Have you ever thought about what shapes your choice of meals every day? What happens during your day that reinforces those choices? What about where you live or work? As life goes on with school, college, careers, marriage, kids, and so on, we may not pay enough attention to what we feed ourselves when we get hungry. Many of us live a life on-the-go and feel we are unable to take the time to learn what is in our food, or how many calories we are consuming. Here’s a personal look at a hypothetical individual who has reached a crossroad in his life when mindless eating begins to affect overall health — an all too common scenario.
Jon was getting his annual physical when his doctor informed him that he has “metabolic syndrome.” Now in his 40s, he knows that he’s gained a few extra pounds over the years, but now he’s being told that based on his height and weight, he’s considered obese. Jon also hears the doctor mention something about hyperlipidemia and pre-diabetes while he is reviewing his blood test results. His new results put him on the “high risk” list for heart disease and developing diabetes. By the end of his appointment, he’s given a prescription for a statin, and a warning to change his diet, exercise more and lose weight to reduce his risk for serious health issues down the road.
All this new information is swirling around Jon’s head like a world wind as he is leaving the doctor’s office. Clasped in his hand are brochures that were given to him with tips on how to change his diet to reduce his triglycerides and his blood glucose, along with a list of local health clubs. As he gets into his car to drive home, he tries to make sense of it all. He never truly paid much attention to how his diet can affect his health, yet knows he could use a little more exercise. Sitting at the office all day doesn’t help, and he certainly doesn’t want to end up with a pile of medical bills. Ultimately whatever he decides to do can and will have an impact on his future health.
How does someone like Jon end up in this situation? It certainly didn’t happen overnight. Both he and his wife don’t have much time during the week to devote to mealtime. Most of their time is focused on work and raising their two children. They both rely mostly on convenience meals that are high in energy and low in nutrition to get through their day. Breakfast is from the drive-through, lunch is delivery, and dinner is take out most days of the week. Looking at Jon’s life up to this point and his current living environment can provide some answers.
Most of Jon’s meals growing up were ready-made in a box or a bag. He’d usually wash it down with an extra-large soda. As a child, it was common to see him riding in the back seat with his sister while mom ordered meals from the drive thru. His family didn’t have much, so cheap eats were commonplace. Grocery shopping usually consisted of bags of chips, two-liter bottles of soda, frozen pizzas and microwave meals. His mother always cut coupons for highly processed foods, and rarely bought whole foods and vegetables. She didn’t have the time to cook, but it was important that her children had food to eat since she usually worked long hours. The microwave meals were easy for her children to heat up and feed themselves, since she couldn’t be there when they came home from school.
During the school year, mornings in his household were always at a hectic pace to get out the door, so he’d usually grab a bottle of soda and a package of cupcakes from the school vending machines for breakfast. During lunch, he’d eat a big slice of pizza, with soda and a bag of chips. The school did serve vegetables, and offered fresh fruit, but he always passed them up in the food line and went for a package of cookies instead.
During college, Jon got hooked on caffeine energy drinks because he felt they helped him to stay more alert in class. The long nights of studying deprived him of sleep. As a young adult, he’d already had a well-established diet of fast and convenience foods, which where mainly high in fat, salt and sugar, and low in vitamins and minerals. The dorms he lived in didn’t have a kitchen, just a microwave. Students were required to purchase meal cards for the cafeteria. This encouraged most of them including Jon to get take out.
When Jon landed his first job, he was happy that the mall nearby had a food court in it so he could walk over every day for lunch. There were also restaurants nearby that would deliver when he had tough deadlines to meet, so he could work through his lunch hour. His work consisted of sitting in his office most of the day on the phone or working at the computer. Over the years, he started to gain weight, since he wasn’t nearly as active during his high school and college days. After work he usually came home tired and spent most evenings watching TV.
For someone like Jon, change won’t be easy. The environment he lives in has a restaurant on every corner. Food is everywhere. To lose weight, Jon will need to learn how to balance his energy intake with his physical activity. He’ll need to consider choosing foods with a higher nutrient content that are overall lower in calories. Since he became less active as an adult, his high calorie food choices have contributed to his weight gain.
It helps not to go it alone. There’s so much advice everywhere, but a good place to start is with a registered dietetic professional, who can help Jon get on the right path. To become more mindful of his eating habits, it might be necessary to keep a food diary for a while to get an idea of eating patterns. It’s also a great way to estimate how many calories he’s consuming daily and what types of foods he normally eats. Most importantly, learning to read food labels is crucial in understanding how much energy is in each serving, where the calories are coming from (fat, sugar or protein), and to know what constitutes a true serving size. It’ll take a long-term commitment on his part to see results.
Mindfulness and education are our biggest allies when it comes to our health. Modern society doesn’t make it easy to be healthy. Food companies know how to hook us. They usually have a large budget to hire marketing experts who know how to persuade us during our most vulnerable times, when we are hungry, tired or both. Food is integrated into every aspect of our lives everywhere we go—sporting events, the zoo, airports and gas stations. To beat the game, we need to be in touch with our own habits and our daily routines. Don’t let these companies know more about you or your family than you do. They expect that most people won’t bother with food labels. Take control of your own health and fight the urge to chose mindlessly.
Start right now! Food label basics: