8 Insights from a Food Researcher to Help You Make Better Food Choices

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[This is a guest blog post contribution by Jennifer Cooper. More information on Cooper is below.]

I’ve worked with a number of food brands that sell everything from beer and burgers to organic juice. My research typically involves speaking to people just like you to learn more about likes and dislikes, general shopping practices, and gastronomic experiences. Over the years, I’ve started to see some trends in our food habits that, once your eyes are open to, can help you make better dietary decisions that move you closer to your goals.

8 Insights from a Food Researcher

1. We don’t eat nearly enough vegetables.

In-person product research in the restaurant industry has introduced me to adults who won’t eat a single green vegetable. Ever. Not even on a burger. Did you know that the  the USDA tells us that potatoes and tomatoes account for over half of U.S. vegetable consumption? Branch out to include a variety of veggies and you’ll eat, and feel, much better. Did you know that compared to people who eat few fruits, vegetables and legumes, people who eat higher amounts as part of a healthy diet are likely to have reduced risk of stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers?

2. Seeing big portions makes us hungry.

In America our hunger grows in proportion to what we see in front of us. Seeing larger portions triggers us to eat more and to override feelings of being full. Simply stated, when people are hungry and they see a whole lot of food in one place, they tend to eat it. If humans hadn’t developed the ability to ‘get while the gettin’s good’, we never would have survived times of famine. Perhaps it takes generations of stable food supplies before we believe that we will most likely have food at the next meal. The field of epigenetics shows that environmental changes parents experience are passed along to their children.

Try serving yourself a reasonable portion, place the rest out of view, and eat slowly in a calm environment. You are more than your genes, and perhaps your improved portion control can be passed along to your next generation.

3. Voices of authority often contradict each other.

Consumers often lump accumulated wisdom from magazines, doctors, friends and parents in one place in our heads. ‘They say’ too much dairy is bad for you but ‘they’ also say we need calcium and protein.  

As a result, we struggle to do – or even identify – the ‘right’ thing and to follow the messages we’ve internalized without remembering who even said them. Without the strong food culture many nations have created over centuries, we are prone to believe new ideas and modern trends that may or may not serve us well.

How do you sort through them? Try to remember that people developed over thousands of years eating mostly fruit, vegetables, unprocessed fats, grains, often seafood and, when the hunters scored, some meat. Take a long view of today’s headlines and consider possible agendas of self-labeled experts and gurus. Be mindful of your own body as to whether a particular food or combination of foods gives you the energy, stamina and digestive health you personally need.

4. Some foods carry inaccurate auras of health, others of junk

Stonyfield Organic vanilla low-fat yogurt has all the buzzwords. Twinkies are featured in Tove Lo’s song about staying high after a break-up. Yet they have 21 g and 17.5 grams of sugar, respectively. Twenty-one grams translates into 5 ¼ teaspoons. The World Health Organization recommends no more than 10% of daily calories come from processed sugars, so for a moderately active adult woman maintaining her weight, that’s  12.5 teaspoons of added sugar.

Do your due diligence by reading labels. Eating foods with ingredients you recognize can help you make an informed, considered decision about foods.

5. We feel overwhelmed by all of the research about healthy food, so sometimes we just guess.

When asked why a certain food is healthy – for instance, yogurt – some people understand the importance of probiotics and how these “good bacteria” are needed by our guts to digest our food. Others just guess – uh cultures? Some talk about the importance of 100% juice while reaching for the Capri Sun while others can talk extensively about why whole fruits trump either one. The grocery store can be overwhelming, but instead of guessing, create some simple rules that work for you, and base them on research that makes long term sense. Some sample rules I’ve created for myself: make a list ahead of time that gives you what you need for that week’s meals instead of going when you are hungry and don’t know what to buy. Limit added sugar, which means the sugar that doesn’t naturally occur in dairy, fruit and vegetables. Include protein and monounsaturated fats in every meal to feel full. Include probiotics like yogurt, kefir or GoodBelly every day for gut health.

6. The very thought of dieting makes us hungry.

We Americans are still a bit scared of famine. So even if we choose famine-like diets to counter all of those Big Macs, stress at the mere thought of restricting calories activates something that tells us to eat. A lot. Now.  Yes, we love the books about skinny French women, but their sophisticated Parisian ancestors didn’t have a reason to come to the U.S. (hunger). Not to mention that our potato famine affected great-great-grandparents weren’t worried about whether their pencil skirts would fit the next day.

Don’t think about “dieting” and restricting calories – instead, try proactively plan meals to include fresh fruits, veggies, whole grains, healthy fats and protein.

7. Our comfort foods usually involve dairy and simple carbs.

What is American cuisine? On a rainy day after a crappy week at work, it’s macaroni and cheese, with or without breadcrumbs, grilled cheese, mashed potatoes with butter, toast with more butter, and maybe an ice cream cone for dessert. But processed carbohydrates can be addictive – once you eat some, you want more and more. This is because they raise blood sugar quickly, then it plummets afterwards triggering more hunger. Try keeping a food journal for a few weeks to help you identify your own “trigger foods” and consider saving them as treats to add into a healthy foundation of eating.

8. Many of us don’t really cook.

Back to the lack of a strong culinary culture, increasing numbers of young people are not cooking – only 33% of Millennials cook at home five or more times per week. Instead they get by on snacks, prepared food and restaurants. Many new grocery concepts have a heavy reliance on these items, and seem to relegate food preparation to a commercial kitchen.

Cooking at home gives you control over the ingredients, and therefore the food, you put into your body. It can also give you more understanding of how foods affect you personally. Find a few cooking blogs, give yourself time on a weekend, and start making something fresh and tasty. Great cooking doesn’t have to be complicated – start small – skinnytaste.com.  Put the knowledge you gain to use when looking at package ingredients and eating out to empower yourself to own your health.

Americans – gotta love our enthusiastic appetite for new ideas and our craving for knowledge. We are slowly starting to eat less and move more, and our optimistic ability to recreate ourselves means we might find ways to not only build new habits, but pass them down to our kids and beyond.

About Jennifer Cooper
Credit: Jennifer Cooper

Jennifer Cooper draws on her decades of research, investment, and marketing experience to help food, restaurant, cultural and other consumer brands refine product strategies, fine-tune marketing communications tactics and understand more about their buyers. Cooper combines her economics and business background, interest in understanding people, and ability to communicate ideas to lead BuyerSynthesis. She can be reached at info@buyersynthesis.com

 

The posts on this blog are for information only, and are not intended to substitute for a doctor-patient or other healthcare professional-patient relationship nor do they constitute medical or healthcare advice of any kind. Any information in these posts should not be acted upon without consideration of primary source material and professional input from one's own healthcare professionals.