“In one experiment, he showed the words “chocolate cake” to a group of Americans and recorded their word associations. “Guilt” was the top response. If that strikes you as unexceptional, consider the response of French eaters to the same prompt: “celebration.”
Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto
In the years that I have seen nutrition trends come and go, one thing has always stuck with me – for all of the knowledge that the average North American has about food, we still have one of the highest rates of obesity and lifestyle-related diseases in the world.
Why hasn’t our awareness about calories, carbs, saturated fat content, trans fats etc. made a big difference in our health? Why are so many people still struggling with the pursuit of a healthy diet? I would suggest that the problem is two-fold.
The first issue is that understanding exactly what is healthy to eat has become so confusing it’s almost overwhelming. Couple this with how we eat and it’s no wonder so many people struggle with their weight.
Because I think food is such an important part of the human experience, it bothers me when individual foods are either vilified, or pumped up as superfoods. Don’t get me wrong – I also believe that you should maintain a healthy diet and eat in moderation. It’s just that the focus on diet extremes can really crowd out other important health messages.
We are bombarded with information about what is “healthy” and “unhealthy” food, and many times the information is contradictory. How do we make sense of all of the diet tips that we hear in the news, on social media, from friends, and from experts with varying points of view?
The best place to begin is to focus on your behavior around eating. Here are some simple ways that you can change relationship right now with food, and maintain that change long-term:
1. Forget the diet trends and just re-engage with your food. Seem simple? In fact, this is much more difficult than it sounds. Our food is meant to be one of the more pleasurable parts of our day.
And here is the hard truth – there is no super food. No matter how many headlines claim a particular food to be the magic bullet, so far, there is no such thing.
There may be diets that are more nutrient dense but one food is not going to change everything. Nutrient dense foods foods are typically those that are whole – fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grain carbohydrates, beans and pulses, lean meats and seafood.
But you knew this already, right? You likely don’t need any more information about what to eat.
2. Make your plate less of a science project and more of a pleasure. Yes, a pleasure! Look to countries in the developed world with lower rates of obesity – having the best quality, nicest looking food is a serious pursuit.
Your food is not carbs, fat, and proteins. It is an experience, it connects you with family, and it brings friends together. Let’s end the love-hate relationship and start really enjoying our food again. This leads me to my next point…
3. Focus on how you are eating rather than just what you are eating. How many meals, coffees, and other drinks do you consume while on your phone, standing, walking, sitting in front of a TV, reading a paper, or driving a car?
What would happen if you changed your focus to allow yourself to eat anything you wanted, as long as it was eaten slowly, with no distractions, and while sitting at a table? Try this the next time you’re planning to eat a chocolate bar – I guarantee it will be much difference experience than when you are distracted by something else.
Yes, you have the time. Trust me on this one.
4. If weight loss is your goal, start by changing just one thing. A few years ago I felt like I had put on a little weight, so I looked for a painless change that I could make to my diet. I added cream to my coffee every day and honestly, I didn’t care that much about giving it up (no significant loss of pleasure).
After several months of creamless coffee, my weight had dropped by a couple of pounds – no diet, a small change, and a painless way to loss some extra weight.
This type of small win can help reinforce the fact that incremental lifestyle changes are the key to successful weight control. Once you have conquered a small change, you can move on to the more challenging ones.
5. Use the same marketing tactics as the food companies, but in your home. Think of all of the subtle (and not so subtle) food advertising that surrounds us all. Have you ever wondered why there is food at the gas station? Why the candy section in a grocery store is right near the checkout?
You can use these same “nudges” in your own life: Move your vegetables from the hidden drawer in the bottom of fridge to the top shelf (better yet, cut them up and store them in a transparent container). Put out a fruit bowl, set a beautiful table, and move healthy choices into sight.
6. If you’re really struggling, try some self-monitoring. I know I said not to make your diet a science project, but sometimes observing your own patterns can help you to see where you can make small, but profound changes.
You can write down your meals, including when, where, and how you ate. You can also use an automated program like MyFitness Pal or the Fitbit app. Automated programs are helpful to understand how, and how much, you are really eating (rather than just what you think you are eating). Sometimes getting objective information about how we eat helps us to understand patterns that we may be otherwise unaware.
7. Be kind to yourself. Change is hard and takes time. Let’s face it, we live in an “obesogenic” environment. There are cues all around us to eat processed food, to eat when we aren’t hungry, and to eat more than we need to fulfill our calorie needs.
The efforts by the food industry to get us to eat their products are relentless. If you get caught up in this when you are trying to re-engage with your food, don’t be hard on yourself. They have teams of marketers and we only have ourselves. But personal choice is powerful – we can take back eating as vital part of family life, relationships and culture.
A healthy diet truly starts by just keeping it simple. So this week, make a deal with yourself to re-engage with your food, try something new in the produce section, cook whenever possible, and give yourself permission to truly love what you eat.
Your sister in wellness,
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