One of the most fundamental health decisions we make on a daily basis is what to eat. This decision is motivated by such diverse factors as survival instinct, knowledge about healthy diet, food availability, food preference, our financial situation and even our emotional state.
With so many variables in play, its no wonder that making healthy food choices seems so difficult.
In taking the first step toward a healthy diet, two fundamental questions are what to eat and how much to eat.
My daughters third-grade class recently conducted a science experiment in which two mice were offered two different types of food for a period of about two weeks. One mouse was given a palatable mix of healthy foods and the other was given Fruit Loops. In both cases, more than ample quantity was provided. The hypothesis was that the mouse fed Fruit Loops would gain more weight during the experiment than the mouse fed healthier food.
However, it turns out that apparently mice (or at least this one mouse) do not like Fruit Loops. The mouse given healthier food options ate more and consequently gained more weight.
This demonstrates an important principle in weight management. When it comes to weight, its not just what you eat but how much you eat.
Specifically, the amount of calories we consume fundamentally impacts our weight. A calorie is the basic unit of fuel for our body. If we consume more fuel than our metabolism can burn, we will gain weight. Conversely, if we eat fewer calories than we burn, we will lose weight.
Portion control is an important part of a healthy diet. There are many examples. Those of you who watched the movie Supersize Me may recall how huge portions of food items such as fries and soda can truly affect the waistline. In our Western food culture, we have lost all concept of appropriate food portions. Did you know that an appropriate portion size for meat and poultry is the size of your palm, or about 3 ounces?
Yet weight control is not the only goal of healthy eating. Once weve addressed the quantity of our food, we need to also consider the quality of our food. Research has taught us that certain foods high in saturated fat, sugar and salt increase our risk for disease, while other foods containing fiber, omega-3 fatty acids and naturally occurring antioxidants may actually reduce the risk of common illnesses.
The challenge of selecting high-quality foods for our diet is often greater than understanding the principle of portion control. Yet there are a few basic guidelines that nearly all of us, our kids included, can understand. As a general rule, the less processed (think packaged) our food is, the healthier it is. A good second rule of thumb is that plant products such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables are healthier than animal products.
Choosing to eat healthy requires a daily commitment. As the old saying goes, You are what you eat. As my daughters class experiment proved, you also are how much you eat.
Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics practicing at the Ute Mountain Health Center in Towaoc.