There are sooooo many foods out there, and just about as many nutrition tips and plans. While I believe that our relationships with food are always changing, there is one key question that I think can guide you in any food-related situation:
What’s in it for me?
This simple question can travel with you to any store, restaurant, or gathering, and it can help you choose the best available foods. No calculator or calorie guide required.
Here are 10 examples of this kind of thinking – and some of them might surprise you….
1. Carrot sticks: what’s in it for me?
One of my daily servings of vegetables, crunchy hydration, good source of vitamin A, fiber, vitamin K, potassium, folate, manganese, phosphorous, magnesium, vitamin E and zinc...a little boring, but they make a great vehicle for dip or hummus!
2. Coca-cola: what’s in it for me?
Sugar and caffeine will make me feel happy right now…until I crash. High fructose corn syrup may be more likely to be converted to more stubborn fat that I’ll have to sweat off in a workout, and phosphoric acid will steal calcium from my bones. Iced tea will give me the caffeine and flavor and I’m looking for without the unwanted side effects (and iced green tea offers even more benefits!).
3. Birthday cake: what’s in it for me?
It’s my birthday and my cake! It’s got a lot of sugar and “empty” calories that might get converted to fat, but one slice tonight is definitely worth it because I’m celebrating a special event and this is a treat I really want. (I can always put some extra slices in the freezer for a future treat.)
4. Waffle fries: what’s in them for me?
Hmmm….Chik Fil-A doesn’t seem to be going out of business any time soon, and commercially fried potatoes don’t usually offer any nutrition worth speaking. In fact, these “fresh cut” fries also contain disodium dihydrogen pyrophosphate [to promote color retention], dextrose), and fully refined high oleic canola oil (TBHQ and citric acid added to preserve freshness and Dimethylopolysiloxane added as an anti-foaming agent). Plenty of carcinogens in that pack of bad guys – I will pass on these. (PS – is fast food really any faster than bringing some leftovers from home?)
5. Fruit Salad: what’s in it for me?
Fruit is full of sugar! Almost pure carbs! True, but it’s also full of health-protective vitamins and antioxidants, and the insulin impact of those sugars is balanced out (to a point) by fruit’s natural fiber content. I’m all in favor of consuming a rainbow of fruits throughout the week, especially the ones that are lower on the glycemic index.
6. Coffee: what’s in it for me?
That depends on who you are! Caffeine can cause a blood sugar drop or spike after consumption (science) if you’re already diabetic or having issues with insulin/glucose control. On the other hand, coffee consumption may be tied to decreased risk of several diseases and degenerative conditions, and in healthy individuals it may even improve your insulin sensitivity. (Which is not license for coffee cake.)
Coffee is somewhat dehydrating, so make sure to drink a little extra water on days when you consume a cup or two. While it makes you feel alert and may improve your productivity, it can also contribute to anxiety and interfere with sleep, so keep those lifestyle factors in mind when setting your caffeine budget.
If your “coffee” comes decorated with whipped cream and full of sugar syrup, you should probably consider it a treat rather than a coffee. And you know which treats are going to help you reach your goals, so drink accordingly.
7. A handful of tortilla chips, almonds, chocolate chips, etc., eaten while standing in front of the pantry: what’s in it for me?
If you’re at the point of snacking while trying to figure out what to eat for a snack, you’ve probably waited too long since the last time you ate. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so try to keep that in mind the next time you go for hours and hours without eating. However, when you find yourself elbow deep in the pound of cure…or bag of chips…ask yourself if you can’t hold out just 5 more minutes so that you can slice some cheese, vegetables, or fruit, open a yogurt and top it with those nuts (or even a few chocolate chips), or spoon some leftovers onto a plate for a more complete mini-meal. We don’t tend to mentally “log” the bits of food we eat while cooking or while browsing the fridge/pantry, so you won’t feel any fuller from your pre-snack snack. Take the time to plate it up and sit down with it so that your stomach can register that you’re eating, and consider including those healthy treats (fruit, whole grain crackers, cheese, veggies, olives, etc.) in your snack bowl.
8. Yogurt: what’s in it for me?
I have a whole post on my thoughts on yogurt, but in short: plain yogurt is a great vehicle for all kinds of toppings, any time of day. It’s portable, it contains probiotics that can help keep your digestion functioning well and may even boost your mood, it’s inexpensive, and it’s available almost anywhere. Look out for fruit flavors – they contain a lot of added sugar, so just add your own fruit! Go for lowfat yogurt to absorb vitamins A & D.
9. Pizza: what’s in it for me?
The answer can be a lot of nutrition if you go for a whole grain and/or thin crust to keep your carbs minimal and/or complex (better still, try an easy cauliflower crust), include lots of vegetables in your toppings, and limit the amount of cheese and high-fat meat toppings. Pizza like you’ll get from a national chain might surprise you, though – after about just one piece you’ll likely have reached your calorie goal for your entire meal. Homemade pizza can be ready in about as long as it takes for delivery to arrive, and it doesn’t take much to toss one together! (Those cauliflower crusts freeze well, too, so try baking off a few at a time and keeping them on hand for quick meals.)
10. Your favorite less-than-healthy treat: what’s in it for you?
By now, you’ve probably gotten the idea: no food is 100% off-limits or “bad”, but not all foods have a lot to offer you. If you generally focus on filling your plate with foods that are working hard to nourish you and fuel you for your busy life, some less-nutritious foods every now and then won’t make an impact on your health and fitness. And if there’s a food you simply crave 24 hours a day, see if there is a more nutrition version you can make – something along the lines of the cauliflower crust pizza – so that it can find a permanent home on your menu.
Remember, ask yourself: what’s in this food for me? Is it really the best I can do right now and what I want to offer my body? After all, we really are what we eat…so why not be the best?