Counter the Cues! 3 Easy Food Decisions to Improve Your Health

How many decisions do you make each day about food?

If you’re counting breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks and thinking less than a handful — you’re way off! Recent research by Brian Wansink, professor at Cornell University and author of the book Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, says the average person makes more than 220 food decisions per day!

That’s a whole lot of decisions and some of them are being made mindlessly, without any conscious thought. The result is that we find ourselves eating much larger portions than we’re aware of.

“It’s really easier than we think to let small things around us — plate size, package size, people around us, distractions — influence these 200-plus decisions because we are not aware of them in the first place,” Wansink told the Washington Post.

Instead, we are taking cues from what’s around us to make these choices.

What are the main food cues?

1. Environmental Cues: Dr. Wansink’s studies reveal that bigger bowls and larger plates can increase the size of your meal by as much as 31 percent. Most of his subjects had no awareness of how the size cues of bowls and dishes were influencing the amount of food they were taking in. They attributed the change to their own levels of hunger rather than the cue.

2. Pure Habit Cues: Our brains are powerful in determining our food purchases and how much we consume. Professors Wiktor L. Adamowicz (University of Alberta, Canada) and Joffre D. Swait (University of Technology, Australia) wrote an interesting research paper on food choices. They discuss how habitual patterns primarily influence consumer purchases — defaulting to what we know, what we always purchased, etc., rather than actively choosing.

3. Food Cues: Are there chips and packaged snacks readily available at your home or work place? Seeing these can trigger cues to eat, and eat more, whether or not you’re hungry. Eating an entire package of chips can easily add up to many “serving” sizes posted on the label.

So, what you can you do to take control of your food decisions despite these cues?

1. Have the healthy food you want to eat readily available and in sight — in your refrigerator, on the counter, at your work place. If a healthy food choice requires extra effort when you are hungry, it is normal to default to the easier choice of processed or fast food.

Having snacks of fruits and veggies already cut up, varieties of raw nuts and seeds in ready-to-eat packages, slices of European cheese, containers of small organic plain Greek yogurt, etc., are all good choices.

Even just adding one fruit or vegetable per day as a snack will lead to better health by adding more fiber, vitamins and minerals. Think of how the sailors of yesteryear could have avoided scurvy by having just a piece of fruit with vitamin C per day!

2. Determine to be mindful of at least one meal per day where you eat until you are no longer hungry versus full.

Randy J. Seeley, professor and director of the Cincinnati Diabetes and Obesity Center at the University of Cincinnati states even eating as little as 11 extra calories per day, or the amount in one potato chip, can lead to one pound of weight gain per year.

According to Seeley, “When you look at how obesity has affected our country… and you realize that the average person — someone who may be considered overweight — is gaining less than one pound per year, it’s easy to see that what most consider to be a very small snack has the potential to really add up over time.”

Eating for satiation, with just two to three fewer bites per meal can add up to 100 calories per day or losing 10 to 20 pounds in a year! That beats the gradual weight gain that happens over time for most adults.

3. Rethink your grocery store decisions (or have a grocery store makeover) — if you’ve always purchased the same things at the grocery store, consider a one-time shopping consult with a registered dietitian to evaluate your choices. Even if you are buying a brand your mother or grandmother bought, chances are the ingredients and health aspects have changed. Changing a few grocery store decisions over time can add up to huge changes over years, which adds health interest and dividends to your health bank account.

Being mindful and aware is key so your biology and brain don’t take over leading to unnecessary weight and health issues. Changing three food decisions a day and being mindful for four to six weeks can change those habits for good.

You are the master of your brain and the power you exert can be the key to your health and happiness!

Susan is the author of A Recipe for Life by the Doctor’s Dietitian. Her new book, Healthy You, Healthy Baby: A mother’s guide to gestational diabetes is now available. For more information, visit susandopart.com.

For more by Susan B. Dopart, M.S., R.D., C.D.E., click here.

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