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Monday, January 23, 2012

The Three Most Important Questions to Ask Before You Eat

Every time we open a magazine, a menu, or even our own refrigerators, we are confronted by conflicting messages between what we could eat and what we should eat. Is it possible to find balance between eating for enjoyment and eating for nourishment?

Not only is it possible, it is essential for making permanent lifestyle changes.

When you’re hungry decide what to eat by asking three simple questions: “What do I want?” “What do I need?” “What do I have?”

What Do I Want?
The first question, “What do I want?” may come as a surprise—but what happens when you try to avoid food you really, really, really, really want (the Four Really Test)—like those Girl Scout Cookies that were delivered after you started your new diet? Perhaps you decide they’re off limits and put them in the freezer. Two days later they whisper to you from their hiding place, “Pssst. We’re in here!” You manage to resist them, instead munching on some cut-up fruit, rice cakes, celery, leftover turkey. You may even feel full, but not quite satisfied.

“Hey! We’re in here and we taste great frozen!” You finally give in and have two Thin Mints®. Blew it again! Might as well eat a few more—they come in a sleeve for a reason—and start over tomorrow. Sound familiar?

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 that pass your Four Really Test. You might be worried that if you ask yourself what you’re really hungry for, you’ll only want “unhealthy” foods. At first this might seem true, since cravings tend to get stronger when you’ve tried to ignore them for too long.

It is critical to learn to trust yourself. When guilt is no longer a factor, common sense prevails. You’ll soon discover that you want a variety of foods to feel healthy and satisfied.

What Do I Need?
The next question to ask yourself is, “What do I need?” While I don’t believe making foods “good” or “bad” is helpful, clearly some foods offer more nutritional benefits than others.

As you consider what food to choose, ask yourself, “What does my body need?” Consider your personal health issues, your family history, what else you are eating that day, how your body responds to certain foods, and nutritional information. Keep in mind that the basic principles of variety, balance, and moderation will address most nutritional questions. Be sure to enjoy your healthy choices by focusing on fresh foods, appealing combinations, new flavors, and interesting recipes.

What Do I Have?
The key to the final question, “What do I have?” is planning. If you feel hungry and the only thing available is a vending machine, you’re more likely to choose a snack food that may not be very healthy, may not taste very good, and may not really 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?

Eating food that you truly enjoy while taking good care of your body is the best way to make long term changes that you can live with. 

Michelle May, M.D. is the award-winning author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: How to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle. Download chapter one free. Dr. May is also the founder of the Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Workshops and Facilitator Training Program that helps individuals learn to break free from mindless and emotional eating to live a more vibrant, healthy life.

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