Pick up a popular health magazine and you’ll find the same nutrition advice recycled over and over. This advice is so ingrained, I often hear people recite it back to me verbatim. But I have a problem with this typical advice because it can be limiting and even backfire in certain cases.
Let me show you what I mean.
1. Keep it Out of the House
During a recent interview, I was asked if it’s best to have people keep palatable food, like cookies, out of the house. The idea is if it’s not there, people will not be tempted to eat it.
Here’s the problem: This advice gives all the power over to food, and leads to guilt when eating certain items. Eventually, you are going to have access to the problem food. And what happens then? In one study, people who associated a treat like chocolate cake with guilt, instead of celebration, reported more unhealthy eating while under stress.
Here’s what I suggest instead: Embrace the food you love instead of running from it. Really think about the type of indulgent type food you want in your house and include it sensibly, without guilt. You will no longer need an excuse to eat the enjoyable food, and its power will dissolve.
2. Fill half your plate with fruits and veggies
The idea here is to eat more nutrient-dense food that contains fewer calories and more nutrition. When you do this you’ll also get more filling fiber.
Here’s the problem: What happens the times you don’t want fruits and veggies to fill half your plate? What if you are craving something different? My main issue is that fruits and veggies tend to be presented as obligation foods instead of tasty foods. This is a problem because many people think healthy food has inferior taste (kids and adults).
Here’s what I suggest instead: If you’re not eating fruits and veggies, it’s likely a taste problem. Work on ways to make fruits and veggies taste so good, you’ll want to fill your plate with them most the time. But if you have a craving for something different — go for it!
3. Drink water before a meal, pre-portion out food, practice portion control
There is endless advice on controlling portions and taming appetite. The main idea behind it is to trick your body into eating less.
Here’s the problem: It doesn’t tackle the real problem, which is mindless eating. In fact, research shows the body may not effectively register fullness when eating while distracted (not paying attention), causing increased food intake.
Here’s what I suggest instead: Learn to trust your body, instead of trying to trick it. Sit and pay attention to meals. Do you finish your food out of habit? What’s going on during those afternoons your snacking like crazy? Do you notice hunger and fullness cues?
4. Eat frequent small meals through the day
The idea is that smaller more frequent meals are better for someone’s metabolism than three big meals.
Here’s the problem: Research is inconclusive if smaller meals really are best for metabolism. But most importantly, this eating pattern may not fit an individual’s preferred eating style.
Here’s what I suggest instead: If you are hungry between meals, plan a nice snack. If you are not, there is no reason to make yourself eat. You know your body better than anyone!
5. Only Eat When You Are Hungry and Always Stop When You Are Full
This one is meant to help people focus on internal cues of eating so they eat an amount that makes sense for their body.
Here’s the problem: This can easily set someone up for failure. What if you are hungry in the middle of a meeting and there is no food? Aren’t there going to be times you eat when not hungry, especially if you have a craving? When this rule becomes impossible to stick to, it’s easy to give up.
Here’s what I suggest instead: Let hunger and fullness guide eating but allow for flexibility. For example, if I’m eating something super yummy at a restaurant I rarely get to eat, I might keep eating even after I feel myself getting full. And if someone has cookies and I’m not hungry, but they sound good, I’ll have one. But for the most part, hunger and fullness determine how much I eat.
The problem with this type of “rule-based” nutrition advice is it doesn’t really solve anything. And most importantly, it leaves out the most important expert of all: you.
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