Three Questions You Should Ask Yourself Before You Eat

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By Michelle May, M.D.
Special to NurseZone

You’ve seen the headlines:

"Ten Power Foods You Should Eat to Live Longer and Healthier"

"Low-Carb Secrets for Dropping 15 Pounds Before Summer"

"Indulge Yourself with the Most Decadent Chocolate Cake Recipe Ever!"

We are bombarded with conflicting messages—often side by side on the same magazine cover.

People often struggle with “being good” when there are so many “bad foods” to choose from. Ironically, we’re supposed to define ourselves by what we put in our mouths despite the fact that the definition of “good” and “bad” foods changes every few years or so. Many people feel confused and overwhelmed by all the conflicting and often arbitrary messages about what they are “supposed” to eat.

But it is possible to find that balance between eating for health and eating for pleasure. In fact, one of the keys to optimal health and lifelong weight management is to nourish your body and your soul with the foods you eat.

So how do you drown out all the noise and find that balance for yourself? Start by asking yourself three simple questions when you’re hungry:
  1. “What do I want?”
  2. “What do I need?”
  3. “What do I have?”
What Do I Want?

The first question, “What do I want?” often comes as a surprise. But what happens when you try to avoid food you really want—like those Girl Scout Cookies that were delivered after you started your new low-carb diet?

First you check the label and confirm that they’re off limits so you put them in the freezer. Two days later they whisper to you from their hiding place, “Pssst. We’re in here!” You manage to resist them, instead munching on some olives, four cubes of cheese, a hunk of leftover meatloaf with a side of celery sticks, two pieces of low-carb toast—and yet you still don’t feel satisfied.

“Hey! We’re in here and we taste great frozen!” You finally give in and have two Thin Mints®. Blew it again! Might as well eat a few more—and a bowl of ice cream—and start over tomorrow. Sound familiar?

Thinking about what you really want to eat without judging yourself will keep you from feeling deprived and out of control when you choose to eat certain foods.

You might be worried that if you ask yourself what you’re really hungry for, you’ll always choose foods you “shouldn’t.” At first this might seem true, since cravings tend to get stronger when you try to ignore them for too long.

But once you let go of the guilt about eating certain foods, you’ll find that you want a variety of foods to feel healthy and satisfied.

What Do I Need?

The next question to ask yourself is, “What do I need?” While food decisions aren’t “good” or “bad,” clearly some foods offer more nutritional benefits than others.

As you consider what food to choose, ask yourself, “What does my body need?” Keep in mind the principles of variety, balance and moderation when deciding what to eat. Consider nutritional information, your personal health issues, your family history, what else you are eating that day and how your body responds to certain foods.

Enjoy your healthy choices by focusing on fresh foods, appealing combinations, new flavors and interesting recipes.

What Do I Have?

The key to the final question, “What do I have?” is planning. If you feel hungry and the only thing available is a vending machine, you’re likely to choose a snack food that may not be very healthy, may not taste very good and may not really be what you were hungry for anyway.

Instead, strive to have a variety of foods available that are healthful and appealing but not overly tempting. These are foods that you enjoy when you’re hungry but won’t be calling out to you from their storage place saying, “Come eat me!”

Of course, you’re not always in control of which foods are available. At a restaurant, office potluck or friend’s house, simply see what is available and ask yourself, “Is there a healthy choice that will meet my needs without feeling deprived?” For example, could you be happy with frozen yogurt instead of ice cream this time?

Matching the food you choose to what you’re really hungry for and what your body needs leads to greater satisfaction and more enjoyment—with less food.

Remember that small changes really do make a difference and that balanced eating is simply the result of all of the individual positive decisions you make. Eating food that you truly enjoy while taking good care of your body is the best way to make long term changes that you can live with.

Michelle May, M.D., is a recovered yo-yo dieter and the award-winning author of "Am I Hungry? What to Do When Diets Don’t Work." Learn to manage your weight without deprivation and guilt with Dr. May's complimentary mini e-Course at