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5 questions to help you eat more healthfully

Our pediatrician blogger wants to change your family’s approach to mealtimes

Dr. Daniel Flanders

Dr. Daniel Flanders

Patients and parents ask me all the time how they can eat more healthfully.  Of course each person’s nutritional challenges are different and approaches to solutions need to be tailored accordingly.

But if there’s an answer that works most effectively and most often for the highest number of patients, it is in the form of a discussion about what I call, “The five questions for nutritional health.”

The questions are meant to prompt healthful behaviour change, or nudge people towards making healthier nutrition choices. They can be applied to adults, kids and family units; the discussion just needs to be tailored to the children’s age and stage. 

Like any “prescribed” behaviour modification strategy, it can seem awkward at first.  However, if you get your family to start thinking through food choices with these questions, within days, the process becomes automatic and seamless. In many cases, this cognitive exercise results in meaningful, positive change.

So, when you, your kids or your family are choosing what and how much to eat for any given meal or snack, try to ask the following five questions about the food that is about to be eaten:

  1. Is it real?

In recent decades, food has been ever more extensively refined, modified, and packaged in such ways that it is becoming less recognizable (as food) and less nutritious (more nutritionally empty and more calorie-dense).

Fast food restaurants, take-out meals, sugar-dense beverages and meal-replacement drinks and bars are all examples of less real, more refined, and therefore less healthful nutrition. Choosing less refined, more recognizable foods, and preparing and eating them more often together at home, will dramatically improve the nutritional quality of what you and your family eat.

  1. Is it enough?

Our bodies are designed to regulate how much we eat by sending hunger and fullness signals in response to our nutritional needs in the moment. This regulatory system can get thrown off such that those who undereat will eventually become underweight and those who overeat will eventually become overweight. These days, many of us are at risk of misreading our hunger/fullness signals. 

It doesn’t help that we live in a world that continuously undermines our ability to faithfully monitor our intake of nutrition; try to purchase a reasonably-sized serving of popcorn at a movie theatre, or to order an appropriate size steak (2.5 ounces) at a restaurant. 

One way to address this problem is by more effectively getting in touch with our bodies’ regulatory signals.

Listen closely to your hunger and fullness signals. Serve yourself smaller portions when you are less hungry and larger portions when more hungry. Eat more if you are not satiated after a meal. Stop eating if you feel comfortably full before finishing your plate. By more effectively tuning in to your bodily sensations of hunger and fullness, you can better regulate the quantities of food you consume

  1. Does it bring balance?

One of the fundamental keys to eating healthfully is balance – eating a broad and balanced variety of foods from all of the food groups.  The idea is that if you already had a bowl of yogurt, a cup of milk and a large skim-milk latte, then don’t choose the cheese sandwich or the bocconcini salad for lunch.  If you have eaten the recommended quantity of dairy for the day, choosing more dairy throws off the balance, making you less likely to consume sufficient amounts of foods from the other food groups.

Over-eating from one food group means undereating from another. There are reasonably good resources available that can help you to balance your nutrition. The best known resources are usually published by federal governments (Canada’s Food Guide or from the U.S., choosemyplate.gov). The resource that I most prefer, published by Harvard University’s School of Public Health, is called
The Healthy Eating Plate. These resources can help you maximize the balance and variety of foods you consume.

  1. Why am I eating it?

In addition to sating hunger, we eat for many other reasons: to combat boredom, soothe depression and anxiety, impress a business partner or fit in at a social event.  On the rare occasion, it is reasonable and appropriate to eat for non-hunger reasons.  On the other hand, the more frequently we do this, the higher the likelihood that we will overeat or undereat.

  1. Is it yummy?

Food should be a pleasure to eat, especially if you take pleasure in eating.  If you find yourself choosing “healthy” foods that don’t appeal to you, it won’t be long before those foods are no longer healthy, simply because you stopped eating them. Since eating is something we do multiple times per day, we should make every effort to find meal and snack options that are yummy, healthful, and a pleasure to eat.

So to sum it up, my prescription for healthier eating is: Enjoy eating sufficient and balanced quantities of real foods to comfortably satisfy your hunger. 

I would be curious to hear your thoughts about this strategy or feedback if you have given it a try.  

In future posts I will be answering questions about nutrition and lifestyle medicine from readers.  Feel free to ask me anything on Twitter (@drflanders) or Facebook, or in the comments below. I’ll try to answer you directly and in some cases, your question (with answer) may make it onto the blog! 

1 Response

  1. Janet Henderson

    This was an excellent article. I embarked on a lifestyle change in my eating habits about 40+ days ago. I did not have to make many changes in my diet to start losing weight and get healthier. I have lost 13 pounds during this time. My objective is a weight loss of 20-25 pounds. I have always used fresh vegetables and grow a lot of my own. I eat mainly chicken and fish in small quantities. I have never drank soft drinks but I previously enjoyed desserts mainly when company was over. I choose fruit now or make a fruit smoothie. I am very pleased with the results. My activity level is medium. I do lots of gardening and help my husband with house renovations. I am 63 years old and basically got tired of being obese. I am 5’5″ and weighed 166 when I started. Everything is positive about losing weight. I am expecting my cholesterol level to go down significantly when I have achieved my weight loss goal. I use a fitness ap which is very easy. I am careful about telling others because I do not wish to offend them in any way. Weight loss is a very sensitive issue. My best bet is to be a good example. People will notice and ask. Thank you so much for promoting a healthy lifestyle.

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