Nutrition, for the Rest of Us! Ten Ways to Make and Maintain Better Food Choices

The country faces a growing medical and economic problem, obesity. As the number of overweight and obese people rises, so does the healthcare cost to care for weight related problems. While a lack of active movement is half of the equation, the other half involves food.

Some of the principle reasons for the escalation of this problem are:

1. Portion distortion, expecting and accepting large portion sizes.

2. Mental conditioning regarding what a desirable meal looks, smells, and tastes like.

3. Non-nutritive, high caloric foods becoming the bulk of many diets.

4. A progressive change of the national palate, favoring rich and fattening foods.

5. Highly processed foods altering the body’s response to hunger and fullness.

6. Easy access to low-cost convenience or junk food.

7. Poor meal planning, leading to unhealthy convenience eating.

8. Higher costs associated with fresh nutritious foods.

9. Eating, not due to hunger, but because of poor stress management, or other types of mental/emotional disturbances.

10. Sedentary lifestyles combined with any of the above.

Today there is greater access to food than ever; however, much of it is non-nutritious. Filling the body with excess non-nutritive calories, leaves less room for nutritious offerings. Especially problematic, is the effect of highly processed foods. They cause blood sugar to rise, thus creating an insulin response.

After the release of insulin, blood sugar can crash, if not followed with a protein or fat to sustain it. Low blood sugar causes feelings of extreme hunger as a reaction to the insulin response. It is the body’s way of promoting consumption, to raise blood sugar back to an acceptable level.

Over time, repeating this pattern in dramatic up and down swings, can lead to insulin resistance and an alteration in the way your body processes food. This can cause unnatural cravings for quick sugar. Things like highly processed carbohydrates, sugary snacks, and calorie dense rich foods. They are consumed to satisfy the very real, chemically driven, craving designed to restore blood sugar levels quickly.

Eating patterns are derived from habit, from what you have become accustomed to eating. This accounts for regional favorites that are not enjoyed elsewhere in the world. When you grow up enjoying a certain style of eating, it leaves not only a physical longing for those foods, but a mental and chemical one as well.

Long-established eating patterns are difficult to break, but not impossible. Food creates mental associations. Think of pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving or Christmas cookies. We associate the event with the foods. Breaking or modifying long-held associations becomes the challenge.

Memories are stored in the basil ganglia of the brain, like a mental fingerprint in the mind. Events will trigger the thoughts of the associated food. Because of neuroplacitity, the mind can be rewired intentionally through purposeful repetition. To break an association, you must establish a new one, on purpose.

To alter long-established patterns you must intentionally feed new ones, while at the same time not indulging old ones. To do this, you must first Identify what behaviors you want to extinguish, i.e., eating too much, eating the wrong kinds of foods, eating when not hungry or past full etc. Then create a plan to Extinguish and Replace them with behaviors that are more desirable. By regularly following your new pattern of eating and denying old ones, you will gradually establish a new association and create a new “normal” reaction.

To recreate your mental and physical reaction to foods.

1. Become familiar with portion sizes, their calorie count, and what is a desirable amount.

2. Drink water before and after each meal to cleanse your palate. Eat only until you feel ¾ full.

3. Know your trigger foods and cues. Have a plan to offset them.

4. Know how specific foods, such as carbs, will affect your hunger and how they are processed by your body.

5. Strive to eat “clean”: Eating foods as close to their natural form as possible. Stick to non-processed or minimally processed foods. (Check the first 5 ingredient for words that are healthy, natural and that you can pronounce.)

6. Purposefully establish positive mental associations to healthy foods and recipes.

7. Buy fresh foods in season. Have healthy foods on hand at home and keep them in pre-sized portions, freezing the rest.

8. Pre-package healthy snacks at home and make them convenient to grab.

9. Reduce the number of times you eat out and the non-nutritive foods you bring into the house.

10. Focus on adding more and larger portions of fruits and vegetables to each eating episode, versus, all the things that you are trying to reduce.