Health Take-Away: Balancing mindlessly eating and mindful nutrition

The greatest enemy of a healthy diet is our vulnerability to temptation and the all-too-familiar descent into mindless eating. Scoffing that bag of chips because it's there. Finishing that stale slice of birthday cake even though you didn't really want it. But there are ways to replace that mindless indulgence with mindlessly good nutrition.

Shop as though your health (and life) depends on it, because it does. Healthy eating at home begins at the grocery store. Your goal at home should be to fill half at least half your plate with vegetables, the other with healthy proteins and whatever else you choose. Use the same ratio for your shopping cart. You don't have to fill it; with the huge carts found in most stores today, you may want to self-impose a half-cart rule, as long as what you're buying is at least half fruits and vegetables. Shop the produce section first. Feel free to linger there and explore the great variety available. Then focus on the store's perimeter, where healthy fresh proteins, like meat and fish, generally are found. Last and least, go only to those inner aisles necessary to round out your meals. Consciously skip aisles you know are filled with temptations that aren't needed or good for you.

Create a home eating environment that allows you to feast on healthy foods. Surrounding yourself with nutritious, tasty choices, while keeping indulgent items out of sight and easy reach, is key. Set up one official eating location in your home — one that focuses on the meal and not distractions like television. Serve from the stove or counter, versus on the table, family style. Studies have shown people eat nearly 20 percent less when they need to get up to get seconds. Have a big bowl of fresh fruit on the counter and some pre-cut vegetables within quick snacking reach in the refrigerator. Drink at least 64 ounces of water each day.

Reset your mealtimes clock to optimize healthy eating. Timing is everything. Sticking to a schedule provides the nutrition you need, keeps you satiated and discourages between-meals snacking. Some find that "front loading" calories earlier in the day (a high-protein breakfast perhaps) helps set the right balance of energy and consumption for the day. Appetites and metabolisms vary. What's most important is synchronizing your body's clock to your calorie and nutrition intake needs.

Go ahead and treat yourself, but make yourself do something healthy first. We all like to reward ourselves occasionally with some kind of sweet or savory treat. But we also know how habitual that can become, how hard it is to stop after one or ten bites. One proven method of mindful self-control is to set up barriers between you and the snack. First, always wait 10 minutes before taking the snack. If you're craving that delicious taste of whatever, you must fulfill a task first, whether it's 10 minutes on treadmill or a brisk walk around the block. For most people, the mood boost from exercise makes them realize they don't want that treat after all.

Curb your appetite and improve your health with more sleep. At the end of the day, achieving a mindful balance of nutrition means knowing when to let yourself and your stomach rest. There's a big difference between truly needing something and simply craving it out of habit. When it's bedtime, give your mind and body the reward they deserve — the seven to nine hours of sleep you need to function at your best.

Before you know it, mindfully conditioning yourself with these basic steps can have you mindlessly making healthy nutrition choices every day.

Jennifer Ward, R.D., is a      wellness dietitian with Berkshire Health Systems.


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