By Megrette Fletcher, MEd, RD, CDE
When it comes to food, the idea that you have a choice is often misleading. Most people are surprised to realize they are not making one choice, but two! Every choice you make has two parts: what to eat, or the selection, and how much to eat, or the portion.
This two-part decision-making process is why the logic of “good” and “bad” foods doesn’t work. When a person chooses a “healthy” item and then eats a very large amount, is it still healthy? The health value of any food decreases when it is over consumed. This is because when something is overeaten, it will bring a diet out of balance. The same is true if a person chooses an “unhealthy” item but limits the amount. This smaller portion of unhealthy items doesn’t bring the diet out of balance. In fact, small amounts seem to move the forbidden, unhealthy food into the realm of acceptable. Think for a moment about adding a small amount of food, such as bacon or cheese. Will a sprinkle of bacon or cheese on a salad, casserole or entree ruin the nutrients in these foods? It’s unlikely because the meal and overall diet can handle this tiny amount of “unhealthy” food. The portion doesn’t cause the meal, day or overall diet to be out of balance.
Yes, but there are still foods that are unhealthy, right?
A lot of health messaging encourages people to limit their overall perspective of food to fit into the good/bad food box. If you pause and think about how many calories a moderately active woman would eat in a year (about 657,000 calories) you can quickly see that most diets have wiggle room in them. Even if you overeat 50 percent of your calorie needs (or 900 calories) that represents 0.0013 of your total calories in a year. It is helpful to remember that if you are trying to be “good,” there is room for fun, discovery and adventure in everyone’s meal choices. The key is seeing the bigger picture. For example, if you eat three meals a day, in a year you are eating 1,095 meals. If one of those meals is “bad,” this represents 1/1095 or 0.00091 of your total meals. Choosing to see the big picture shows how insignificant one food or one meal is to your overall health.
Now you know that the problem isn’t the exception or the infrequent choice. The issue that most people face is the unconscious habit of choosing less-nourishing foods (selection) or overeating (portion) any food, meal after meal, day after day, year after year. Over time, consistently eating low-nutrient foods, overeating any food, or a combination of the two will decrease health.
How mindful eating can help
Becoming more aware, or mindful, can help you uncover the opportunity in your food and eating selections. It is true that this tiny shift in thinking will not overhaul your diet or radically transform your food choice, but it might just be the change you were seeking. Opening your eyes to opportunity requires you to give yourself time with your food and eating. Moving away from the frantic, rushing, quick, quick, quick mindset is often the most effective change a person can make.
If you are not sure this is the issue, take a minute and add up how much time you spend at each meal choosing, preparing and cooking food? Is it enough to consider the broader view of food and eating? Is it enough to ask and learn if you are selecting nutrient-dense foods at this meal or snack? If you are not choosing nutrient-dense foods, consider asking more questions, like “Why?” Was there a healthier choice available? Did I just not see it because I was so focused on another deadline, problem or issue? Was there not enough time to prepare or eat a more nutritious item?
More time surrounding your food and eating choices offers an opportunity to pause, evaluate, consider, taste and even savor your selection. If having more time is not possible, consider how you can make it easier to select either a food or portion that will keep your diet in balance. Planning your next step takes time, and so does creating a plan for your meals, to bring lunch or order food from a place that offer more options than a burger and fries.
Many people share another consequence of the rush, rush, rush pace of life; they lack creative energy and inspiration. The Internet, specifically Pinterest, can help. There are tons of cooking ideas, simple meals and tasty snacks that seem to float around social media. Why not get serious and find a board, a blog or a writer that you enjoy? Acknowledging that your busy life has decreased the time available for meal preparation isn’t a bad thing. If this is true for you, shift your focus to accepting that you have less time and that you would do better to have a plan, a strategy, a way to navigate the two-part process of choice: selection and portion.
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