Eating today has become complicated and for no good reason.
People rely on health experts to tell them what's good and what's not. The problem is, researchers aren't any closer to finding out specifically what's causing high rates of obesity, diabetes, hypertension and stroke.
We are swayed by the latest scientific research or food craze, but nothing seems to work.
My explanation for our growing rates of chronic disease: food culture.
Food culture is a combination of habits, rules, taboos and manners influencing what and how we eat. Every country and every person has a unique perception of how food influences their life. Even though most developed nations have an abundance of food, how it's valued can be completely different.
Nations with traditional cuisines, like the French, Greek, Italian and Spanish, are supported by their beliefs, ethics and religion to form eating practices protecting their health. For example, French diets are generally higher in fat, but French people tend to dine with family and friends and rarely have seconds or snacks. As a result, the prevalence of obesity in France is considerably lower than in NZ. Food doesn't take over their life, rather it becomes part of their life.
Whether eating patterns here are guided by a similar way of thinking is questionable (to say the least). The way we view food has clearly taken a turn for the worse and if we did have a food culture, it would be hard to define.
"Eat anything at anytime" is one way I'd describe it.
The Western diet adds insult to injury. It's loaded with processed food and meat, added sugar and fat. Lots of bad stuff, minus all of the good - fruit, veg and wholegrains. We have essentially created a way of eating ourselves to death - a feat that our third world would struggle to comprehend.
Something needs to change.
Five tips to get eating habits on track:
1. Aim to eat wholefoods
By wholefoods I mean foods that haven't been tampered with or are minimally processed. If a food needs to capture your attention with colourful packaging and exaggerated health claims then a healthier option probably exists. Some food manufacturers use sketchy health claims to sell their products, when in fact their products are loaded with sugar, salt and fat. Instead, stock up on fruit and veg, lean meats and fish, and dairy - these foods don't need to tell you they're healthy in order to sell.
2. Cook up a storm
Cooking stimulates our creativity and proves we don't need to buy sugar, salt and fat laden takeout to make a tasty dish. It is the link between what nature has provided and the food we put on our plate. Experiment and try new things. Have a go at recreating your favourite Mediterranean dish - because we all know a diet rich in fresh fruit and veg, wholegrains, fish, beans and healthy fats is good for us.
3. Dine at the table
These days everyone tends to eat on the run, at their desk or distracted by technology. Taking time to sit down and relish meal time is a virtue left for the weekend (at best). It's important to eat mindfully and appreciate your tucker. Plus, paying attention to what you eat can help you lose weight. Share what you cook with friends and family, and let them return the favour.
4. Bake your own treats
Food offers some of the greatest pleasure in life. It's in our biology to crave those energy dense snacks. What used to be time consuming and expensive to make can now be purchased up the road for chump change. If we force ourselves to invest time and effort in to prep, the chances are, we wouldn't be eating sweet treats as often.
5. Eat slowly and surely
Ask yourself: do you eat until you're full or until you're no longer hungry? Having the willpower to leave a little on the plate eludes many of us, especially once it's paid for. By eating with our eyes and not our belly we ignore our body's signals telling us to put the fork down. Feeling full may not happen until 20 minutes after we've finished, so try leaving the table a little hungry. Take the rest home in a doggy bag for tomorrow's lunch.
Dave Shaw is a registered dietitian and nutritionist. Follow him on Twitter here.