Channel surf the national news in the morning and you're just as likely to hear someone telling you what you should or shouldn't eat as you are to hear a politician talking about what they think should be done about the latest world crisis. And like politics, nutrition messages vary by who is doing the talking. As a result, people often feel overwhelmed and confused by all the conflicting (and sometimes arbitrary) messages about what they are supposed to eat.
The key to a sustainable healthy diet is to balance eating for enjoyment with eating for nourishment. But how do you drown out all the confusing noise and figure out what to eat in your day-to-day life?
These three simple questions will help you make food choices that are satisfying and balanced: "What do I want to eat?" "What do I need to eat?" and "What do I have to eat?"
What Do I Want to Eat?
The first question, "What do I want to eat?" may come as a surprise. But what happens when you try to avoid food you really want?
I once tweeted, "How many rice cakes does it take to satisfy a craving for chocolate?" My favorite reply was "7...and a Snickers bar!"
Thinking about what you really want to eat without judging yourself will keep you from feeling deprived and out of control when you choose to eat certain foods. You might be worried that if you ask yourself what you're really hungry for, you'll always choose foods you "shouldn't." First of all, I don't believe that there are any foods that you "shouldn't" eat. Second, depriving yourself only makes cravings grow stronger. Once you let go of the guilt about eating certain foods, they lose their power over you. If you don't give foods power, you don't need willpower anymore!
As you learn to trust your body wisdom you'll soon discover that you want to eat a variety of foods to feel healthy and satisfied.
What Do I Need to Eat?
The next question to ask yourself is "What do I need to eat?" While food decisions aren't "good" or "bad," clearly some foods offer more nutritional benefits than others. As you consider what food to choose, ask yourself, "What does my body need?" Keep in mind the principles of variety, balance and moderation when deciding. Consider nutrition information, your personal health issues, family history, what else you will be eating/doing that day, and how your body responds to certain foods.
Enjoy your healthy options by focusing on fresh foods, appealing combinations, new flavors, and interesting recipes. And remember, not every choice must be nutritious. Healthy, balanced eating is simply the average of all of the individual decisions you make.
What Do I Have to Eat?
The key to the final question, "What do I have to eat?" is planning. If you feel hungry and the only thing available is a vending machine, you're likely to choose a snack food that may not be very healthy, may not taste very good, and may not be what you were hungry for anyway.
Instead, strive to have a variety of foods available that are healthful and appealing but not overly tempting. These are foods that you enjoy when you're hungry but won't be calling out to you from their storage place saying, "Come eat me!"
Of course, you're not always in control of which foods are available. At a restaurant, office, potluck, or friend's house, simply see what's available and ask yourself, "Is there a healthy choice that will meet my needs without leaving me feeling deprived?" For example, could you be happy with frozen yogurt instead of ice cream this time? If the answer is no, have the ice cream!
Let the experts argue among themselves. Choosing food you love while meeting your body's needs leads to greater satisfaction and more enjoyment.
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