Most of us probably have a good idea of what healthy eating looks like. Daily fruits and vegetables, eating foods as close to their natural state as possible, and limiting processed foods. Despite this, less than half of adults get the recommended amount of five or more fruits and vegetables per day. A number that could be as low as 10%. In addition, the average adult gets too much sugar in their diet. It’s not so much we don’t know what to eat, as much as the how to go about, because on a day-to-day basis we can face any number of barriers to healthy eating.
1. Late Night Snacking
Over three-quarters of adults grab a late-night snack at least once per week. And in most cases, these snacks tend to be energy dense convenience foods. Late-night snacking may lead to weight. This may be due to the effects of the ‘sleep hormone’ melatonin on insulin. At nighttime melatonin is released which suppresses insulin levels. This is to ensure we have enough energy circulating to make it throughout the night. Eating late at night, however, can lead to more blood sugars and fats than needed. Late-night snacking may also cause acid reflux and affect how well you sleep at night.
There are many reasons one might snack at night. It could be a social event or triggered by something you see on TV. For most people, craving late night snacks may be an indication you haven’t eaten enough food during the day. Perhaps you’ve skipped a meal. There is some indication that eating more calories earlier in the day may lead to eating less later on. But not just that, the type of food matters too. If you don’t get enough protein and fat in your meals throughout the day, you may also feel hungrier at night. Also, being sleep-deprived and tired may lead to eating more at night.
What might matter most, is how close to your bedtime your last meal is, as opposed to what the clock says. Eating your last meal at least two to three hours earlier will allow your food to digest before you hit the pillow. In addition a 10 minute walk can help with digestion and prevent you blood sugar from going too high. If you still crave something late at night to eat, avoid processed and high sugar foods. Aim for foods with protein, high fiber and/or fats that digest more slowly, such as nuts, yoghurt or popcorn.
2. Too Much Processed Food
From frozen burritos to sweetened cereals to soda pop, processed foods are all around us. Foods are processed to extend shelf-life (most don’t have an expiration date), make food production cheaper and make it more convenient to transport and consume. They’re also designed to appeal to your taste buds with their high salt and sugar content.
However, not all processed foods are the same. Foods can be grouped into four categories based on how much they’re processed. Group 1 consists of unprocessed, or barely processed foods (fruits, eggs), while Group 4 foods are essentially formulations with little, if any, intact food (frozen meals, packaged snacks). It is these ultra-processed foods that include many additives, which are problematic. These foods are associated with increased risk for bowel disease, heart disease, cancer and early death.
Obviously the best thing to do is to avoid these foods. But this may be easier said than done as ultra-processed foods account for nearly half of most people’s daily calories. Besides being convenient, they’re also addictive. But there are ways to break the habit. When shopping, choose foods with fewer ingredients and ones that most closely resemble the original food. Spend more time buying foods around the perimeter of the grocery store that are fresher and minimize purchases in the middle aisles. If you need to buy convenience food, steer towards less processed items such as frozen potatoes instead of mashed potato mix, plain tortillas instead of flavoured chips and sparkling water instead of pop or energy drinks.
3. Stress Eating
Eating is more than just about getting nutrients. We eat during social gatherings as a way to make connection and food also gives us emotional enjoyment. Hence the term comfort food. However, sometimes we may turn to food to address stress or anxiety. And eating to relieve stress isn’t uncommon as 39% of adults report doing it.
Acute stress, whether physical or mental, temporarily suppresses appetite. Think of your fight or flight reaction. You wouldn’t want to be eating at that time, so the body shuts down your appetite. But chronic stress can enhance your appetite. And it’s not just how much one eats, it’s also the type. Chronic stress increases preference for high sugar and salty foods. Over time this could lead to weight gain.
If you do find yourself reaching for food during when stressed, try to identify what triggers the stress and the eating. Use a distraction such as going for a walk, exercising, meditating or calling a friend- all of which can help you de-stress. Making sure you have a good foundation of sleep, physical activity and healthy nutrition, as this may help you prevent or minimize stress to begin with. If these solutions don’t help, talk to your doctor or a psychologist.
4. Not Enough Time to Eat Healthy
A lack of time may be the number one reason people give for not eating healthy. Less people get enjoyment from cooking than before and this may be why more people are turning to ultra-processed foods (see above). However, meals made at home, generally tend to be healthier than those at restaurants and pre-packaged meals. A simple explanation is that we usually don’t have the additives that go into many prepared foods.
Cooking may seem daunting at first, but it doesn’t have to be. The first step is having the right foods at home. If you’re short on time, having frozen fruits and vegetables in your freezer can help. They’re already prepped for cooking and with many products frozen at the source, they can actually be fresher than the same food that’s been stored and transported to the grocery store. Frozen fruits can easily be added to smoothies. And frozen vegetables can be quickly heated up in the microwave.
When you do cook, make more than you need for one meal and store the extra for later on. You don’t have to eat the leftovers the next day as you can freeze them. You can also find numerous websites on meal prep to help out. Other things you can do is hide the cookie jar (or sweets jar) and replace it with a fresh fruit jar. If the logistics and planning of cooking get you down, try one of the several meal prep services. It takes the hassle out of grocery shopping and planning and is generally full of healthy foods.
5. Social Eating
For some people, this is a huge challenge. Whether going out to dinner with friends or having a family gathering, eating while socializing can be some people’s Achilles’ heel. When socializing with family and friends, we generally eat far more food than usual. And you might be more inclined to eat less healthy options as well.
If you’re eating in restaurants, choose ones with more healthy options. Many restaurants provide nutrition information such as calorie counts on their menu. And more nutrition information can often be found online. While calories aren’t the only thing to be concerned about when it comes to food, knowing your appetizer has more calories than your main dish may make you think twice.
Heading over to a friend’s for dinner? Why not let the host know of your healthy eating choices. Or offer to bring a food dish over you make yourself. Another option is to enlist a healthy eating buddy. Your buddy can help you stay on track for what you want to eat. And socializing doesn’t always need to be around eating. Try getting together with family and friends for activities that don’t involve eating such as exercising or a chat after dinner.
While we’re all likely to come across one or more of the above challenges from time to time, it’s the overall consistency of your nutrition that’s most important. So go easy on yourself. But if you do find it more challenging to maintain your healthy eating habits, the solutions above are here to help.
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