March is National Nutrition Month with the theme Put Your Best Fork Forward. When I go to write about eating a quality diet I always come back to mindset. Why not choose a mindset that makes eating well not only easier but more rewarding and effective? The good news is research gives us many clues of optimal ways to perceive food that makes our families healthier and happier.
So here are my top 6 pieces of nutrition advice that will help you and your family Put Your Best Fork Forward.
1. Choose a Food Regulation Focus
The narrow goal of reaching an ideal weight causes many people to feel like failures if they can’t reach it and ultimately eat worse than they would have otherwise. In How to Raise a Mindful Eater I make this important point that’s often missing in discussions about weight:
…the key to avoiding unnecessary weight gain has more to do with how people eat than what they eat. It makes more sense to create circumstances that encourage optimal food regulation. People who don’t regulate their food intake are more likely to eat more or less than their bodies need.
I go onto define the five factors that research shows can negatively affect food regulation, which include insufficient sleep, poor handling of stress, physical inactivity, eating in the absence of hunger (AKA mindless eating) and dieting/restriction. When we have a good handle on these factors — which also encourage healthier eating and overall feelings of well being — the weight that is right for us (and our growing children) reveals itself.
2. Keep Nutrition Simple
There’s a myth that science keeps flip-flopping in terms of nutrition advice. This belief has more to do with ever-changing diets and trends that make things seem like they flip flop. While there have been changes in science, Dr. David Katz writes about how research over the last 20 plus years has consistently revealed three simple ways to decrease chronic disease by 80% (related to tobacco use, diet, and activity). Here’s how he puts it in this Linkedin article:
So, even if every beguiling diet to come along since has been absolutely, spot-on right (challenging, since most of them refute what all the others contend, but we’ll look past that for now)- all they could possibly do is help us wrestle under control the remaining 20%…What we have known all this time is that a diet of mostly real foods, mostly direct from nature, mostly plants- would do the trick. By placing an emphasis on wholesome foods- vegetables, fruits, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, whole grains, water, with or without eggs, dairy, meat, fish, poultry, and seafood- we would be getting lots of good stuff, and little bad. By getting the pattern just basically right, carbs and fats and sugar and calories and glycemic index and pH would just tend to take care of themselves.
3. Watch Where Your Attention Goes
Research shows certain people (especially restrained eaters) have an “attentional bias” to palatable food in the environment meaning they hyper-focus in on environmental food cues and have increased consumption. In one study three groups of people watched a picture presentation of food but were instructed differently beforehand. One group was told to try and suppress cravings, the other group was asked to engage in reappraisal (notice emotions and reinterpret their meaning), and the third group was simply told to watch the presentation. The group that practiced reappraisal reported the least cravings.
Like any mindset we have, being aware of it and changing it in the moment can be incredibly powerful. Try viewing tasty, less-than nutritious food as an enjoyable part of balanced eating — and teaching the same to our children — to bring less attention to it than something we do mindlessly or constantly work to avoid.
4. Make Cooking Fit You
When I started cooking I began questioning the advice I gave people as an RD like: “Use chicken breasts instead of thighs or legs, whole grains instead of refined grains and a little salt.” Now I realize that it’s much better to give yourself permission to utilize all food and ingredients to make food satisfying. And you don’t have to sacrifice nutrition when you focus on balance over the long haul. This just happens to be the subject in my recent podcast episode with Katie Morford.
And if you want to teach your kids to cook, forget the dream of them coming to you wanting to cook a new vegetable. Most kids like to start with baking, Morford explains, so start meeting your kids where they are. It will eventually lead to more cooking of all types of food.
5. Kids are Not Little Adults
Nothing is more frustrating than viewing kids eating from adult eyes. As I have written over and over, the way children develop — and how each individual is different — explains why kids eat the way they do. Whether it’s picky eating, a preference for carbs, or eating a lot or what seems like too little, please take the time to understand what’s behind the way children eat at different stages. It will make it easier to find ways to help kids Put Their Best Fork Forward now and when they are grown.
6. Choose Feeling Good over Guilt
Here’s what’s left out of most messages about nutritious eating: food should be a positive in your family’s life. You are on the wrong track if it is filled with guilt, conflict, and a sense of obligation. You are on the right track if it’s seen as a work in progress that everyone feels good about.
Maybe the latter means your family’s diet is less than perfect. But not only are those good feelings beneficial for health, but you’re also more likely to strive for small gains that eventually add up to big ones. And then one day you realize that Putting Your Best Fork Forward has become a rewarding and doable part of everyday life. Not because you did what the experts told you to do, but because you took that advice, challenged it, and then made it your own.
Want to raise a child with a healthy relationship with food? Check out Maryann’s book: How to Raise a Mindful Eater: 8 Powerful Principles for Transforming Your Child’s Relationship with Food