When you’re interested in the science and health benefits of good nutrition, it’s easy think about food and wondering if you’re doing it “right”. There have been times when I have listened to a couple interesting podcasts and read some interesting articles and left feeling like I had more planned to eat than I can actually eat!
In many ways, that’s obviously a great problem to have but really, it can make things a bit unpractical. Conversely, it’s easy to get caught up in other peoples experiences and feel like you’re “doing it all wrong”. Not to mention the fact that most of us are constantly exposed to media and news sources that are claiming to have the magical answer to all your food related questions and health problems!
Food choices become especially difficult when we’re headed into the holidays like we are. Between all the holiday parties, the get together, and all the treats people bring to work (let’s face it, we’ve probably all brought sweets to work in an attempt to keep ourselves from eating them all at home alone!), it’s easy to get completely derailed.
So, with that in mind, I started coming with a system to help me daily food choices. No matter what happens in my day, I try to make sure that I ask myself these 5 questions and make food decisions based off of the answers.
These questions are not made to be difficult or overly fancy. Rather, I’ve included them because how quickly and easily I can use them to be mindful about my daily food choices.
These questions are primarily focused on general good health with a nutrient density focus but they can be adapted for a variety of goals. (Of course, these won’t work for everyone but that’s the beauty and the curse of our individuality!)
The Big Five:
1. Have I eaten a variety of different colors at each meal (or throughout the course of the day)?
You’ve probably heard about “eating the rainbow” and how that comes down to getting a diverse set of nutrients into your body each day. While that’s definitely true, I have also found that this question alone ensures that I’ve eaten enough fruits and vegetables that day and in the correct proportion.
I’ve found that by asking this question, I don’t have to think about things like “am I eating too much fruit?” and “did I eat enough veggies today?” because by aiming to eat a variety of colors at each meal, I end up using both fruits and vegetables in proportions that just make sense. This also allows you to listen to what you body needs that day instead of trying to follow a preconceived plan for what you should eat (that’s hard not only on your body, in my opinion, but also your mental state).
2. Have I eaten something fermented (or something else that will feed my beneficial gut flora)?
Like it or not, our health is thoroughly linked with the health of our gut flora. They help us break down our food, help protect against the proliferation of gut pathogens and the infiltration of toxins, as well as assisting in the regulation of our immune systems (which is, as you can imagine, kind of a huge deal when you’re talking about a system that protects us from just about everything).
Additionally, probiotic containing foods aren’t just great for providing your with beneficial bugs. They tend to be foods that are fairly easy to digest (because they’ve been “predigested”, in a way, by the bacteria) and are therefore often good sources of bio-available nutrients. This includes kefir, yogurt, kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut, and really anything fermented (excluding alcohol…not that that means you can’t enjoy occasionally nonetheless).
Unfortunately, probiotics aren’t easy tolerated by everyone and so it’s nice that we have other options that are equally good (and actually sometimes better) at increasing certain strains of beneficial bacteria. Mainly, I’m talking about soluble/resistant fiber. I try to include starches in my diet in the form of sweet potatoes and other tubers. Another good whole-food-supplement option is potato starch (I use the Red Mill, Potato Starch). The eventual goal can be to work up to several tablespoons but since so many of us have a gut that still needs some work, you can start out with as little as a 1/2 teaspoon and increase gradually.
3. Have I eaten the same stuff for several days in a row and what could I possibly be missing?
I think this is an important aspect that is often forgotten. It’s so easy to find some foods that work for you and your schedule that it’s easy to get pigeon-holed. But the mundane-ness of this approach isn’t the problem; it’s the nutrients that you’re missing out on when you limit your food sources to a selective few.
I cook in bulk myself as well but I try to have enough on hand that I can vary at least 2 meals per day. An easy way to do this is to include more veggies! I frequently find veggies I’ve never eaten before and buy them…then I try a new recipe when I get home. (This can actually be really fun, too! Hint: cooking most veggies in bacon fat or duck fat rarely fails.)
4. Do I have some protein, fat, and carbohydrates at each meal?
This may not work for some more niche diets, but if you’re going for an overall balanced and healthy diet, it’s an important question to ask. The answer doesn’t have to be too complicated. I don’t follow a certain macros ratio or try to meet certain quantities (although there’s nothing at all wrong with making it more specific), but I do know that if I include at least something from each category at each meal (and even most snacks although I find that if I eat this way, I don’t require snacks very often), I normally get to the end of the day with balanced blood sugar and energy levels.
This concept is incredibly and especially important if you’re struggling with hormonal, adrenal, and neurotransmitter health…and is something Megan and I talk regularly about in our Healthy Hormone Group Program. If you fit into this category, this might be the most important question to ask yourself on a regular basis.
5. I’m ok with eating a treat today…but is it crowding out other, better food choices?
I’m in the camp of paleo folks that doesn’t see anything wrong with the occasional treat. In fact, one of the reasons that I started eating a paleo diet and have not had a hard time sustaining it is because I can make paleo versions of pretty much all of my favorite foods, treats included. This is mostly because I believe in the importance of mental balance and happiness…and the food you choose to include in your life is just another integral pieces of that puzzle.
However, there is such a thing of choosing too many treats at the expense of more nutrient-rich food choices and it’s an important question that I ask myself daily. If the honest answer is that I haven’t eat enough good quality food, I’ll eat a solid meal before asking myself if I really want the treat. Sometimes it turns out that I was just hungry and that I don’t really want the treat after all. Other times, I still end up eating the treat…but at least I know that I’ve given my body the energy and building blocks to be healthy. There’s also nothing particularly wrong with having your dessert before dinner, so to speak, as long as you are mindful about the rest of your daily intake.