By Matt Martinez Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service Published Jan 17, 2021 at 6:01 PM

Our health is always important. Especially in 2021.

After all, getting and staying healthy can help us fight COVID-19.

With this in mind, we talked with three Milwaukee-area experts about forming good nutrition and fitness habits for the new year and beyond.

"Making room for the new"

Bridgett Wilder, a licensed dietitian and counselor who founded PERSEVERANCE Health and Wellness Coaching, said the first step for generating change in your life is “making room for the new.”

In her programs, Wilder encourages people to “declutter” and try to get to the root cause of their eating habits. She said people are often stress-eating without even knowing. The first step is “tapping into what’s causing your weight problem.”

“Psychology and nutrition go hand in hand,” Wilder said.

Wilder said it’s important to get serious about health, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Heart disease and other factors associated with weight gain can cause an increased chance for mortality for COVID-19.

Wilder has had the coronavirus and says healthy habits helped her recover. For someone who worked to lose 170 pounds, the gravity was not lost on her.

“Things bounced off me that killed other people,” Wilder said.

Wilder didn’t have an easy life: She’s dealt with death in the family, homelessness, raising 10 children and going to school for psychology and nutrition. But she made changes in her life to lose the weight that threatened her life. She wants to impress upon others that they can, too, even if the situation isn’t optimal.

“Using what we have available is our way out,” Wilder said.

Wilder gave the following tips for people who are trying to establish a healthy diet:

  • Focus on shopping on the outer circumference of grocery stores: In most stores, this is where you’ll find fresh fruits and vegetables, meat and dairy products.
  • Reduce your sodium intake: The recommended serving per day is one teaspoon of salt. Cut back on salt and salty food, such as bread, pizza and sandwiches.
  • Limit your sugar intake: The recommended serving per day is six teaspoons for women and nine teaspoons for men
  • Pay attention to serving sizes: Read nutrition labels and find out the recommended size for serving portions.

Wilder said it’s important to pay attention to labels on food, as well: Finding canned goods that say “no sodium added” or “no sugar added” can make a difference.

Balancing your meals

Dr. Camille Garrison, an assistant professor of medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin who specializes in family health, said the pandemic has made people more mindful of the meals they cook.

Garrison said people should try to balance their meals. Her suggested split is:

  • Half the plate is vegetables
  • One quarter of the plate is protein
  • One quarter of the plate is starch (rice, potatoes, etc.)

Garrison also said it is important to try new things in the vegetable aisle and to maximize the amounts of fresh fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy you can get at the store. For someone trying to minimize shopping trips due to COVID-19, try getting a week’s worth of fresh produce and a week’s worth of frozen or canned produce at a time.

“Starting in the produce section is important, before the rest of the cart fills up,” Garrison said.

Finding healthy food

Makayla Emmer, a registered clinical dietitian with the Clinical Cancer Center at Froedtert Hospital, said people may be struggling with snacking due to having more access to food while sheltering in place. She suggests stocking the fridge with healthier options for snacking like nuts, hummus and apples with peanut butter.

For Wilder, a large part of the battle also is teaching people where to find fresh food in areas like the 53206 ZIP code, which she described as a “high food desert.”

She’s partnered with food pantries in the area as well as the Victory Garden Initiative, where residents can go and get fresh fruit and vegetables at no cost. Wilder has taught classes at food pantries showing people how to make healthy recipes with what they receive there.

Don’t forget exercise

Exercise also is key. Emmer said it is important to balance both nutrition and activity.

Garrison said the pandemic has actually given some people more opportunities to exercise. The pandemic led to an online explosion of Zumba, yoga classes, exercise-focused Facebook groups and even jump-rope squads.

While options for gyms and other settings may be limited right now, Emmer said it’s important to remain active in creative ways at home.

“You should focus on frequency rather than what you’re doing,” Emmer said.

At the end of the day, it’s all about incremental change, such as adjusting the way you shop and your eating habits, getting exercise, starting small and working your way up the ladder.

“People should set goals for themselves,” Emmer said. “Make little changes to their lifestyles.”

How to find help

Bridgett Wilder will be a new partner at Walnut Way Conservation Corp.’s Innovations and Wellness Commons starting Jan. 16. Anyone interested in contacting her can visit PERSEVERANCE Health and Wellness Coaching.