources online. For example, the Department of Health and Human Services' "A Healthier You" website is packed with tasty recipes, helpfully categorized by preparation time.
At Nutrition.gov, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has a full suite of shopping, cooking, and meal planning resources, including, "Recipes and Tips for Healthy, Thrifty Meals," and a database of approved recipes that you can search by menu item, cooking equipment, and approximate cost. Consumers can rate recipes on a 5-point scale; these ratings are then reviewed by USDA staff to determine which recipes remain on the website.
The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, features a mouth-watering collection of heart-healthy recipes on its "Deliciously Healthy Eating" website. A bonus: They're all collected in two attractive cookbooks with plenty of photos, which you can download or have mailed to you for free.
I received a copy of the NHLBI's family meals cookbook from a friend who worked on NIH's We Can! (Ways to Enhance Children's Activity and Nutrition) campaign. What sets it apart from similar collections is the information it gives parents about getting kids involved in meal preparation, estimating their daily calorie requirements, and its picture guide that teaches kids the difference between healthy (designated "GO"), somewhat healthy ("SLOW"), and unhealthy ("WHOA") foods. My own children, ages 4 and 2, figured the categories out right away.
Finally, the USDA and the First Lady's "Let's Move!" campaign are jointly sponsoring the "Recipes for Healthy Kids Challenge," a national contest to select nutritious new recipes for school lunch menus, which were significantly overhauled in January to limit calories and increase servings of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Until May 15, you can try out the recipes of 15 semi-finalists and vote for your favorites; eight teams will win cash prizes of $1,000 to $3,000.
Life presents many obstacles to healthy eating, and gentle nudges from doctors and other health professionals can only do so much to overcome them. Hopefully, though, this brief guide to government-sponsored nutritional websites (which represent only a sliver of the resources available online) has convinced you that finding healthy recipes is no obstacle at all.
Clarified on 3/16/11: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Dr. Lin’s friend helped develop the NHLBI’s family meals cookbook. She did not help develop it; she helped promote it.