03/05/2013 02:48 pm ET Updated May 05, 2013

Eating Right During National Nutrition Month

March is a month that needs a little identity boost. It's not exactly winter, not yet spring. The wind comes, the wind goes. It seems like an in-between cluster of weeks.

So the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has furnished March with an honorific: National Nutrition Month. According to the group's site, we all should spend the days of March "making informed food choices and developing sound eating and physical activity habits."

A worthy goal, to be sure. If you've gotten out of shape, or never really focused on feeling your best before, it's a hopelessly vague mission statement.

The "theme" of the month is to "Eat Right, Your Way, Every Day." More cipher-speak! You suspect there is a good idea beneath this blanket slogan, but how to make the words work for you? You need a little context:

Eat Right. Bodybuilders have a saying: "Eat clean, stay lean." Don't look at the muscles, look at the miniscule body fat on these hardworking folks to see what they mean. To look like this, it's imperative that the food be light, not weighed down by sauces and oils.

"Clean" food can be prepared four ways: boiled, broiled, steamed or grilled (and raw, if it's sushi). That's it. I've often told clients who don't cook to turn on their gas ranges and hold a piece of chicken or fish over an open flame until it's cooked through. Clean. No sauces, no butter, just a small amount of raw olive oil. The same goes for the side vegetables. Fruit is for dessert.

If it sounds bland, remember that the spice cabinet is your salvation. Get to know your herbs. There is a deep universe of flavors to be enjoyed that won't add a calorie to your dietary objective.

Your Way. No, that doesn't translate as "whatever you please." There are sensible guidelines to follow. If you are trying to keep your calories low and nutritional values high, processed cookies won't do (you know this, of course, even if you don't like to admit it). But there is no food you must eat for good nutrition. Any list compiled by an accredited dietician will include a wealth of foods that you actually enjoy. It may require a little research to figure out a winning combination, but I've yet to see a client or friend who was serious about getting into shape who could not find food to eat that suited their taste preferences.

Broccoli wears the "superfood" crown these days, but if you hate it, don't eat it! You can replace its nutritional value load with fruit, collards, tomatoes or bell peppers and many other vegetables. Broccoli has potassium (so does asparagus) iron (spinach), vitamin A (hot chili peppers) and easy-to-absorb calcium (bok choy). If you think you're required to eat it, you haven't become sufficiently creative in your nutritional thinking. Vegetables, fruits, nuts and small doses of raw olive oil are good for you and your waistline.

To find what you like, go to the supermarket and experiment. Roam the vegetable and fruit aisles. What wets your taste buds? Let your instincts weigh in.

Every Day. This term reflects the long-term commitment to eating well. "Every day" is the right mindset for staying healthy and lean, and it shouldn't mean monotony, eating the same things without variation. You should mix things up. But, every day, ideally, you have a plan.

I've long counseled my clients to enjoy one free meal a week (as one bodybuilder I knew liked to say: "Good all week and Sundays free"). One indulgence every seven days won't ruin your good work. Rather, it can satisfy cravings for those "gotta have it" foods. It can keep you from being the boring person who never turns up for a pizza night with friends. And it's easier to keep your indulgences modest when you plan them in advance. Planning is half the fun, after all!

If you are setting weight loss goals, it's critical that you come up with clear intentions and schemes for getting through the difficult moments. Every day, you should be thinking about where you'll be, what events you'll attend, if you will be mingling with diet saboteurs. Avoid improvisation by laying out your eating plan the day before. No, a single misstep will not ruin weeks of good work, but you do want to minimize unforced errors. Breaking your task into daylong increments is terrific insurance.

A diet for life is built step by step. People who change their eating habits for good break down their challenges into manageable units that build confidence and keep momentum measurable. Once your new habits are ingrained through repetition, you won't need to give March a special name. Your nutritional awareness will be as natural as breathing.

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