The Peoria area is often referred to as the “Heart of Illinois.” There is the Heart of Illinois Fair, Heart of Illinois United Way, Heart of Illinois Beekeepers Association, HOI TV station, et cetera. Why are we the Heart of Illinois?

One perspective would be to look at a map of the state of Illinois. With Rockford being your head and Cairo your feet, Peoria would be the location of your heart. Another perspective could reference the Heart of Illinois from a medical viewpoint, as the Peoria area is home to some world-class medical facilities which strive to provide excellent care and good health to citizens in our community.

A healthy heart—and good health in general—is easily taken for granted… especially when you are young and active, and a visit to the doctor’s office or hospital is the last thing on your mind.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services recently unveiled the latest Dietary Guidelines, published every five years, which focus on disease prevention and health promotion.

The guidelines suggest that people should focus on eating a variety of foods—especially nutrient-dense foods—and be aware of the amount consumed. Limit calories from added sugars and saturated fats, and reduce sodium intake. Limiting the amount consumed is often easier said than done. One thing I’ve noticed in my own habits is that it seems to take five to 10 minutes after eating to trigger that “full” feeling.

Sugary foods are delicious, and many of us have a hard time turning away from them. While the sweetness satisfies the palate and offers a short-term energy boost, it also seems to drain the body of energy an hour later. A diet low in sugar and high in whole foods offers more long-term energy and alertness without the drag that an excessively sugary diet seems to cause.

Of course, good health is not just about eating nutritious foods; it’s also about getting proper exercise, fresh air and sunlight. One of the more popular gift items this last Christmas was Fitbit, the wearable device that tracks your physical activity, and a fun way to stay motivated in your exercise routine. And yes… sunlight may be the best way to absorb Vitamin D—when the sun’s ultraviolet B rays hit the skin, a reaction takes place that enables skin cells to manufacture Vitamin D.

I have a suggestion for you in 2016 that could assist in promoting a healthier lifestyle: grow a garden. It doesn’t have to be that extensive. It could be a 10′ X 10′ plot in your backyard or a couple of tomato plants in pots on your balcony, or it might mean getting involved in a community garden, but it will benefit you in a number of ways. First, you’re eating fresh produce: it doesn’t get much fresher than harvesting, washing and eating. Second, you’re bound to get some exercise by tilling and preparing the soil, planting the seeds, hoeing and pulling weeds, and picking or digging up the produce. Third, it will force you to get outside and get some fresh air and sunlight. It’s too easy in this day and age to just stay inside and be entertained.

If you have a small plot of land, plant a few fruit or nut-producing trees, bushes or perennials such as strawberries, raspberries, grapes or even blueberries. Some are more difficult to grow than others, but if that’s the case, just look at it as a new challenge and learning opportunity.

Decades ago, most people in our country had close ties to the land and soil. That’s not the case anymore, as less than two percent of today’s population is classified as farmers. But growing food is fascinating for young and old alike—and you can be a farmer in your own way by growing a garden or planting some perennials this spring. iBi