I was recently asked to comment on a new Gallup poll that found only 54 percent of Americans pay attention to the nutrition information provided at restaurants. It raises the question: Why don’t people care about nutritional information when they’re eating out? Shouldn’t it be useful to know the nutrient content of the food you want to consume?
Here’s my take on it. In my view, the nutritional information is much less useful than following what your brain tells you about what you need to consume. As long as you pay attention to your hunger signals—and your satiation signals so that you don’t overeat— and you adhere to general guidelines to focus on fresh foods and avoid grains as much as possible, you will nourish your body with what it needs. Here’s why:
Eating is not the same as filling your gas tank when your car needs fuel. When you buy gas, you are aware of the volume of gas left in the tank. It isn’t difficult to decide how much gas you want to put into the tank. You can choose to fill it completely or spend only a certain amount of money.
In contrast, when you sit down for a meal, you have no knowledge of what nutrients remain in your body. A nutritional guide won’t help you know what to eat. And chances are that you are not eating to replenish your energy needs, because just one pound of stored fat contains 3,500 calories, enough energy to last you for two days or more. So if you learn what is available in the food in front of you, how can you decide how much to consume?
In short, paying little or no attention to nutritional information at restaurants may not have any negative consequences to your health.
It Can Even Be Counterproductive To Read Them
In fact, I submit that, in some cases, knowing the nutritional information in a dish could be counterproductive. Let us say the restaurant serves you a freshly made fruit pie. It says there is no added sugar and you know the calorie count. You may believe that the absence of added sugar means you can indulge in it. What is missing, however, is understanding that the pie crust is made of grain-flour that will be absorbed into your body as a large volume of glucose molecules, which will, most likely, get stored in your fat cells within hours after you eat.
Another fallacy is that nutritional guidelines usually promote eating “whole grains” as a source of multiple nutrients and dietary fiber. These are recommended in multiple daily servings because they are associated with a lower risk for several diseases.
But what people are usually not aware of is that the nutrients contained in whole grains can easily be obtained from other sources such as vegetables. Whole grains are also not a guarantee of getting fiber, because the amount of fiber varies from grain to grain. The fact is, the volume of glucose in whole grains negates most of their value in obtaining other nutrients. That glucose is what contributes to obesity, high blood sugar and, often, diabetes.
Better to Set Your Own Guidelines for Good Nutrition
The importance of good nutrition in healthy living is unquestionable.
However, with the human body requiring over 100 different nutrients for optimal function, how do you decide what to eat? When you sit down to eat, do you know what nutrients and how much of each your body is looking for?
No one can possibly know that, except your own brain. So, how does it help to know what nutrients are present in the foods that are offered at the restaurant? In my opinion, it does not help at all, because only you have the knowledge about the balance of nutrients in your body. Only your brain can tell you what and how much more you need to take in during that meal.
Researchers have been telling us for a long time that we should get our daily nutrient requirements from vegetables, fruits, nuts, dairy, meat and fish. Most people still struggle with this recommendation though. It is difficult, of course, to alter eating habits that started in childhood reflecting the tastes and behavior of the adults around us.
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As children, we interacted with our parents and caregivers to create brain circuits that guided us to choose foods based on our cultural upbringing, cuisine and available ingredients. This eating pattern was continuously reinforced by our environment and human interactions influencing us as children, especially during our first six years of life.
Our food decisions continued to be influenced into our teen and adult years, affected by our social conditions, peer pressures, and sometimes illnesses or even financial constraints in later life.
In the end, it is ultimately up to you to set your own standards for what you choose to eat. Paying attention or not to nutritional guidelines in restaurants is unlikely to save you from gaining weight, becoming obese, or developing diabetes. In my view, focusing on what your brain tells you your body needs, how much to consume, and, in general, avoiding grains and grain-flour products that produce excessive amounts of glucose your body cannot use, is how you can prevent obesity and diabetes.