Are We Overlooking the Most Important Ingredient for Eating Healthfully?


I believe we’re overlooking what might just be the most important ingredient to the living healthfully recipe: JOY!

According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, 70% of annual deaths are due to chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer. To boot, 75% of our healthcare dollars go to treating these diseases, many of which can be prevented with diet, exercise and other lifestyle behaviors.

I don’t find it a coincidence that our chronic disease incidence continues to rise as we spend more and more time counting protein, fat, carbs and calories, more and more money on the latest it ingredients and supplements, and less and less time sitting down to meals with family and friends.

I believe the more we abandon sitting down to enjoyable meals, the harder it’s going to be to get a handle on all of the chronic disease we are experiencing, which equates to shorter life spans, lower quality of life and unaffordable medical bills.

If you’re not quite convinced about the importance of enjoying meals, here are five reasons that might change your mind.

Stress, The Biggest Contributor to Chronic Disease
We know that at the foundation of all chronic disease is inflammation in the body. We also know that stress is one of the biggest contributors to inflammation in the body, and many people with chronic disease experience flareups or worsening of symptoms when under stress. Not giving yourself breaks during the day is stressful. Trust me, even if you don’t think that the stress is getting to you by not taking breaks, IT IS. Taking time out for meals in which you truly get to relax lowers your stress, inflammation and risk for chronic disease.

Distracted Eating Leaves Us Unsatisfied
Even when we do sit down to a meal, we often have distractions—e.g. TV, computer, phone. There is evidence to suggest that when we are fully present and eat with all of our senses, we are more satisfied from that meal. And if we are more satisfied, then we walk away from the table without wanting for more. Eating without paying full attention to your food—all of the aromas, textures, colors, and tastes—will leave you unsatisfied and more likely craving that snack an hour after you’ve eaten a meal.

Balancing Tastes Is Key to Good Nutrition
When studying nutrition, I learned the importance of balancing nutrients in each meal. In culinary school, I learned something equally important: balancing tastes is just as important as balancing nutrients for good nutrition. Feel free to read my full post about this topic, but the one thing I’ll add here that is relevant…you are more likely to get a balanced variety of tastes when sitting down to a meal versus grabbing a snack, many of which are homogenous in taste and texture.

The Mediterranean Lifestyle Is About More Than Food Choices
Decades of research show that the Mediterranean lifestyle has better health outcomes than the Western diet. They experience far less chronic disease than we do. You’ll notice I said the Mediterranean LIFESTYLE and not the Mediterranean DIET. That’s because their approach to eating contributes to better health outcomes just as much as the foods that they prioritize. Their days are a little slower, making time to sit down to meals with friends and family. Eating well to them is not about counting calories or making sure the latest “it” food is represented; it’s about creating a relaxing and positive ambiance while enjoying local and seasonally-grown foods over good conversation. I believe this approach explains the French Paradox, which is the observed phenomenon that French people have a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease while enjoying a diet high in saturated fat. We haven’t quite figured that out here in the United States, and I believe it’s because we simply just don’t enjoy our food.

Family Meals Matter
I know it’s tough to sit down to family meals with all of the demands of work, school and activities but, in addition to everything mentioned above, kids experience significant health and social benefits from sitting down and eating as a family. Here is a great website from the Food Marketing Institute and their #FamilyMealsMonth campaign that shares the list ofl benefits as well as all kinds of tips and recipe ideas to help you make family meals happen more often.

With all of this said, perhaps we starting putting less of our time and energy to counting protein, carbs, fat and calories, and more towards sitting down and enjoying daily meals together. And don’t worry about rules. Meals can come together at home or at restaurants. You can make it yourself or order in to save time. If dinner doesn’t work one day, sit down to breakfast. And fancy food is definitely not required.