When was the last time you questioned yourself about your eating habits? What, how, when do you eat, but most importantly does your body benefit from the food that you’re giving it?

Admit it or not, food education is a global issue. The statistics on obesity, shorter life span and bad health raise a big question mark upon the way people feed themselves today. And it’s up to you to start informing yourself and taking action.

Unfortunately, many average consumers and even people who claim that they know how to cook don’t know the first thing about nutrition. Taste goes before benefits to the human body.

It usually happens like this: until health problems strike, you just go with the flow, knowing subconsciously that something is wrong, but always finding excuses for your bad eating habits. Finally, you realize that something needs to be done.

I’m not a nutrition specialist, nor a doctor, I simply used information and research and turned to these simple basic things to make a change and food-educate myself. Before reading you should consider that each and every person is different, and that you should take into account factors like your health condition, weight and physical condition before trying any advice.

Let’s take a look at some basic steps you could begin with:

1. Review your diet and your eating habits

The eatwell plate review you eating habits

Photo credit: Department of Health in association with the Welsh Government, the Scottish Government and the Food Standards Agency in Northern Ireland.

In Greek, a diet means way of life. It’s not just what you eat that matters, but how you eat it, when you eat it, how much food you put in your plate, and how you combine food that also counts. You may be going for the most nutritious meal ever, but if you eat it in front of the TV, live a sedentary life, and don’t drinking enough water daily, you won’t benefit at all from it.

To begin with, start by analyzing the most important meal of the day: what does your breakfast consist of? Is it providing you with enough proteins, fibers and healthy carbs? Then, think about the number of snacks/meals throughout the day, the number of portions of fresh fruit and vegetable, and the amount of liquids you drink.

Think of how much you eat on the run, how many times you have eaten when you were not actually hungry or how many times you refill your plate. How would you describe your energy levels, and what can you say about the quality of your sleep?

Some people are very aware of their habits, but they don’t have the proper notion of right or wrong. In this case, what other simple way than to learn both from the best and from the worst habits? And if you’re still wondering what to eat, here are some basic guidelines.

2. Understand the signs that your body is giving

Understand the signs of your body

Photo by brian on Flickr/Creative Commons.

Food is also responsible for the way you feel, so try to discover what makes you feel good and what makes you feel bad. Feeling tired and sleepy after your meals, stomac aches, constipation or bloating may be signs that something in your diet is not right.

If you know that some specific dish or meal is not for you, simply avoid it. And if you’re following a weight loss diet but not feeling right, you should reconsider it. Food is supposed to energize you for the day, not make you fall asleep. High fat snacks, caffeine and sugary foods have this effect on your energy levels.

3. Clean up your diet

Healthy eating pyramid clean up your diet

Photo from Harvard School of Public Health, Nutrition Source.

If you’re a heavy drinker who eats fast-food often, and you never says no to a treat even if hungry or not, if sodas and coffee have replaced your water, you should reconsider the junk diet you’re putting your body through. A drastic change can take some time and adjusting to the real taste of food with no extra salt, sugar or preservatives can be hard at the beginning. For starters, healthy foods could be introduced in your diet one step at a time.

The first steps would be to quit highly processed foods, moderate your alcohol drinking, and try to remove the sugary and caffeine drinks. Then, come up with a list of healthy meals and an exercise plan and try to stick to them. Planning takes time, of course, but setting clear objectives and not eating everything that comes to hand can help you be more ignorant to temptations. The healthy eating pyramid may be a good starting point, but recently it’s being replaced by the ‘eat well plate’.

4. Read and understand the labels

Understand the nutrition labels

Photo from Wikipedia.

Understanding the labels of what you buy is essential in cleaning your diet. “Rich in vitamins”, “Sugar-free” or “High-fiber” are not necessarily true. Learn to look for the amount of sodium in your food, the extra sugar and the salt.  Artificial flavors, preservatives, saturated fat, sugar and extra salt are among ingredients that specialists recommend you avoid. Here are some tools to help you better understand labels and decide what’s right for you based on these nutrition labels.

As a general nutrition guideline that I personally tried: choose the least processed foods. While finding raw, organic food is not so easy for everyone, just skim through the list of ingredients on the packages and go for those with simpler and fewer ones.

And don’t trick yourself with cleverly labelled food, because most of the times the energy bars and foods labelled as “Fitness” contain just as much sugar as normal ones. If you want to indulge in a dessert once in a while, at least go for a real cookie.

5. Cook more meals at home

Cook more meals at home

Photo by foodswings on Flickr/Creative Commons.

Most of us live a busy life and end up eating out most of the times. However, when eating in restaurants, people tend to change their usual eating habits, first of all because restaurant portions are usually bigger and you’re tempted to eat all from your plate, and second of all because you can’t actually control the number of fat and oil from these foods.

Who said cooking takes a lot of time and needs sophisticated ingredients and chef expertise? There are thousands of culinary blogs and magazines out there, with suggestions for easy to cook and healthy meals.

However, cooking without some basic nutrition knowledge can be as harmful as fast food, so choose your recipes wisely and learn about the basic food groups, how to combine them, how much of them you really need, which are the healthy carbs and the healthy fats.

6. Look for the diet-friendly options in the menu

Diet friendly options in the menu

Photo by alanagkelly on Flickr/Creative Commons.

When eating out it can be difficult to stick to your healthy diet plan. Not all restaurants list their calories in the menu, and even fewer offer substitutes for their dishes. Plus, temptation is high when the table is full of fries, hamburgers, shakes, hot-dogs, cakes and pies. It’s almost impossible to resist.

However, believe it or not, there are a few healthier options even in the big fast food chains. I’m not saying that they are healthy, just less harmful than others.

So, instead of french fries and mashed potatoes you can go for baked potatoes, go for the salads in the menu but quit the ketchup and dressing. Boiled, baked, steamed and grilled dishes can also be a viable option to fried and stirred ones.

And remember, if you feel full, you don’t have to eat everything in the plate. You can take the rest to go. Sometimes less means more.

Personally, I see food education as being aware of what you put in your mouth and about making the right choices. That doesn’t mean you should become obsessed with it and become a calorie-counting fanatic. Occasionally offering yourself some of the little pleasures of life is ok, as long as you don’t make a habit out of it.

What’s your conception of food education? Were you inspired to make a lifestyle change at some point in your life?

Disclaimer: this article should not be considered as medical or health advice, it is just for general informational purpose. After all, we receive advice that is sometimes so different, that we don’t even know what to follow. Just try to find out what works for you.